Read chapters 1-8 here.
Chapter 9: An interview with Rob Sturma
This series of interviews with writer/organizers aims to explore why and how to have a literary reading—a good literary reading—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience while also creating a supportive environment for readers.
Many writers I’ve talked to commented on open mics, saying that they don’t prefer to make them a part of their readings. However, in Chapter 8, Le Hinton discussed some of the mechanics of his open mics, and this week Rob Sturma talks about how those open mics can strengthen a writing community.
(Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted. When this series is all said and done, maybe we’ll have developed the simple formula for the perfect reading. Or maybe we’ll learn enough to make more questions to answer!)
Name: Rob Sturma
Location: Oklahoma City, OK
What reading do you host, and how long have you been hosting it?
RS: Currently, I rotate hosting at Red Dirt Home For Wayward Poets out of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Been helping with the Red Dirt reading for 5 years now. Before that, I ran a venue in LA called Green, also for 5 years.
How frequent are the Red Dirt readings?
RS: We run a weekly open mic and a monthly slam. That is to say, the last week of the month is the slam.
Are there ever features?
RS: Yes, we always invite features. Most are slam poets on tour, and our audience has been very generous in buying merch from them. We also pass the hat.
Gotcha. So is spoken word poetry the main genre happening at Red Dirt readings?
RS: Primarily, yes, though we have some readers in our crowd. But slam and spoken word is a good chunk of our sign up list.
A reader is someone who hasn’t memorized their work?
RS: I guess I meant as someone who clearly writes for the page as opposed to the stage. Great poems will translate both places, of course, but [will be] less…theatrical.
What are the general demographics of the audience/particpants at these readings, in terms of race, gender, age?
RS: Red Dirt is a primarily white people reading, a lot of 18-34s in the room, a strong queer voice, and a lot of first timers. Always first timers, which is cool.
How do you reach those newcomers?
RS: We’ve been nothing but word of mouth in the 5 years I’ve been involved with this reading. Which is bonkers, because in LA I had flyers for my spot on me at all times, but OKC is smaller.
Red Dirt’s developed a decent internet presence. Facebook is pretty strong and always up to date. I believe there may be a You Tube channel as well.
We used to livestream the reading, [which is] something we want to bring back.
In terms of racial diversity, has Red Dirt tried any strategies of reaching a more diverse audience/paticipantship?
RS: There have been some other shows around town that poets from different scenes might see each other at, but here, things have stayed pretty segregated.
Again, a complete contrast from Los Angeles.
I’m not trying to demonize the poetry scene here, let me be clear. I love my OKC poets.
As a host, how do you see your role? Do you feel responsibility for creating a comfortable and supportive atmosphere? Or are you just trying to keep things organized and moving smoothly?
RS: Well, as host, you become the face of the venue whether you like it or not. So once I roll in and start setting up the sound system, I am the guy that everyone will ask questions to. I very much want everyone to have a good time, or at least feel welcome.
I try to keep the crowd loose, but in short bursts, because ultimately the host is there to move the show along. No one is paying for my witty banter.
As the host, are there any things that you try to avoid or prevent?
RS: The one thing we can’t avoid is poet time (aka: whenever the hell poets wanna show up to read) but I try like heck to start as close as humanly possible to when we say the show starts.
We have a posted time, and then the unspoken time, based on how full the room is—the secret language of hosts.
Why do you think open readings are important for a literary community?
RS: I think any community grows and becomes better when new voices enter the fold, and are nurtured by others there. Iron sharpens iron, one hopes.
At best, everyone on the open mic is writing some INSPIRED work. At worst, it’s a lot of journal entries on stage.
What are some major differences between readings in LA and readings in OKC?
RS: Well, the biggest difference was for sure the diversity; the reading I ran in LA was with a DJ and a beatboxer/poet, so veeeeeerry different in feel than OKC, which is more of a straightforward “we like poems and we’re gonna read some” vibe.
The unifying factor being that poets feel like misfits no matter what city you’re in.
What is the best thing that’s happened at a reading?
RS: Oh man. Now I gotta think, did anyone propose at any of our shows? I can’t…well, for me, it was probably the very last night of our LA open mic, Green, and our very last feature was one of my favorite poets in Southern California (and everywhere), Mindy Nettifee. And the open mic list was damn near 100 strong because everyone wanted to say goodbye and we had a 5-hour reading and closed down the bar for good. I think that was pretty spectacular.
That was Los Angeles coming together.
Rob Sturma is the editor-in-chief of the pop culture poetry journal FreezeRay and its print offshoot FreezeRay Press. He has edited the anthologies Aim For The Head and MultiVerse for Write Bloody Publishing, and WWE Hardcore Legend Mick Foley is a big fan of Rob’s work (specifically, his Mick Foley poem). He lives in Oklahoma City, OK, where he co-hosts Red Dirt Home For Wayward Poets and makes Spotify playlists that he’ll never send.