Chapter 6: An Interview with Carla Christopher
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.
A week ago, we learned that you had better not read over time at Wendy C. Ortiz’s readings. Today Carla Christopher talks about adapting your reading to the venue its in, as well as adapting your promotion strategies to reach the demographic audiences you want.
(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: Carla Christopher
Location: York, PA
I’ll start by asking you what reading series you do, and how long you’ve been doing it.
CC: I host It’s NOT the King’s English at Kings Courtyard artist collective in York every third Friday. I have been hosting that venue for almost 3 years now. I also host Cafe Word, the reading series for Nathaniel Gadsden’s Writers Workshop which happens every first, second, and fourth Friday at the Midtown scholar bookstore in Harrisburg. I have been hosting the writer’s workshop for the last year and a half.
What makes a reading a success in your eyes?
CC: Kings Courtyard is successful because I have been consistent and never missed a month. I am in the heart of the city and art district, so I am very accessible to my target audience, especially because York is very much about foot traffic, so people appreciate venues they don’t have to drive to. I also crafted the reading around the space, [an art gallery that is] eclectic and [filled with] folk-inspired art—the poetry is very eclectic and unpretentious as well. I make an effort to not only have performers of quality but to mix my features between races, ages, genders, and styles to keep it feeling fresh and provide a sense of adventure.
I also try to keep the reading accepting, but run it with efficiency. The doors open at 7 and we start at 7:30—I generally try to have things start on time. We also gently encourage people to follow the rules about time limits and I am absolutely insistent on being respectful as a listening and affirming audience—people know that King’s Courtyard is a safe space.
It’s really important to adapt to the audience. I try to bring people outside of their comfort zone by exposing them to new things, but not in such a way that it turns them off.
Your readings always include open mics, right?
CC: I have found that, right or wrong, there is a large segment of the poetry population that come to meetings because they want a space to share their own work. I have always had much more success if I add some sort of open mic or audience participation portion rather than just asking people to sit and listen.
In what ways do you try to foster diversity at your readings and workshops?
CC: I mix spoken word and more traditional poetry features. I’ll frequently put one of each on the same bill, not to only draw different audiences, but to expose people… to another artist they might end up loving, but would never have come to see on their own.
I also mix in social media advertising, which tends to get more of my younger or Caucasian audience, while flyers and hand-distributed information gets more of my minority audience. [I then use] emails to get my more mature audience.
Do you pay features, or is a donation based thing?
CC: I always try to make sure my performers are compensated in some way. Spoken word performers tend to be paid more for their performance whereas traditional poet are used to making more of their money from book sales.
If a performer has come from far away I will pay them out of my own pocket to make sure that at least some of their transportation is covered.
I will collect the Hat money and even toss in a bit myself but it’s definitely not a job for anyone expect to be rich. I really appreciate how Berks bards in reading has become a non profit organization so that they could apply for grant money to pay stipends to their performing poets and I appreciate how colleges do the same thing but most poetry venues, including my own, just don’t have that affiliation with a larger body that allows us to have money to pull from.
Do you think that poetry readings in general can be intimidating or unwelcoming?
CC: Many of my audience members have told me that just the phrase poetry reading felt antiquated or academic to the point that it was off-putting. I think a good host who makes people feel comfortable and welcome and promotes a warm and relaxed environment is vital.
Some poetry is very intense, some is rather long and boring, and some is extremely thoughtful and intellectual, but it only takes one great poem to really hit home with someone. If you have a good host that keeps people coming back or that at least helps them hold on until the next reader, then lots of people can be won over.
I’m glad to hear you talk so much about the importance of the effort and intentionality of the host. It’s common to point to audiences and performers as having most of the responsibility for the shows, but it seems like you are arguing that its really the host’s job.
CC: It’s true that a great performer is really important, but that is what has meaning for an event. A reading series has to have some kind of common thread that brings people back month after month, even if they don’t love every feature.
The space you choose is important. Climate control, comfortable chairs, the availability of a snack or a drink, interesting stuff on the walls versus boring or scary stuff on the walls, the safety of the neighborhood. All of these things have come up as factors in the success of readings I have hosted in the past. I also have a lot of people who do come to my readings because they like the vibe. They like the way I host or they like the people they tend to meet there.
The feature is less important than the experience they can count on receiving. I need that because I don’t want to just promote established performers. I want to create an environment where I can convince people to come even if they don’t know the name because that gives me the ability to put less known performers on my stage.
Carla Christopher was York’s 4th poet laureate and the 2014 arts and Cultural Community Liaison for the Office of the Mayor. She owns Community Arts Inc., a South Central Pennsylvania based small press and is the producer of multiple poetry and arts events including It’s Not the King’s English in York and the Writers Wordshop in Harrisburg.