Most months of the year, I’m lucky enough to attend at least one prose or poetry reading each week. At Kenyon College, where I am currently employed, most of our readings are held at Finn House, the gingerbread-esque cottage that houses the offices and employees of The Kenyon Review. On the back of Finn House, there’s the Cheever sunroom annex, a fully-windowed, light-filled space with tables that can be moved, chairs that can be rearranged. The room can be oriented in several different ways, depending on how many chairs we need. However, if the reading audience is expected to be larger than usual, or if the reading is happening at an odd time, the poet or prose writer is hosted in another campus space, usually a cavernous lecture hall or auditorium that can hold more people.
In America, at least in recent history, a public reading is usually held in whatever corner appears to be free. Especially in the case with literary fiction or poetry—where the expected audience tends to be somewhat small—a reading is often set up at the back corner of a bookstore (where the calendars or magazines are sold) or the local coffee joint, where readers are often wedged between the espresso machine and the front door, or the back tables and the creaky door of the restroom. These public spaces, despite their faults, sometimes draw “accidental” guests, people who are shopping or drinking coffee and find themselves intrigued, staying to listen.
When a reading is sponsored by an academic institution, the venue tends to be more spacious—a lecture hall, or activity room—though the ambience can be a little sterile, or smug. Sometimes the cavernous auditorium and the gray upholstered seats are actually enough to put listeners to sleep. Or, in the best scenario, the mood begins to match the atmosphere of the stereotypical poet: dark, brooding, insular. The opposite of this situation is the outdoor reading, the reading that mimics the spirit of the Greek amphitheater. I have done this kind of reading before, always waiting for the moment in the loose manuscript pages get taken and scattered by the breeze, causing an unintended intermission.
Still, there are others who come up with more creative solutions. At AWP, where readings occur in conference rooms—or else on a stage at the bookfair, where the readers are yelling over the noise—I have only heard of the legendary readings that took place on several landings of a stairwell. And the poetry collective Poetas en Nueva York recently conduced a reading on a Queens subway platform, giving a whole new meaning to “underground” literature and culture.
In 2007, when I was a senior at Oberlin College, I visited Pittsburgh and heard Jason Scheiderman (as well as a fiction writer, whose name I have forgotten) read in best venue I’ve ever seen. Some of you may remember the Gist Street Reading Series, which ended, sadly, in 2010, but once drew a large number of listeners from universities, the artistic communities across Pittsburgh, and beyond. Housed in a gutted row house at 305 Gist, the sculpture studio/home of poet Nancy Krygowski and James Simon housed one of the most fun literary series of all time. That Friday night, we climbed the row house staircase until we reached the third-floor, a space could hold almost 100 people. This made the reading feel very much like a loft party. The center of the hardwood floor held a claw-foot bathtub, filled with beer for the reading’s reception. Indeed, the refreshments also added to the party-feel of the space; in addition to the beer, someone had made bread, and someone else had made ice cream. Indeed, this space produced one of the better reading environments I’ve encountered. I think it’s safe to say that everyone had a good time.
(Gist Street Reading venue, with hanging plants.)
When I imagine the ideal reading venue, I always think back to 305 Gist Street, which I consider to be the perfect space: a bit secluded, roomy but small enough to be intimate, a bit rough around the edges, and centered around a bathtub full of beer.
I’m curious where else in the world serves as an off-the-cuff venue for poetry and prose readings. Feel free to share your knowledge in the comments section below.