Part I: So-and-So, Inception of a Reading Series
For emerging writers, staying connected to the literary world, especially after leaving an MFA program, can mean having to be resourceful and find ways to connect with other writers. Greensboro Review Poetry Editor, Jessica Plante, recently spoke with So-and-So Series and Magazine Founder and Editor, Chris Tonelli, to ask how his literary enterprises began, and how they have evolved. So-and-So began in Boston as a local reading series in 2004, and has since expanded to include a collaboration with Rope-a-Dope Press, the So-and-So magazine, and a collaboration with Birds., LLC., an independent poetry press based out of Austin, Minneapolis, New York, and Raleigh. So-and-So’s home base is now in Raleigh, NC where the reading series continues and the Magazine is published bi-annually.
GR: What prompted you to
Chris Tonelli: I was still a graduate student, close to finishing my MFA at Emerson College in Boston, when I started So-and-So. I was starting to publish my own work and giving readings, and newly-graduated friends of mine were organizing reading series in NYC, editing their own literary journals, or editing their graduate program's journals. Everything seemed to be happening in NY. At first, this was exciting, hopping on the bus to NYC, crashing on a friend’s couch, meeting poets we'd only read in journals—it was all very romantic. But then it got old—taking off work on Friday in order to get to a 7pm reading in the city, riding back on the bus hung-over and exhausted on Sunday. It dawned on us, We live in a pretty cool, literary city, why couldn't we get people to come read with us here?! I can't remember why I took it upon myself to be the one to start it up; that was just one of those random (in this case lucky) decisions one makes, I guess.
GR: What were some
obstacles you faced in getting So-and-So started?
CT: Space and money. I chose Saturdays for the series so my readers would have time to travel. Turns out, even in an historically literary town like Boston, venues don't want to host poetry readings on a Saturday night. I didn't want the sterile fluorescent lights of a generic bookstore, but I also didn't want a loud, distracting bar where patrons aren't exactly enthusiastic about quieting down for a poetry reading. What I found was a space called The Lily Pad, but they charged a fee. At first this wasn't a big problem...my gang was initially very generous during the pass-the-hat portion of each reading, and I collected enough to pay for the space and even give the traveling poets some gas money. But, understandably, this dried up.
GR: What happened when the money dried up?
CT: I met the incredible Mary Walker Graham. She emailed me out of the blue to say she had a letterpress and was starting a print collaborative called Rope-A-Dope Press with her roommate, Robert daVies. I'd never met either of them, ever, but she thought, in order for Rope-A-Dope to have some initial content and start a fan base, they should create broadsides for each poet I brought to town. If that wasn’t awesome enough, she suggested that the readings be held at their dream-of-a-space, The Distillery. I took her up on both offers. As I understand...and I may just be starting rumors here...The Distillery was an abandoned warehouse that poor artists squatted in illegally in the 80s. When the authorities found out, they gave the artists a bit of time to raise money and get the building up to code, or else they'd all be "evicted." Anyway, they somehow were able to do it, and it's been this amazing artist studio/living space ever since. Their particular studio, #11, was this unbelievable vault of a space...four or five stories high with balconies and a floor space to read from. From then on, this unbelievable space became home to the So-and-So Reading Series.
GR: That sounds like a great atmosphere for a reading.
CT: Yes. People would be hanging over the balconies to listen to the So-and-So readers below, or asking to see and purchase broadsides. The readings had this great mix of poets and artists. The broadsides printed for So-and-So were designed by the artists who lived in the Distillery. All of Rope-a-Dope’s production materials where available to look through, and lots of great broadsides and chapbooks. Several collaborations sprung from them—artists designing poets' book covers, etc. Mary and Bob created these epic anthologies with these broadsides; hand-bound, hard cover collections of all from each season of So-and-So. They're ridiculously beautiful and were sold to art collectors and rare book librarians. Mary and Bob were also very active in the community. They did a lot of work teaching kids how to make books. They also started a chapbook series which I was lucky enough to help edit. Not that artful chapbooks are new, but I like to think they helped kick off this latest wave of DIY publishing.
GR: Did all this help you network?
CT: "Network" has some sort of sleazy connotation, but yeah...it helped me meet poets and editors. Not for any sort of career advancement, per se, but for the building of a poetic community. Coming out of MFA school, the number of journals and presses seems overwhelming--what should I read? Where should I send my stuff? Running the series was instrumental in honing an aesthetic...what I liked and didn't like about the actual poetry and about the poetry biz, what to pay attention to and what to avoid. it really narrowed my focus, and while it may be a small niche, it's the right niche for me. I now have a much better idea who my audience is and who I am the audience for.
GR: Was it more demanding than you expected? Did you ever
want to quit and just walk away from it?
CT: At times I suppose it is hard work. And it often takes a back seat to life...like, I have to change diapers, I don't have to read submissions, etc. But I now have two rad interns--Joseph Silvers and Michael Johnson--and they do a lot of web/media stuff for So and So, and that really helps out a lot. There have only been a few times when I've felt like not doing it any more...when poets traveled long distances for free only to read to a handful of folks. But 2 or 3 out of 56 readings isn't too bad. And ultimately, I like being read to. It's as selfish as that. It helps me connect to the work of my favorite contemporaries and energizes me in my work.