Being a Reading Series Coordinator
Author: Vladislav Frederick
What is the reading series you run? How did you initially become involved with the reading series?
I coordinate the Younger American Poets Reading Series, a nonprofit poetry series serving the Des Moines community. In the Spring and Fall Seasons, the series has hosted monthly poetry readings partnered with a local grassroots bookstore, Beaverdale Books. These readings have each featured two to three poets from all over the country, some rising and some more experienced/renowned, almost all with publications or publications forthcoming. All readings have been free and open to the public, and YAPRS has partnered with many of the high schools in the Des Moines Area to encourage greater high school level attendance and high school level exposure to the current poetry driving the craft forward. YAPRS also has partnered with Drake University and DMACC to solicit greater collegiate interest and attendance at the readings, and promote a more thriving social networking opportunity for college students with an interest or major relating to poetry and writing.
I initially became involved in the Series as an intern in February 2011, just a couple months after the Series was launched by Kyle McCord and Wendy Xu. I had been pointed to them by the director of the Writing Internship Program at Drake University, who listed YAPRS as one of their partners. I interviewed with Kyle and Wendy, who luckily decided that I was a good fit! I had the privilege of interning with them for the entire Spring of 2011, up until May; at that point, I was hooked by the Series in every way. I loved the aims of the Series, the events it held to drive towards those aims, and all the great people and poets I got to meet! I was a good fit. So I spoke with Jennifer Perrine, who was to be taking over Series for the next season, about continuing on as her intern. She was glad to keep my experience and took me on for the Summer and Fall of 2011. After enjoying a full year and a another great set of readings in the Fall as Series intern, then came the chance for a step up; Jennifer was looking to pass on the mantle of coordinator, so she could pursue her sabbatical work more actively. Needless to say, I jumped on the opportunity. When I took the position of coordinator, I also took on two co-coordinators, Michaela Mullin and Joel Nathanael, great candidates who had also been interested in ensuring the Series continuance.
What are some things you do as coordinator? What’s your favorite part of the job? The most stressful?
Well, to hit some of the main things…The coordinator has to select and solicit their desired lineup of poets for the season. They have to get agreement from all poets, or approach new poets until the lineup is full. The coordinator has to calculate expenses for each poet, book hotels/flights where necessary, and provide numbers to each poet in the reader contract they sign for the Series. The coordinator also has to ensure that the Series will be able to afford the compensation that we have promised each poet; the coordinator has to be the chief of fundraising at all times. The coordinator also needs to be promoting the Series through social media and other means, constantly and innovatively; thankfully, the interns hired each season general have taken on most publicity duties. The coordinator must also work on making and maintaining partnerships with local community high schools and college campuses; this is another duty that we have been able to heavily share with the interns.
I’d have to say the most stressful part of the job is managing others. It drives me insane. I want to be an easygoing and reasonable coordinator; but I get frantically impatient about deadlines, and giving a normal length deadline pains me. I’m all about getting things done on really short deadlines, but I don’t like imposing unreasonably short deadlines on others. So I’m always itching with anxiety that things aren’t getting done fast enough.
The readings are definitely what makes it all worthwhile. I love being able to go out for dinner with the poets beforehand, unwind over a relaxing meal at a classy restaurant, with an amazing reading to follow. And each reading has been amazing. Obviously there are inevitably poets you’ll like more than others, but I’ve been impressed by the work of each and every poet this Series has hosted. There are a lot of great poets out there; our Series exists to advertise that fact!
What do you love about poetry? How is the reading series a part of that? Why do you think poetry readings are important?
I love the lasting impact that poetry can have on a person. A poem, stanza, line, phrase, or single word, articulated just the right way, can impact a person on a visceral level. It can leave haunting impressions in that person’s mind that don’t go away. I first read Mary Oliver 4 years ago, and I still think of her works and am haunted by her thoughts expressed in verse up to this day. In a poetry reading, the effects of a poem are often enhanced; you’re hearing the narrative, from the lips of its creator. There’s a certain added effect to that. It makes readings these—I’ll be cheesy and say it—spiritual, even primal events. In all poetry, there is on some level a sense of the poet delving deep into an emotion or state of being, words ultimately attacking some baser fundamental aspect of existence. Poets at a reading are baring themselves to the audience, through their poetry, their written projection of their selves. It’s a pretty powerful experience, to me at least. And to skip ahead on questions hear, I’ve seen a similar epiphany in the eyes of many newcomers to our events. It’s particularly enjoyable on high school kids from our partner schools, coming to events with a pen and paper in hand to do an extra credit review. They start off slumped and bored, already prepared to be unimpressed; then, they get impressed. Within ten minutes, cell phones go away and they’re too intent of the reader to even jot notes down. I swear I’ve seen it! And I’ve seen many of these high school students come back to the next readings, and bring their friends.
That’s why I think poetry readings are important. They’re an event where people can come to see/hear a beautiful thing. And seeing high school students come in and get hooked from just one reading is a remarkable thing to me, because poetry is something that many people will take for granted, or overlook, until they have given it a chance to move them. A poetry reading is that chance.
What has been one of your favorite moments in running the series? Any hilarious moments you’d like to share?
My favorite moments in running the Series have been walking into readings and seeing over ¾ of the seats in the bookstore full. Other favorite moments have been every time one of my interns gave a poet’s introduction and just nailed it, spot on, blew it way out of the water—mind you, they did that all the time! Lastly, my favorite moments were seeing the poets relaxed and happy at the end of the reading, getting the feel that they felt they’d had a successful night. It’s a good feeling to both support a poet in their field, and make their day.
What recommendations do you have for someone who a person who wants to run their own series?
I don’t know that I can ever be prepared to give a detailed how-to-coordinate guide, especially considering how much of an individualized and personally tailored experience it is. I’m going to give recommendations based on the fundamental issues I ran into and worked through while coordinating a Series that still required many steps to be made into a legitimate stand-alone entity. I think much of the work I did was work that need to be done as early as possible with any reading series, definitely within its first year if possible. In our case that hadn’t been necessary due to alternate arrangements with a fiscal agent that fell through after a year due to repeated errors on the fiscal agent’s part.
Do your homework on all the clerical/logistical stuff. Find out how much it cost to get 501c3 status for your organization (the filing fee is general at least $400); 501c3 status is essential to being seen as a legitimate nonprofit. You want this status in order to be able to offer a tax exemption to all potential sponsors of your Series. And a tax-exemption can make anyone much more willing to want to donate to your organization. Depending on your location, you’ll want to solicit both individual sponsors and business/community sponsors and partners in your fundraising ventures. Also have other fundraising methods in mind (grant-seeking/writing, benefits, bake sales, etc) in the event that sponsor funding proves insufficient.
Get a mailing address. Make sure you have your own email address. Have your own website, or blogspot at the least. Get business cards for your staff, if budget will allow. Have steady venues planned and ensured as available; have a good list of restaurants plotted out. For the venues, aim for comfort and something appropriate for the numbers you know you’ll be able to bring in to your events. If it’s packed at an event, you’ll just know you need to get a bigger venue. Write out a detailed plan/budget of all these clerical things you’ll need (mailbox, website, nonprofit status, etc), so you can figure out what exactly needs to be done, and exactly how much it’ll cost to get the ball rolling. Also do an estimate/projection of what your average costs will be for your first two seasons of operation. Ideally, I think you want to start with enough to cover all the clerical/logistical expenses, and to be able to cover the first season at the least. This means that you can start off with equal strength in publicity and fundraising rather than fundraising frantically for each month/week/biweekly reading. And hopefully, you’ll have enough success over the first season fundraising that you won’t have to give up on publicity solely to throw time into fundraising efforts (which, by themselves, are not great publicity).
Have at least five community partners within your first few months of operation, so that your social network is expanded and more people will hear about you. Solicit schools, community colleges, universities, anything literary and academic in the area. For business partners, solicit grassroots and local stores, bookstores especially.
Make your goals realistic. If you know you can consistently fundraise enough to provide honoraria to the poets, do it. But if you don’t think you could keep up with that, stick to just paying for their travel expense, or their dinner, or whatever it is you decide to pay for. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew; after all, the responsibility is going to feel like it’s falling on your pocket as the coordinator, when things go wrong.