The Experience of Running a Reading Series

Picture of Adam Clay

Author: Adam Clay

Tell us about your experiences with the Kalamazoo Art Center. 

I started working with the Book Arts Center in 2009, three years after I moved to Kalamazoo. I had started a sporadic series back in 2006, but the venue didn’t work out for a number of reasons. I spent some time thinking about another space and the Books Art Center just seemed like the perfect location. I love the space and the fact that they were willing to design broadsides for each reading was an added bonus.

How much overlap did you have as a reading series coordinator and journal publisher?

That’s a great question. I really think a large part of the success of the reading series in Kalamazoo (or any reading series, for that matter), is a curator’s connection to a literary community, whether it be a regional one or a broader community. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s anything wrong with inviting regional writers to read in one’s series, but creating a regional series seemed somewhat limited to me—I wanted a wide variety of writers from all over the place—and this is where editing TYPO (and working with Third Coast) came into play in that it gave me a lot of people I could reach out. I also found that poets were extremely willing to travel great distances to read for little or no compensation. Of course we put people up in our guest room and provided meals, but it always amazed me that people would come to our series from so far away for no money at all. Our location was key, too. Being so near Chicago and in the middle of the country, it wasn’t a huge problem for people to swing through town on a Midwest reading tour. I fear I’ve strayed from your original question somewhat, but it truly comes down to being a part of a larger literary conversation and editing TYPO (and publishing my own work through journals and magazines) is a big part of bringing an amazing group of poets into town for a series in that you simply have a wide variety of people you can reach out to.

What sort of day to day work goes into running a successful reading series?

The series demanded work, but I didn’t necessarily find myself working on it every day. I would often reach out to the local paper for publicity and send invites via Facebook. I tried to book the readings well in advance (usually six months at a time) and publicize as the dates approached. It seems like people forget or get busy—it makes sense to send invites initially, but an email or reminder a day or two before is never a bad idea.

How did you fund your reading series? Do you have annual donors?

I sort of answered this above, but we essentially had no funding for travel or lodging. I always communicated this up front, though I can’t think of an instance in which someone asked me about money. Poets would come from great distances and find funding through their institutions or simply pay their own way. This past March I read a dozen times or so in support of my new book—I think only two of those readings provided some kind of financial support, but it comes with the territory, right? I’ve been toying with the idea of a new series down here in Lexington, and funding is something I’d like to pursue, even if we are only able to provide a small honorarium.

Why do you think broadsides are important? Has your view of them changed over time?

My view has definitely changed. As a writer (and not a visual artist), I had no idea as to the level of work that went into producing them. Originally our series featured three poets, but it became clear that producing this many broadsides was a bit too much so we scaled back to two poets. I really think these broadsides are important—I can’t count how many readings I’ve been to, but they tend to blur together sometimes. When I see a broadside from the Book Arts Center (or any series that features broadsides), I immediately remember the reading with more clarity. It’s an important reminder of the poet and the poems that were read that night.

What was one of your favorite experiences in coordinating a reading series? 

There were so many amazing nights, but I have to say my favorite experience was right before I moved away and the KBAC invited me to read before I moved to Kentucky. I went that evening with the intention of buying all of the broadsides from the past three years (I only had a few of them), but Jeff Abshear, Katie Platte, and Marianne Swierenga surprised me with a beautiful handmade box containing all of the broadsides. Seeing all of the broadsides together was such an amazing experience—it made me realize how many poets we had brought through town and just how important the series was in terms of its role in the community. The art scene in Kalamazoo is like no other, and I only hope that the series will continue indefinitely.