FORMAT: 3-4 invited
writers read selections of poetry, prose or a book excerpt.
PLACE: Past readings have been at Front Gallery on Main Street, the Folk School and Decosimo studios.
COST: The next FUSEBOX will be Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. at The Camp House. This event is FUSEBOX's annual fundraiser.
MORE INFORMATION: FUSEBOX Art & Word Series on Facebook
RIVER CITY SESSIONS
FORMAT: Opens with musical act
(8-10 minutes), followed by 20-25 minute readings (storytelling, poetry, prose
or some combination), followed by
20-30 minute main musical act. Look for Gray to emcee and tell a story or two and also introduce each act. Also: River City Sessions is going on the road! This spring they will perform at two venues in Knoxville. They are also bringing a combined storytelling and music event to the Hunter Museum January 23, 2014, which will be centered around a piece of art.
PLACE: The Camp House,
1427 Williams St.
WHEN: Second Friday of every month, 7:30 p.m.
More information: (423) 413-1294 or visit The River City Sessions on Facebook.
WIDE OPEN FLOOR
FORMAT: Wannabe performers sign up for a slot the night of the show. Spaces are first come, first served. Theme for September: Falling Into Colors
PLACE: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Avenue
WHEN: First Friday of every month, 8-10:30 p.m.
MORE INFO: Wide Open Floor (at Chattanooga) on Facebook
COST: $5 for non-performers
THE SPEAKEASY, MANIFEST, CAMP HOUSE OPEN MIC
MORE INFORMATION: firstname.lastname@example.org or ichristian3030.blogspot.com
ANOTHER STORY LIVE!
FORMAT: Wannabe storytellers put their name in a basket upon arrival. Ten names are chosen at random. Each storyteller has five minutes to tell a story based tightly or loosely on the theme of the evening. The last theme was "Confessions."
WHEN: Third Monday of every month, 7:30 until approximately 9 p.m.
PLACE: The Camp House,
1427 Williams St.
MORE INFO: Benschnell.com/storyslam. Follow link to hear podcasts of past stories. Also visit The Camp House on Facebook and click on "Events."
BARNES AND NOBLE POETRY OPEN-MIC NIGHT
WHEN: The last Friday of every month, 7:30 p.m.
PLACE: Barnes & Noble, Hamilton Place Mall
MORE INFORMATION: 423-893-0186
Paris. London. New York. San Francisco. Chattanooga?
Can the Scenic City become the hub of a cultural renaissance that puts spoken word, poetry, fiction and art on stage-and people actually come to watch (or hear)?
Reading and writing circles have long been the epicenter for some of our greatest voices in prose and poetry-think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Tolkien, Burroughs or Lewis.
As strange as it may seem, Chattanooga now offers a wide variety of readings, as local writers and other artists shop ideas, perfect their craft and share their inner-workings with an ever-growing audience of interested and intrigued followers.
Poet and UTC adjunct professor Aubrey Lenahan is curator, along with C&R Press founder Chad Prevost, of the FUSEBOX Reading Series. As a graduate student in Fairfax, Virginia, Lenahan ran a successful student reading series. She says that when she got to Chattanooga, she was impressed by what was going on in the writing and public reading realms, but she felt something was lacking. She says she created FUSEBOX to "answer my own prayers."
"A fuse box is something mythic, a little dangerous, powerful, even a little antiquated," Lenahan describes. She points out that salon culture-people gathering to exchange ideas and share music and writing-also has a long history, and that salons have at times been considered powerful and even subversive, as well as avant-garde and forward-thinking-all how the FUSEBOX Reading Series would like to be thought of. The goal is to continue to bring in a range of out-of-town writers, both established and emerging, as well as to showcase local talent. I've been to several and can attest to the fact that the readings are polished and the vibe is literary as well as artistic.
Storyteller, writer and musician Michael Gray also knows a thing or two about the importance of bringing people together. He started River City Sessions three years ago at the Camp House, and it's hard not to draw comparisons between it and that classic live radio show Prairie Home Companion based out of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Gray, acting as emcee, tells a story or two then introduces the musical acts, poets and/or prose writers reading from newly published books or works in progress. It's a variety show in the truest sense of the word, and that's exactly how Gray would like for you to think of it. It couldn't be a more natural fit for a man whose own grandparents' front porch in North Carolina was sort of like a variety show itself. "People would gather there and play music, share stories or read from a book," he recalls fondly.
But Gray will tell you his own start as a storyteller came about by accident. He was invited to read a short story at a Chattanooga Writers Guild event and somehow arrived missing four of his pages. "I had no choice but to just tell the story," he says. And the rest is history.
"Luck has been a lot of what's gone on with me," Gray says, though his professional career course reads more like a study in careful plotting. Gray aspired to be a professional baseball player when an injury cut his sports career short. He became an accountant and then a computer programmer to support himself, all while pursuing his dream of writing and creating a variety show.
Recalling the very first River City Sessions, Gray says, "We had 75 or 80 people that night." It was all the encouragement he needed to believe he had something the Chattanooga community wanted. For the next two years or so, he put on a show just twice a year, fall and spring. Due to popular demand, the show now goes on monthly with an ever-changing roster of traditional and folk musicians, poets, prose readers, singers and storytellers.
"Our mission statement is "Southern culture reclaimed and unchained," Gray says. "By 'reclaimed' we mean we are reaching back to our Southern roots, and by 'unchained' we mean we are at the same time releasing it from some of its constraints. It's traditional meets contemporary." And as the South is known for Southern literature, Gray asks that writers read selections that "pay homage to Southern culture in some way," although he admits that "paying homage" is at best an abstract ideal. He is quick to explain that he doesn't want anything Hee Haw-ish (work that mocks or derides the South) nor does he want anything overly sentimental. "It's a show that honors the South," he says.
If you ask Ray Zimmerman, president of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, he'll tell you that the literary movement in Chattanooga is growing rapidly.
"There are more people writing poetry every day, which is fueling the growth of the spoken word movement," says Zimmerman. He should know: he is the host of New Voices Poetry, a poetry/prose reading event which happens semi-annually at alternating venues. The last one was at the Trenton Civic Center in Trenton, Georgia. Six poets (Marcus Patrick Ellsworth, Finn Bille, James Allen, Ginnie Strickland Sams, Ray Zimmerman, and Bob Dombrowski) read with backup by the Undoctored Originals Jazz Band. Band members recorded the event and created a CD, Appalachia Rising. Poetry has "diversified," Zimmerman adds, noting that many communities, Chattanooga included, have seen a definite uptick in spoken word, performance and slam poetry events, and that they are, individually and as a group, attracting larger and larger audiences.
And not only is the audience for spoken word expanding, but the concept of spoken word itself is expanding. Three years ago, in an empty building beside Niedlov's Bread Company, dancer/choreographer/Neidlov's owner Angela Sweet put together an open-mic event to run in conjunction with the Chattanooga street party MainX24. Called Wide Open Floor, after a college venue by the same name, it was poetry, prose, dance, experimental art, storytelling, singing, acting and music friendly. It was spoken word on steroids. And it was a huge success. So much so that it quickly moved to Barking Legs Theater.
Calling itself "Chattanooga's laboratory of creative expression," Wide Open Floor is an un-curated and uncensored venue, where, according to emcee Marcus Ellsworth, virtually anything that can be showcased in eight minutes gets a green light. "People can share finished work, experiment, or debut new work with a test audience, so there are a lot of out-there things! And you get really good feedback since it's largely an audience of peers," he says.
Audience members can expect to see and hear everything from awkward dance moves, unedited journal entries, poems on paper whose ink has not yet dried, professional storytellers and dancers, polished and professional poets, and even combined performances. "One of my favorite weird things was the night poet/artist Bob Dombrowski read a long poem while behind him on stage a haunting figure in a tribal mask crept around. It was very disturbing; it was a poem addressing primal fear," Ellsworth says.
That memory is a solid example of the variety on stage at Wide Open Floor. But as the name implies, performances are truly wide open, leaving Ellsworth struggling to name the most outlandish performance at Wide Open Floor. "That's a tall order," he says, adding that he has seen a lot of outlandish performances over the years (he was a regular performer before he took over hosting duties). But after a moment's thought he describes a short play, a "commentary on literary criticism," by First Draft Production's Kevin Bartolomucci and Steve Disbrow. In the five-minute play, Bartolomucci read a series of haikus and then laid them on the stage floor. If Disbrow (playing the literary critic) liked the haiku, he left it on the stage floor, but if he didn't, he picked it up and literally stapled it to Kevin-in some cases to his clothes, but also to his arms, chest and forehead.
You might not see anything quite so outlandish (or downright disturbing, I might add) at The Speakeasy, Manifest, or Camp House Open Mic, but they are all performance venues under the watchful eye of poet Christian J. Collier, and each has its own unique flavor.
The Speakeasy is a free open mic event which started in 2009. Collier says he was "looking to shake the tree a bit" as far as poetry and readings were concerned. To that end, Speakeasy travels venues, exposing artists to a variety of reading conditions. Past readings have taken place at the Camp House and Planet Altered on Main Street.
Manifest was a monthly, curated venue. Collier explains that he would pair acts that were "in some way related, or astronomically different. We were pushing the boundaries of expectations," he says. Manifest is currently on hiatus while Collier finishes up work on an EP called Between Beauty and Bedlam, but look for it to return in the fall. And lastly, Camp House Open Mic is a non-curated event where poets, storytellers, and acoustic musicians of any age are invited to perform.
And for those in search of storytelling of a different sort, there is always Ben Schnell's Another Story Live!, a monthly storytelling event open to anyone willing to stand on a stage and tell a rousing story for five, and only five, minutes. Started in October 2012, ASL was modeled after Atlanta native George Dawes Green's live New York City storytelling show, The Moth. With story descriptions like "A failed existential moment," "Secure your prosthetics," and "Wouldn't young Bruce just love to know what the sweet love note said," my guess is you'll want to check Schnell's venue out-and maybe even get up there yourself. And while Schnell currently takes a laissez-faire approach to letting storytellers create their own stories, he says that in the future that may change. "We'd like to do more crafting," he says, meaning helping people get to the nugget of their stories in more intentional, and powerful, ways.
Beginning in September, WUTC's Roundabout will air one story a month from ASL! Can't wait that long? Visit Benschnell.com/storyslam and follow the link to hear podcasts of past stories.
As you can see, a lot has happened to the Chattanooga literary scene over the past five to seven years. If you haven't made it to a local reading or two or three, it's no longer because they aren't out there, they are. And they just might make your night.
As poet Aubrey Lenahan says, "There's a connection between how happy I am as a writer and how many readings I get to go to." Hear Hear.