MySpace. FaceBook. Gather. The opportunities to gather in cyberspace are immense, but one vestige of old-fashioned community building is still thriving. “There’s so much coming together in a virtual space,” says Fred Dewey, executive director of Beyond Baroque, the literary/arts center in Venice, Calif., “that it remains vitally important for people to come together in other ways. That’s why our logo is a palm tree coming out of a book, not a laptop.” By making a space for literature in a concrete way, Beyond Baroque and dozens of other literary centers around the country create an audience for literature and serve as an incubator for writers. Some offer readings, films, concerts and art exhibits. Others promote citywide reading programs or make poetry and literature available through archives, bookstores and workshops.
Thirty-nine-year-old Beyond Baroque does all of the above—and then some. It has a hundred readings a year, free workshops that even the homeless can attend, a 35,000-title chapbook/small press archive and a bookstore where books are never returned. But one program that makes the country’s oldest center stand out is publishing books under its own imprint, Beyond Baroque Books.
From the start, Beyond Baroque has been linked with the written word; its name comes from the newsprint zine published by founder George Drury Smith in 1968. For many years Beyond Baroque kept a Letraset machine upstairs in the Old Town Hall, which has long been its home, and people would come to set their books, recalls Fred Dewey, who founded the press in 1998.
“I see Beyond Baroque as a nonprofit version of San Francisco [bookseller and publisher] City Lights Books, or City Lights South,” says Dewey. To date the center has published 19 books, and Small Press Distribution handles distribution to the trade. The most recent, Truth, Etc., brings together writings from Israel, Mexico, France, Germany and China, including poems in translation by Jean-Luc Godard and Yan Li.
Despite having an established publishing program, Dewey advocates self-publishing. And over the years, the center has amassed a large collection of chapbooks. “We have four walls dedicated to chapbooks,” says Dewey. “Hopefully, something will spark and people will realize that they can go down to Kinko’s. It’s not so hard to publish.”
Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center, founded in 1979, houses one of the most extensive bookstores of any literary center, along with an art gallery, where it presents exhibitions, artist talks, readings, films and writing workshops. “We hope to act as a catalyst, putting readers together with small press literature,” writes cofounder Anne Kingsbury on the center’s Web site (www.woodlandpattern.org). The store, which is open every day except Monday and stocks more than 25,000 small press titles, is central to fulfilling the center’s mission.
The poetry selection alone covers a wall and a half, and there are two banks of chapbooks displayed face out as well as fine press drawers for hard-to-shelve broadsides. Its stock is so deep that before literary program director Chuck Stebelton began working at Woodland Pattern, he says that he would come up from Chicago just to buy poetry books and attend events. Other strong sections include fiction, performing arts and books by and about Native Americans.
In addition to selling small press titles—including books for writing students at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee—Woodland Pattern holds several events a year that focus specifically on small publishers. Last month, Janet Holme, editor of nonprofit poetry publisher Ahsahta Press, gave a presentation on the role of the small press. She and two other poets published by Ahsahta, Lisa Fishman and Kate Greenstreet, also gave readings.
“People in our community want a signature series. I’m not interested in just bringing in people because they have a book out,” says Michael Kelleher, artistic director of Just Buffalo Literary Center in Buffalo, N.Y., who likes to find challenging works like Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things for the center’s programs. In 2004, Kelleher brought Roy over from India for a reading, and the next evening treated attendees to an interview with Roy conducted by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. This fall 22-year-old Just Buffalo, one of the 10 largest centers in the U.S., will be introducing Babel, a reading program designed to get all of Buffalo reading not just one book but four by authors writing from a global perspective.
“We’ve always chosen books for All of Buffalo [Read the Same Book] that are a little risky in terms of the structure and the language, books that make readers work,” says Kelleher. He deliberately selected Orhan Pamuk’s Snow—written in Turkish for Turkish people and set in Turkey—to launch the reading series this month. The initial series also includes Kiran Desai’s Booker Prize—winning The Inheritance of Loss, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems and Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. Just Buffalo, which was one of 10 organizations selected to pilot the Big Read initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, will continue to participate in that program as well as maintain its regular roster of activities, such as teaching writing arts in eight counties in Western New York.
When the Cabin (originally named the Log Cabin Literary Center) was started in 1992 in Boise, Idaho, founding director Paul Shaffer and the other members of the center made a commitment to help children. Today Writers in the Schools (WITS) is by far the center’s biggest program, according to managing director Margaret Marti. Last year the Cabin sent writers to 60 classrooms to teach three classes a day each week during the school year.
“Teachers tells us,” Marti says, “that their attendance is best on [WITS] days.” Although all participating schools contribute to WITS, some pay as little as $1,000. To make up the difference, the bulk of the Cabin’s fund-raising efforts focus on this program. To keep kids reading over the summer, the Cabin also offers Idaho Writing Camp for children in grades four to nine. Unlike WITS, it is not free for young people.
Sixteen-year-old Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, one of the newer centers on the block, focuses strictly on bringing in authors for events for young children and generation-Xers. Its best-known series, the Drue Heinz Lectures, which receives major funding from philanthropist Drue Heinz (who owns the Paris Review), is held in the 1,900-seat Carnegie Music Hall—and frequently sells out. Its Saturday morning children’s series is limited to six big-name writers and illustrators like Brian Jacques and Mo Willems.
In 1998, Pittsburgh added a hipper reading series, the American Shorts Reading Series, designed to get 20- and 30-somethings to read. Unlike the Drue Heinz Lectures, tickets are not sold in advance, and the readings are held in more intimate settings or outdoors in venues like the garden of Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Museum. For The Best American Short Stories, for example, the festivities included readings by local artists, a movie and a post-reading dance party with “Northern Soul” dance music. When Dave Eggers reads later this month, he will appear with a band.
Despite the successes, survival hasn’t always been easy for literary centers. Post-9/11 many local governments cut back on funding for the arts. But most centers are upbeat not just about their place in the life of their communities but their finances. Just Buffalo was ready to close its doors five years ago, but has since turned a six-digit deficit into a surplus.
“As the centers respond to the needs of their community, we will survive,” said Woodland Pattern’s Kingsbury. “If we ignore that, we will have problems. I have a younger staff that brings in new ideas, and we’re getting a younger audience again. I’m really pleased to see the next generations coming forward.”