Nick Demske is a powerhouse. He’s back to the Library as Incubator Project today for the final installment in his series on building and implementing excellent performing arts programs at libraries. Nick’s work at Racine Public Library is an impressive intro to the post that follows, so I encourage you to check out our recent feature on the Bonk! Performance Series , his essay Librarians and community involvement as a professional competence (Part 1), and Recipe for a Thriving Performing Arts Series: Part II. Enjoy! ~Erinn
Recipe for a Thriving Performing Arts Series: Part III
by Nick Demske
Since this is my last piece in the Recipe-for-a-Thriving-Performing-Arts-Series I’ve been writing, I wanted to figure out a good way to conclude. It seems like no matter what I write about for this last article, I will be leaving so many things out. It’s the nature of writing about this sort of cultural creation…to call it a recipe is misleading in some ways, because it’s less of a formula and more of a cultural shift. So, with that in mind, I think the best I can do is simply describe our last event, what happened, what went into it and who helped out in what ways. Hopefully, a close look at one of the events will serve as a good example and fill in some of the gaps I’ve surely been leaving in my other descriptions.
So let’s start way back.
More than 6 months ago I was contacted by Ben Pelham, an MFA grad student in Baton Rouge at the time, who had been at a reading I did at the poet Lara Glenum’s house while on a long book tour. Ben was calling because he and some friends he had gone to undergrad with in Pittsburgh wanted to all get back together as they finished at their respective grad schools to tour the country as a group, offering free workshops at public libraries and, hopefully, even mobilizing some writing communities. Ben knew I was a public librarian and a poet who’d done a large-scale, nation-wide tour, so he contacted me online and we exchanged numbers to talk about logistics of what this trip would look like, recommendations I might have for them, advice…anything. I thought very little of it, though it was nice to get to talk to him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if their project stopped there and nothing came out of it at all, though.
Well, something did come out of it. Something pretty remarkable. Line Assembly (who the Library as Incubator Project did a two part interview with here and here) ultimately ended up making plans to travel the country for over a month giving free workshops and readings in big cities, small towns and everything in between. They funded their travels through a really ambitious Kickstarter campaign that ended up raising nearly $19,000. Not bad for some young punk poets.
As soon as the tour looked like it would be a reality, the Line Assembly poets contacted me again and we made plans to bring them to my home community of Racine, Wisconsin, for a poetry workshop at the Racine Public Library and a reading as part of the BONK! series later the same night. Because BONK! always has more than just poetry, I also contacted a 19-year-old Racine native musician named Katie Lafond. Katie played the fourth ever BONK! event four years ago when she was 15. It was her first featured performance and, at the time, we invited her not because she was such an astounding musician, but more because we wanted to encourage a local kid musician and help her gain some experience. This time, however, we invited her because she’s grown to simply be an astounding musician. So there’s one reason why you might want to support the young local artists in the area…
So great. We’ve got a BONK! event lined up: Line Assembly and Katie Lafond. Here’s a special difficulty posed by this, though: in the last article I wrote about this, I mentioned how essential it is to provide some free housing options to traveling artists when they come to your town. Usually, my girlfriend Angela and I just put people up in our two-bedroom apartment. But Line Assembly posed a different challenge than usual: they ran eight deep—six poets and two film crew. To fit 10 people into our apartment would be pretty ambitious and, well, desperate. The solution to this problem? Nancy Gaskin.
I met Nancy at another local performing arts series last year called “Music and More,” held at a church here in the neighborhood. Nancy is broke, but through a bizarre series of circumstances, happens to have an incredibly beautiful, large house on Lake Michigan here in Racine, with a sprawling back yard. For the July event (the event that Line Assembly and Katie Lafond would perform at), Nancy had agreed to allow us to host BONK! in her backyard—it would be our first ever outdoor event. This is a pretty generous offer. An offer which comes with the responsibility of lots of work and preparation, of course. So when I called Nancy up to see if she would also be interested in housing all eight visiting Line Assembly crew members overnight, as well, I did not have my expectations too high. But as is often the case with the BONK! community members, my expectations were exceeded.
“You know, it’s funny you ask,” Nancy answered, “because I just read that article you wrote at that Library As Incubator place and I was going to call you and offer my house to them, in case they could use it.”
Right. Of Course you were. And, in fact, Nancy actually asked if I would stay over as well, because she would be going out of town that night. And that, my friends, is what we call a buttload of trust.
So the day of the event comes. The Line Assembly folks arrive, we get food at two different locally-owned sandwich shops (to spread the wealth), we eat our food by the lakeshore near the library and then we go inside so they can facilitate a poetry workshop. Eventually, the room is packed with 30 people. Plus a small film crew documenting everything. At least two of the workshop attendees were at the sandwich shops and only heard about the workshop when the group of us walked in. Senior citizens, strangers, even a couple babies…the group was nearly an unmanageable size and all of them were there just to share an enthusiasm for poetry. We collaborated on poems with each other, talked about what we would like to see in the future as far as poetry in our community and shared all of our contact information with each other to start a poetry writing group at the library (which will be starting later this month in its first public manifestation). A pretty successful event for Line Assembly, overall.
The group was nearly an unmanageable size and all of them were there just to share an enthusiasm for poetry.
We eventually make it over to Nancy’s house. While I set up a sound system outside and the Line Assemblists overtake her space with all their worldly belongings, she starts on making two loaves of banana bread for us all. Because she hasn’t done enough for us yet. She also shows me the groceries she bought for them. Now I know that just 3 days ago she was dead broke so I ask where she got money to buy this stuff. She tells me that a random friend sent her a check in the mail with the note “Do something nice for yourself.” This was the nice thing she did. For herself. She bought other people groceries so they’d have stuff to eat while they sleep in her house. Crazy.
The event itself was excellent. Six good poetry readings followed by a good musician. There were no bugs, the weather was pitch-perfect and our background was Lake Michigan at sunset. There even turned out to be a sailboat regatta out that day, which made for an extra beauty none of us could have planned.
One of my favorite moments of the night was when baby Josue farted as loudly as humanly possible during a quiet moment in one of the poetry readings.
Baby Josue’s mother, Jennifer Adamski-Torres, later would write a commentary in the Racine Journal Times about how lovely Racine is, if you look in the right places, and would mention the BONK! event as evidence. Hilariously, her commentary would receive some forty comments from people who felt injured by the article claiming that Racine was not quite hell. Some were so apparently shocked to read her positive views on Racine that they accused her of covertly working for the city government. So that’s definitely worth of minute or two of your reading time…
The 50 or 60 of us in attendance had a lovely evening. Over a dozen audience members helped roll up extension cords or haul sound equipment back up the hill; some younger members of the audience helped some of our tribe elders up Nancy’s steep backyard steps. We all went out to Olde Madrid for dinner afterwards and, when we arrived back home at Nancy’s place, I had the joy of jumping in the lake before bed.
It was a joy for me to watch the next morning as, before they left, the Line Assembly crew took care of Nancy’s house like it was theirs. One poet was doing dishes, one was doing laundry, one was vacuuming the floor, one was packing up the leftover loaf of banana bread… and they all contributed to a magnetic fridge poem that they left on Nancy’s freezer (which still proudly hangs there today). The whole event, from start to finish, was pretty magical. And it only achieved that magic through countless different kinds of collaboration and mutual support.
But my favorite example of this mutual support hasn’t even been mentioned yet.
I rarely tell BONK! performers ahead of time that they will be getting paid. I know that most people come to do it more just because they love it, anyways, so it simply makes for a really nice surprise when, at the end of the night, they get handed a check for a small amount. When, at the end of this past event, I told Katie Lafond she’d be getting paid, she said “I don’t need money. I never leave my room. Give it to the poets. Better yet—give it to Nancy.”
And it was, indeed, better yet to give it to Nancy. Especially because, the next day, the Line Assembly crew also informed me that they wanted their payment to go to Nancy, too. Did I mention that Nancy is broke? This money, I’m sure, did not come as some nice-to-have-around-extra-spending cash. This probably presented itself more as an I-think-I-might-be-able-to-pay-some-of-the-bills-this-month type of gift from heaven.
The whole event, from start to finish, was pretty magical. And it only achieved that magic through countless different kinds of collaboration and mutual support.
That’s exactly what all of this was, though. Through all of this—whether it was a group of poets organizing themselves to spread their passion for poetry around the country and receiving nearly $19,000 in support because of it; whether it was Nancy opening up her house to strangers and receiving a completely unsolicited and unexpected payment for it; or BONK! supporting a 15 year old, local musician and receiving a great community member, artist and ally from that investment; or even just me, in my case, taking a half hour or so out of my day 6 months ago to talk to a stranger who wanted advice on how to go about organizing a poetry tour for libraries and receiving, in turn, one of the best cultural events I’ve ever gone to, let alone hosted…this is sometimes what happens when people open their hearts up to each other, when people choose to trust each other, take risks on each other and give each other things with nothing expected in return. The spirit of goodwill that gets breathed into the world circulates and, with each circulation, grows bigger and more generous. What results from all of it is something no one could’ve made on their own. Eventually, this sort of thing begins to be known as a community
I’m not so sure I’ve come close to even adequately explaining how one can organize community or a thriving performing arts series…but I hope this helps someone somewhere down the line with making where they live a richer place to be. This event was wonderful to be part of. But how much more wonderful it is to me when I remember that it was made possible in such large part by my public library (as well as our Friends of the Library group).
It’s worth noting that almost all of these things I’m talking about happened informally—Line Assembly contacting me for advice, me contacting Nancy for a place to house them overnight, Nancy making banana bread, whatever. They had nothing to do with my institutional ties to Racine Public Library or anyone’s ties to anything else…they were just what we were all passionate about and spending our own personal time on. But much of the time spent promoting the event, coordinating the event and sending the two or three billion e-mails that go back and forth before an event like this can take place…much of that time was paid time for me. The Racine Public Library thinks BONK! is the sort of thing that their community is hungry for and can benefit from and so they’ve put their staff-time where their mouth is.
Things like BONK! simply don’t strive in the same ways if both of those elements aren’t in place. All these individuals involved were willing to give a lot to make this the celebration that it was, but without the institutional support that I had from Racine Public and the Friends of Racine Public, I really just wouldn’t have been able to devote the same sort of time to putting something like this together for our community. So these two elements will be the last that I will bring up/revisit here in our Recipe for a Thriving Performance Series posts: passionate individuals and at least one institution to act a large supporting partnership.
I am very proud to be able to bring events like this to Racine with BONK! But when I reflect on the fact that my local library is the maybe the biggest ingredient as far as what makes BONK! a possibility, it makes me stupid-proud to be a librarian. And it makes me feel like I’m living in a pretty radical place. And it makes me really eager to see what other incredible things libraries can be the vehicles for in our communities. And the most fun part about that is, the answer will simply be up to all of us.
Nick Demske is a children’s librarian, maniac poet, and basker of Lake Michigan’s sweet, tender waters. He received his MLIS from UW Milwaukee and his areas of interest include Information Ethics, Intellectual Freedom, Multicultural Librarianship and Community Outreach, among others. He loves getting paid to act a fool in front of kids. Loves it. His first book, which is self-titled, was the winner of the Fence Modern Poets Series competition and published by Fence Books in 2010. It has been taught in over a dozen universities across the country. Nick spreads literacy full time at the Racine Public Library and curates the BONK! performance series as part of that vocation, which you should check out here You can also visit him online sometime at his blog nickipoo.wordpress.com which he updates once every few years or so. When he’s feeling ambitious.Pin It