Christophe Casamassima, co-founder of Poetry in Community

We continue our National Poetry Month celebration with an interview from the unique perspective of someone who works in a library, is a poet, and co-founded a community organization that partners with libraries.  Christophe Casamassima is the editor and publisher of Furniture Press Books, co-founder, with Douglas Mowbray, of Poetry in Community, and teaches in the film studies department at Towson University. He is the author of five books of poems. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself. How do you identify yourself as an artist  and what sort of work do you create?

I (Christophe Casamassima) am speaking on behalf of myself and Douglas Mowbray. Together we run an organization called Poetry in Community. Our mission is to advocate for creative literacy (using poetry as a means to discover and explore the world and oneself, in the individual’s terms, as a “way of knowing”) and to act as a locus for community sustainability, in which the discoveries posited via poetry writing and reading are used to formulate healthy relationships between citizens, students, artists, businesses and professionals, and, ultimately, their environment and government. We’re both publishers (me, Furniture Press Books, and Doug, twentythreebooks), but both find it a threat to the proliferation of the art that the average reader is not focused upon enough in the writer/publisher/publication equation. Part of our mission is the Cruellest Month Poetry & Performance Festival, an annual reading series in which we partner with a local library to bring the community poetry and poetry-related performances. This year, we’re lucky to have partnered with two: The Village Learning Place, where we hold our weekly events, and the Waverly Public Library, where we’ll host the final event: an outdoor celebration of poetry with open mic, beat box performances, theatrical monologues, local musicians and free poetry book giveaways. We’re also poets, and I’ve published 5 books in the last 5 years.

A Cruelest Month poetry event at the library. Photo: Douglas Mowbray

What is your relationship to libraries throughout your life?  Throughout your work? 

I have been working at Cook Library at Towson University in Baltimore for almost 11 years. In 2006 I started the Cruellest Month series, which featured student and faculty from Towson coupled with poets from around the country. My goals were to open the library up to our local community, give the students a voice outside of the classroom, and introduce writers from outside the university system to the experience the library as a place of culture and knowledge-making. We have since worked with our local public library, Towson Branch library, as well as Enoch Pratt Central Library and the two mentioned above. Because the library already has a built-in patronage and audience for all things book-related, it is only natural to expand the experience of reading and knowing off the page. The library as incubator of text-in-performance is crucial to our mission, and necessary for budding artists and professionals in the field as a place to practice their art and shape the way art evolves over time.

Tell us the story of a specific project that was incubated by a library– how did it start, and how did the library help to bring it to life? 

When I was searching for a location for the Cruellest Month series, I didn’t realize that the library was the essential space for performance and networking. I was approached by the former head of the library, and she suggested that the series be held on campus, in the library. Towson University was following a grand 10-year expansion plan, which included programming that invited community participation. I didn’t know it at the time but this series actually was one of the first outreach programs that united the community, local writers, and also businesses, who participated in the events through storefront promotion. As you can tell, our vision of library as incubator, especially on college campuses, includes a collaborative spirit among students, faculty and staff, as well as our neighbors and professionals in the community. And because our resources are so expansive, we did all our marketing (printing posters, flyers, free chapbooks) within the library. We even had our A/V team photograph and shoot video for the events. Since then, the local public libraries, and the non-profit free library at The Village Learning Place, have been able to, autonomously, promote and host events without the need for cash. The staff and patrons of these libraries also serve as marketing magnets (word of mouth) and, because these are library-specific programs, no outside mediation or alternate staff is needed.

The Cruelest Month Poetry and Performance Festival. Photo: Douglas Mowbray

What can libraries do to serve artists like you?

First and foremost, libraries must meet the needs of their patronage, which includes artists, students and professionals. What we at Poetry in Community have done over the last two years is provided surveys to our audiences and performers. This gauges interest and necessity. Libraries should also promote their facilities publicly, especially to non-profit organizations that rely on public spaces (free spaces!) to meet programming needs and goals. Ultimately, libraries should include programming that defies traditional knowledge-making and learning. Their duty is NOT to proliferate a standardized or pop-culture version of learning, but must be accountable for introducing the public to new ways of thinking and learning about their world, and be the center for expansive cultural, scientific, artistic, etc. exploration—collaborative learning. The library, to put it simply, must provide the public with a space to make their voice heard and understood. (I understand this is a utopian gesture! But it has worked miracles for our cause. I can’t stress this enough.)

As an artist, what would your ideal library be like?  

As a publisher of small press books, chapbooks and ephemera, and as a bookmaker at the edge of the digital age, I find it increasingly troubling that the book as an art object could disappear into the iwhatever. Doug and I have been collecting small press poetry books for some years now, and have a collection of over 2000 pieces. My dream library would dedicate a space for the exhibition and archiving of book objects. Some of these books, if you can imagine, are inherently tactile. For instance, a small book with tree bark covers and dried vine binding, or a box of leaves with one word printed on each, which the reader would toss onto the ground in the middle of autumn with the hopes that someone might notice a poem swirling at their feet. But books have authors! And, in my opinion, the text is a score for a performance, whether it be recited or sung or adapted to new media. My ideal library would also couple the small press library with performances and readings of/from these texts, and introduce the public to the important of the book as art object.

A reading at the Cruelest Month Poetry Festival. Photo: Douglas Mowbray

What resources and services do you use at your library? How do you find out about them?  How do they help to support your work?

I took the job at Cook library because I knew it would be a boon to my writing career to be surrounded perpetually by inspiration. I am an avid reader, and because we’re part of the University of Maryland system, I have access to millions of titles and periodicals. As you can tell from above, because I am a writer, publisher, and community advocate, it is imperative that I locate spaces in my community that can foster learning and collaboration because they house the appropriate resources and staff. The library is the definition of centrality. So, how have libraries helped us? Free space. Free marketing. Huge patronage. Caring staff. Plus the necessary resources to promote continuing learning outside of our events (reading, researching, writing, performing, teaching). I have to admit, to the chagrin of the staff here, that I have written all of my books while on duty!

Have you shown your work in a library? What do you like about showing your work in libraries? 

Yes. Not only have I curated and hosted events in the libraries, but have also performed, taught and lectured in programs hosted by my colleagues, friends and local library staff. The library experience is so different from the gallery or coffeehouse experience because it links doing (performance) with learning (research). You leave the gallery when the show’s over, but you return to the library every moment of your life—because knowledge begins at the meeting between mind and medium, then continues in our daily lives. The best experience, the essential task of any library, is to link learning with doing. Why is the library hosting a Films of the Middle East series, with speakers ranging from refugees to politicians? Because, in our moment in history, the dialogue is crucial to understanding our current condition of endless war. Context and kairos is the key to essential programming.

What does “library as incubator” mean to you?

 Simply: The library must act as an instigator of culturally expansive meaning-making beyond standardized skills and as the center of contextualized learning and programming.

 

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