The Operating System

[re:con]versations :: AMPLIT Fest :: Amplifying Fresh Voices in Literature

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[script_teaser]Co-produced by Lamprophonic and Summer on the Hudson, AmpLit Fest is a free, daylong festival that brings authors of all backgrounds, styles, and levels of recognition to center stage. With readings, workshops, panels, and a community market, AmpLit Fest makes one of life’s most solitary acts — writing — a public celebration. For its premiere 2016 year, AmpLit Fest will run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 11th, in Riverside Park @ the 70th Street Pier. [/script_teaser] [line][line]
[box]It can be hard to get a read on the New York Literary “Scene,” so much so that if you’re feeling like the word itself might be a misnomer, you’d be right.  If your monthly literary calendar looks anything like mine it goes something like this: readings and reading series that span from the hosted in/by bars type (KGB, Sundays at Erv’s, Franklin Park), to the hosted by/in organizations type (The Poetry Project, BGSQD, Poet in NY), to the hosted in/by bookstores type, to the hosted in/by presses type, with some curious outliers and hybrids thrown in for good measure.
What I love to see more of, however, is community efforts at festivals that actively reach out across and beyond the niches it’s all too easy for writers – and readers – to fall into. Though it’s wild and at times unwieldy, and still working out the kinks, I’m grateful for the Niina Pollari’s great work with the Brooklyn-based literary fest Popsickle, now in its 7th year (which we’re featured at this coming weekend) and also for the team behind the NYC Poetry Festival (where you’ll also find us on 7/30), now in its 6th year on governors island, where three stages and food carts and open fences allow poets representing presses and reading series from across the boroughs to share their work with new audiences…including many that wander in, curious. The Brooklyn Book Festival, of course, is the behemoth mother of book festivals, overwhelming for many, and the Queens and Bronx book festivals are growing, finding their footing in two other boroughs. The chapbook festival at CUNY has reduced its schedule to every two years.
Then there’s feminist zinefest, queer book fest, the art book fair, PEN, and other more specialised fairs, but can you, off the top of your head, think of more genre-embracing, intergenerational, public (and in particular, VISIBLE) festivals here in New York?
What I can think of is the continued efforts of the Parks department and other city agencies to partner with literary organizations and individuals determined to bring literary life out of the shadows — a space where collaborations like Poets House and the River to River Festival and Word for Word at Bryant Park flourish. Perhaps it’s easier to do something “big” than we think? Let’s find out.
I’m excited to give you the inside skinny from Clare Smith Marash and Katie Longofono, from Lamprophonic, who join us today to talk about their experiences planning the upcoming “AmpLit” fest on the Upper West Side, coproduced by Lamprophonic and Summer on the Hudson. [/box]
Lynne DeSilva-Johnson: Greetings, amplifiers! I’m super jazzed to talk to you both today. Can you just give us the briefest overview of who the two of you are, what you do in your non-Amp-Lit lives, and how you came to cross paths?
Clare Smith Marash: Oh, boy! Who am I and what do I do? The most basic, most vexing of questions…I’m a fiction writer by passion, and an everything-else writer-editor-teacher for work. I started Lamprophonic four years ago as a reading series for emerging writers, on a lark while I was getting my MFA. People kept wanting to read, so I kept putting on events, and over time, I wisened up to what an opportunity it was to a) have a nice, respectful space to hold readings and b) be able to take a small but active part in identifying voices that should be heard and nurtured. Katie applied to read at Lamprophonic, so that’s how we met, and I just thought she rocked and have been trying to get her to collaborate on things with me ever since.
Katie Longofono: Hi! Yes, what Clare said, plus some individual tidbits about myself. I moved to NYC a few years back to be a poet, and stuck around. I got my MFA at Sarah Lawrence and used that time to basically throw myself into the literary scene as much as possible — I applied to every reading series I could find, got rejected from a looooot of journals (still do!), and generally made it my mission to connect with other writers. I discovered this attitude kinda lends itself to event curating, so I helped found a literary reading series, and have been lucky enough to also work professionally in event-planning. I am way overextended most of the time, but I’m into it so far.
LDJ: Tell me a little bit about Lamprophonic and also about Dead Rabbits, which you run, Katie – like quite a few NYC series I can think of, both have grown out of MFA programs’ built-in-community into something wider — and both seem dedicated to nourishing a literary revival in “upper manhattan,” which strikes me as refreshing. I see no reason why we shouldn’t have active literary events everywhere in the city.  Have your two series overlapped or intersected much?  It’s nice to see two series with similar goals combining in their efforts, rather than competing.
CSM: As soon as Dead Rabbits launched, we immediately began referring to ourselves as “sister series.” What I love was that there was no discussion about that. There was never a moment of competition – because there shouldn’t be. We want the same thing – a vibrant literary community that extends to every corner of this city. And there’s a lot of work to be done to make that a reality, so the more hands on deck the better. We do have a lot of overlap – we’ve had many readers perform at both series, sometimes in the same month, if not the same weekend. In part that’s because we actively promote each other’s efforts and call-for-submissions, but I also hope that those individuals see being chosen for both series as an acknowledgement of their talents. We both saw something in those writers and wanted them on our stage and by reading at both series they were heard by more people, met more people, inspired more people. And I’d say that’s what we all want.
KL: Yes! Exactly! I ALSO love that our series were immediately BFFs. Clare is kinda the grandmother of reading series — all three founders of Dead Rabbits read at Lamprophonic, back before our series was born, and I know we’re not the only ones who have gone on to create a literary event. Like Clare said, there is certainly some overlap, and oftentimes it is intentional. I’m not ashamed at all to say that I look at Lamprophonic, and Franklin Park Reading Series, and Sundays at Erv’s, and The Eagle & Wren, and a million other reading series, to see who they’re featuring — to see who I might be missing. Art is stealing, blah blah blah, but mostly I just want to give a platform to these rockstar voices. Dead Rabbits also started a bit selfishly — all three co-founders were living in Harlem at the time, and sick of going to Brooklyn for lit events, so we started one uptown, and the Columbia & Sarah Lawrence kids were really into it, so we just kept going, and now people trek to us!
LDJ: MFA-oriented reading series can often be fairly insular and inpenetrable to “outsiders.” How did you grow your series? Did you reach out to people beyond your programs from the very start? Who was helpful to you in this process? (Perhaps it’s helpful to add here if you entered your MFA programs already fairly involved in and/or aware of literary events, presses, etc in New York or not.)
CSM: Almost immediately, Lamprophonic became about getting outside my MFA and, as a longer-term goal, outside MFAs in general. I was aware that every MFA program has their readings and that seemed like a waste – just reading to the group already familiar with your work. I started writing to other MFA programs to get them to share our call-for-submissions with their network and pretty quickly we were getting a mix of students. Then I set out to get out of the education bubble. That was more challenging and took a lot more time, but it’s happened. We now regularly present writers who have never pursued an MFA and I’m quite proud of that. Getting my MFA was absolutely essential to me being a writer, but that doesn’t mean it is the same for everybody.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]KL: Totally agreed about the insular nature of the MFA, but I will say having that “bubble” of Sarah Lawrence writers specifically really helped get Dead Rabbits off the ground. We had to start small, with people who knew and supported us, in order to grow. It helps that Sarah Lawrence alums are intensely loyal — it was really handy to be able to cold-call somebody, mention that we were an SLC affiliated series, and on that alone at least get an extra minute of their time. That being said, we were able to start moving beyond that pretty quickly. We do still love to be able to feature people from the College, but we don’t depend on it anymore. We do have a really strong following of Columbia MFA students, since the series is located close to them, but that wasn’t really intentional either. Now I think we’re at a point where we bring in writers not because of their bios or accolades or degrees, but because of their voice and the urgency we feel built into their work — that’s the type of stuff we look for, something that stops us in our tracks, and that’s the kind of thing that an MFA can’t teach. Personally, I’ve also been lucky enough to have been pretty plugged into varying corners of the lit scene in the city since I came here. I’m pretty uniquely positioned in that I have my MFA background to connect me, and then I also have met a ton of people in the music/performing arts world because I have a zillion connections through my brother, Peter, and his own set of creative pursuits, which is a whole ‘nother story. I meet a ton of people in the arts thru a ton of different venues and, well, it helps.
LDJ: Case in point, having met me through Peter, at his recent OS book launch (for CHORDS, part of this year’s OF SOUND MIND Series).  Do you feel like you’ve been effective in growing your series? Are your audiences as diverse as you’d like them to be, drawing a mix of ages, classes, and races? Do you feel like they get a good proportion of local folks? Have you been able to pull any non-lit-scene people, and/or have you actively tried to do this? I ask because I think perhaps this is one of the most important things we can be doing, as poetry/writing community people hosting public events.
CSM: With the incalculable help of consecutive Poetry Curators (first K.T. Billey and now Sarah Sala), we have been effective in growing the series. And thanks to that growth, we are now truly drawing a mix of readers and audience members in terms of race, gender, educational background, and age. We have the added bonus of presenting in Symphony Space’s bar so our wander-in audience is more creatively-inclined than I think you’d typically find and that has helped us branch out. But are our audiences as diverse as I’d like? Absolutely not. I’m proud of how far the series has come in four years, particularly  having started in a market that was overwhelmingly white, young, cis-gendered, and highly educated. But if I were to break down the demographics of who we’ve presented, I’m sure we’d all be left wanting. Each month our submission pile gets more diverse, but I know there are so many people out there who haven’t yet heard of us, who haven’t gone to school and made those connections, who don’t think they’d fit in at our series or who’ve never been invited to a reading. Also, you look at the books that are published and the books that are taught – aka the things that inspire writers to become writers – and you know we’re all living a deep well of a problem when it comes to diverse voices, and I think Lamprophonic is just one thread of the rope that we need to pull us out of it. That’s part of the reason why I’m so excited about AmpLit Fest – it’s another thread.
KL: Yes and no. The Dead Rabbits audience varies really wildly, depending on our featured readers. We have been making diversity, in every sense of the word, our priority. Some times we are successful, other times we are not. I’m the first to admit that we can always be better, and we have a lot of work left to do in order to create a space where all voices feel comfortable sending and presenting their work. We just closed out our second season and I feel really good about our line-ups, and I think our third season will be a fantastic opportunity to branch out even further and do some promoting to make it as inclusive a space as possible. We really want to court underrepresented voices in the future.
I want to take a moment and acknowledge that AmpLit’s mission to highlight a really diverse group of artists is so exciting and a huge reason why I jumped on board. From the beginning Clare made it clear that she was not interested in the status quo, and encouraged all of us working with her to go out of our way to bring in folks who aren’t typically in the spotlight. What has resulted is this sampling of New York City’s literary community, which is already so multi-faceted, gathered for this, like, super-festival. How dope is that?!
LDJ: How did the idea for AmpLit come about? I’m curious to hear how and when you recognized not only the potential for this thing, but also when you realised it was a feasible thing, and how those early stage conversations progressed. How did your experience with both of your reading series play into realizing you could expand into something this much broader?
CSM: I met Zhen Heinemann, Director of Public Programming for Summer on the Hudson, last year, and we collaborated to put on a monthly reading and discussion series in Riverside Park called Literary Lounge. That was a ton of fun and allowed us to test the waters of doing literary-oriented programming as part of Summer on the Hudson, which they hadn’t done in the past. At the end of the summer, Zhen asked if I’d like to go bigger – she thought a full day of literary programming could work. It felt, and feels, like a terrifying, insurmountably large endeavor,  but I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I said, heck yeah!, and began quietly reaching out to a group of people who essentially made up my dream team, people who I wanted in this with me and who I believed would be essential to making it great. Thankfully, they all agreed. It became feasible because of the team – Katie, Laura Esther Wolfson, Caty Gordon, Drew Seeger, Abi Inman, Sarah Sala.
KL: Okay, but also, Clare is a beast. She is SO ORGANIZED, and seriously hard-working, passionate, and has done an amazing job masterminding this entire project. She reached out to me originally to ask for Dead Rabbit’s support, to which I responded “duh.” Then as she filled me in more about it, I was like “wait, wait, can I help?” I knew I needed to get in on this festival. I already have experience with poetry festivals as I directed the SLC festival in 2014, but that was a different sort of thing. AmpLit felt bigger, and with a little more creative freedom, and a different community of course. Plus I was kinda tickled by the idea of working on a festival but not DIRECTING it — not having that stress. Sorry Clare. Thanks for being stressed so I don’t have to be.
LDJ: I’m pretty familiar with literary-organizer-beast-mode myself, and excited to know other similarly… endowed? No but….really. Let’s talk about the fun stuff! Tell me what you’re excited about, in particular, about this festival. What’s unique about it? There’s a really nice range of offerings, from readings and performances to workshops and panels and a community market. Is there anything – or anyone – you want to particularly draw our attention to?
[textwrap_image align=”right”][/textwrap_image]CSM: I think the mix of stuff is what I’m excited about – we’ve got something for everyone. So much of the work Lamprophonic has done in the past has been about inviting people to the table and now we’re inviting a bigger group to the table. If you come for a performance, maybe you’ll stay for a reading and find a new author to read. If you come for a reading, maybe wander over to a panel and it’ll change how you choose your next book. Maybe you’ll join a workshop and get started on a something that ends up being your next piece. The fact that all that can happen in the same space feels special to me. We really tried to stick to our goal – to amplify fresh voices – and I think we’ve found a group of writers, editors, agents, and performers who are doing fantastic work and deserve heaps of attention and acknowledgement, but maybe haven’t gotten it, yet. I’m thrilled to be part of the team saying, ‘Hey, check out this brilliant person over here!’
KL : Well, I want to draw your attention to all of it, but that would defeat the point of highlighting bits of the festival. Just know that the whole day is going to be really special, and you could wander around and find something you’d love on every stage. I particularly am really excited for the Performance Workshop hosted by Amy Virginia Buchanan. The idea for this workshop sprang directly from my experience attending readings (and hosting a reading series). A sad truth is that a lot of writers just…. Can’t perform their own work. Which is a real shame. Something a lot of folks don’t think about is how their work is going to read (or sound, rather) in front of a live audience. Some writers just never perform their work for that reason. And this isn’t something anyone really teaches you. I learned how to perform my work by throwing myself on the stage over and over again, and asking people for tips/feedback, and then doing it again. It was excruciating at times, but it paid off. Anyway, I’m rambling, but that’s why I’m so excited about this workshop — Amy is an actor and a generally wonderful human who will be teaching writers how to perform their work. Performing writing is different because it’s not quite theatre, there are other aspects one has to consider — cadence, sequencing of pieces, how to use your voice and your body. Amy is a pro, and this is going to be a hands-on lesson for writers. I’m actually selfishly excited to be at it and hoping to pick up some tips.
LDJ : Is AmpLit meant to be representative of a the Upper West side’s lit community in any way? Have you reached out to particular organizations, businesses, or individuals who are primarily located there, in  putting this festival together? How did you seek out folks for the “community market” – what “community” is represented, and what steps were taken to reach a diverse representation for this aspect of the fest?
CSM: We definitely put a lot of invitations out, across the city and among those in the Upper West Side as well. We have participants who have taught or are teaching on the Upper West Side, Harlem, and Washington Heights, we have participants certainly who live in those communities, and we will have some organizations who do work on the Upper West Side represented at the community market, such as Book Culture, the fantastic UWS bookstore. The market is an interesting, and slightly complicated thing, because, since we’re in a public park, everyone who participates has to apply to be a vendor with the parks department, which perhaps has discouraged some organizations from participating. But we wanted to bring as many lit-oriented people together without it becoming an organizational struggle, and the community market was a means to doing it. Hopefully in the future we can invite more programming partners who are local, like what we’re doing with Urban Word NYC, which is leading one of our workshops, but this year, we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin, and this was a way to at least get more people out to the park to share their efforts.
LDJ: There’s so many events constantly going on in NYC sometimes it feels nearly impossible to gain a foothold and spread the word about something new and exciting. How has publicity been going? Has it been helpful to have so many partners? Has Summer on the Hudson been doing much promoting on your behalf? Do you feel confident that it will be well attended? I’m excited for you that the event is in such a public and well trafficked place, from which it will surely benefit. What’s your location usually like on a Saturday afternoon? Is that the audience you’re hoping for? What steps have you taken to reach out to various constituencies to open the invitation and encourage attendance? How has this process felt?
CSM: Oh, man! I feel like it’s impossible to say if our publicity efforts have been successful until it’s actually happened! That’s one of the scariest parts of doing something totally brand new. But we have put forth the fiercest effort, and I can say we are getting our voices out there. We don’t have a publicity team, our budget is shoestring, so our goal has been to be persistent, be creative, and be extremely helpful. One thing we’ve done is put together emails for every participant that included tailored blurbs specific to them, suggested tweets and social media posts, a digital flyer – trying to make it easy as possible to engage everyone in the publicity effort. We do, quite luckily, have Summer on the Hudson as a co-producer and they’re certainly promoting AmpLit Fest as well, which helps us reach people who aren’t in our network. On a summer Saturday the Pier at West 70th St is usually buzzing with activity – families playing the grass, people out for a stroll or bike ride. There’s the Pier i Cafe at the base of the pier, where you can grab food and drink and watch the passersby. It’s a lovely scene and we’re  fortunate that, to a degree, we will have an ready-made audience that we only need to invite into the programming (not that buy-in comes easy).
KL : Yeah, this is where it gets nerve-wracking — we really won’t know until day-of if our efforts have paid off. Basically, my publicity strategy is “email everybody I know and beg them to tweet about the festival” and that has worked pretty well. I’ve also been setting up interviews (like this one! Thanks Lynne!!) and generally just spamming all my friends about the festival. Clare has been the twitter/email mastermind and has gotten us some really good publicity, and our co-producer Abi is also a huge asset to us for promoting the festival. I’m kinda just closing my eyes, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. I’ll have a good time whether or not anybody shows up, but I hope people do.
LDJ : I notice there’s a considerable roster of other team members helping you put this together. At which point did various folks come on? Who among you had the chops needed for the different hats needed to pull AmpLit off? You’ve got some impressive partners and speakers, not to mention the support of Summer on the Hudson.
CSM: This is my favorite question! I cannot sing the praises of the creative team behind AmpLit Fest enough. EVER. I swear, I’ll never stop.  Katie and all the other producers are magnificent, brilliant, hard-working people (for good measure, I’ll list them again: Laura Esther Wolfson, Caty Gordon, Abi Inman, and Drew Seeger, with the support Poetry Curator Sarah Sala). It perhaps took two-three months to get our whole team assembled. Part of that was simply my timidness in asking anyone to join – I’m still surprised these people agreed! When I decided to move forward with the festival, I can’t say I made a list of ‘hats’ where I could use specific help – though, that probably would have been a good idea! I thought about the Lamprophonic community: who did I know who had expressed interest in supporting this kind of work? Who did I know who had worked on festivals, event series, etc., who might be interested in this? Who seemed like a leader? Who did I have implicit trust in? That was key. It’s one thing to work alone or with one person on producing a singular, recurring event like the Emerging Writers Series; it’s much different to lead a whole team in producing a daylong 14-event festival – and to do so in six months. (Our first AmpLit-oriented meeting, held shortly before the end of last year, consisted of me, Laura, and Lampro’s Poetry Curator, and we didn’t even have a name for it…). Trust had to be there from the start, and it was, and, at least from my end, never tested. I am so grateful for this team. They made this all happen.
As for partners and speakers, it’s a pleasant reminder of how genuinely enthusiastic the literary community is – we do really all love books and and writing and want to talk about it and encourage others to do the same. We as a team generated a long list of people we would want to host at the festival of our dreams, ordered that list based on the goals we’d set out, and started making asks. Surprisingly often, the reply was yes!
KL: Oops, I already sorta spoke to this above. But it’s worth saying again how great Clare has been. She is an A+ wrangler, which is what most of directing a festival (or event of any kind, really) is. Everyone working on this festival is uniquely qualified, and hard working, and generous with their time, and I especially want to emphasize that Clare has put in hours and hours of her life to ensure this is a success. With a smile, no less — she is SO KIND even when frustrated, which I know from experience planning an event of this magnitude can be. She has worked her ass off to make this festival happen, so I just want to recognize her for that, and for having the discerning eye to put together a team that can help her make that happen. I’m really proud to be a part of this, and I think Clare deserves a million gold stars and a spa day when this is over.
LDJ: Now here’s some critical ones: did you secure funding? Has it been entirely volunteer run? Forgive me if it seems like I pry but I think these are the questions we need to ask more frequently. If someone else was to, I don’t know, take your model and run with it, trying to Open Source AmpLit and do it in another neighborhood, what would it take? I’m always curious about the things we don’t hear about: folks who are privately funded, folks who are supported by a partner, folks who knew someone who knew someone, folks with only PT jobs, vs. folks with FT jobs and children, folks with no financial net, folks with less wide personal networks. Would you say this is something any committed community group, or team of dedicated individuals could do?
CSM: This is my second favorite question. It’s so critical we talk about this stuff! Everyone at Lamprophonic is a volunteer. These producers have dedicated countless hours to AmpLit Fest without payment. Over the years, through email solicitations and funding campaigns ala Indiegogo, and sporadic paid-for event production, Lamprophonic has raised a small nest egg, which I’ve generally left untouched. When it came time to tackle the budget, I made a decision – ‘go big or go home,’ as they say – and much of Lamprophonic’s nest egg has gone into producing this festival. If we want to do it again, we will have to fundraise to do it. As someone who often works as a grantwriter, I have as many doubts as I do hopes about that. So that’s financial reality. But there’s also the time reality – I’m a freelancer with a few steady gigs that support my life and Lamprophonic, gigs that have afforded me freedom to make meetings, to take calls, to protect countless hours in which to work on AmpLit and still survive and pay my rent. That is a very fortunate and uncommon place to be. I have an extremely supportive network of family and friends who have lent me their advice, their connections, and their time. So much of this work, as with anything, is about determination – say you’re going to do something and do it. But there’s also a part of it that’s circumstance. Privilege. Luck. We’ve had all of those things – and we have to acknowledge that.
LDJ: Thanks for being open with me. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Perhaps on what you see as the future of AmpLit? Is your plan to make this an annual event? Is there a way for folks to get involved, either this year or in future years?
CSM: Join us on June 11th in Riverside Park @ West 70th St! It’s going to be a blast! As for the future, if you’d like to see AmpLit Fest return, let us know!  And if you’d like to get involved in Lamprophonic or AmpLit Fest on the 11th or down the road, shoot us an email at!
KL: What Clare said!! Ideally we’d love to keep this going, and who knows, grow it into some other form that has yet to occur to us, but for now I think we are just hoping people show up to the first one 🙂
LDJ: Congratulations on your new baby fest, and I wish you all the best!
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Clare Smith Marash – Lamprophonic Founder & Director
A winner of the Avery Hopwood Award in Short Fiction and numerous fellowships, Clare received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Columbia University. Clare currently freelances as a writer and editor. She has written about topics ranging from particle physics to political music, and has taught at the high school and university level. You can learn more about her writing and work by perusing
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Katie LongofonoLamphronic Producer,AmpLit Fest
Katie Longofono received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she directed the 2014 SLC Poetry Festival. She is the co-founder of Dead Rabbits Reading Series, a monthly literary salon that takes place in NYC. Her first chapbook, The Angel of Sex, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013. Her chapbook Angeltits is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from GlitterMOB, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, BOAAT, South Dakota Review, Juked, Midwestern Gothic, and more. She may or may not be on Twitter. She lives in Brooklyn.
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