By MATTHEW NASH
Chris Tonelli is a poet, musician, and the motivation behind The So And So Series, a regular poetry event in Boston and Cambridge. They can often be found at The Distillery, The Lily Pad and Porter Square Books. Recently, The So And So Series has partnered withRope-A-Dope Press to produce a series of hand-printed broadsides, placing poetry alongside the work of artists.
MN: How did the So And So Series get started?
CT: After grad school, I started getting reading opportunities in NYC. My friends started getting reading opportunities in NYC. After like ten or so trips to frickin' NYC, it dawned on me: Why aren't any of us reading in Boston? The only readings I found myself going to in Boston were the same half-dozen or so major-award-winner-bigtime-professor type readings. So I started the So and So Series. Let me be the first to admit that I was completely wrong - there were at least three other dope reading series out there: the Union Square Poetry Series, the Demolicious Reading Series, and the Plough & Stars Reading Series. But sometimes my cluelessness works out for the best. This is one of those times.
MN: I can relate to the lucky happenstance of cluelessness, but getting anything from the "good idea" stage to the "actually happening" phase can be tough. What really drove you to make So And So happen?
CT: Several things sort of aligned so that So and So could "actually happen," most important of which was getting a job with an obscene amount of downtime. I'm able to read around online pretty much all day searching journals for potential readers and corresponding with ones I've already solicited. So from a nuts & bolts standpoint, that, oddly enough, has been the most practical reason for the series' success. But besides my ill-perceived notion that there was a void of cool reading series out there, poets' willingness to travel from all over the country and listeners' willingness to consistently come out (we generally have an audience of 30-40) have kept the series going for a year and a half now. Saturday 10/13 will be the 18th reading. Which sort of baffles me - that's somewhere between 54 and 72 poets.
In the current iteration of The So and So, the one that Rope-A-Dope Press has collaborated with to make beautiful broadsides of each reader, Mary Graham (a Rope-A-Dope editor) is the catalyst, lending her type-setting talents, her bevy of artists, and her incredible loft space at The Distillery (which artist Bob Da Vies is half to thank) where the past three So and So's have been held and will be housed until December.
MN: The collaboration with Rope-A-Dope seems both fortuitous and perfectly appropriate. Do you have more projects planned with them for the future? How did the collaboration come about? Where might someone get their hands on one of your beautiful broadsides?
CT: If I remember correctly (though often I don't), Mary emailed me out of the blue about doing some art/poetry collaboration between Rope-A-Dope and So and So. We met over beers at the De Luxe, and wham-o! The Manila Broadsides were born. She lined up the artists; I lined up the poets. She offered to host the readings at her and Bob's pad, so we moved the readings from the Lily Pad in Cambridge's Inman Sq. to South Boston's Distillery. The rest, as they say, is history.
We don't have anything planned for after the December reading, though I would love to keep working with them. They've been great, but they might want to move on to other projects... the collaboration with So and So is just one thing in their queue of awesome endeavors. I know they are coming out with a chapbook by Chad Reynolds sometime this Fall or Winter. Mary and I will, however, be heading to NYC this January to sell our wares at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. We'll be peddling the broadsides both individually and in a bound "anthology" of sorts and marketing the first issue of our new online poetry and art journal.
MN: Can you describe the process of creating the broadsides?
CT: We ask each poet to send 3-5 unpublished poems. By we I mean, Mary, that month's artist, and me. We then discuss which one(s) we like the best and/or which one(s) would work best on a broadside. Mary hand-sets the poems, letter by letter by letter, and the artist does the design work. Three of the sets have been silkscreens, and this last one was a linoleum cut. They all look fantastic.
MN: Since you are a poet yourself, do you ever read in the series? Is there any competition in poetry circles? Do you think that comes out in the readings?
CT: The first reading featured poets on Kitchen Press (Justin Marks - editor, Erin Burke, and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling) but Ana got sick and couldn't make it in from NYC, and since at the time I was the only other Kitchen Press author, I read. But I hated it. So I won't do that again. It seemed schmarmy to read in my own series. Don't get me wrong, poetry has a long history of self-promotion and self-publication, but something about it felt icky. It was the only reading I've given that I didn't thoroughly enjoy.
Competition in poetry circles... hmmm... I mean, there are aesthetic camps to an extent. There are your missionary-style poets who talk about their dog and stare out the window at the very meaningful row of basil they just planted. There are your badass poets who talk about drinking and how unfair the man is. There are poets who write as if poetry stopped after Frost or Lowell, and those who think they are avant garde but don't realize they are recycling the work Rimbaud or Mallarme did almost a hundred and fifty years ago. Keep in mind that I commit all four of these offenses, sometimes in the same poem. All arts have this I guess, right? For every Painter of Light you have your Poet of Light and so on.
During the witty banter portion of their reading, poets will poke fun at other camps maybe. But in general, readings, for better or for worse, are polite affairs. You have the occasional repartee between friends - one at the mic, one waiting to read. But it is usually funny, not competitive. Of course, poets are a peculiar combination of ego and self-loathing, so one unspoken post-reading ritual seems to be (and this is universal, not just at So and So) the trash-talking portion of the evening. I just sit back and enjoy.
MN: Have there been any poets who have read for the series that just completely blew you away?
CT: Yes. But I hesitate to make my favorites public. I know that's lame, but I'm kind of a wuss like that. Really, it has to do with the audience and their response and what I had for dinner, etc. So I have trouble being simply an audience member and end up being a curator most of the time, hoping for a successful overall event. Like, if the audience is happy, I'm happy... even if I didn't love the poetry. Or vice versa, maybe I was blown away, but am still on edge because I'm not sure the audience liked it.
MN: That's a fair answer. Perhaps a bit more obliquely, are there any poets who you have read frequently in the series?
CT: Actually, I, so far, have a no repeat policy. So no author has read twice yet.
MN: When is the next event and how can people find out more?
CT: The next reading is on November 3rd, featuring Douglas Hahn, Daniel Magers, and Maya Pindyck. All the info is on The So And So Series website.
Images courtesy of The So And So Series and Rope-A-Dope Press.