Portland, Oregon reading series Bad Blood hosts its thirteenth iteration at ADX this Thursday, 8/23. Mingle at 7. Poems at 8. Poet-heavy XIII features series veteran Heather Christle, Christopher Deweese, and Francesca Chabrier. Coldfront asked co-curator Drew Scott Swenhaugen thirteen pesky questions in honor of the occasion. Over the course of the interview Drew got “spooked,” unveiled his dream guests, and broke some electrifying news for small press poetry fans and practitioners alike! Swenhaugen’s (self-designated) “tiny press” Poor Claudia, which he edits with Marshall Walker Lee, is on the verge of a merger with fellow Bad Blood curator Zachary Schomurg’s Octopus Books. Poor Claudia will become the press’ chapbook imprint, Octopus will print full-length poetry texts, and Joseph Mains, the series’ third curator, will edit the online journal Octopus Magazine. We’ve got great expectations for this newborn literary confederacy. Read on or remain awash in mystery.
Q: So, Bad Blood XIII! Are you guys superstitious? Do you think anything spooky might happen on the night of the 23rd?
A: I hadn’t thought of “13” until now! Now I’m spooked. Thanks a lot.
Q: Can you describe the conception of the series? Where were you? Who were you? Did you have a mission statement, or feel like you were filling a particular void in the Portland literary arts scene?
A: Joseph, Zachary and I have always energized and encouraged each other when we talk about the Portland poetry community, and in many ways, when we began talking about beginning a reading series, we did want to carve a niche in our community. We didn’t feel like anything was “missing” from other reading series, per se; we simply wanted to bring in our favorite poets from around the country, and worked hard from the beginning to coax them to Portland. We found out it really isn’t that difficult. There are so many different characteristics of the Portland community now that I’m not sure which niche we have. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter. What matters is that in Portland, you can hear poetry every week. You can throw a stone and hit a poet in this town. It’s crazy! We shouldn’t take that for granted.
Hosting a poetry reading is a really great excuse to get all your friends in a room, engage them with poetry, entertain them, and make more friends. If a live poetry reading is trying to do anything else, well, yuck. The world—me included—cringes when it hears “poetry reading.” There are so many connotations, mostly dull and pretentious. Those conceptions desperately need to be reversed for contemporary poetry to flourish. The most positive aspect of the Portland community for me is that if you look at the crowd, there simply isn’t a big group of other poets writing notes in their Moleskins or making that universal low hum of approval after a moving line of a poem. There’s more energy than that! The non-poets in the crowd are the core of the community. People are more and more comfortable in a poetry setting. As Bad Blood creators, that’s all we want.
The best part is not necessarily the readings of each event. The best talks are afterward, when the poems are fresh on people’s minds, and conversation flourishes. Poetry lives here.
Q: Does the name have a romantic story?
A: We had a hell of a time finding a name for the series. This was the summer of 2010. I don’t even want to give you some of the shitty names we were thinking of. There are a few stories about how we got Bad Blood for a name, but the true story is that Joe and I were walking down E. Burnside, and saw this really sweet black car in a lot, and on its hind end was this beautiful white cursive font that read “Bad Blood.” Bingo. We texted Zach and he loved it. It’s a really loaded and strong spondee too, which is nice. Other than that, there is no hidden, personal meaning to the title.
Q: Do you find poets have stage personas that differ from their work-a-day personalities?
A: Honestly, no Bad Blood poet has had a crazy “stage persona” that differed from his conversational attitude. Generally, though, I do think it is a human characteristic to change one’s persona when the spotlight is on. I value poets who clearly are themselves up there. It means their poetry is really engrained in their being.
Q: Are some poems read-aloud friendly? Are there poems best left unspoken?
A: Yes. Yes.
Q: What’s the very coolest thing that has ever happened at Bad Blood?
A: It’s tough to rank such moments. One thing I can say is that I have gotten pleasure shivers, something so wonderful feeling, at every single reading. It’s one of those feelings that makes you say in your head … “I am in the midst of someone very special.” The poetry moves me every single reading. My curatorial brain shuts off when the poets are up there. Sorry I don’t have a cooler story.
The Joe Wenderoth reading (BB#4) was definitely the most interesting though. He sat in a dark corner with his head down and read for forty-five minutes straight. No break, no commentary. He crushed it.
Q: Do you get stage fright as hosts?
A: I did at first, but not much anymore. Sometimes my brain shuts off up there, and I forget something elegant or clever that I was going to say. I’m mostly nervous because I have a crush on the poet that I’m introducing. We generally don’t use notes for introductions. We value brevity. I guess it all sounds frightening as I’m typing this.
Q: Is Bad Blood a democracy, a plutocracy, an oligarchy, a puppet state? How do decisions get made?
A: Granted there are only three of us, but Bad Blood is the most democratic group I’ve ever been a part of. No decision can be made without the input of the other two. We’ve nixed a reading because just one of us wasn’t completely on board. I think all three of us work well because we all bring something different to the table.
Q: How’d you get hooked up with ADX (a cooperative workshop and idea-incubator for artists and craftspeople working with wood, metal, and textiles)?
A: Our friend Kate Bingaman-Burt, a founding member of ADX, set us up. The first reading we had there was an experiment, but since then we’ve built a relationship with all the fine folks there. They are gracious people, lovely artists too. I like it when someone is doing metal work or something as the reading is going on. It’s an art factory.
Q: Are any readers ever super-demanding? Do readers get riders?
A: Not one single reader has ever been demanding. We try to be good hosts, set them up with a place to stay, get dinner, talk shop. I feel as curators we are more demanding than the readers.
Q: What would you say to a poetry-reading skeptic? Is poetry for everybody? Is it OK to hate all poetry?
A: You’re allowing me to wax poetic?! Awesome. The big question is: why poetry? I would try to discuss with the “skeptic” that poetry always has been, is, and will be in some way, shape or form, a part of our society, our being. That sounds cheesy, but it’s painfully true for me. It all revolves around the huge task of making language relevant. Poetry is not for everybody, but the space it creates with language is a natural part of everyone. Metaphor, imagination, memory are part of everyone. I recently read the Paris Review interview with John Berryman, and he answered some question, and what spun off from it was a fine definition of what I think of as poetry: it should be language and imagination that both terrifies and comforts us. That can be and is a large majority of life, is it not? The goal of discussion with the skeptic is to try to fill the part of the brain that can allow one to see that poetry is everywhere, calming you, and giving you the utmost fear. The flip side of this is to not preach that from on top of the mountain.
But, you know, language breaks down. It’s an endless battle, a constant garbled debate. I think that’s the fun part. If there were no skeptics, would fun would poetry be? How could someone hate something as silly as poetry?
Q: Does Bad Blood have a five-year plan?
A: We do! We are currently taking steps to merge with Octopus, Zach’s press. Bad Blood will be the reading series division of Octopus. Along with Bad Blood, Poor Claudia—the tiny press that I helped create with Marshall Walker Lee—will be the chapbook imprint of Octopus. Zach and Mathias Svalina will focus on Octopus Books, making full-lengths. Then Joseph will edit Octopus Magazine, the online journal division. It makes perfect sense: we all work well with each other, we’re all best friends. I think we’re all simply giddy to start this endeavor, to make some real waves in the small press world. I think that the democracy I discussed earlier will easily spill over to Octopus.
In terms of readings, I think it’s agreed upon to keep Bad Blood an occasional series, to focus on the poets who are touring from out of town, and then to try to highlight one local poet each event as well. The structure works. We’ve never wanted to do a monthly, regular reading. It stirs a little bit of demand when each reading feels spontaneous. We want to create that feeling of “When’s the next Bad Blood?” And no one will know until a week or so leading up to it.
Q: Who are your dream-readers?
A: There are boatloads. Living on the West Coast, sometimes it’s difficult to get people to fly all the way across the country for a reading. It has to be funded, or people have to be on a book tour, or taking a vacation.
Dear John Ashbery, Frank Bidart, CD Wright, Dorothea Lasky, Lisa Robertson, Lydia Davis, Rae Armantrout: Come read at Bad Blood! We can’t pay you anything, but you can crash on my couch.
With that said, I know all three of us feel so lucky to have some of our favorite poets read for us. I can’t even make a list; I’d have to mention every single poet we’ve asked to read.
Q: Are readings important?
A: I mentioned above that readings are great readings to see and meet people. I think they can be a safe and inclusive space to experiment with the crazy things that go on in your brain that you happen to write down and call poetry. If a reading is not about these things, it is very very unimportant to me.
-Elizabeth Pusack & Drew Scott Swenhaugen