Cincinnati Spoken Word Series is a Success with Writers and the Wider Community

by Mark Grauhuis & Robby Wright

Let’s be honest: poetry readings are hardly everybody’s cup of tea. Except, perhaps, for The Things that My Friends Say.

TTTMFS is a spoken-word series that privileges creative Cincinnatians from a variety of disciplines, backgrounds, styles, and interests. It is held at CS13 Gallery on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine once per month, in an informal and non-academic setting, and is free and open to the public. The series features writers, some first timers, some seasoned and published, all interested in presenting their work to a new audience.

One problem that different “DIY” or creative communities often face is that they work rather well separately but seldom in conjunction. Interested in challenging common-held assumptions about literary events, TTTMFS has at times been an uncomfortable place for popular or established artists and performers, and a comfortable place for up-and-coming or unknown individuals interested in or inspired by the former: but both equally part of the evening’s potential.

Supplementing and sometimes even taking precedence over the actual readings, TTTMF features delightful unpretentious pre- or post-event discussions, unobtrusive laughter, and the sharing of creative ideas. Forging a community of otherwise disparate artistic drives, it is one of the more welcoming regular events of its kind in the city.

This inviting atmosphere has been ably fostered by series-organizer Robby Wright, a sharp graduate from the punk music scene, who explains, “it is born out of my nascent and Utopian idea that people can be, or should be, comfortable in doing something as uncomfortable as publicly reading their writing, or performing their performances, in front of the members of their communities as well as others. It is born out a boredom for spaces that privilege one approach to expression and art-making; it is born out of a growing disinterest in seeing Cincinnati’s go-to poetic heroes reading at events featuring out-of-town poets who get our full attention over and over again, when there are many, many people interested in being the center of that attention, in having their words published, in being part of that community, their community, beyond its margins.”

Of particular note are the limitedrun, complementary chapbooks featuring new or old works by previous participants of the series. These allow attendants to gather in an archive of contemporary Cincinnati writing, poetry or otherwise, and have included a bi-lingual edition featuring very fine South American poets. Of these books, Wright suggests that they “could considered a travesty for their artless smashing of styles and even “skill-levels” (if you want to go there), for their “unliteraryness,” so to speak. I enjoy that.”

And so have audiences, who have slowly grown and grown together as faces become familiar and conversations are started and taken up again each time.At a time when so much poetic output has shifted to an online and highly privatized environment, it is refreshing to hear Wright’s respect for what he notes as “the quiet, unpredictable, or even solemn atmosphere that reading events generate.”

“I especially wanted to eliminate the aspect of competition,” he continues, “and the ‘step-up-to-the-mic’ vibe that comes with the territory in certain spaces. I wanted to put these aspiring (or notso aspiring even) writers/performers side-by-side in readings, in the same publications.”

“TTTMFS, hopefully, can be representative, or even more representative, of Cincinnati as a whole, rather than Cincinnati as various compartments and sects of creative energy and collectives. The ‘Friends’ aspect of the series’ title was meant to be a little ironic; these painstakingly constructed works to be exhibited as simple ‘Things’ ‘said,’ rather than professed, poeticized, performed even is too deliberately sardonic. I like utter simplicity of that concept, the lack of importance of who or what, but the belief in some understanding or, godforbid, friendship, springing out of the often cold or unwelcoming environment as the ‘Art Space.'”

In this respect, the series has certainly been a success, bringing people together in such a way that one does not feel the imposition of a structure of an “us” (the audience) and a “them” (those smart-than-thou poets on stage). Each individual in the room, as a valued participant in the reading, performs a valuable service to the rest, who then take on the shape of a collective ear for the event, as words puncture and permeate the performance space and minds in unpredictable, often wonderfully anarchic ways. A reading that listens, then…

The series has earned a proud place alongside other notable local series past and present, and set a new bar for what other local events can hope to achieve.