This week’s Tools of Change Conference ended yesterday and even though I wasn’t in attendance, thanks to the laudable efforts of several Tweeters (@thewritermama, in particular), I felt like I was there the whole time. As is typically the case after a good conference, I’m simultaneously mentally exhausted and recharged by the ideas and opinions that came out of it.
Three specific takeaways really stood out for me and have been rolling around in my head all week:
1) It’s all about the tribe; everything else is secondary.
2) Technology is the icing and, many times, vanilla is just fine as long as the cake is good.
3) Publishers need to think more like community organizers.
Back in the late-90s, I founded a poetry reading series here in New York City called “a little bit louder” (now known as louderARTS) that you can read about in Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’ definitive history Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam. (Chapter 19 is my favorite!) In the four years I ran it — as curator, host, accountant, and occasionally even poet — I learned a lot about community organizing, and most of that experience is directly transferable to one of the primary themes of TOC, building communities around content.
Here are three fundamental tips for curating a community, whether it’s artistic, political or vegetable gardening:
1) It’s not about you, it’s about the tribe. Probably the most simple and straightforward point, and yet one that is completely missed more often than not. I’ve been to way too many poetry readings where it was all about the host and everyone else, including the alleged featured poet, was secondary. The strongest tribes share something in common, and it’s rarely the glorification of a specific individual or brand. Barack Obama made his Presidential campaign about our hopes for America; Hillary Clinton’s was all about hers until it was too late.
2) “Professional” content is important, but the tribe must have an equal voice. User-generated content is all the rage right now, but open mic-only readings can be incredibly off-putting and unwelcoming, especially a mature one where specific voices dominate. My preferred format was always feature + open mic (and six months later I added the poetry slam format which is effectively a hybrid of the two with Digg functionality) and it was critical that the featured poet be talented; as a weekly series, every feature had to bring something a little different to the table. It gave those in the open mic something to aspire to, measure themself against, or be challenged to be better than. Meanwhile, the open mic was the most important part of the night, not segregated to the very beginning as people trickled in, or at the end when most of the audience had left. It was truly open, sometimes to the point where the night ended much later than intended, and everyone was welcomed and received encouragement.
3) Location doesn’t really matter that much. With “a little bit louder”, I lucked into a great location at Bar 13, a not-too-swanky lounge convenient to several trains that was comfortable, had a good sound system and offered 2-for-1 drinks. As nice as it was, the reading that was there before me was fading, and over the first six months, I had nights where I doubted we’d last a year. This April, it will celebrate its 11th anniversary, and the community that supports it has evolved into a non-profit arts organization. Over the years, I’ve been to great readings in out-of-the-way basements in Brooklyn and terrible readings in fancy clubs in the heart of Manhattan. In the Nuyorican Poets Café’s heyday, its neighborhood was considered dangerous but Friday nights would find you sitting on the floor, unable to move. In the end, it’s the people in the room, not the room they’re in. Don’t stress over the space you’re in, or not in; the key is to make the best of what you have, keeping your focus on the community and its needs.
There’s a lot more to this and I’m planning to put together a full presentation specific for publishing in the next week or so, but I wanted to get these initial thoughts out of my head while they were still fresh.