Reading series interview: Unearthed song & Poetry
a conversation between Frances Donovan and co-founder Anna V.Q. Ross
How did Unearthed Song & Poetry come about?
I’ve lived here in Dorchester for almost 15 years, and more often than not, I’ve found myself having to leave Dorchester to attend poetry readings. When Elisa Girard, who is a friend and one the owners of Home.stead Bakery and Café in Fields Corner, approached me to ask if I would be interested in helping to run a poetry and music series at the café, I jumped at the chance. Initially, the idea was to run just an open mic, but I wanted to add a featured poet and musician to the evening because I thought this would be a way to broaden our audience and our reach outside of the neighborhood, and that seems to have happened. We’ve had poets and musicians from as far afield as Seattle and New Orleans and as close by as just down the block read and perform for us. I love bringing people to the neighborhood who might never have been here before so they can see what an amazing and receptive response there is to poetry and music in Dorchester. And being able to provide a broad audience for poets and musicians in the neighborhood and give folks who have new books and albums coming out a place to showcase their work is immensely gratifying. It’s always one of the best evenings of the month for me.
Tell me more about how you and Rafi collaborate. Are there others involved as well?
I actually began the series with different collaborators—Rose Kanj and Lou Apollon, who are both amazing musicians and often perform together as a duo. But a year after we began the series, they moved to New York so that Rose could pursue acting, and I asked Rafi Sofer, who I’ve known for years (our kids have grown up together) and who is also a fabulous guitarist and a recording engineer, to co-host with me. We’ve both lived in the neighborhood a long time, which deepens our commitment to the series, and we try to split the work for the series as equally as possible between us. I invite the poets who feature each month, and Rafi invites the musicians. On the actual night, Rafi mainly takes care of running sound, and I do more of the hosting duties. We each try to contribute artistically to each evening a bit too—Rafi will usually play an intro on his guitar to get us started, and I read a poem to close the open mic. We try to split the promotional part of the work evenly as well, although Rafi, who is also a photographer, designs our event page and poster. I maintain our Instagram and Facebook feeds, etc. Having a collaborator is invaluable. Rafi and I come from pretty different artistic backgrounds—he’s a rock and roll guy who runs a recording studio, and I’m a poet who teaches creative writing and literature at a college—but we also have a lot of overlap. I teach a songwriting class, for instance, and Rafi works and plays with songwriters all the time. It’s wonderful to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, and when one of us is overwhelmed, the other person can pick up the slack.
Are you affiliated with any organization such as a journal, a press, a school, or a bookstore?
Our main affiliation is with Home.stead Bakery and Café, which opened in the middle of Fields Corner a few years ago. In addition to our series, the café hosts a story-telling series, movie nights, exhibitions and art openings for local artists, and pop-up classes and markets. It has become a creative and community hub in the neighborhood, and the food is great too! We feel lucky to be part of the Home.stead crowd.
What makes your reading series different from others?
Unearthed Song & Poetry is a monthly series that runs on the first Friday of each month. The series is unique in that it combines both poetry and music and encourages collaboration and crossover between the two. We tend to attract an audience that is interested in both genres and even performers who go back and forth between the two. This makes for a variable and exciting evening. We hold the series in a local café, which serves food and has a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Our readers and musicians frequently comment on how attentive and supportive our audience is. We encourage all levels of experience in our open mic, from beginners to seasoned performers, and we have folks who fall into one or the other of those categories every month. We strive to maintain an extremely open and encouraging atmosphere for our performers, and people use the series as a space and opportunity to hone their craft. Quite a few have moved from the open mic to feature in the series.
Who comes to your series?
This is a hard question to answer because we really get a huge range depending on who our features are and other factors out of our control such as the weather, date, etc. We’ve developed a core of neighborhood folks who come most months both to perform and as audience members. My students from Emerson come and folks Rafi knows through his studio, and really people from all over who are interested in hearing the particular poets and musicians each month. In terms of open mic performers, we also get a range, from spoken word to more lyric or formal poetry and sometimes free-style rap. I think the most unusual musical open mic performance was a woman playing didgeridoo. That was amazing—she came in early and leaned it up against the wall so that almost no one noticed it, and then she surprised us all when it was her turn. We have singer-songwriters, rock, electronica, hip-hop. Lately we’ve had quite a few ukulele players—it seems like a trend—and this month we had an amazing violinist and singer who closed out the open mic for us to wild applause.
What upcoming featured poets are you really excited about?
Tamiko Beyer is our featured poet coming up in February. I love her work, and she moved to Dorchester fairly recently, so I’m excited to welcome her to the poetry community here and also hear what she’s been writing lately. I’m also looking forward to upcoming readings by Carla Schwartz, José Angel Araguz, Jill McDonough, Rajiv Mohabir, and Rose McLarney, to name just a few. Our upcoming musicians are pretty fabulous too. In February, we’ll feature Chris and George, who are both members of critical darlings Kingsley Flood and veterans of the local music scene. Bob Bradshaw is an Irish singer/songwriter who lives in JP and will be our featured musician in March, and Alex Fam, the violinist and singer who blew us away at our most recent open mic, will be our featured musician in April.
Can you describe your venue? Is it wheelchair accessible?
Home.stead Bakery and Café is a beautiful venue with wood floors, café tables, and art by local artists on the walls. For many years, a dressmaker occupied the space, and the café retains large picture windows on two walls, making it bright and airy in the summer and cozy in the winter. We set up a small stage (one shallow step up) in one window, and the passing foot traffic and activity of the square provide a resonant backdrop for our performers. We occasionally attract new audience members this way. Home.stead is located in the heart of Fields Corner on the ground floor of the historic Lenane Building (1448 Dorchester Ave.) and is fully wheelchair accessible. It is a short two-block walk from the Fields Corner T station and there is plenty of free on-street and municipal parking nearby. The café has won awards for its food and ambiance, including a Best of Boston from Boston Magazine. Zagat also named it one of the Nine Hottest Coffee Shops in Boston. The poets and musicians who perform for us at Unearthed Song & Poetry always compliment us on what a welcoming and comfortable performance space Home.stead provides.
What can your guests expect when they arrive (cover charge, lines, venue, etc)?
Unearthed Song & Poetry is more of an evening event than a discrete reading or performance. The series runs on the first Friday of every month, and we open our doors at 7:00 p.m. so that people can sign up for the open mic and order food and drinks from the café. (owner and cook Elisa Girard always makes a light supper to serve during evening, and the café also has a liquor license, so there is beer and wine for sale, in addition to bakery treats and coffee, tea, etc.). It’s important to us to pay our performers for their time and art, so we charge a cover of $5, and we divide all of the proceeds from this cover between our feature poet and musicians for the evening (Rafi and I donate our time and the café donates the space). At 7:30, Rafi opens the night with a tune on his guitar. Then, I introduce our featured poet, who reads for a twenty-minute set. After the poet, we run our combined song and poetry open mic. For time reasons, we limit it to 12-14 performers, which is usually about the number of people who want to participate, although sometimes we have late additions. I love it when someone who came with the intention of being an audience member gets inspired and decides to jump in on the open mic, and we often gain first-time participants this way. We ask our open mic-ers to aim to present about five minutes of material (we don’t count set-up time for musicians as part of their five minutes), and Rafi can help with mics and amps. After the open mic, we take a quick break to set up for our feature musician(s), and then they play a twenty minute set to close out the night. It sounds like a lot, but the evening goes quickly because there’s so much variety between performers, and we’re always moving to a new thing.
Are you aiming for a particular aesthetic or vibe with your featured poets?
I think the best way to describe our aesthetic is wide-ranging; we encourage poets and poetry (and music) of all types at Unearthed Song & Poetry. We’ve featured poets such as Oliver de la Paz, Boston Poets Laureate Porsha Olayiwola and Danielle Legros George, January Gill O’Neil, Jennifer Barber, Keejte Kuipers, Alison Adair, Joan Naviyuk Kane, and U-Meleni Mhlaba-Adebo to name just a few. Our only restrictions are space-based: the café comfortably seats 35-40 people, and we can fit a trio of performers on our little stage, but it’s a bit of a squeeze! In terms of vibe, it’s worth noting (again) that the combination of the poetry and music open mic make our crowd an especially attentive one, making performing at Home.stead a particularly gratifying experience.
If someone would like to be considered as a featured poet for your series, how should they go about inquiring?
The best way to be considered as a featured poet for Unearthed Song & Poetry is to attend one of our events, perform in the open mic, and then speak to Anna at the end of the night about your interest. Our schedule is increasingly full as word has gotten out about the series, but we like to find new readers and musicians, so we try to keep some wiggle room in our calendar. Musicians who would like to feature should also come and perform in the open mic. They should talk to Rafi about a feature spot.
Do you have a mailing list or other way people can learn about your future readings? How can people sign up?
The best way to keep in touch with us is via our Facebook and Instagram pages, which we update frequently. People can direct message us via those accounts. (Please keep in mind that the series is an entirely volunteer operation, so we will get back to you as soon as we can.) Home.Stead Bakery & Café also has a mailing list, and they send out reminders about events at the café, including Unearthed. The café also creates an Eventbrite event each month for folks to purchase tickets ahead of time, and we link to that via Facebook and Instagram.
Series details: Unearthed Song & Poetry runs on the first Friday of every month at Home.stead Bakery & Café in Fields Corner, Dorchester (1448 Dorchester Ave.). Doors open and open mic signup beginning at 7:00 p.m. Event begins at 7:30 p.m.
Frances Donovan’s chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore (Reaching Press, 2018) was named a finalist in the 31st Lambda Literary Awards. Publication credits include The Rumpus, Snapdragon, and SWWIM. She holds an MFA in poetry from Lesley University, is a certified Poet Educator with Mass Poetry, and has appeared as a featured reader at numerous venues. She once drove a bulldozer in an LGBTQ+ Pride parade while wearing a bustier. You can find her climbing hills in Boston and online at www.gardenofwords.com. Twitter: @okelle.