Spoken Word Artists Speak Up

Literary artists gathered on the evening of October 5th at RAC to discuss the art and business of writing, and it’s place in the community mosaic. Spoken word artists, poets, novelists and teachers all weighed in on literary life in St. Louis.

Regional Arts Commission St. Louis

The Evoke process included many questions about the state of literary art in St. Louis, and what the future may hold.

The attendees agreed there are many good writers working in St. Louis, and abundant opportunities to “cross-pollinate” with artists in other idioms, including music, theater, dance, and the visual arts. The St. Louis literary community is home, and it’s growing. Opportunities to be in front of different audiences include self-publishing, book sales, and public readings. Often public readings do not generate income, as they are free offerings from bookstores or venues more suited to musical performance.

The role of cultural institutions is crucial, to support literary artists in their “part-time job” creating and performing literary work. Poets and fiction writers feel the need to travel to other towns to perform and promote their work. Audiences exist in St. Louis and elsewhere, but there is not always the desire to pay for spoken word performance. Creating a nonprofit entity, as one attendee did: St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, is one way to generate revenue.

What is the strength of cultural activity in St. Louis?

There is a lot going on. Washington University recently received a grant for a new project: “Liberating the Spoken Word: Poetry Readings and Literary Performances in St. Louis, 1969-2005.” Large cultural institutions and small businesses are helpful to literary artists, from the public library systems to small venues like Legacy Bar & Grill (Delmar & Union) and Poetry at the Point in Maplewood. Public Libraries and the Missouri History Museum have readings from nationally known authors, and often draw large crowds, validating the interest in literature. River Styx is a literary magazine that has published St. Louis authors since 1975. Facebook and other social media are also an important element to bring authors and readers together.

How do literary authors pay the rent?

Multiple jobs and teaching are the solution for most St. Louis literary artists. Honorariums and stipends from cultural institutions are helpful and appreciated, but there are currently few artist-in-residence opportunities. Writers also questioned what might be done to increase interest from reviewers at the Post-Dispatch and Riverfront Times.

Several public events enrich literary life in St. Louis. Left Bank Books and the Central West End Association sponsored Bookfest St. Louis on September 23rd. Centene Corporation sponsors a Book Series. The Jewish Community Center sponsors several literary events throughout the year.

How to increase RAC visibility in the literary sphere?

Since St. Louis has many separate neighborhoods, flyers and posters need to be posted throughout the city in key locations, including Near North, Southside, Central West End, and University City. Exhibitions and events need to be better publicized in print and social media. All of the resources available to artists need to be broadcast, including: volunteer lawyers and accountants for the arts, space available for use, networking opportunities. Business terms such as “high-touch” and “incubation” apply to artists as well: relationships need to be nurtured over the long haul.

Collaboration between cultural institutions large and small will bear fruit. With focused efforts throughout the community, in a few years the headline may read: St. Louis: Developing Hub of Literary Visionaries. That reads well.

Links discussed at the meeting: