Slam Bam, and other casual strategies of connection
September 30, 2011By Kathleen Volk Miller
In coming months, NewsWorks will present a variety of multimedia profiles of the 76 Creative Connectors. In this one, Kathleen Volk Miller of the Painted Bride Quarterly and Drexel University writes her own profile - an essay about how the alchemy of connection has blessed her life and career.
A man I've known for about 20 years is a prestigious poet, Major Jackson. He was visiting town and came to one of Painted Bride Quarterly's Story Slams at the Pen and Pencil.
He really enjoyed what happened at the Slam, the sense of community, the connections, the fun.
But we had a "moment," too. My oldest daughter was there and Major hadn't seen her since she was a baby. He stared at her from across the bar and said, "Kathy. I think the last time I saw her she was nursing while we discussed poetry at your kitchen table. "
He brought back memories of that era, of storing PBQ materials in car trunks and attics, of holding meetings in kitchens, coffee shops, pizza places and bars.
When we moved PBQ to a university environment, I kind of missed that "homey-ness" but I never doubted that the culture of PBQ would prevail.
Red wine and respect
I first started at PBQ when I was in graduate school. I will never forget sitting in Lou Camp's Queen's Village living room, drinking red wine and discussing poetry. I felt adult and hip and very honored. They respected my novice opinions and, when the semester was over, they asked me to stay.
Through the ensuing years, life happened. Staff and editors changed and changed again, but what remained the same is that PBQ is always run by a collaborative union of editors, writers, teachers and artists.
My personal life changed too, of course. After the birth of my third child, I thought I had to leave PBQ. My co-editor, Marion Wrenn, asked me to stay, told me I was "keeper of the fun." I stayed. When my husband became ill and eventually died, my PBQ family helped me carry the load, both figuratively and literally.
I guess I know what all of this has meant to me, and so now, when student interns come to work on PBQ, their votes weigh the same as mine, from their very first meeting. Of course this empowers them and, of course, that engages them. They don't feel their reading and comments are in vain, but that they are being taken seriously.
This kind of empowerment, this kind of respect, causes the students to take the work more seriously, to own it. I think almost anything can be solved or made better with hard work.
Bonding by work and laughter
But we also laugh so much in the intern office that other professors stop in to see what's going on. We're not watching YouTube videos (OK, sometimes we are). We might be reading a PBQ submission out loud, or trying to fit a book into a tight envelope, or collaboratively designing a flyer for our next event.
The student interns bond in a way the traditional classroom makes impossible, but I'd like to take some credit for the culture of collaboration PBQ imbues.
In the 10 years I've worked with student interns, one marriage flowered among them, along with countless long-term friendships. Students tell me they how grateful they are for getting to know each other in such a different way.
The students also bond because of the many, many events PBQ throws. We have two events a month, one reading and one interactive event we call a "Slam, Bam, Thank You, Ma'am."
We've done all kinds of things to "open up" the traditional reading - had young bands play for the exposure, had themes for the content of the reading.
A very grand Slam
But, the Slam Bams might epitomize our mission as well as our democratic editorial policy does. These evenings are fully audience driven: The audience dictates the words we all use as writing prompts; the audience does the writing, and the audience judges via hooting and hollering.
Such a fabulous mix of people attend. We get PBQ loyalists, Drexel students and faculty, members of the Pen and Pencil Club, and a wonderfully diverse mix of others. On our best nights, which is most of the time, we need "chairs from upstairs" and are breaking capacity fire codes (shhhhhhh....). Every month strangers show up, and as you can expect, they're only strangers once.
What's also great about the Slam Bam is that none of us have any idea whose idea it was, since it was born out of conversation and idea bouncing, as all of our best ideas have been.
At Drexel, I coordinate a weeklong series of events each spring. The faculty meets, kicks around ideas, and we collaboratively choose which will come to fruition. The energy ripples out; everyone uses the connections he or she has, and we fill in time slots like puzzle pieces.
In a place between alchemy and miracle, we end up with 12 or more events, 70 or more panelists and other participants, and hundreds of attendees. People who would never even have known each other meet, make connections and make their own happenings. Ripple.
At last night's PBQ meeting, an ex-editor who comes from my time at Rutgers recently returned to work with us. She got to meet one of our other editors, from Drexel, for the first time. They have baby girls born two weeks apart, one of whom was nursing as we read poetry at the editorial table. And so it goes.
I think all of this circles back to my style of being a Creative Connector. It's rather passive in that I don't seek people out and match them up. In the spirit of what my colleague Marion Wrenn terms "strategic sociability," what I am good at doing is throwing events that feel like parties.
I invite a bunch of people, and hope they all come and that they all get along and that something good will happen.
It usually does.
Kathleen Volk Miller is the co-editor of the Painted Bride Quarterly, co-director of Drexel Publishing Group, and associate teaching professor at Drexel University. She writes essays, fiction, and she blogs for Philadelphia Magazine. Occasionally, she tweets @kvm1303."