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flashlight on LAURA MORAN
I first encountered Laura Moran back in the first half of the 90’s, in the Poetry Slam world. A few years ago, we reconnected when she contacted me about doing a feature at the library where she works in Narrowsburg, New York (population 414). It always pleases me so much to bump into people from the early days of the slam community and see them still engaged with poetry. I’ve read in Narrowsburg twice now, and both times I read to a knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience, in small town America. Both times the open mic portion of the show was lively and inspired, featuring writers in high school all the way up to people seventy years young. And it’s all because of Laura: a poet and spirit, who has nurtured that community. She embodies what I think is best about the old world of slam—people going out and doing it, bringing poetry to the public in unlikely locales, providing creative outlets for the voices of everyday citizens. Here’s an interview with Laura Moran conducted via e-mail:
When did you write your first poem? What were the circumstances that lead to it coming out of you?
I rarely wrote poems when I was younger. The first thing I remember writing that received attention (it made my mother laugh!) was in fourth grade and, ironically, was a short comedic essay about static cling–I had gotten on the school bus with a pair of her underpants clinging to the back of my sweater which I had just pulled out of the dryer.
Books were always in my life– again with a strong connection to my mother, this time reading to me bedside. She made every story come alive. My mother tongue is not theory; it is tangible. I learned words at her knee–too bad; she has such a wicked Rhode Island accent! I am truly a Swamp Yankee; I grew up in Rhode Island, and the accent has stuck, although you have to ply me with a pint of Guinness or a fresh lobster to hear it! My favorite story that I’d beg her to read was The Village of Creampuffs by Carl Sandburg. Also, I distinctly remember in fourth grade, the school library held a book reading contest, and I read over fifty books. Their bulletin board display wasn’t massive enough for all my gold stars. The librarian actually called in my mother to see if I had really read all those books. My mother was so offended. I won a book, The Great Brain Does it Again. I still have that book.
The first poem I ever shared with anyone was written much later in my life in college in response to Lynne Swift, my Women’s Studies professor at Rhode Island College (a great undergraduate Creative Writing program there, by the way, with Mark Anderson and Thom Cobb, among others.) She told us that there were very few records of real women’s lives before the Renaissance. She said it was our duty to record our days, if only just to leave a record of our lives, for ourselves, for our families, for future generations, for future scholars. That’s when I wrote my first poem. I still have the notebook. The poem is short; about being locked away in this quiet and solitary brick room with no door where the solitude is excruciatingly lonely but allows for singing– for creativity. The poem was very dramatic; I cringe when I read it. When I look back on it now, I was so young, but somehow I prophesied I’d be fighting for that solitude, that space, all my life.
My real first foray into poetry happened in college at Rhode Island College where there was a stunningly dedicated group of student poets– some whom have gone on to great success like Gary Whitehead, and some who have passed away already with great sadness, who gave up writing despite great talent, such as Jim Dowling. We’d meet whenever we could– at lunch, after class, in bars– and debate every comma, every and/but/or. Those poems still hold water. I go back to them often, but don’t feel a need to tighten them at all. Amazing what good ears can do. I am a firm believer in having at least one or two editors who really know me and my potential for work, who will scan my poems; editors who tell me honestly when I am indulging myself or when I have overlooked an important link in a poem. Poet Paula Friedrich in San Francisco is that for me. She tears my poems apart– I love it. Lori Anderson Moseman up in Ithaca, too.
What was your relationship to the world of poetry slams in the early-to-mid 90’s?
My first slam was in 1991. The Boston slam was up and running strongly with Patricia Smith and Michael Brown at the helm, Dan Solis, Ray McNiece, Lisa King, Benson Wheeler, Ryk McIntyre; many other poets were cutting their chops up there. In Providence, we had Samantha Grabel and Jeff Schneider running the venue at AS220. In early Fall 1991, my RIC poets saw an ad for a Poetry Slam demo and wondered what “These people were doing to our Poetry.” (Haa-hahh — so funny– even twenty years later I think people are still saying that about slam!) Anyway, we went and I was blown away. These poets were, first off, VERY MUCH ALIVE — and very talented, and as dedicated to their art as we were. I also loved the stagecraft of what I saw– memorization. I always loved the stage. Anyway– Gary Whitehead and I entered into the next slam and we were the finalists, then I won the bout. I won $10 and a chance to compete up in Boston for a place on their Slam team.
In 1991, the “nationals’ were to be held in Boston. I competed head to head against Ray McNiece in seven rounds–let me tell you… that was intense. Seven poems against a very talented writer and performer, and I barely knew what I was doing up there. He won by .02 overall. But I was hooked. The nationals that year happened in December, I think. There were only twelve teams but they were from all over the country– Arizona, South Dakota, San Francisco, Chicago… amazing. The tribe was present and accounted for– working poets who were passionate about what they wrote, and just wanted to share it with others. The slam was always (at the beginning) just another silly reason to get together and do poetry. The structure and competition was fun– it livened up readings quite a bit, and galvanized a community. Later in December, I graduated from RIC and with blessings and contacts from Patricia Smith, I embarked on my first cross-country tour– Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, South Dakota, arrived in Denver and started the slam there.
I stayed involved in the slam community for a long time, but I wouldn’t call myself a “Slam Poet”– way too narrow. I don’t really think that type of poet exists. Slam is just a venue, a type of event, only one place to present your work. Why would any writer want to pigeonhole themselves that way? Poetry encompasses the world in all its variations, with all its people, in all its places– from page to stage to street to university to church to supermarket. Poetry surrounds us. Even poetry presented at slams ranges from rants to pantoums, to villanelles, to lyric–you name it you’ll hear it; and different regions have different styles, too. I WILL say the performance parameters slam forces upon competitors is good for generating new work and honing it. Slam encourages a very pure approach to presenting poetry– poor theatre in the best Jerzy Grotowski sense of the phrase– just you, your words, your body, 191 seconds. A crash course in slam stagecraft can help any writer who dares stand in front of an audience– and many page authors sure could benefit from it.
From 1992-1999, I held two Grand Slam Championships—one in Seattle and one in La Providence and I captained or coached several teams along the way.
In 2000, I was one the five organizers for the Slam Nationals in Providence. By 2000, the five day Nationals had 54 teams. The opening two nights alone demanded nine venues, three shows in each. We took over the city! Poetry everywhere! Gary Glazner had arranged for the Slam America bus to pull up at our opening ceremonies which was a-full on lit stage, set before Waterfire (artist Barnaby Evans installation of cauldrons of fire lit along the Providence River.) Intense! But the 2000 Nationals, burnt me out and killed my relationship. I dropped out and away– moved upstate to NY, got my hands back in the earth, and every once in while I did a short tour to the Southwest, Northwest, or the Southeast. I still do feature readings but stay far away from competitions. In 2005, I taught workshops at the nationals in Albuquerque; it was the first time I had been back to nationals in five years! In 2006, I taught at the Slam Camp in Oneonta, NY run by Robb Thibault. Alix Olson and I shared a room– it felt like camp for the instructors, too! The instructors’ house was crazy. Buddy Wakefield was there– many late night discussions a la the old days.
How did you come to start your program at the library in Narrowsburg PA, bringing in outside poets and hosting open mics?
In 2003, I started working for Western Sullivan Public Library as the Adult Programming Coordinator. The year before, I was the artistic director with folksinger Jack Hardy, who just recently passed away, for the music and poetry festival Hosting of the Bards in Callicoon, NY. We were able to procure a few small grants and the festival was great fun, combining both traditions. Almost ten years, later, some of those same influential poets I first met back in 1991 graced the stage. I really enjoy producing events– it is quite selfish actually. I get to see many of my old compadres, catch up on our lives, hug our babies, keep each other going; we are a loose-knit bunch. After the festival went on hiatus, I wanted to keep a smaller, more regular, version going. That’s when First Fridays came into being. Once a month, we have a short open-mic, one or two touring poets, or fiction writers who craft stage presence as well as words. Sometimes we invite playwrights or musicians who take particular care with their words. Always stage and page.
As a non-profit, we do qualify for grants, and, boy, do I write them: Decentralization Grant from NYSCA, Arts and Heritage Grants from Sullivan County, and Poets & Writers Readings and Workshop Grants have been very integral to First Fridays. We love Poets & Writers especially– they make excellent art happen on a very local scale. We are so rural out here– farming, river towns, and yet some of the strongest writers have visited us. I think it helps having been involved in a writing community on many levels for so long. But I think too that for the most part, performance poets are very generous, approachable, and openhearted. That being said, First Fridays always tries to pay our writers a living wage. It is a personal mission of mine, akin to patronage. I selfishly want those writers to keep writing because they inspire me– and my audience too– I need them to keep writing, to keep pushing the genre forward.
The library– not only allows me– but demands that I program authors and book readings, and we have a small budget to make that happen (plus grants.) What we don’t have in quantity we make up for in quality. In the words of Dan Solis– “Don’t water the whiskey.” With only ten shows a year, I can really be picky about who comes through. We have built a solid audience now of listeners hungry to buy visiting authors’ books, but that audience is well-seasoned now, too. The newest additions to our program are that we now can record the open mic and feature readers. I post a sampling of each month’s show on www.podbean.com/lejmoran, sometimes short interviews, too.
Also, as of last year, my teenage daughter Corinna Vaca-Moran, a writer herself, now hosts the open mic. We have seen an explosion of young local writers such as Grace O’Connor and Sarah Clark read at the open mic now. They are really stunning. When I hear them read, I do believe in evolution; I hear it and see it in front of my eyes. This new generation is so much more intuitive then mine was, they see what we do, take the best, reject the worst, and shine. We have left them one hell of world, many troubles; they will need to know how to express themselves, how to think critically. Poetry is a wonderful tool for them. There is a whole new generation of Slam Babies now welding words on their own, children who were brought up in a very artistic and creative culture– no silver spoons there– just blue collar word welding, and an extended family from coast to coast and beyond. Watch out, and keep listening–they are coming!
Are there any ways to measure the impact that this series has had on the local community?
People put us on their schedules for the year, block out every first Friday. Second homeowners make sure they will be up-state that weekend. New poems are written every month. There is a real sense of camaraderie among First Fridays goers. A very supportive crowd. The young people, as I mentioned, increase their numbers at every show. When I am introduced to people I do not know locally, they recognize the series name. In 2005, First Fridays was chosen by the Ramapo Catskill Library System (over 40 libraries across the New York state) as one of the best Adult Programs of the year.
Measurement is hard…numbers, statistics? They fall short when applied to art. And yet, that is what the people who give money to support the arts want: proof. A poem heard two months ago might resonate two months later in a small interior epiphany that can make larger impacts later. How do you quantify that? One poem read by Hillary Keel at First Fridays and posted online was used in a conference on translation in Norway. When Gypsee Yo, originally from Albania, petitioned our audience to send support letters about her country’s plight, I know several audience members followed up on that. How do you measure that? How do you measure awareness? Passion? Expansion of world vision? The treasure chest of wordcraft we fill every time a visiting poet comes through town? We’ve won awards, we get grants, we have a dedicated audience that averages about 50 people each show who are just listeners or new writers, and veteran writers that constantly come with new work and buy the visiting writers’ books and CD’s, we have an ever-expanding youth contingent. These are hallmarks of success to me. That and I think I’d get death threats if I ever stopped running the series!
What’s been going on with your writing lately? You are in a graduate program, right?
I am! And so very happy to be back in school! I am attending Wilkes University Creative Writing Program. I will have my Masters this June and plan to continue on for my MFA. It is an extraordinary program with generous and talented instructors. It focuses on five genres: non-fiction, fiction, poetry, screen writing, and playwriting. But no matter what track you are in, you have access to all the instructors from all the other genres. And that is so valuable.
I have so many projects percolating right now: a theatrical production called “Stray Dog” with NACL Theatre exploring revolution– the ideal and real– that will be staged in late August at NACL in Highland Lake, NY (my home away from home.) I have a short found-poetry collection that might be turned into a stage production called, “Fallout: Civil Defense Remix” (portions of which are now found on the online journal Radius, edited by Victor Infante.) And I am writing a novel in verse set in the early 1970’s called “Jump the Snake” about a wild child teen girl who rampages the back PA woods on her supped-up banana seat Schwinn, collects road kill for the local raptor sanctuary, and builds forts and plywood jumps with her older brother who unfortunately gets drafted into the Vietnam war. They are both rabid Evel Knievel fans. Portions of “Jump the Snake” have been accepted into “Redactions: I-90 Revolution, Issue 14″ coming out later this summer.
Can you tell me a little about the Ekphrastic Program?
Sure! I just received great news about it! In 2010, Western Sullivan Public Library received didactic materials on fine art from the Picturing America Program developed by the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We also applied for a programming grant to use these materials specifically for an “ekphrastic” program entitled “FindArt: Family Art Projects.” I had gotten to know Kirstin Broussard, an artist/educator from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and thought she was a truly valuable resource; learned and professional, yet still joyful about art. FindArt met twice monthly, with Kirstin as our guide, families were invited to explore works of art not only for their subject matter but for their process as well. Whole families of varying ages took part in wonderfully fulfilling and deep discussions on art– who makes it and how it is made. Then we applied some of those same processes in making our own art–taking process for a test drive, as it were. The key was that the parents were to make their own art, not be there to help the children so that kids would see their parents were creative beings, too, and that everyone was trying new processes– we were all beginners.
In the later half of the program, visiting poets from First Fridays (Jim Warner, Dan Solis, Marty McConnell, Tristan Silverman, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Neil Shepard, and Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett) attended the first session of the month and introduced a short form or a poetic element to the families based tangentially on the artwork we were exploring that day. The families were introduced to haikus, tankas, acrostics, found poetry, and were even encouraged by Sean Thomas Dougherty and Susan Somers-Willett to make up their own new form based, for example, on Martin Puryear’s sculpture Ladder for Booker T Washington and Hannah and Em Greenlees’ quilts. On these days, we– even the visiting poets!– made poems and art. Sometimes the poems were inspired by the Picturing America artwork; sometimes they were inspired by the families’ own artwork or the process of making the art.
From art, to thought, to making art, to making poems about art– FindArt was an explosion of creativity. After we mounted the final gallery show (see pictures at www.wsplonline.org, under “Programs”) we heard from the ALA and NEH that FindArt was chosen as one of the top five programs in the country– it is a best practices model. They asked me down to the ALA Conference in June in New Orleans to present a talk on it. Very exciting– Nawlins! Love that city…
In 1992 Laura Moran became Providence’s first Grand Slam Champion and in 1996 Seattle’s Grand Slam Champion. She has represented both Seattle and Providence on various national teams from 1996-1998. Laura Moran travels throughout the country and abroad touring and headlining at numerous universities, elementary schools, festivals, competitions, women’s organizations, literacy groups, coffee houses, churches, and nightclubs. Her work has appeared in such publications as Defined Providence, Revival: Spoken Word from Lollapalooza 1994, Children Remember Their Fathers, Chokecherries: SOMOS Series Anthology 2002, Quix Quarterly, River Reporter’s Literary Gazette 2002-4. Laura has several chapbooks and three CD’s of her work: Original Skin (2002), Live Bait (Great Divide Records, 2005,) and Live: Improper Joy (2008.) In 2004, she received a New York Foundation of the Arts grant for Emerging Writers at the Center for the Book Arts in New York City.
Laura is the Adult Programming Coordinator at the Western Sullivan Public Library where poetry has become the cornerstone public activity. She is curator and host of First Fridays: Contemporary Writers Series at the Tusten-Cochecton Branch a monthly series from April to December with strong, standing room only audiences. As of December 2005, she resides across the Delaware River where the north and south branches of Calkins Creek meet in Milanville, PA. She is also very active in the movement against Gas Drilling in the Upper Delaware Region. For more info go to http://www.lauraejmoran.com/