Naked City? Do I have to get naked? Or is it just some kind of metaphor for the process of stripping yourself bare by reading your writing in front of strangers?
I am a stranger in my own city. I knew this when I entered The Warhorse Cafe for the first time and could only find one person I recognized (at least at first). I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, and yet I’ve been to more writing events 4000 miles away in Newcastle, England.
How much can really be different though?
You have weirdly outgoing writers, reclusive writers, and those awkwardly situated somewhere in between, like me. We’re all creative types. What I want to find out is how these events differ atmospherically. Is there a gimmick? Who can read? What kinds of pieces do people read, and how long are they allowed to stand in the spotlight? Is there a spotlight?
The last literary event I went to was Material’s Issue #7 launch last December in Newcastle, and I didn’t even get to stay for the whole thing. Before the second half, I had to hop a train to Darlington in order to get home that night. (Somehow I still managed to make it into a few photos though, which I only just realized today)
I’ve helped out with Material since November 2012, despite it being harder for me to be involved in launch events whenever I’m in the US. As a smaller literary magazine, we value the active literary community in Newcastle. For those of you who have never been to the northeast of England, I can’t emphasize enough how significant the writing community is there—as if just having New Writing North and Mslexia as amazing local organizations and resources isn’t enough, check out New Writing North’s writer’s guide to the North East.
There are various venues that have been used for writing events in Newcastle, but Blake’s has always felt like home for Material. Maybe I’m a little biased, since it’s where I met the co-founders for the first time, but that little coffee house has some character. Located on what has been voted one of the best or most beautiful streets in England by various polls, Blake’s is just across Grey Street from the Theatre Royal, nestled in the elegant curve of Georgian buildings.
With a mug of tea or coffee, or a pint of something stronger, the quiet of Blake’s cosy atmosphere was only disrupted by the steady sounds of a kettle or the occasional yell of passersby out for a night on the town.
So when I walked into The Warhorse Cafe to loud music reminiscent of what you’d hear in a bar, and there was something at the front of the room called “the wheel of consequences”, I knew that this would be a little different.
The Warhorse Cafe is part of the Goat Farm Arts Center, which is housed in a repurposed 19th century industrial complex on the west side of Atlanta, just north of Georgia Tech. Although the GFAC contains performance and exhibition halls, its industrial appearance has been used in filming for both The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The Cafe draws on this style, with a giant iron wheel on one wall, old typewriters and Singer sewing machines on various shelves and tables, and sprigs of cotton in a vase in the bathroom, a nod to the GFAC’s origins as a factory that manufactured cotton gins.
If Material’s launch was a standard open mic/coffee house reading, Naked City is a literary circus. Gina and Berny, the hosts, fill the space between readers like comedic ringmasters. The beginning of each reading is heralded by them asking if the writer is ready, then shouting, “Audience of Naked City, ARE YOU READY?” Each reader is allowed five minutes; if they go over, they have to spin the wheel, winning them the chance to get a free drink or gift bag of oddities, or the consequence of having to buy Gina or Berny a drink.
Although some writers shared pretty standard short stories, there was also an acted out piece that drew attention to the silence she controlled at the podium, a creative essay about commuting on a bicycle from Cabbagetown to Chamblee, the question of whether breasts could be disguised by a Groucho mustachioed shirt, and a breathless rant about someone named Allie. I think only one or two of the eleven readers ever directly named the theme of the night: obsession.
No matter what country I am in, I know good performance writing when I hear it. I thrive on writing for the page, and only a few times have I actually written something specifically for performance. Performance writing and storytelling are entirely different to writing what others will read themselves. It isn’t just about knowing the pacing or where you will put emphasis when you perform it; it is having a presence, whether on stage at a coffeehouse or under a loose bit of ceiling insulation in an industrial space.
I see the similarities between events like Material’s launch and Naked City because both events were dominated by writers who commanded a presence, who read with a tangible passion for the written word. Americans get a reputation for being loud, but I have heard Brits who could make a room reverberate with their words, even without a microphone. These are events peopled by those who know the value of words, because they have felt how words can change and affect you.
But it is refreshing to find a new community to explore. While standing outside during the intermission, I spoke with a French man visiting Atlanta and the man who wrote the piece about bicycle commuting. The former was celebrating his surprise at the city, finding it so diverse and artsy. The latter described how much Atlanta has changed since he grew up in the area; it is so dynamic now, he explained. Groups like Naked City are developing all around. Recently he went to an event called Carapace in the Virginia Highlands, where people get up to tell stories, without notes. It reminded him of the railroad workers he used to encounter at his job, and how talented they were at storytelling. They had told a story so many times, they knew just where to pause, how to tell each part of it just right. It reminded me of how similar oral traditions are to performance writing. When preparing a piece for performance, the writer will practice many times, alone or with a friend to provide feedback, just as storytelling is honed through the act of telling.
Whether performance writing around Atlanta is reaching back to the storytelling which winds deep through the history of the South, or whether it is just finding new ways to tell a story, Naked City is a part of a wider network of events and people. When I left that evening, winding between empty warehouses with walls of broken windows and well lit lofts, I knew I had just scratched the surface of Atlanta’s literary community.
Though I can’t think of any other place where the consequence for going over time is to scrub a dog bone with a tooth brush and cleaning solution for the rest of the night.
This post is part of an on-going series devoted to exploring the writing communities of Atlanta, Georgia, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and the surrounding areas. Many thanks to Rachel K. Pendergrass for inviting me to come along. Some writers mentioned include Kevin O’Gara, Diana Lancaster, and Nathan Spicer.