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A Brooklyn Reading Series For Everyone
My vote for the warmest and least pretentious literary reading series in New York City goes to Big Words, Etc., co-hosted by Jess Martinez and Stacey Kahn. Everyone is welcome and there's no pissing contest involved. No MFA? No book? No publishing credits anywhere at all? No problem. People come to Big Words because they want to hear good stories told by a variety of voices. The audience even gets to vote on the theme for the following reading. Most recently, I read at Big Words on January 9th and the theme was "seething." When Jess and Stacey announced that the seventh anniversary of the reading series was approaching this spring, I thought the time was right for a Quail Bell interview. Luckily (though unsurprisingly), they obliged. What follows are my questions with answers from both Jess and Stacey:
What inspired you to first do the series?
Jess: We noticed a lack of diversity at the reading series we were attending around the city. They all seemed to be limited to published writers, or folks who worked in publishing. I was frustrated by the application process to read at most of these, which I found ridiculous, and vented to Stacey one day, "We should start our own reading series!" not thinking much of it. To my amazement, she had been thinking the same!
Stacey: Jess was really the mastermind behind Big Words. Like she said, she approached me about doing a reading series for all the reasons she enumerated: lack of diversity and inclusivity, and overall, this feeling that you already had to be an established writer to be given even a chance and granted a space to share your work. We really wanted to upend that kind of pretentiousness in the literary world we found ourselves a part of. And Jess was really the catalyst for that, which has sparked this special thing that's been part of our lives for so long.
How many readers have you had over the years?
Jess: I would say around the ballpark of 200. Maybe slightly more? I've honestly lost count. We've been so incredibly lucky at the response, especially the last few years. There are times we've had to ask folks to read at the next one.
Stacey: Yeah, maybe Jess's guess is accurate? It's really hard to tell because we've been doing this for a while now and have lost track of how many readers we've had the privilege of hosting over the years.
What are the different venues you’ve used?
Jess: We started at a coffee shop in Midtown because we were desperate and didn't know any better. Surprise, surprise, we lasted there for two readings. Everyone seemed to want a drink to ease the nerves, so we started to search for bars that would have us. This led us to the Lower East Side, where we happily resided at Lolita & CultureFix until the both closed due to high rent, a classic NYC tale. A friend of us had her book launch at 61 Local in Brooklyn and we fell in love with the place. The staff and the space is something that's getting harder to find in this city. This is the place that has had us the longest and we are never, ever leaving.
Stacey: We were at CultureFix for the longest before they closed and we moved to 61 Local, our current location, which we love, and which I think now might hold the record for our longest tenure. But we also loved CultureFix while we were there! Especially because they had a similar community oriented/accessible ethos when it came to hosting artists. We were at an Australian bar called Eight Mile Creek for a while right after the coffee shop; they were also super nice...but closed! Like Jess said, all these places closing sadly showed this larger trend happening in NYC over the years, though we joked sometimes that it was our fault. We've done a couple of guest Big Words readings, too, most recently at the Northside Festival Block Party this past summer, and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education a few years back; my dream is to take Big Words on the road more sometime in the future, even while Brooklyn and 61 Local remains our home.
What do you think distinguishes the series?
Jess: It's a series for everyone. Most of our readers are people who don't consider themselves writers, who have a background in something else, but always wanted to read for the public. Also, the public gets to vote and decide on the next theme.
Stacey: What Jess said! I also think it's distinguished by the fact that we've spent a lot of time thinking about how we can have participation be as widespread as possible, even if people aren't reading so they have a stake in it, which is where the audience vote on theme comes in. We've also invited visual artists to determine those winning themes, which we then post on our Instagram, so there's multiple entry points to the thing we're thinking about for the next reading.
What keeps the series going? Why do you keep doing it?
Jess: Our readers who keep coming back, our audience who ask when the next one is and bring more friends. We do it because we have loved getting to meet people and introducing them to each other. We have seen a few collaborations and friendships happen, which has been the best. We always encourage our writers to get to know each other. It's so hard to pursue the arts in New York City. We want our series to be a place where you can reach out to peers.
Stacey: Everything Jess said, I completely cosign. I love that we've created a community through Big Words in the way Jess described, and I love that we get to be a part of that community we created. This reading series is so special to me, made even more so by the fact that I built it with one of my best friends in the whole entire world. I think people can really feel that love, and feel that support when they read or attend, based just on feedback we've gotten after readings.
What are some of your favorite memories from the series?
Jess: There are too many! But if I had to narrow in down to one, it would be the great blizzard of 2014. I think it snowed over a foot. I had a fever, we delayed our reading for two hours, had no idea if anyone was coming. Not only did every single one of our readers show up, but to date, that was the biggest crowd we have ever had. It was an insanely packed house. I'll never forget it.
Stacey: Like Jess said, there are so, so many, but I really don't think anything could top that Blizzard of 2014 story.
What are your plans for the 7th anniversary reading coming some time this April?
Jess: We''ll probably give a little toast, but other than that, it's always about the readers. We're just so grateful to still keep this going. So, so incredibly grateful.
Stacey: In the past, we've joined the roster of readers for anniversary readings, since Jess and I are writers ourselves. We might, like Jess said, just give a little toast in April, but who knows. I'm excited about the theme, though - "Almost, Not Quite", which is a concept I've been thinking a lot about.
Anything you’d like to add?
Stacey: Like Jess said, we are so grateful to have been able to keep Big Words going for so long and to have created something that feels so community oriented, and we are so grateful that you are part of that community as a reader, Christine! Thanks for asking for this interview.
Jess Martinez is a native New Yorkina and recovering playwright. She is a co-founder of Big Words, Etc. a Brooklyn-based literary series, which she's been told a few times is quite diverse and quite fun. She holds a BFA from SUNY Purchase.
Stacey Kahn is a native New Yorker, which means she remembers when Brooklyn was just another outer-borough (where she currently lives and works as a full time arts educator). She is trying to put her MFA towards writing a collection of essays, but in the meantime, is very happily acting as the other half of Big Words, Etc.
You can follow Big Words, Etc. on Instagram @bigwordsetc.
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