The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode XLVII: "How much more can you love something than by putting it into words"
In this installment, I speak with Molly Rose Quinn. Topics include Housing Works' mission, the bounds of their cultural programming, prioritizing, leaving Memphis, the privilege of poetry & more.
Today I’m with Molly Rose Quinn, the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, and a poet. As a writer, Molly’s work has appeared in Literary Hub, The Brooklyn Rail, The Atlas Review, PEN Poetry Series and more. Can you tell us what the Director of Public Programming does and how one finds themself in that position?
My job is to select, coordinate, and publicize the 150+ public events that HWBC [Housing Works Bookstore Cafe] puts on each year. This starts with literary programming, readings, panels, and book launches, and also includes a comedy series, concerts, conversation and discussion events, storytelling competitions like the Moth, and lots of things in between all those categories. In that position, I'm essentially the publicist for the bookstore, which includes running our social media accounts, talking to partnering organizations, reading and looking at interesting work that would be a good fit for us.
So the bookstore is one piece of the larger mission of Housing Works, Inc., which provides health care, social work, and legal advocacy for homeless New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. The bookstore acts as a fundraising enterprise for HW, Inc., as well as an outreach tool. A way to reach folks who attend and participate in cultural programming and educate them about our mission. So selecting those events has a lot to do with their fundraising potential and outreach related to our mission. And that can vary.
For those uninitiated, the HWBC puts on literary events, yes, but you could have a great time even if the last book you read was in 11th grade English class. Just in the upcoming few days you have The Moth StorySLAM, Storytime and Singalong for Kids, Gotham Writers Workshop: Humor Writing, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Presents: The Greatest 3-Minute Mall Stories. How would you define the outer bounds of your cultural programming?
There are no outer bounds as far as I'm concerned. Obviously, I think hard about how a potential event will appeal or relate to those folks that come here often or follow us online, but sometimes that thinking involves deliberately choosing something that brings in a different audience or contrasts to what I know we're good at or doing lots of. So outer bounds aren't what forces me to turn down a proposal or send an idea elsewhere. Rather, I favor what's most viable, most interesting, most diverse. My position and this venue are really nimble, for lack of a better word. We don't adhere to a specific season/calendar. Everyone who works with us is volunteering their time and the publishers are donating books. It's lucky and it makes this gig particularly unique to the publishing industry.
You’re just passing your one year anniversary there—what about your job has had the steepest learning curve?
On a small scale, I think the hardest challenge of running events and of nonprofit work is that there is a lot of "urgent" work versus "important" work. The hardest thing for me is dedicating my mind to our longer-term growth and bigger picture plans. It's easy to fill my day and my head with the grit of getting the show running smoothly. And I came from a big performing arts center with a major budget, high ticket price, and real production value. So now it's just me and my tireless part time assistant, we're the curators, the marketing department, the tech team, the bartenders, the accountants.
The real challenge I think of this position (and anyone who has a job inside the same field where they create, which is lots of us) is also it's greatest privilege: it's my whole world, my support system, my friends, my creative life, my day job, my side-projects all touch many of the same things. That can make it tough to take breaks, and it can make it tough to spend a day or half day breaking into a poem that is knocking around. But that's unbelievably lucky. I get to work on book launches for the same authors that I carrying around in my bag and take with me to bed and take with me into my own poems.
Is there one single moment, or repetition, that clinches the 'this is all worth it' feeling?
It's pretty incredible to be a part of an organization that has implemented and continues to implement real change for our clients and the homeless and HIV+ population that we serve. And I think the bookstore itself can really do important work for the literary community and for writers and for those that want to learn and listen.
I get to work on events for my favorite books -- thinking back this year, the BreakBeats Anthology, Heidi Julavits' diary book THE FOLDED CLOCK, Chinelo Okparanta's novel (that's just naming a few off the top of my head)—those were genuinely genuinely some of my favorite books that came out this year.
We had the former events coordinator at Housing Works on this series, Rachel Fershleiser—though she left Housing Works in 2011. In what ways has the cultural programming changed since?
On a daily basis, I work with and talk to Rachel Fershleiser, who is now at Tumblr and sits on our board, and Amanda Bullock, who was between R & me and now directs the Portland's Wordstock Literary Festival.
So there is tons of continuity between us and the work, in a lot of ways their ideas and their recommendations and the systems they both built here live on and are very visible. I wouldn't describe my tenure as any change, but rather I'd say that Rachel and Amanda built up the profile of the bookstore and really solidified our sustainability and institutional organization, and that foundation allows me to be pickier with the events I select and allows me to take risks, too. Probably what's changed the most is the industry and the landscape, so my position adapts to that. And I'm a poet and they aren't. So that sneaks in!
You’re not just a poet, but an accomplished one at that. Last week PEN Poetry Series published two of your poems and, as I read them, felt that they demanded a certain cadence—especially the second poem, “Sets of Televisions”. To me, each line ended like a motor failing. I especially loved the lines “My dad the king of maps and my mother the gasper. / They’re in Tennessee still they don’t mind the heat any longer. / Instead of prison I got New York, some boyfriends, girlfriends, a life.” To shift the conversation to the frustratingly abstract, what is a life, to you?
Growing up in a place like Memphis allowed me to see my privilege. I grew up wealthy and white and protected and loved and with anything I wanted at my fingertips. I grew up utterly safe even though I was surrounded by abject poverty and violence and racial unrest. Even the language I have to describe that situation is a result of my education, my safety, my ability to leave Memphis and to pursue career and ambition without risk and without responsibility.
In that poem I was thinking about Damien Echols, a man who grew up just across the river from me, who was sent to prison for 18 years for a crime he didn't commit because he had no ability to defend himself and no resources and was subject to a legal system and police system with no resources and no motivation to be good and to do good. In that poem I'm thinking about what I'm doing with my 18 years, so maybe in that line I'm thinking, what I have is a life and what that man had or has isn't. But in truth they are both lives.
Originally, I read the line as hopeful, but now it seems contrite, at least in the way that even the medium you're using you see as a medium of privilege.
Ha, jury's out on hope perhaps in this arena. But I think you could say that the act of making a poem is an act of hope. And an act of love. Anyone that's read a handful of my poems online can see that I'm working on a book of poems about Memphis. And I've been spent years and sleepless nights worrying that if that book ever lives, those that knew me in Memphis would read it as an act of betrayal or thinking "she hated it here." But how much more can you love something than by putting it into words.
And how much of a specific type of love is just the negative image of a specific type of hate?
Sometimes in the day-to-day of 0s&1s, the maintenance and tasks are so thoroughly divorced from the thing itself, literature and reading, that it might as well be toothpaste marketing. Do you ever feel that way, being someone who is both a poet and someone who deals in logistics, deadlines, timelines and budgets?
Ha, I think about this often! This doesn't really answer your questions, but... Some days I think to myself, there's a certain poetry in plugging in dates on a calendar, writing a press release, negotiating a new big idea; other days I think "thank god I get to do this other stuff for a minute."
I think that's a proper ending as any. Thanks for your time Molly, and your words.
Absolutely, thanks for thinking of me and asking me, and for your really great questions.