Outspoken: Quiet Lightning and the Generation of Literature
By Peter BullenJune 2, 2015
Image: Christine No @ QL, Viracocha Nov 14, by Gracie Malley
I came to California to break into film and television. Well, not only do I no longer want to be in film or television, I genuinely don’t care if I see another film or TV show again in my life. I credit this change of heart 100 percent to my experience with Quiet Lightning … and it might sound elitist, but I defy anyone who’s read for Quiet Lightning to care after it’s over about something, anything else.
— Moneta Goldsmith
I GO TO LITERARY READINGS because, as a writer, I want to know that there is still an audience out there for the written word. In a particularly lovely and inviting bookstore in Berkeley, I have seen some of the best poets of our time read to a few fellow writers and a half-dozen unidentified listeners. Writers, it seems to me, have become accustomed to a meager audience. How remarkable, then, that in a different Bay Area venue every month, an audience of roughly 100 people, sometimes twice that, gathers to hear a dozen writers, none of whom have a bestseller, few of whom even have a book to their name, read eight minutes of their work at something called Quiet Lightning.
Quiet Lightning Neighborhood Heroes 2012 @ William Westerfeld House,
by Ian Tuttle
What is Quiet Lightning?
First and foremost, it’s a reading series; but in the five years since it began, Quiet Lightning has also sprouted lots of branches. At present, it is a nonprofit literary organization, a submission-based reading series, a publisher, a film producer, a bi-annual magazine, a book and film contest, and the initiator of a yearlong ekphrastic project. This list doesn’t tell us much though, because, well, lists have their limits.
The submission process for the reading series is more revealing: writers submit work and submissions are read blind. It makes no difference whether top literary journals are vying for your next bit of flash fiction, or a deep existential funk led you to pen your first sonnet on a beer-stained napkin at your local watering hole. Curators are assessing your work, not trying to figure out whether you are the drunk or the literary luminary. Biases inherent in name recognition are taken off the table when authorship is revealed only after the work has been chosen. To further prioritize the craft of writing over credentials or personality, there are no introductions at Quiet Lightning shows. As founder Evan Karp puts it: “Whatever you want the audience to know about you has to come through your writing. That’s it.” Each reading is filmed, with videos and text available on the website (if you fancy a bit of cultural archeology, dig there), and each piece is printed in sPARKLE & bLINK, the book that accompanies each show. Gorgeous in its own unassuming way, the book features a different local artist on its cover every month.
Imagine, for a moment, what it means to an aspiring writer to be invited to read his or her work, have it printed in a book, be professionally filmed and have the video uploaded to YouTube where an expanded audience can discover it. Such a platform for emerging writers is unrivaled, and certainly invaluable to the writing community. And when it comes to representing new writers, Quiet Lightning is unique. As Charles Kruger points out, “It is traditional to develop writers through inclusion of an ‘open mic’ portion at many readings, and Quiet Lightning’s decision not to encourage this has raised the bar — writers work hard to get accepted.” [i] While the open mic approach is as egalitarian as it gets, it is no guarantee of quality. The blind submission process offers an open platform for new writers while also ensuring a higher quality of work.
Each month, one board or staff member and one rotating volunteer co-curate and host a Quiet Lightning show. Sarah Carpenter, who has interned, read, and co-curated for Quiet Lightning, describes the curatorial process:
We take turns reading submissions aloud. After each piece we vote. We're left with some we both voted for, some one [person] voted for, some both voted against. With the ones we agree on, we start structuring the show. […] It’s likely one of us will work to convince the other that a certain piece fits better. Sometimes a piece that was initially a “yes” turns out not to fit.
This last statement is striking. Why is it that a clearly stellar piece sometimes doesn’t make the cut? Because Quiet Lightning shows lean toward collective alchemy: the presentation of a compelling whole, not the trotting out of a roster of individual achievers. The written pieces are in relationship with each other, and come to form a whole that is greater than its constituent parts. Perhaps this explains the ample crowds and the atmosphere buzzing with friendliness among strangers at Quiet Lightning shows. “A party with a focus,” as my wife describes it. The ever-changing venues — bars, art galleries, music halls, bookstores, night clubs, greenhouses, ballrooms, sporting goods stores, theaters, mansions, print shops, museums, hotels, and even caves — fill with an unspoken but felt regard.
Recently, at the 70th Quiet Lightning show, I marveled at the crowd spillover, the sense of writerly fellowship, the rapt attention of the audience. Is this some ingenious formula, I wondered, hatched in a literary lab? Where is the guy in the white lab coat? Most people who have been involved with Quiet Lightning in one way or another will point to Evan Karp.
I attended my first [Quiet Lightning show] in 2010, which was the night I first met Evan. He struck me as extremely eccentric, impossibly young, full of coiled energy. He seemed about to explode with charisma. The most extraordinary thing about him was the striking quality of his attention.
— Charles Kruger
I know Evan mostly as a gentle force in the Bay Area poetry community. He’s everywhere, filming readings, organizing events … to the point that I have, at times, secretly suspected that there is more than one of him.
— Matthew Zapruder[ii]
I, for one, am probably at my best when writing, performing, [or] submitting with Evan Karp in mind. He’s among those few who earn their knowledge through passion and gain their power through curiosity, rather than careerism, nepotism, capital.
— Moneta Goldsmith
Who is Evan Karp?
He is, as Charles Kruger intimates, a young man: a college dropout from Georgia who had his jaw broken in a parking space conflict (by someone who neglected to “use their words”) and came to California four days after the unwiring of his jaw. His timing was not ideal. Evan thought he’d get a job and write, but in 2009, the economy was in its worst shape since the Great Depression. No one was hiring, despite his offer to work the first month for free, and his willingness to wear neckties. As luck would have it, a friend had compiled a list of things to check out in the Bay Area, and Litquake was on the list. On the website, Evan found links to literary organizations and journals, to which he started applying as an intern. Two days later he was having lunch with Howard Junker, founding editor of ZYZZYVA.
We were having cheese steak sandwiches. I was a vegetarian, I didn’t even eat meat, but whatever, I wanted a job. He asked me about a lot of writers, most of whom I hadn’t read and some of whom I hadn’t heard of. The subject of my internship never came up, so it was like, okay, thanks for the sandwich.[iii]
Evan landed an unpaid internship with Tango Diva, an online women’s travel and social networking magazine founded by Teresa Rodriguez Williamson. At Tango Diva, Evan learned how to use the internet strategically for work. “Teresa taught me the basics behind tags and SEO optimization, that kind of thing,” he recalls; she also had Evan boil down his “purpose,” which turned out to be “fostering feats of expression.” Soon Evan added another unpaid internship to the equation, at North Atlantic Books, a nonprofit publisher specializing in alternative health, martial arts, and spiritual titles.
My first day at North Atlantic, I was so excited I got there two hours early. Almost immediately, I told them they are going to have to start paying me, or kick me out. Richard Grossinger, [the publisher], seemed amused by my audacity, but two months later I am interning there and at Tango, and there is no money.
He saw a job opening at Examiner.com, applied, and became their Literary Culture Examiner — an impressive title that turned out to be a freelance, penny-per-page view position. So you click on his page, and, bingo: Evan is up a penny! Nevertheless, he wasted no time examining literary culture, starting with a poetry reading in North Beach. Struck by his response to a live reading — his first — it occurred to Evan that this is something he would like to do.
Evan Karp @ QL Litquake 2013, by Ian Tuttle
Evan wrote all of three articles at Examiner.com when he decided to cover Litquake, the nine-day San Francisco literary festival where over 800 authors read in various locations around town. “Litquake overwhelmed me but it didn’t knock me over,” he says, “it more knocked me into a cart with wheels that were going in the right direction.” It was at Litquake that Evan decided to start filming readings. His filmmaking experience consisted of three minutes of filming a woodpecker in Muir Woods, but, he thought to himself, why not bring the camera, film the readings, upload them to YouTube, and provide a link on my Examiner.com pages? Andrew O. Dugas remembers “being struck by the obviousness of what Evan was doing, and astounded that none of us had thought to be filming readings. I mean we were in high-tech country. We had our phones.”[iv]
There is one challenge: he needed a USB cable to upload the videos. The cable was $39.99, in 2009 dollars. He had $40 in his bank account. Evan sprang for the cable — after borrowing a few bucks to cover tax — and headed off to cover Litquake’s preview night. He was up until 4:30 a.m. editing and uploading the videos, but woke up to discover he had over 100 hits on his penny-per-view page! “I’d written barely any articles by this time,” he recalls, “it’s not like I had a blog following. But this video of preview night at Litquake has been watched over 100 times. I knew I had to make video part of all my coverage.” He also made it his business to attend two to three events every day.
Evan became addicted to going to readings. Litquake committee members kept asking who he was. “What are you doing?” “Where did you come from?” “Do you have an agenda?” Charles Kruger recalls the writer Matt Stewart referring to the “Evan Karp myth”: the story of an unknown kid from Georgia who dramatically enters the literary community as a freelance videographer covering Litquake with his flip camera. Litquake founders Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahal joked that Evan was at more events than they were. Dugas started seeing Evan and his camera everywhere. “At the time I was going to as many readings as possible,” he remembers, “and telling whoever was getting the door, that if this Evan guy shows up, I’ll pay his way in.”
Kai Carlson-Wee at QL Litquake 2013, by Ian Tuttle
As he revisited his initial encounters with the San Francisco literary community, Evan told me that he saw every hand he shook as a possible door opening. This must be the “seemingly endless (and in-born) sociability” Moneta Goldsmith credits to Evan, along with his “effective scrappiness, his renaissance hustle.”[v] To date, Evan has filmed over 6,000 readings. “Hustle” certainly helped him accomplish such a feat. But there is something else behind the Quiet Lightning phenomenon, too — something a little mysterious. Maybe it took an “unknown” person to make so many writers known. Maybe because those writers sent in their offerings anonymously, they got to know each other’s work more deeply. Maybe what matters most about Quiet Lightning is this paradox: that the anonymous nature of its form ultimately facilitates community.
Why Quiet Lightning?
At Quiet Lightning #13, Evan looked out upon a crowd of 120 people. When he asked for a show of hands of those who are at their first Quiet Lightning event, half the audience raised their arms. It’s clear something new and important has taken hold. Paul Corman-Roberts, himself the founder of several reading series, saw it as a turning point:
Quiet Lightning was a game changer. It always had electricity, regardless of the size of the venue. It reignited the area’s spoken word scene. I remember when 20 people was a lot for a random literary event. Now it’s a little low. Most events expect 40 and hope for 50 to 60, with the very top events like Quiet Lightning and Literary Death Match pulling as many as 200.[vi]
Quiet Lightning Neighborhood Heroes @ the Contemporary Jewish, by Julie Michelle
Was there something inherent in the way readings had previously been presented that kept an unnecessary distance between literature and community? Evan thought so:
I didn’t like the way readers got up there and started to explain the art they are about to present. I’d get home and start to load the reading and I’d have to cut, like, fifteen minutes of the show. It seemed obvious: if it’s not something I’d put on the internet, why make it part of our show?
One thing I noticed from attending so many lit events was people’s distaste for lit events. […] There were all these sub-cultures of readings, many characterized by very particular types of literature, and five readers with the same tone can be kind of boring. Then there was The New York Times bestseller list coming through town, which is what most of the press covered. I wanted to create a place for local people who hadn’t found their audience, and a place for every possible type of writing.
I felt the bios and intros depleted the magic. Each sequence of words is a spell, and when you follow one spell with another spell, they compound, building off the energy of the previous spell. It reinforces the inherent value of language.
Unencumbered by biographical information, authorial influences, and literary accolades, audience members are allowed to enter, through the writer’s art, the unknown moment together. The experience is vibrant and unfiltered by anecdote. Siamak Vossoughi, who has read at more Quiet Lightning shows than any other writer, notes the value of the reading experience:
Before I participated in it, I did not think of myself as a writer who read his work aloud … I learned it is different from someone reading your work from the page … there is no substitute for the visceral experience of reading aloud and seeing the faces of people listening.[vii]
The writer is out there, publicly walking the tightrope of their work, in tune with the tangible part the audience plays in whether or not they maintain their balance, their connection. Whereas the solitary writer imagines the reader’s response, at a Quiet Lightning show, the reader is in the room. The writer hears them, sees them, notes their silence. Feedback is immediate, and unequivocal about what works, and what doesn’t. Even the name, “Quiet Lightning,” was Evan’s attempt to describe the moment between a reader finishing up and applause erupting from the crowd, in much the same way that mystical texts refer to the pause between inhaling and exhaling — an untraceable silence standing outside of time, lolling around at the source of creation. This goes some of the way toward capturing the delicious mixture of liveliness and focus that pervades Quiet Lightning shows everywhere, as Evan puts it, “from dive bars to national monuments.”
Five years after the first show, it is difficult to attend any reading without running into writers who have been impacted by Quiet Lightning. Featured readers at so many Bay Area readings have, at one time, submitted to and read at Quiet Lightning shows — and some have gone on to start their own series. They have come to know each other, recognize each other, inspire each other, and work together in myriad settings.
When I ask Evan about what looks like an array of ambitious plans for the future — or, as Corman-Roberts characterizes it, “an octopus-like creature, with a lot of intelligence and many arms” — interestingly enough, he goes back to the beginning.
When Quiet Lightning started, there was no plan so much as a coalescing of vision. It wasn’t a vision of a nonprofit or an extension of my own activities, but an intense perception of the landscape as I found it … I’m referring to the realization that there were so many people doing similar things on the same streets, even on the same nights, people who didn’t know one another, but whose lives and art might be changed by a simple introduction.
This idea of an ever-growing community of artists, benefiting from the varied contexts in which they enjoy the inspiration that flows from “that simple introduction,” is the essence of the Quiet Lightning experiment. It has proven to have undeniable potency.
And much heart.
[i] Charles Kruger was a founding board member of Quiet Lightning, currently serves as board president for the reading series which he co-founded, Bay Area Generations, and publishes the blogs TheatreStorm and Storming Bohemia.
[ii] Matthew Zapruder, author most recently of Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) and Why Poetry (Ecco Press, fall 2015), lives in Oakland, California, where he is an editor-at-large at Wave Books and teaches at Saint Mary’s College.
[iii] Howard Junker went on to become the first subscriber to sPARKLE & bLINK.
Peter Bullen is a fiction writer. He was a 2014 Quiet Lightning Neighborhood Hero, and a reader at Barely Published Authors for Litquake 2014. Wee snippets of his fiction can be found at wetriedourbest.wordpress.com.
Peter (Thomas) Bullen is a fiction writer. He was a 2014 Quiet Lightning Neighborhood Hero, and a reader at Barely Published Authors for Litquake 2014. His work has appeared in sPARKLE & bLINK, Blotterature, and Weave. He sometimes has the distinct impression he has finished a novel. Wee snippets of his fiction can be found at wetriedourbest.wordpress.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Isla McKetta spends a long weekend with Write Bloody, exploring one of the most eccentric presses in poetry today.
Wendy C. Ortiz’s Rhapsodomancy is a literary event not to be missed; Jessica Dewberry explains.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!