Nitty Gritty Magic City isn’t just a poetry reading series, it’s a melding of artists and community in a nautical setting.
Below the waves of music resonating from Step Pepper Records artist Omari Jazz’s DJ table, three poets from Nashville, Tenn., were steadily accumulating an audience of college students, teachers, writers, poetry lovers and fish.
Nitty Gritty is hosted by the Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO), a Birmingham space created to tutor students in creative writing with a giant octopus tentacle, world maps, boats, a net and sharks on its walls. All around the space there are tiny pieces of poetry pasted to shoes, mirrors, a fish tank and other everyday treasures. The series was created by Katherine Webb and Daniel DeVaughn, who volunteer their time each month to hold the event.
Eight years ago, Webb and DeVaughn met at Greencup Books where they would listen to poetry readings. Last year, they reconnected and found that Greencup Books was closed and that Birmingham was lacking a place where people could come together to share their work.
After finishing their master’s degrees, the two realized they didn’t want to lose the writing community they had been a part of while in school. “We essentially wanted to create an open space of creative exchange for the spoken and written word,” said Webb. The owners of DISCO supported their idea and offered their space.
While Webb and DeVaughn both come from academic backgrounds, they didn’t want a dry, serious reading environment. They wanted the experience to be “democratic” and open, said DeVaughn. They wanted a place where writers could get feedback on their work and be connected with the people around them.
“I think it’s [in] that idea of dispelling the myth that there’s difference here,” Webb said. “You may exist in academia and you may have never been taught anything, but you sit on your grandma’s porch and you try to make words that sound good to you, and you’re going after the same thing.”
DeVaughn called it “a marriage of high and low culture.”
“We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously,” Webb said concerning the series’ title. “I think that that name sort of represents the fun of the experience, in coming and having a night of literary entertainment…but also it speaks to the fact that when you are writing, and whether it’s poetry, non-fiction or fiction, you’re getting down to the nitty gritty of what it means to be human. And you’re getting down to the nitty gritty of the human experience.”
“I had a number of people who came up to me afterward and seemed to enjoy the poems and [saw] people in the community I hadn’t seen before, which is rare because the poetry community in Birmingham is pretty tight-knit,” said UAB creative writing professor Adam Vines, who read at the very first Nitty Gritty reading Nov. 13 of last year. “So it was nice to see more community members coming out for the poetry readings. That night there were probably 30 or 40 people here which is really impressive for any poetry reading, much less one at a place that isn’t an academic institution.”
“We had no idea what to expect,” Webb said. “We thought if 15 people come who we don’t know really well — success.”
Webb mentioned she had been to only a few readings where the audience was so engaged with the writers’ work. “It’s very quiet when the reading is taking place because people are there to hear the person read, which is special,” she said.
Helping writers develop is another large component of the series. Being able to share your work with an audience explains more about the craft of writing and revision than writing alone in a “vacuum,” Webb explained.
“You’re writing a short story, and you think you have a really funny scene, and then you read it aloud, and nobody laughs. You know that it’s not funny,” she said.
“You never really know how something’s going to move someone until after it happens,” said Nitty Gritty guest poet, T.J. Jarrett. “You kind of write in the dark. It’s a very lonely kind of profession. You kind of just tool away at something then suddenly you’re like ‘maybe someone else feels the same way about it?’”
Have words, will travel
At the last reading on May 14, Nashville natives Edgar Kunz, Christina Stoddard and Jarrett, who had connected with DeVaughn at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee, travelled four hours to Birmingham just for the night to read their work to a crowd.
Kunz, a 26-year-old free-verse poet and creative writing professor, was the first to walk to the microphone. He read poetry from a few sheets of paper about childhood violence, love and the complex relationship he has with his father.
“I write largely about growing up in working-class New England,” Kunz said. “So I write a lot about childhood and violence and the ways in which kids are violent toward each other in a way that adults are not.”
“My father is homeless, or was homeless last time I talked to him,” he said. “I’m not really in touch with him, so I write about that a lot too. I write about sort of the complicated relationship I have with him. Sort of loving him very much but also having a very sort of troubled relationship.”
His poem, simply titled “Graduation,” delved into the compound emotions he felt when his father attended his school graduation.
“I’m always trying to examine a complicated set of emotions,” Kunz said. “It’s not that interesting for me to write about anger or to write about sadness. It’s way more interesting to me to try to figure out a way to talk about pride and shame, like experiencing both of those things sort of in the same moment, for example.”
Stoddard, 37, read from her collection of poetry Hive. In her book the narrator, a teenage girl, speaks throughout most of the poems. The girl is growing up in a violent neighborhood. She questions her Mormon faith and struggles to “reconcile a God that would allow evil to exist.”
“It is a coming-of-age story,” Stoddard said. “And the poems are pretty plain language, like there [aren’t] any five-dollar words or things like that. I wrote them, on purpose, to be understandable…I think teenagers could read this book and hopefully like it.”
She admitted that many of the events the girl struggled with in her book, she also endured growing up.
Jarrett, an IT business intelligence developer, was the last poet to speak, reading from her works Zion and Ain’t No Grave.
“I’m really touched by grief because it’s a very universal thing,” said Jarrett. “How people cope with grief — how people go on…The things we do to survive afterwards. I think that’s much more fascinating than the actual trauma itself.”
As a writer, she said, you have to love people or at least the study of people.
“I’m inspired by people in general and I think that people are the most fascinating things on earth. Just the diversity and humanity of it,” she said. “…I wait for something to move me and I write. I don’t know what the thing is — usually people in dramatic situations because people are relatively ordinary, but really, the strange situations that bring things out in them — that’s what fascinated me.”
Many people have thanked Webb and DeVaughn for bringing poetry events back into the community. “The need was there,” DeVaughn said. “People wanted this.”
Webb and DeVaughn began hosting their reading series at DISCO in Nov. 2014, and they plan to continue it indefinitely. They said they dream of the series becoming a “carnival” of artists, musicians, professors, writers or any creative mind — a place where people connect with a community and inspire each other.
The event is free and open to anyone and all writers of any genre. The series is currently on hiatus but will continue in August at DISCO. For more information about Nitty Gritty, visit Nitty Gritty Magic City on Facebook.