Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The New Face(s) of PALABRA PURA

Mike Puican, the president of the board of directors of the Guild Complex in Chicago, and one of the co-founders of PALABRA PURA, recently agreed to answer a few questions about the facelift this signature reading series has recently undergone, as it enters into its 6th season. Pictured above are the poets who took part in the launch of season 6. They're names were listed earlier, HERE.

Tomorrow evening, season six continues with a special edition of PALABRA PURA. Here is more information about what promises to be a special event. And now, the interview:

Letras Latinas Blog:
PALABRA PURA has recently inaugurated its 6th season. Could you share with our readers what some of the recent developments with the series have been. The first thing that one notices is that the curation has been de-centralized somewhat. Could you talk about that process and what informs this evolution in the series?

Mike Puican: One of the secrets of running a successful reading series is to not only make sure that the talent is fresh and interesting but to keep the format fresh and interesting as well. Call this new direction the Palabra Pura 2.0 version.

For five years Palabra Pura has been guided by a handful of people deeply involved in Latino literature. This group was responsible for putting together each year’s lineup of features. There was a Chicago group who reached out to local talent and Francisco Aragón tapped into his vast network for the out-of-town features.  For the first five years this formula worked well. However as we began to plan for our sixth year, we felt the need to take another look at the format.

Mary Hawley, who has worked on this series from the start (she made the initial connection between Francisco Aragón and the Guild Complex when she began talking to Francisco in the salad line of a Notre Dame event), suggested the guest curator model. The basic idea is that every month there would be a different curator for the evening. Each guest curator would plan and present the entire evening. This could include bringing in an out-of-town writer of their choosing.

We didn’t know how these changes would be received.  We reached out to some of the writers who’ve been featured at Palabra Pura and asked if they were interested in planning an entire evening. We’ve been blown away by how positive the reaction has been. We now have enough guest curators to take us into the middle of 2012! And we have additional requests for curators beyond that. Given the wide range of aesthetics represented by our features, you can imagine how each evening is going to vary. It’s been very exciting to watch this unfold.

LLB: Could you address what the mission of the series was when it was founded and how that mission has evolved?

I have to say the mission is pretty much the same now as it was in the beginning: to provide the opportunity for established, emerging, and new Latino writers to share their work and ideas. Palabra Pura is a monthly reading series that allows writers to present their work regardless of their country of origin and in whatever language they write—Spanish, English or a combination of languages.

The aim of the series is to foster dialogue through literature in Chicago and beyond. Most evenings pair a local poet with a visiting writer along with an open mic to foster the interaction of diverse voices, ideas, and aesthetics.

LLB: As you look back on the first five seasons of the series, could you share with our readers what in your mind, have been some of the highlights or high points of the series?

One of the best nights for me is still the very first Palabra Pura in February of 2006. A group of us had been working on this new idea for over a year.
We spent that year talking with people involved in Latino literature and social concerns. From those discussions there grew a central group who developed the series. The group included individuals from Letras Latinas at the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame, the Center for Latino Studies at University of Illinois, the excellent Spanish-language newspaper, revista contratiempo, the Arena Cultural supplement of the newspaper, La Raza, and the Guild Complex.

Despite the fact that Chicago has the third largest Latino population in the US, there was no regular venue for Spanish-language writers to share their work. We worked together to determine the format, line up the readers, find a venue and obtain funding. The first night was at a bar in Humboldt Park called the California Clipper. It’s a good-sized bar and, for the opening night, the place was packed. It was a thrill to see the reception to what had just been an idea for so long.

Other noteworthy nights included readings by well established writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Victor Hernandez Cruz and Juan Felipe Herrera. It’s always a treat to see big-name writers perform in our series. I should also point out, though, that the programming we have done with these more established voices was possible thanks to the generous collaboration of the Poetry Foundation, with whom we’ve partnered on these occasions.

Another definite high point was this past week’s launch for our new curating format. It was a fabulous night! 22 poets who have been previously featured at Palabra Pura read one poem each. It was stunning to experience such a wide range of quality writing and performance styles. A lot is being written lately about the huge range that defines Latino writing in this moment. This week’s Palabra Pura was clearly a testament to that.

been many other high points. I could spend a long time answering this question.

LLB: What have been some of the challenges and how were they

MP: Anyone who puts on a monthly series over time knows the challenges—finding good features, last-minute cancellations, venue changes, emcee switches, securing consistent funding, etc.

One big challenge for any long-running series is how to keep each event fresh and exciting. You can’t just put things on automatic pilot and expect that audiences will continually be excited about coming out to see it.
We’ve found that we need to think hard about how to create the most interesting evening for each event. We owe that to our audience. We also found we need to give a lot of attention to getting the word out. Creating publicity is key. For each event we try to look for what is special about these particular readers. We ask who would be interested in this event and how can we use this to generate publicity for the event.
We’ve found an important part of that publicity is also getting each one of the features to promote the event. Almost everyone has a Facebook page and many have their own websites and mailing lists. Each feature has his/her own fans.  We encourage each feature to be a big part of getting the word out.

LLB: What are some of the continuing challenges of running a series like this and what plans does the Guild Complex have to address these?

MP: The answer to this flows right out of the last question. After five successful years we asked ourselves what could be done to continue to make Palabra Pura fresh and relevant. After quite a bit of discussion with those inside the Guild Complex and those outside of it, we decided to try something new. That’s where the guest curator model came in.
Last Question:

LLB: Can you talk about about being president of the board of directors of the Guild Complex, and how that has been for you? If you had to summarize the ethos and philosophy of the Guild, what would it be?

MP: The Guild Complex has been a force in Chicago’s literary scene for 22 years. I’ve been president of the board for five years. From the beginning, the Guild Complex has been strictly dedicated to presenting literature. Our focus is on presenting under represented voices and emerging artists. We also love to find new ways to mash up literature with other art forms.
We’re a small organization run by our very talented Executive Director, Kimberly Dixon. That means that the board gets involved in many functions of the organization—fundraising, long range planning, programming, marketing, and building alliances with other organizations. While many nonprofit organizations are looking for moneyed people to join their boards, we are only interested in people who are passionate about the work of the Guild Complex. These are also people who are involved in socially oriented causes and literary endeavors, and who have networks outside of the Guild Complex. Our board is made up of important ambassadors for the work we do.

A few years ago I read a study that found that the two main reasons that volunteers and board members leave an organization are: 1) the meetings are poorly managed 2) they don’t feel that they have any impact on the organization. As president of the board I see my main job as making sure meetings are efficient and effective, and that each person has the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.

This is a great organization. I feel lucky to work with so many interesting and talented people.

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