Last summer, two major things happened: my second book came out, and I got my Belgian residence permit (meaning I could travel outside of Belgium for the first time in a year). My plan was to go to the US to see my family, and while I was there, to travel around to give readings in support of the book. I wanted to meet writers, visit bookshops, and see parts of the country I never saw while I lived there. Since coming back to Belgium, I’ve gotten a few requests for information about how I did this tour. I’ve written up my process below—there’s a lot of it—and I hope it’s useful.
How I planned and what I did beforehand:
I knew up front that my press would not support any kind of reading tour financially. I think this is more and more the case. In my case, because I was not legally allowed to work during the year of waiting and because before that I was on a visa that only let me work part-time, the general financial situation (little money from presses for book tours; none for poets, at least not poets of my stature) was compounded by my lack of ready cash. These things meant that if I wanted to do a tour, I would have to do it extremely cheaply, and I would have to depend on the kindness of people I didn’t know—first of all because I would be arranging everything from far away (six or seven or eight or nine timezones) and second because I would be asking for hosting, event organization, co-readers, etc., all without having much (monetarily speaking) to offer in exchange. That said, since I would be going all that way, I didn’t want to do a couple of readings in the Twin Cities, maybe one in Wisconsin or Iowa, and call it a day. If I was going to do a tour—spending the last bits of savings that had carried my through two jobless years—I was going to do it right. I decided that I would try for ten cities, but that I wasn’t attached to where those cities were. Wherever I could find a couch to sleep on and a café, bookshop, theater, or other venue to read in (preferably with another poet), I would read.
I put out a call on Facebook and Twitter to see who might be willing to host a reading, and who would be willing to let me stay with them, and I went from there, building a path I could easily do by train (the most affordable way for me—I had the luxury, at this point, of joblessness, and I had six weeks to use up; also, I wanted to see the US by train [I don’t have a driver’s license] and to use the time on board to write). I concentrated on cities where I knew people I could stay with. That said, I did get offers for readings and places to stay that didn’t make the final cut: there were places that weren’t very accessible for me (trains didn’t go there, or I’d have to make a big detour; places isolated from any other places I had offers). If I had had more time, and more money, I could have gone to twice as many cities. That’s just to say that there are definitely people and venues out there who want to support writers in this way. I found that the more specific I could be about dates, the better it was for the hosts, because it meant less planning and deciding for them. They could just say yes/no, and then we’d work it out.
It came down to two loops: West Coast/East Coast. On the West Coast, the cities were Tucson-LA-SF (Oakland)-Portland-Seattle; on the East Coast, Philadelphia-NY-Salem, MA-Hartland, VT-Farmington, ME. I also read twice in the Twin Cities, since that’s where I’m from. The first readings to be arranged were the ones in Tucson and Hartland (VT), so I structured everything around them. I knew I would have to shell out for plane fares for parts of the loops (several multi-day train trips were just not in my budget, time- or money-wise), so I wanted to be sure I could be in the most cities and still end up somewhere where flying back to/out from Minneapolis was affordable. When it looked like I’d be passing through somewhere, I put out more feelers via Twitter/FB to see if friends of friends were involved with the writing scene/bookshops/etc. and would be willing to help me set things up. As cities arose, I marked them on a map, then looked to see what was between them and repeated the process.
Places I read & people who helped me:
(these are just to give an idea of what is out there; of course there are many other places/organizations/organizers, and what you find/who has room in their schedule for you may vary):
I read at Casa Libre, in Tucson, where I also gave a workshop. This was an incredible experience. Incredible. Generous (one of the few places that gave me an honorarium, but besides that just generous with time, support, company, a place to stay a ride from the airport…). Melissa Buckheit was the one who set this up. She is wonderful. I read with Allison Ramirez and Mariah Chuptit Shield-Chief.
And then I read at Beyond Baroque, in LA. Rachelle Cruz, who is beyond lovely, set this up for me. I contacted her out of the blue because I had seen a couple of her poems and knew she had a chapbook out from Dancing Girl Press (which published my chapbook later in 2013); I asked whether she might know of a way to set up a reading in LA. She connected me to Jessica Ceballos, who runs several readings series. Jessica was very enthusiastic and really took care of everything for the reading. I stayed with a printmaker (whom I knew through Twitter).
Lesson: connecting to a poet who shared the same chapbook press was a really good experience—Rachelle was so generous, helpful, supportive.
In San Francisco/Oakland I stayed with an artist friend (Oakland), who connected me to the place I read: Little Paper Planes, a tiny gallery and boutique (SF). This was amazing. I think Kelly, the owner of the shop, was maybe a tiny bit unsure about having a poetry reading there (it was also, I think, the first public event in the shop after hours). But this was a completely magical evening. It convinced me even more that the way I want to get my work out there is to sit in small rooms with a small number of people and read to them while looking them in the eyes. If you are planning a tour, this is one of the best pieces of advice I could offer: look for tiny, unconventional venues. I sold books to almost every person at this reading (twelve books!—a lot for any reading I gave), and it was intimate, warm, tender. It was really electric to be in the space with them. And filling a tiny venue is very possible. And doing poetry outside of its typical settings (bookshop, university, library, theater?) is I think also special. People walking by were watching the reading through the windows and we could ask them to come in.
Lesson: reading in an unusual/unfit space made for a very magical evening. If you pitch it right, shopowners/cafés/wherever will respond to your request to read.
In Portland, I read at PNCA. The folks there made a really beautiful poster advertising the reading, and also arranged for me to be interviewed beforehand for publicity. This was set up for me by Marshall Astor, an MA student in Critical Research and Creative Practice there, and I know him only because he wrote an essay for the monograph of Lisa Solomon’s that MIEL published. (It was stunning for me to find how many small connections I had with people—and how the people on the other ends of those lines were inordinately willing and excited to help set things up.) PNCA also gave me a small honorarium. I stayed with friends.
Lesson: Self-evident, maybe, but: reading at a university can be good as there is often a built-in audience and publicity mechanism. Even though it was summer, there were a good number of students at the reading.
In Seattle, I read at the Elliot Bay Book Company. The venue was arranged for me by the publicist at my press, but Arlene Kim (a friend/MFA cohort/poet) helped me find Jane Wong, who read with me. Arlene had recently read or was going to read in several of the venues that were possibilities for Seattle, so she gave me a list of poets she knew and I chose Jane to ask—I’d read her work before and liked it. (Arlene also took me around the city, showed me amazing bookshops, brought me to the market, etc.) I’d wholeheartedly recommend EBB as a venue if you will be in Seattle and if they will have you. The atmosphere was warm and very, very pleasant. The reading was pretty packed, in part because Jane (who’s local and in a PhD program) brought a good number of people in.
Lesson: even if your friends in a city can’t read with you, they’ll know people who can—and they’ll help connect you to the literary scene there.
In Minneapolis, I read with three other poets (Valerie Wetlaufer, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Meryl Depasquale) at MoonPalace Books, a nice little independent bookshop which is in the neighborhood where I grew up and where my parents still live. Even though I haven’t lived in Minneapolis for almost a decade, it was useful to be able to show I had some connection to the bookshop’s neighborhood. Reading in a group also brought more people (and gave me a chance to hear a bunch of other writers’ work, which was part of the reason I was in the US at all). In order to ensure that people would come to my second Twin Cities reading (in St Paul in August), I only read older work and work from my chapbook, nothing from the new book.
In Philadelphia, I read at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore. This is a very sweet little bookshop! The reading was set up via someone who I knew through Twitter (and there because she has read my blog for a long time! Hi, Kasey!). Kasey Jueds arranged everything (contacted the other reader, Elaine Sexton, and bookshop). I stayed with friends in Delaware who worked in Philadelphia (so I could ride into the city with them). The one drawback to this situation was that the bookstore wanted to have me provide books that they’d sell, giving me 70% of sale price. But after buying my books from the publisher at 60% of cost, this would mean making almost nothing for the reading. Book sales were how I paid for my train tickets, food, and any lodging I had to pay for. I was scared to say to the reading coordinator that I wouldn’t be selling my books at the reading (because I didn’t want to make her angry) but I also felt that my work—the writing and the reading—was worth being compensated for. Despite my shaking hands, I was glad that I stuck to my principles. Writers who are already out of pocket for travel, time, and copies to sell should not—despite the noble project of the independent bookstore—have to subsidize that project. Bookstores can order books and, if they don’t sell, can send them back—and, of course, books that are sold this way by the bookstore make the shop money and pay the writer royalties.
Lesson: if book sales are how you’re paying your way, make sure you are clear with the places you read about how that will work. Be firm and open and direct about what you’re comfortable with. I didn’t have email for much of my travel, which meant I was late seeing the email with sales terms, and since it didn’t seem like my desires would match the shop’s policy, I let the email go unanswered. The bookstore has since told me that they would’ve ordered books, so I wish that had been clear! They did have order slips so people could order books then and there.
In New York City, I read at Posman Books in Chelsea Market, with Amy Shearn.Garrett Burrell, a poet who works there, set this up—he contacted me via Facebook when he saw I was looking for places to read. (See, I told you—incredible kindness from strangers.) I also had help from a hugely competent publicist, my friend Alyson Sinclair (if you’re looking for a publicist, she is freelance and amazing). Lots of readings series are off during the summer, which made finding a place in NYC more challenging, and, through no one’s fault, the reading was definitely the most sparsely attended of any I gave. This in mind, in a huge city, being part of a reading series or other established venue would probably be better if possible. (That said, Garrett was an impeccable host, and the bookstore folks were really kind and supportive. Free wine!)
Lesson: in big cities, where lots is going on, being on the bill for an established reading series or reading at a university might be the best way to go if you can get it, especially if you don’t know a ton of people in the city.
In Salem (MA), I read and gave a workshop to a class at Salem State University. This was arranged by a friend I knew who was teaching there (she also hosted me and J.).
In Hartland (VT), I read at the public library. Again, a friend set this up (and hosted us). At each event where there wasn’t a predetermined reading setup (as there was in LA and Tucson—rooms that were designated for readings with risers or chairs in them), it was nice to be able to go early and help set up the room to suit me. I like to read to smallish circular/semi-circular rows of chairs, and to have a chair/stool to sit on while I read. Smaller venues, besides being, well, small, often are more flexible spatially. In Vermont, we had a table for books and one for cake (I made a cake for the reading; the library provided coffee). I also really like when I can provide something for people to eat or drink at the reading—kind of to make it feel less formal, more familial, more intimate, and welcoming and also kind of as a gift in return for their listening.
In Farmington (ME), I read at DDG Booksellers. Again, wonderful hosts. This was set up for me by Shana Youngdahl, and I read with Kristen Case to a packed house. It helped that I had recently had a poem accepted by Beloit Poetry Journal, which is located in Farmington, and that I’d hosted Jeff Thompson (a poet who teaches at U Maine-Farmington) at a reading in England in 2012. That’s something to think about when planning—not only where do you know people, but where are journals who have published your work located? Where are people whom you’ve hosted/supported located? I don’t mean to be cynical or over-strategic about it, but these are the interested parties. These are your public.
Last but not least (in the US), I read at the ever-wonderful Micawber’s Books in St. Paul. Hans is a great host, and Katrina Vandenberg, who read with me, was a perfect co-reader. I’d read at Micawber’s before (when my first book came out), and had had a couple of other interactions with Hans; Katrina and I are friends on Facebook and I love her writing. It was a matter of a couple of requests. My publisher also gave me a bit of money to order a cake (by this time, and in the hot, humid Minnesota August I didn’t feel like baking any more) and some wine/lemonade. I should also note that Kathryn Kysar, when she heard I was looking to read in the Twin Cities, sent me a big list of poets, venues, etc.—if you live somewhere that has a good (or even less good) literary scene, this would be a great resource to make for visiting writers.
I’ll stop there with readings, but if you are interested in ideas of where to ask about reading in the UK or Belgium, please let me know and I’ll send you a list of places and names/contacts on this side of the ocean.
How did I travel, and what did it cost?
Besides flying to the US, which I would have been doing anyway (it had been two years since I was back to see my family), the costs were:
TRAVEL – Flight from Minneapolis to Tucson and from Seattle to Minneapolis: $300 – Flight from San Francisco to Portland (I chose this over train because they were the same exact price—$100—and the train was 17 hours to the plane’s one) – Flight from Minneapolis to Philadelphia and Boston to Minneapolis: $300 – Train from Tucson to LA: $58 – Train from LA to Oakland: $61 – Train from Portland (OR) to Seattle: $25 – Train from Philadelphia to New York: $39 – Train from New York to Boston: $49 – From Boston to VT and then to Farmington, J rented a car (his choice—he wanted to drive in the US—so I didn’t pay. It would have been another $150 or so otherwise—trains and bus.) – Train from Portland (ME) to Boston: $25
FOOD I budgeted $10 per day for food and other transport, and for the most part I was able to stick to this. I bought a lot of cheese/bread/fruit/nuts and packed sandwiches for on trains. I kept a bottle to fill with water. I was super fortunate to be fed by friends in most places, which kept my costs very low.
OTHER I had a small emergency fund which I might have dipped into in New York to buy books for me and yarn for my mom. Might have.
I think one caveat for all this is that my savings are in euros, so my purchases depleted my bank account more slowly than if I’d been working in dollars.
How I paid for it:
BOOKS Up front, I bought about 20 copies of each of my books from my publisher, at my author’s discount (40%). I hemmed and hawed over this: it was a big outlay of cash and my money was tight as it was. But since most places I was reading weren’t bookshops (and therefore wouldn’t have my book or necessarily be able to order it/take care of sales themselves), I thought in the end it would be worth it to bring copies to sell. It turned out to be completely worth it. I sold every single copy and had to buy more (I sold about 60 books over the four weeks I was touring). The books paid themselves back and then paid for my travel within the US.
MORE BOOKS I made twelve editions of small books containing poems from Her book. I sold these for about $5 each: again, more cash for unforeseen expenses, extra food, and train tickets. I also used these as bread-and-butter gifts and gifts to the people who organized readings for me.
MY SAVINGS I had a few hundred euro left in my savings, and figured it was just as good to blow it onsomething like this as to watch it slowly trickle out to grocery stores over the next few months. That said, I’m in the very privileged position of having a partner whose work pays our bills (and who is legally obliged by the terms of my visa/residence permit to support me—oy!), so it wasn’t as though I was facing despair if I had no money. I was only facing inconvenience and a small loss of freedom (i.e. the freedom to randomly purchase books). Still, I want to emphasize that in the end the books paid for the travel. I had to lay the money out up front, but it was all paid back to me by selling my books and the honoraria I got in Tucson and Portland (OR). But I know I couldn’t have taken that risk if I weren’t already backed up by the safety net of J’s job.
HONORARIA In Tucson I got a small fee for reading (!) and another for giving a workshop. This money covered my food/transport per diem for the West Coast. In Portland (OR) I also got an honorarium for reading, which covered much of my food/transport per diem for the East Coast (New York was a little more expensive).
Other things that made it work:
There were a few other things I did that I think contributed to the tour being a success (for me—and my measure of success is ‘I felt good, people came to readings, and the rooms were happy and warm’). Your experience may of course vary, not to mention your ability/desire to do these things, or the appropriateness of them to your situation, or any etc. you can think of. All of this, after all, is just a jumping-off point for your way of doing this/making a tour that works for you. Take it with salt.
Making flyers for readings/FB banners/etc. For each event, I designed a PDF/printable flyer that the venue could hang. I made email versions of each, and I made a banner for Facebook for each, so that the venues could post these on their websites or FB pages if they wanted. (The FB cover image dimensions are 851 pixels wide and 315 pixels tall.) I basically wanted it to be as easy as possible for venues to publicize the readings; I also wanted there to be some kind of cohesion in the look of the publicity for the tour.
Using social media, blergh. But also yep. I used the hashtag #herbooktour13 on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as I traveled. I was taking lots of photos and using Instagram to post to Twitter/FB so that I could show people venues, scenery, and my notebooks. This seemed to get people interested in the readings, and it also was a way to show the process of doing this kind of thing—not only the time in between readings, but the way making writing/keeping notes is tied up in the more public side of writing work (reading, teaching). A side benefit to this is that I can track my photos and tweets now, and they help me remember things about that travel for the writing that’s come from it.
The goodwill of others. I don’t ‘think’ this contributed, and I didn’t ‘do’ it—it was one of the foundational pillars of this travel, and without it there would have been no success—but I can’t overstate the way that the friendship and kindness and support and generosity of other writers (and artists and friends and strangers) made this possible. It galvanized my own desire to make spaces, literal and metaphorical, material and immaterial, for others to do and display their work. It reaffirmed to me that I am part of a community, with all the responsibilities and privileges that involves.
* * *
I’ve written this for three reasons: First, as I said above, because I’ve had several emails asking me about how I did my tour (so I may as well put it out here and make the information public). Second, to be transparent about what something like this costs—not only in terms of money but also time, connection, goodwill, skills (design, communication). How things like my privileged unemployment (not desired, but definitely a position of privilege,where I don’t have to worry about where rent money will come from/etc.) played into my ability to do this. I want to be clear about what made this possible—the mechanisms that supported my ability to do this should not be invisible. Third, I want to support others who might want to do such a thing, on whatever scale. I found the idea of making a tour bewildering. How to wade through masses of information? Where would I start? Was it too audacious? Who gave me the right? Listen: it is possible. You can do it. There are people out there who want to support you. It’s ok to email reading series, literary organizations, and writers you know to ask about reading. (You will get some negative answers. That’s ok, too.) If you want information, contact details, help, support, brainstorming, commiseration I am happy to help (freely). Just ask. If I can do it, I will. (I do things like design and editing and consulting and scheduling on a more formal basis [for pay].) Tons of people made my tour possible; I would be happy to be one of the tons you will need to make yours happen, too.