“If we don’t do it, who will?” Emma Sanders says, and it’s as though a dog whistle has gone off; this is a question I’m intimately familiar with, one I’ve heard many times, and one I’ve asked myself repeatedly. It’s a question that confronts anyone even remotely involved in DIY.
Emma, Alina Pleskova, and I are sitting in the Triangle Tavern, off South Passyunk; they’re drinking beer while I sip coffee.
“I get that,” I say. “I grew up in fucking Arkansas.” Alina and Emma smile politely at the sudden shade I’ve thrown at my home state, and even I’m a little surprised with what conviction I’ve said that. “I mean,” I say, attempting to modulate my tone, “we didn’t have a lot of stuff to do there. If you wanted something, you made it yourself.” I tell them fondly about Towncraft, a documentary made about the DIY scene in Little Rock, and both of them dutifully write down the title.
Truthfully, I don’t even mean it as shade; if there’s one thing I love about having grown up in Arkansas, a place, as Towncraft describes it, “where nothing happens,” it’s that it forced me to create and build spaces of inclusivity and expression because if I didn’t, who would?
Of course, I’m talking about simple things—booking house shows and art exhibits for me and my friends, places where we would feel comfortable playing our music and sharing our art after major venues and galleries turned up their noses at us. Emma and Alina are doing something a bit more ambitious: they’re making poetry accessible.
Alina and Emma are the hosts of Poetry Jawns, a podcast showcasing poets, poetry and jawns that strike their interest. The show is uniquely Philadelphian (the word “jawn” is a deeply rooted bit of Philadelphian slang) yet not exclusively so. Like the Philadelphian poetry scene in general (at least in my experience), it’s warm and inviting, even to outsiders, and throughly unpretentious. In many ways, it’s the antithesis to more “serious” and foreboding poetry podcasts. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, the Poetry Foundation’s podcast featuring poets playing “Bodega Snack Roulette,” in which Alina, Emma, and their guest try a random food-type substance purchased at the local corner store. (Alina, Emma, and I all actually really enjoy the Poetry Foundation podcast, to be clear; please don’t be mad at us, Don Share).
“We just don’t want to be too serious,” Emma says. “Most people think poetry is the kind of thing that would soothe a sick owl to sleep.”
“Nobody on our podcast is too precious with their shit,” Alina offers. “We’re the anti-blub podcast. We don’t care about where you’ve published or where you’ve read or any of that. We care about the work.” For Alina, this is clearly a sticking point; she also co-edits the magazine Bedfellows, a magazine of literary sex-writing that excludes author bios entirely. She describes her DIY inclusive ethos as stemming from her time as a “baby punk.”
Alina and Emma are clearly in it for the love of poetry and nothing else. In fact, they both described tremendous feelings of guilt for launching an Indiegogo to help them fund their studio, and note they were surprised to find out that some people charge door covers to poetry readings.
“Nobody makes money off of podcasts,” Emma says.
“Well, some people do,” Alina interjects. “But not us.”
“It lets you be idealistic, I think,” Emma adds. “You don’t have to compromise, and the stakes are low.”
Part of the infectious inclusivity of the podcast comes from the clear affection Emma and Alina have for one another. “When I first wanted to do this podcast, Emma was the first person I thought of. She’s smart, funny, and entirely unpretentious. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else.”
When we finish our respective drinks, we walk the three or four blocks over to Alina’s house. I meet her cat, and we go upstairs to see the studio. I had anticipated a small, cramped, egg-crate affair, but instead, I find a wide, colorful space that can only be described as “funky.” Posters and found-objects are hung over a bright red couch, recording equipment is tucked away in the corner; an ash tray sits on a small coffee table that doubles as a place for microphones. It reminds me warmly of the punk houses I visited in my teenage years, except without all the roaches and self-loathing.
“We wanted something cozy,” Alina explains. “It can take hours to record and edit down an episode. We want people to forget they’re even recording.”
I tell them that the work seems effortless in the final product; hours of work, reduced down to thirty minutes of audio is a difficult feat, but they make it seem smooth.
“If it sounds seamless,” Emma says, “then that’s all we’re going for. That’s what we want.”
Yet I would be lying if I said their audio was perfectly smooth. As they themselves confess, you can occasionally hear sounds of them setting down beer cans, pouring water, or other background noise. But in a way, it’s these “flaws” that make the podcast all the more charming, all the more real. It reminds you that there are regular people, not high polished professionals, behind poetry.
Listen to the first episode of Poetry Jawns with Gina Myers:
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In what I can only hope is a similarly charming, rough-edged confession, I must admit, too, that I’m not really much of a journalist. I’ve had an easier time live-tweeting and writing poems about this experience than I had writing this column. Emma and Alina frequently asked me to keep some things “off the record,” and only when they did that did I realize that I was supposed to be keeping a record, or at least, trying to be more accurate than the nearly illegible notes I scribbled down. But I did my best, and hey, maybe it’s charming?
After we said goodbye, and I got briefly lost on my way back to the train, I followed up with Emma and Alina in an email, hoping that in any case, they might be able to represent themselves better than I have here.
The Rumpus: Y’all briefly mentioned that the name of the podcast came from an Apiary column—did I get that right? Or did I imagine that in some kind of fever-dream hallucination? Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Alina Pleskova: You remembered correctly! The first iteration of Poetry Jawns was a column on the Apiary site. Each month, I’d compile a bunch of poems, based on some common loose theme, and write a little blurb about them. I’m 99% sure that Ras Mashramani came up with the name at an Apiary meeting, so gonna go ahead and credit her. Also, while we’re here: Apiary does great work in Philly and so does Ras and Metropolarity.
Rumpus: Alina, you said some really really nice stuff about Emma, and I know Emma wanted to return the favor but felt more comfortable doing so in writing. So Emma, if you wanted to say some mushy stuff about Alina, here’s your chance!
Emma Sanders: There is so much of this podcast for which Alina deserves credit, namely, having the idea in the first place and providing the studio space out of her own home. I’d also say that Alina brings a voice/tone to the podcast that is singular. She also has this breezy way of writing, both on social media and in messages we’ve put together to donors and guests. Social is so carefully cultivated these days but Alina has a way of existing online that’s clever and funny but also feels wholly authentic in this way that puts people at ease. She does not like to talk about this stuff (sorry Alina ily) and definitely wouldn’t consider it a skill or talent. But it totally is. She’s a rare wild capture of genuine presence in a hyper-calculated virtual space.
We’ve been acquiring so many new skill sets, like silent signaling at each other while recording. Since we try to keep the conversations with guests as organic as possible, we tend to work off our pre-prepared notes but ask the questions popcorn style. I’ll look at Alina like, you want to take this one? Or some frantic, wild-eyed hand waving when one us accidentally puts down her beer can too loudly. It’s a really sophisticated non-verbal system of communication we’ve got going.
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you put the studio together? Conceptually, and also practically speaking.
Pleskova: Equipment-wise, we couldn’t have gotten any of our stuff (microphones, mic stands, cables, headphones, amplifier, etc.) without our incredibly generous Indiegogo donors. Everything we have was recommended by a sound engineer friend who saved us a lot of time/hassle in terms of research and price comparison. He told us exactly what we needed to get the sound quality we wanted. We got everything from Sweetwater Sound, which I’m mentioning in case anyone reading this needs studio/sound equipment. Their sales engineers and support team are the actual nicest humans. Excellent business, A+.
Otherwise, it would be kinda disingenuous to say that our studio aesthetic was a super planned thing. I mean, we wanted it to be vibrant, inviting, and not sterile—especially since it’s a relatively small space that we and our guests hang in for two or three hours when recording. But we also didn’t want to spend a ton of time (or any money, if we could help it) “curating” the vibe. I had just moved into a new place and had a bunch of extra furniture because my roommate moved in with furniture of his own. So that worked out nicely. We didn’t want to allocate Indiegogo campaign funds to decor/furniture unless it was necessary and we didn’t already own something or couldn’t find it for free (like, a lamp or chair or something.) So the decor is a hodgepodge of stuff we already owned, found objects, etc. There’s a “mixed media” collage in there that I made during an acid trip when I was twenty-two. A couple mannequin heads that my ex trash-picked. A neon blacklight poster of a cobra, proudly won during bingo at Tattooed Mom. That sorta thing. It all somehow fits together, I think?
Sanders: Yeah, my main comments on the studio are THANK YOU DONORS and THANK YOU ALINA.
The studio came together pretty organically. We wanted the space to be comfortable. Our second guest, Warren Longmire, has accumulated a ton of experience as a host, from Get Lucid! (a Philly poetry open mic) to Who Do You Love (local live-TV broadcast on poets). He told us that the host’s job is to make the guest feel that the microphone isn’t there. That is always a goal of mine when talking to guests and I would hope that the space feels relaxed and welcoming.
Also, such a key part of Philly poetry communities is gathering in a shared space. Poetry readings happen in bars, coffeeshop basements, warehouse performance spaces, people’s living rooms, etc. We definitely want to expand the podcast beyond local guests (one of the things that is especially appealing about the podcast as a medium is its boundless nature), but while we’re starting out, I think sharing a physical space with a poet we’re speaking to helps approximate this sense of community we value as poets.
The Rumpus: Also, I don’t recall asking you this when we met (or at least I didn’t write it down if I did?): any podcasts, books, TV shows, movies or anything else you want to recommend?
Pleskova: Oooh, can I do one of each?
Podcast: Call Your Girlfriend. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow represent all that is sacred and vital and beautiful about friendships between women, and they have really interesting guests from all walks of life, and the whole show is whip-smart & super funny. I totally lose track of time when I listen to several episodes in a row.
Book: I just read and loved Gabriel Ojeda-Sague’s Oil and Candle, and I don’t want to say too much more because he’s going to be our next Poetry Jawns guest, and now this looks like a shameless plug. But really, we picked him because we love his work, so it’s all enmeshed.
TV: Lately, when I’m feeling surly and just wanna marinate in something really droll without having to think too hard, Animals. hits the spot.
Movie: I watched Neil Young’s Human Highway for the first time a few weeks ago and kinda can’t stop thinking about it. It’s this loopy, apocalyptic, psychotronic production with Devo and Dennis Hopper and a bunch of other weirdos (many of whom who later went on to work with David Lynch) all running around looking vaguely lost but also like they’re having a lot of fun? There’s some vague anti-nuke message and a pretty sweet soundtrack. Neil Young paid for the whole thing himself, and you can see why—I don’t think any studio would’ve financed it. Am I the only one who didn’t know this movie existed? It’s a trip.
Sanders: Podcast: Democracy Now! offers the best podcast news hour out there. The research and reporting is wholly independent separate from corporate interests/sponsorship, and though it’s carried by some NPR affiliates, it doesn’t waste time on the types of dopey human interest stories that NPR often does.
Two Dope Queens is a podcast by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson. This podcast is funny as fuck. A recent episode (#8 Dude For a Day) starts with a brief examination of the total bizarreness of Marilyn Monroe’s singing of Happy Birthday Mr. President to JFK. “You have to be so chill as a wife to allow that while eating a piece of salmon.” Later in the same episode, both women get dicks for a day. It is an excellent program.
And wearemany.org has a massive store of audio, from talks by Arundhati Roy to thorough audio coverage of New York’s Historical Materialism conference. It’s indexed by topic. If you can’t find something on there that interests you, you are not trying.
Book: Clarice Lispector’s Agua Viva, Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We Are All Fine, and Monica McClure’s Tender Data (shout-out to Alina who got me the latter two for my birthday, whatta peach). And a biography of Sophia Parnok, “the Sappho of Russia,” which I’m reading for research on a review I’m writing on the first ever English translation of a Marina Tsvetaeva essay that Ugly Duckling Presse is putting out this year. Tsvetaeva and Parnok were girlfriends for a couple of years.
TV shows: I don’t know if it’s the teenage boy in me what, but lately I am laughing stupid hard at Loiter Squad. It’s basically the OFWGKTA crew doing a mix of Jackass-like stunts and brutally good parodies. There is so much vomiting; it is truly grotesque. The show is at once very very smart and very very stupid, which is a combination that always knocks me on my ass. Barfield is a heartbreaker (<3 Jasper).
Movie: Sophie Calle’s No Sex Last Night. She shot the film on a camcorder so it has very strong DIY vibes but is also aesthetically gorgeous. If you wanted to get snappy and reductionist about it, you could call Sophie Calle the Chris Kraus of the art world.
I also recently watched Brujas, which was made in 1996 and stars Ana Álvarez, Beatriz Carvajal, and Penélope Cruz. It follows three women stuck together in Madrid over a twenty-four hour period. It’s directed by a dude and definitely feels a little male-gaze-y at parts, but the all-women cast is so strong. Plus, 90s vibes. Shoutout to the film’s glowing endorsement of female masturbation, Penelope Cruz’s lush armpit hair, and Ana Álvarez’s entire head.
Stay tuned—in the next installment of Podcatcher, I get curious and fierce with Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness!
Rumpus original Podcatcher logo by Trisha Previte. Poetry Jawns logo by Lynne Kovalchik.