On December 5, Blue Stoop, a home for Philly writers, will celebrate its third year with Words of Revolution; Words of Solace, a fully captioned innovative video program produced by award-winning cinematographer Aly Spengler and featuring readings from ten of the most exciting voices writing in and around Philadelphia today: Brittney Cooper, Myriam Gurba, Anne Ishii, Airea D. Matthews, Trapeta Mayson, Kiley Reid, Nikil Saval, Eric Smith, Amber Sparks, and Elissa Washuta. More than just another Zoom event, featured writers will perform words written by their heroes relevant to the ideas of revolution and of solace. Event proceeds go directly to Blue Stoop’s financial aid fund for Philly writers of limited means, and to paying teachers and staff a living wage.
The Rumpus: So, how did Blue Stoop get started?
Emma Copley Eisenberg: In the spring of 2018, my dear friend Joshua Demaree and I started discussing how despite the richness of the Philadelphia literary community, writers here were dealing with significant challenges. It seemed that Philly writers were struggling to find and hang onto jobs that would allow them to stay in the city, and were having difficulty finding and maintaining accessible literary spaces; for example, finding a place to meet with your writer’s group or host a reading that wasn’t in the back of a bar or up three flights of stairs. Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, which is part of what makes it so special and diverse, but also poses some logistical challenges—the writing community often felt fractured or segmented by geography, age, and identity. There were little niches throughout the city where writers could congregate but hardly any spaces you could characterize as “literary centers” outside of the university system. As a result, Philly kept getting skipped by authors on book tour, which we thought was pretty sad, especially considering the number of great independent bookstores in and around the city.
Joshua is a Virgo, and I’m a Virgo moon, so we both love sending emails. We reached out to all the writers and literary organizers we could think of (who then, in turn, reached out to all their friends) and mustered a group of about sixty people for a meeting at Win-Win Coffee Bar to talk about what was and wasn’t working for Philadelphia’s community of writers. After this meeting, we looked to models of community-based literary organizations in other cities to try and build a structure for ourselves. We held our first round of classes in the fall of 2018, which generated some revenue to fund events and put money in the hands of local writers.
Rumpus: How would you describe Blue Stoop’s role in Philadelphia’s literary scene today?
Eisenberg: A town square. A non-romantic literary yenta—like a community matchmaker: these people really need space; these other people over here need income and have space. You folks should meet! This city has a very non-competitive, community-minded literary scene. We try to create opportunities and to fundraise for financial resources (and then distribute them equitably). We hold events for small presses and happy hours for literary event planners to meet each other and coordinate. We have also started LiteraryPhilly.org—a Philly-centric calendar of all things literary.
Rumpus: Have you noticed Philadelphia’s position in the literary landscape shifting in recent years?
Eisenberg: I do feel like it’s shifting a little bit. I think people have underestimated Philadelphia in the past, and some of the relationships and programs we and other organizations have offered in recent years have made it easier for people elsewhere to see just how vibrant our literary scene is. Some exciting new things have definitely been happening, but I also think Philly is just getting more attention now for things that have been going on here for a long time.
Rumpus: How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way Blue Stoop pursues its literary mission?
Eisenberg: We saw how the pandemic offered an opportunity to host more digital events with fewer geographical barriers, but we wanted to find a way to keep Philadelphia at the center of what we do. We moved our classes and workshops online and, as a result, saw a significant boost in the number of applications and were able to admit students who live further away but who are still part of our community. We also started an online weekly drop-in event called Wednesdays on the Stoop, which is an informal hour of writing programming led by a Philly writer—generative writing or reading, an informal lecture, etc. We are proud that even as Philadelphia has seen catastrophic cuts to arts funding due to COVID-19, Blue Stoop has hosted thirty-three free online events for writers, offered ten online craft classes with financial aid available and taught by fifty-percent BIPOC teachers, and provided digital resources, inspiration, and connection.
Rumpus: Ideally, a vaccine will be widely available sometime in the middle of next year (fingers crossed). What are your plans for Blue Stoop once the world reopens?
Eisenberg: We’ll certainly be cautious and supportive of a vast array of needs and comfort levels, and will follow official guidance. Ideally, we’d like to use our space at Cherry Street Pier more often. Our vision before COVID-19 was to hold classes there while also offering it to other local literary organizations that need space, acting as a conduit to the community. Long-term, we are trying to think critically about how to be a part of building the future. COVID-19 has done far-reaching damage to the Philadelphia arts community. At this point, we’re collaborating with other arts organizations to work within this new landscape while continuing with our mission to make access to the arts more equitable.
Rumpus: Blue Stoop is hosting a remote benefit in early December. Could you talk about the genesis of this event?
Eisenberg: At the end of every year, we host a fundraiser celebrating writers we admire—a big literary party. Last year, we were at the Institute for Contemporary Arts with the Paul Robeson House to celebrate the writing tradition that comes from West Philadelphia; the year before that, we were at the Asian Arts Initiative with Alexander Chee. This year, since we cannot be together in person, we wanted to find a way to create an event that felt just as special, and that would be more than another Zoom reading.
With that in mind, we tried to think of a way to create a virtual experience that felt like a piece of art in and of itself. We hired the wonderful, award-winning local cinematographer Aly Spengler. We built a list of ten authors—Brittney Cooper, Myriam Gurba, Anne Ishii, Airea Matthews, Trapeta Mayson, Kiley Reid, Nikil Saval, Eric Smith, Amber Sparks, and Elissa Washuta—whose work we love and who are connected to Philadelphia, and asked them to read material by writers whose words feel essential to them at this historic juncture. Our readers are a mix of international stars and local Philadelphia heroes; collectively, they have been nominated for the Booker Prize, started national conversations on diversity and inclusion in publishing, won public office in Pennsylvania, served as Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, translated gay manga, and much more.
Ultimately, the benefit will be a mix of pre-filmed material streamed “live,” and we’ve worked to create an experience that feels more like a film.
Rumpus: I’m struck by the title of this event: “Words of Revolution; Words of Solace.” How do you imagine the dynamic between revolution and solace? Does one necessitate the other?
Eisenberg: I noticed both words kept coming up as themes in our fall programming. When we solicited ideas for Wednesdays on the Stoop, our community seemed equally split between material that makes us feel better and material that fires us up. One without the other feels untenable right now.
I am so appreciative and proud of how the Philly literary community has been fighting for justice in the city over the past six months. It’s been amazing to see our community’s response to the struggles we’re going through on a national level—Philly writers are protesting, building coalitions, raising money, and helping people who have been made especially vulnerable by the pandemic. But no one can survive a struggle without finding moments for care and comfort. Then again, at this moment in history, sinking into pure comfort without engaging with the very real forces damaging our communities isn’t a viable option, either.
I was expecting our readers might choose writing that fell more specifically into one or the other camp of being about revolution or about solace, but everyone’s picked pieces that somehow beautifully walk the line in between. It’s going to be a really special night.
Follow Blue Stoop on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and buy tickets to Words of Revolution; Words of Solace here. BIPOC can use the discount code “BIPOC” on the Ticketleap site to attend free of charge.