An Interview with the Baltimore Reading Series Hey You, Come Back by Michael B. Tager
For some time, I’d heard about a reading series based in a Station North bar I sometimes frequent. It had a weird name, and I meant to investigate, but with one thing and another, it took a few months, partially because it is hosted on Thursday, partially because it’s always a challenge to go to someplace new. But I like readings and did a little research, found out the hosts’ names, Joselyn and Julia, and made it a point to attend one night about two years ago.
After the wonderful reading (Khaliah Williams, amongst others), I introduced myself to the hosts. Of course, neither of them were Joselyn or Julia and in fact, hadn’t been for awhile. It turned out that the hosts of Hey You, Come Back changed from year to year, with one person transitioning in just as another was leaving, but always leaving a core intact.
I’ve seen lots of different organizations die when their founder(s) moved on. Be it a literary journal, a performance venue, comedy troupe; organizing takes time, energy and organization. So I wondered, how did Hey You, Come Back avoid dying with its creators?
MBT: Can you tell me a little about your stewardship of Hey You, Come Back?
JULIA HENEY: I co-founded HYCB along with Joselyn Takacs in 2013, the summer after my first year at the [Johns Hopkins] Writing Seminars. We ran it together for two years—I think we brought Jenny onboard during the second winter. After Joselyn left town, I ran the series for another year with Jenny before handing my part over to Jess Hudgins.
JENNY XIE: I was in the Writing Seminars as a fiction writer, and I helped Julia after Joselyn Takacs moved away. My role was small in the first year; Julia did most of the heavy lifting.
JESS HUDGINS: I started out in the second year of my MFA; that was a fun and scary time, figuring out where I fit. Julia set us up well, but there’s still the problem of seeming comfortable around people whose work you really admire, and having to intervene when people in the audience are talking too loudly—I could run HYCB for the rest of my life and still not figure that stuff out. I stepped down this summer; it’s understood that you make room for new people.
JP ALLEN: I’m a poet and infrequent other-stuff-writer. I graduated from JHU this spring. I co-hosted for the past year. I’m going to continue help lead for (at least) the next 12 months.
JULIA FRIEDRICH. I’m a first generation German-American poet and currently an MFA candidate at Hopkins. I was first invited as a reader at HYCB a couple of years ago and then became “the social media person” this past spring. I generate the online content (think Tumblr searches for pictures of UFOs and writing bad, space-related puns) but that’s just the gateway position. I’m working on finding grant funding and scouting writers for future readings.
Jess & Jenny
MBT: How did Hey You, Come Back come about?
JENNY XIE. I would love to have this explained, actually.
JULIA HENEY: In the summer of 2013, a friend came to town and set up a reading at the old Bohemian Cafe. He was looking for a couple of local readers to join the bill, so Joselyn and I came on board. It was the first time I read off-campus in Baltimore and I was surprised by how many Hopkins folks came out. After, people kept asking when the next reading was.
For context, there’s an on-campus reading series called the Tudor & Stuart run by graduate students in the Writing Seminars.Joselyn, Jenny, and I all took a turn co-hosting—it’s also emceed on a rotating basis. That series is a great opportunity to get to know peers and their work in front of a generous audience. It takes place nearly every week during the school year and undergraduates in Writing Seminars classes were required to attend a couple. The series is housed up in a corner of Gilman Hall in a beautiful room with limited seating. Because it’s tough to find, the location alone makes this public reading pretty private.
We wanted to be more connected to other local writers and a key part of that seemed to be participating in readings off campus. This may sound lazy, but we knew enough current and former Writing Sems folks who were game to read that it seemed easier to find a stage for them than to encourage everyone we knew to participate more actively in the other series in town.
A few weeks [later], Joselyn and I were writing on a Sunday afternoon. When writing stopped being productive, Joselyn suggested we go to the new speakeasy up the street. I think the Crown had only been open for a few days and we were the only people there. Brendan Sullivan was bartending. We asked if he’d be open to having a monthly reading series there. He said sure.
The name started as a joke about some text on the back of a matchbook. We needed something to call the series so we could make the first Facebook event. It stuck.
JP Allen: A poetry reading is the ultimate esprit d’escalier moment: poetry can be a place where you go back and say the things you wish you knew how to say in the moment. Poems call people back—former lovers, wronged friends, former selves, time itself.
By the time I got here, it already felt like an institution.
Taylor Daynes, photo by Summer Greer
MBT: All of your logos have spaceships. That seems to have stuck as well.
JULIA HENEY: I felt that we should advertise our series without using women’s bodies, especially because HYCB was run entirely by women at that time. The space theme allowed us to commit to a bit without committing to a gendered aesthetic. I think that was also the summer we watched Christopher Walken in Communion.
JULIA FRIEDRICH: The inherent paradox of retrofuturism (a nostalgia for the way we thought the world would be by now) resonates with my own feelings on early adulthood and calling Baltimore home (ie. maybe I’m not alone out here).
JESS HUDGINS: Googling those vintage spaceship photos has been a very big part of my life, and it’s funny that I didn’t know why. It’s just how it’s done!
MBT: Is all of you having J- names also “how it’s done?”
JULIA FRIEDRICH: That’s just a fun little creepy coincidence.
JESS HUDGINS: That is also the way it’s done.
JENNY XIE: The pattern of J names is pure serendipity, and I love it.
Andria Nacina Cole
MBT: Was the temporary nature of running HYCB also serendipitous?
JULIA FRIEDRICH: Existence is temporary!
JENNY XIE. I think I always knew that HYCB–and actually, life in Baltimore in general—would be temporary, which was fine with me. I enjoyed that it was communally run through generations of writers in the program, and that’s still one of its defining qualities.
JULIA HENEY: We went to build something [independent of] one coordinator or network.
JENNY XIE. I’m anxious about being solely in charge, so working as a pair was helpful. There was always the idea that there would be continuity.
JULIA H: The relationship was never organic. We wanted to have at least two coordinators: one with a foot in the Hopkins MFA world and one outside. Given the makeup of the average cohort, the next person to take over would likely be a younger writer who was new to the city.
JP ALLEN: So far, we’ve generally been able to move forward pretty organically, based on organizers’ individual interests.
When I started, the pattern of succession was already more or less clear, so the temporary nature of the role wasn’t a surprise. Keeping the reading going involves two main things:
- going to readings (and talking up the series elsewhere, i.e. if any of us go to conferences or residencies) so that we’re always finding new people to invite
- One of Hey You, Come Back’s goals is to burst the Hopkins bubble and build bridges between writing communities, we want over time to bring in non-JHU-affiliated folks as co-organizers.
JESS HUDGINS: It’s a learn-as-you-go type set-up. We try to get to readings around town, and usually will meet people we find.
MBT: Sounds like your mission is bridging communities in the siloed writing scene.
JULIA FRIEDRICH: I’m committed to HYCB because it’s identifies with the Baltimore arts community first, not Baltimore academia (yes…that’s a thing). We’re cultivating a network of artists that live and work and are affected by what it means to belong to this city.
JULIA HENEY: HYCB helped me connect to a network of writers I wouldn’t otherwise have approached. I’m thinking of Lauren Reding—her reading for HYCB blew me away. Every time I started to feel burned out, a reading like that would get me excited again.
JENNY XIE: It stems from a well that gets renewed every year, and with that comes a refreshing curiosity about—and appreciation of—Baltimore, and new potential connections.
JULIA HENEY: The second year, my advisor encouraged us to apply for a Mellon Grant for Arts Innovation so we could compensate our readers to attract some more established members of the local scene. We didn’t iterate in an innovative-enough way to get the funding renewed, but I am grateful. It motivated us to find readers outside the Writing Sems alumni network.
JENNY XIE. It does give me a heightened appreciation of the ecosystem of reading series, from the organizers to the venue to the audience. It’s so important to hear each other, especially now.
JESS HUDGINS: It seems to me, now, that each person’s writing community is a little imaginary space made up of the three or so people you trust showing your work to, and then three or so more people whose readings you’ll never miss. Running HYCB showed me how these groups work, as different crowds came by to see their friends and the people they admire, and added one or two people to that little group in my mind that I imagine as an audience when I’m writing.
JP ALLEN: I also feel a sense of responsibility to the community; I’m more motivated to seek out and read work by Baltimore writers, either because I’m curious about inviting them to read, or just because I want to feel like a more active part of the life of my city. For instance, last month I read Wallace Lane’s Jordan Summer and Alain Ginsberg’s Until the Cows Come Home, two books I would’ve taken way longer to get around to if I didn’t have HYCB on my mind.
JENNY XIE: We usually asked our readers to nominate other writers, building out our web, and many of our readers participated in the arts community.
JESS HUDGINS: I don’t think that “the community” is as concrete as we make it sound. You start to recognize certain groups, like the UB crowd, but other writers, are more difficult to identify, because of their associations with people all over the city. We partnered with Writers & Words for a reading at Atomic Books. And I remember that as a particularly good event. Rejjia Camphor, James Magruder, Hannah Sawyerr, and Isabella Martin. But I don’t think that collaboration for collaboration’s sake is a good thing. It worked because we’d built relationship.
I feel most “connected to the community” when I have a really good conversation. Then I feel like I can email them to ask them for advice or help—I asked Suzie Doogan, to co-organize HYCB. I feel that for us to be true to that “connecting Hopkins writers to writers in the larger Baltimore community” idea, we should share ownership of the series. She was too busy to take it up…but I’m glad that I had the idea.
Andria Nacina Cole is another person who I feel very grateful to have met and worked with through HYCB. She runs the program A Revolutionary Summer. I’m also so happy to be in the Crown with another reading series, Tender FM, run by Janea Kelly and Anna Crooks; we’ve all read for one another over the year and a half or so that we’ve shared the space. Community takes time, and happens through cultivating relationships.
JULIA FRIEDRICH: I think one reason that HYCB has had some durability is that it expands, like the universe, into ever more vibrant, star-filled clusters of great contemporary writing.
MBT: How has HYCB managed to persist when working with flaky artists?
JENNY XIE. I don’t think we ever encountered a problem with commitment.
JULIA HENEY: Thinking about other series in Baltimore and looking around here in Chicago, I’m not sure this stereotype holds among those who run events. People who want to impact the community tend to have commitment and attention span. Or maybe we’re just “Type A” J’s.
JP ALLEN: I think everyone’s flaky; counteracting that aspect of human nature takes persistence.
MBT: Sounds like flexibility wasn’t a problem.
JULIA FRIEDRICH: Certainly since I joined the bad jokes about aliens have only gotten worse and more X-Files related in nature.
JENNY XIE. With each pair of hosts, the network of writers shifts and overlaps in accordance with our personal circles and interests. But the skeleton of the series stayed the same.
JP ALLEN:We’ve found a structure that works: three readers with straightforward introductions. The real key is building community, and that does fluctuate as new groups come and go.
JESS HUDGINS: I don’t think it’s evolved in any significant way, besides having lost the grant that allowed us to give readers some cash. It’s embarrassing to be affiliated with this huge institution, and yet not have any money to offer.
MBT: Relationships with larger organizations can be tricky.
JENNY XIE: I’m not sure if this still holds true, but in the beginning there was an underlying idea that we would feature Hopkins writers alongside those beyond.
JESS HUDGINS: We’re grad students in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, a 3-year Masters in Fine Arts. I can speak to what the affiliation has been like, as an organizer.
Khaliah Williams, photo by Patrice Hutton
MBT: Have there been challenges?
JESS HUDGINS: In 2016, one of our colleagues pursued a sexual assault case against another. [We] were outspoken in our support of the woman who opened the case. There is no reason for any of us to act like it didn’t [happen]. False reports are rare–although false allegations comprise 5% of all reports of rape, the fact that 90% of rapes are never reported suggests that false allegations only amount 0.005% of the actual number. If you’re supporting a man who says he’s facing false allegations of sexual assault, there’s a .5% chance you’re on the right side.
This seems off-topic, but I don’t think it is. This challenge is part of a national problem. The man that raped her was permitted to continue teaching during Hopkins’ internal investigation, and then was acquitted.
MBT: That sounds like a situation where you were forced to take a stand as a member of the community and a steward of a visible institution. Any fallout?
JESS HUDGINS: There were many in the program who were friends with the man who “allegedly” raped her, and who believed that he did not do it. These people, and the people who believed that it was possible to remain neutral about the issue, no longer attended the readings.
MBT: Once you “graduate” from HYCB, will you be able to leave your role behind?
JP ALLEN: I think I’ll still feel a lot of ownership—I’ll definitely attend the readings religiously, and occasionally give suggestions for possible future readers.
JENNY XIE. I don’t feel like I own HYCB in any way. I’m thrilled that it’s gone on.
JULIA H: When I handed over HYCB, I was still living in Baltimore and working at a bakery in Charles Village. I only made it to a few readings that year, so that transition felt pretty swift. I felt little ownership at that point and that’s still true, although I’m glad it’s still going. I’m proud of having helped start something that has brought more Hopkins affiliates out of that bubble.
MBT: What’s in store for HYCB?
JULIA F. I’ve barely started but I feel responsible for continuing the series with lots of energy.
JP ALLEN: I think hosting has expanded my ideas about which kinds of writing I want to do; in a grad program, it’s easy to have one’s worldview limited to [what] people in the program are interested in, which may be totally different from the currents circulating in other communities.
I like to brag because I want the series to do well, and it can be nice to put on my CV—but if that were the only reason I were doing it, I would never have wanted to in the first place.
Learn more about Hey You, Come Back by clicking this link.