The first readings of poetry and short fiction I organized were held at Miss Bonnie’s Elvis Bar at the corner of Fleet and Port Street near Patterson Park. This was back in the days of the Story Company, a literary circus I ran with lifelong friend Tyrone Crawley. You may recall our annual $99 Short Story Contest in which stories were judged by the likes of Rick Bass, Madison Smartt Bell and Moe Drabowsky.
Performers included former Sunpapers rewrite man David Michael Ettlin, now a member of the Aging Newspapermen of Baltimore, and a fiddle/guitar duo (friends of Miss Bonnie) who dressed in finery worthy of Hank Williams. Sometimes Ted the Clown would try to make balloon dachshunds while pounding shots of blackberry brandy.
Regulars at the bar, where Miss Bonnie let us have our fun, called our literary shindigs “poultry” readings.
In the 1990s, Little Italy’s Rosalia Scalia and I and several close friends, among them former Sun reporter and UMBC instructor Tom Nugent, hosted the “Traveling Literary Dinner Party.” It was a pot-luck affair that moved to a different house each month. Everybody brought a covered dish, the host chose the readers and the event traveled as far afield as Bangkok, the lower east side of Manhattan and the statue of Orpheus at Fort McHenry.
[It was at one of these house-hopping potlucks that I realized my father and David “Footlong” Franks – a poet of blessed memory - knew each other; in fact had known each other long before I’d graduated high school. Franks brought a platter of kishka to my home on Macon Street that a few tasted but no one truly indulged.]
In the past year, the lessons of previous attempts to give literature a show biz vibe (Tyrone and I turned ourselves inside out to market short stories like hot dogs, a buck a piece for a two-sided broadsheet) were applied to the most successful series yet, the 2012 Greektown Readings.
Herewith, Baltimore poet Tony Hayes – an honorary member of the Aging Newspapermen of Baltimore at the group’s weekly luncheons on South Decker Avenue – details the first half of the current Greektown season as we regroup for a Fall comeback.
Greektown Reading Series On Summer Hiatus
Popular Literary Event to Return in September
- by Anthony C. Hayes
East of the Highlandtown railroad trestle, a gentle early summer breeze billows the galanolefki—the distinctive blue-white flag of Greece.
A small group of men gather by a bench on Eastern Avenue at Oldham Street to talk politics and the fickle nature of Oriole pitching. The air is thick with the smell of moussaka, souvlaki and fresh phyllo dough; sweetened with the sounds of lyras and laoutos from a nearby café.
And then, there’s the poetry.
The culture which gave antiquity Sappho and Sophocles has long championed the spoken word. It was in this spirit that the Greektown Community Development Corporation embraced the Greektown 2012 Reading Series.
It began as way to bring cultural events to the neighborhood beyond the festivals and Greek Independence Day parade. The idea was hatched by two local residents, Rafael Alvarez – short story writer and screenwriter, and Jason Filippou - executive director of the sponsoring organization.
A dress-rehearsal for the series began with a well-attended kick-off last December. Alvarez felt it would be a great way, "to showcase the neighborhood to a larger crowd." Susan Gould of the Baltimore Gallery at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Macon Street offered her space for the inaugural event.
Alvarez read “'The Sacred Heart of Ruthie,” an unpublished short story about miracles in Crabtown. He was joined by blues guitarist Pete Kanaras and poet/jazz musician Bruce Jacobs. Confections were supplied by the Greek Village Bakery.
The seed planted, Alvarez began to mine his many contacts in the arts and writing world. He enlisted poet Dean Bartoli Smith, director of Project MUSE at Johns Hopkins University, as co-host while Filippou sought the support of restaurants and other neighborhood businesses.
In January, the Avgerinos family, owners of the Acropolis restaurant, hosted "outlaw poet" . It drew over 100 people, a stellar crowd for a poetry event.
The February reading – with writer Jen Grow and a story from Assateague Island topping the bill - went even better, drawing in excess of 150. The number was helped by a feature story about the series on WYPR, 88.1 FM.
Many of those attending say they came because of the quality of the writers the series attracted. Along with Kaufman, other readers and artists who have shared the Greektown stage include journalist John Barry, author Christopher Corbett (“The Poker Bride,” “Orphans Preferred”), storyteller Gail Rosen, artist Minas Konsolas, former Baltimore Sun Jerusalem correspondent Ann Lolordo and former Romper Room lady and L.A. taxi driver Mary Carol Reilly.
And everyone raved about the food, popularly priced at free.
Tim Singleton, a poet on the editorial board of the Little Patuxent Review out of Howard County, noted that the, "Coolest thing about this series is that writers are asked to come an hour early and talk to and be interviewed by school aged kids."
Alvarez said the interplay between writers and students is a significant aspect of the series.
Students from John Ruhrah Elementary in Greektown met Alan Kaufman and Cassidy Vogel, a Notre Dame Prep student, interviewed Jen Grow and poet Laura Shovan for her school paper.
In April, the series moved from The Acropolis to the Habanero Grill.
"We want to rotate (the readings) around to different restaurants and parts of the neighborhood to showcase all of Greektown," said Filippou.
May found the 2012 series back at the Habanero. It featured an exhibit by photographer Philip Edward Laubner, music by Apathy Press legend Tom DiVenti, poetry by yours truly and a dramatic presentation by actor B. Thomas Rinaldi in a night celebrating legendary L.A. writer Charles Bukowski [1920-to-1994.]
Now in summer hiatus, the series has been applauded by a range of artists for the stage it has afforded both new and established talent.
Novelist Danuta Hinc (“To Kill The Other,” 2011) observed: "The beginning of working on a new book is always full of doubts until one reaches the point where one feels that the voice was finally found.
“When I read at the Acropolis [in March], I was very pleased to see that the audience accepted that ‘still searching voice.’ enthusiastically.’”
According to Filippou, the business community is as pleased with the results as the literary crowd.
"The venues that we have chosen so far were very happy with the turnout and are eager for us to come back,” said Filippou, who recently returned from a tour of Los Angeles. “We’ve received a new group of people who have never visited Greektown, let alone our established restaurants.
“And word of mouth is one of the best ways to attract people to a restaurant.”
The prospect of increased business is attractive to most any shopkeeper, but residents in the generally quiet community are usually a harder sell. Filippou admits this was the case at first.
"The overall Greektown community, including the residents, initially did not know what to make of it,” said Filippou. “Until they actually visited one of our events, they didn't appreciate the eclectic display of talent.
“Now we regularly have residents asking our office when our next reading series event will take place.”