On Saturday, June 11th, Writers & Books held their 35th Anniversary Gala in the Nixon peabody event space looking over downtown Rochester. This was a celebration of how far Writers & Books has come. It was also an evening to acknowledge the founder of Writers & Books Joe Flaherty, who retired on June 17th.
This is a transcript of Joe Flaherty’s speech…
“Well, it appears, if the theme of this evening’s celebration is to be believed, that it’s now been 35 years since Writers & Books first opened our doors in a one-room storefront on South Clinton Avenue. It hardly seems that long ago. So tonight there are two topics we are here to celebrate and acknowledge, our history and my retirement. Let me try to integrate to two…
Of course, the beginnings of Writers & Books go back far beyond 1981, to my early years in school. When I was growing up books were my best friends, my best teachers, and my lifeline to the outside world. And, in starting Writers & Books I was, in a very real sense, repaying a debt I had to books for how they had enriched my life and opened up for me an inner world, and connected that inner world with that whole other world outside. Books were for me, lifesavers, as they have been, I know, for many others, including, probably, many in this room. And of course books cannot exist without the writers who write them, but at that young age books seemed to somehow be born whole, in print and with a cover, so I had no sense of who a writer might be and what they would be like. I have learned, many times over since then, that writers are, in a very real sense, magicians, who create whole universes out of 26 letters of the alphabet and are the true chroniclers of our great human journey, who remind us of where we have been, who we are now, and what the future might hold for us.
So I had a great reason to be interested in literature, it was a way of paying back a childhood debt. And that led me to, eventually, starting up and running the Book Bus for a number of years, travelling around the Northeastern U.S. This experience really laid the foundation for what would later become Writers & Books.
The Book Bus
Running the Book Bus was a bit akin to being an itinerant preacher, an evangelist for literature. I was taking the “word” out to the masses, telling them how they could be “saved” by buying and reading books from America’s best small presses, and by the most innovative writers and photographers. It was an eye-opening adventure, in a number of ways, that would later lead to the founding of Writers & Books. While traveling for years throughout the Northeastern U.S., I witnessed the flourishing of the arts in communities large, mid-sized, and small. There were new theatre companies, art galleries, dance companies, classical musical quartets, springing up everywhere, made possible in very large part through the new possibilities of public funding of the arts. In Rochester at that time GEVA and GARTH FAGAN Dance began. The Book Bus itself was made possible through funds from the NEA and NYSCA, so I was well aware of the great opportunities available for the first time to launch new arts ventures. And it was very exciting to see all this new arts activities, and how they energized and enriched communities, BUT I never came across any literary organizations. Yes, there was funding for small presses, but there was no community presence for literature in the same way as there was for those other art forms. I found that to be a little distressing because I knew there was a place for literature as a public community presence. I saw how The Book Bus attracted large crowds, and how when we brought along writers who would give readings from their books, how well these readings were attended and received, and how the literary reading was really an art form in itself that could become quite popular and had a great future as a form of entertainment.
But the Book Bus was only in a community once-a-year for 2 or 3 days, and then we were gone, while those other community arts organizations were growing roots in their communities, and developing new audiences, and local supporters and donors. So the idea of a permanent community literary center began to percolate in my mind, and with it the question of where it should be. I knew Rochester, having spent a number of years here as a graduate student at the VSW, and decided this would be, in many ways, fertile ground for a community literary center.
People will often say to me, especially in the past year when they hear I will be retiring, that I must feel so good seeing my vision come to fruition. But, truthfully, when I founded Writers & Books 35 years ago I had no great vision of what the organization might grow up to be, I only knew that as a culture we were losing sight of the central role that reading and writing play in our lives, and that I had a very strong drive inside me to make sure that literature had a place within the cultural landscape equal to that of any other art form. I knew that people’s lives would be enriched and more meaningful if they had reading and writing as part of their everyday lives. I knew that books had had a dramatic impact on my life and that it could do the same for others.
Someone once said to me, “You know what literature is? It’s the lonely writer and the lonely reader.” While that is certainly a romantic notion and on one level true, I knew that it could be so much more. I could foresee it being a way of creating community, of readers and writers meeting in person and sharing their ideas and opinions. I knew that there was a need for people, throughout their lives, to become involved with writing and be connected with other writers and mentors who could help them hone their craft. I didn’t want to be that lonely reader, or that lonely writer, and I knew there were many others who would feel that same need share the literary experience with others.
Would We Survive?
However, after I started, with support once again of the NEA and NYSCA, there was no guarantee that Writers & Books would last past a year or two. It seems like so many of my memories of those early years are of what went wrong as opposed to the great successes.
For instance, There was the very first time I invited a visiting writer to the old Writers & Books, a Native American writer named Maurice Kenny, and five people showed up, One was a woman who informed me at the beginning of the evening that she was a volunteer on a rape crises hotline, and that at some point she might be paged and have to leave. And she was and did. And there was the couple that was on a blind date and she had brought this guy along who obviously didn’t want to be there and very shortly after the reading began fell asleep and began snoring, loudly, and had to be constantly elbowed to consciousness by his now aghast date.
Or the time that the tub overflowed in the South Clinton Avenue apartment upstairs and water started dripping on the heads of the attentive audience at the poetry reading. Unable to contact the people living upstairs we just moved the chairs over and continued the reading with water dripping down ever in ever more plentiful amounts.
Or our first-ever writing workshop where the instructor didn’t show up and when I called him it turned out he was quite drunk, the result of going through a nasty divorce, he confessed to me.
And the time that we were able to finally rent the building at 740 University Avenue and I sent a call out for help in painting and cleaning up the building so that we could open once again in a presentable space. A number of poets and writers showed up ready to get to work, and I put three poets together in a room that needed painting. I opened the cans of the two colors of paint for the room and showed them where each of the colors would go on the walls and ceiling, and taped paint chips of the colors to each area that the colors would be applied. I left then to get other volunteers started in other parts of the building and stopped back about ½ hour to see how they are doing and the two paint colors were done right in some places and wrong in others, with no apparent rhyme or reason. When I asked how they were choosing which color to put where, the first poet responded, Well, I’m color blind so I can’t really tell the difference between these two colors. I looked at the second poet who then confessed that he was also color blind. I then raised my eyebrows and looked over at the third, and, yes, he was also color blind. Three color blind mice. What are the chances? Well, I’ve never conducted a study or read about one being undertaken but I’m willing to bet that a higher percentage of male poets are colorblind than the general public at large.
Of course, there have also been many successes. Our collaborations with the deaf poetry community here in Rochester and launching a brand new kind of poetry performance by Flying Words, involving a deaf poet and hearing poet working together to present poems to deaf and hearing audiences together in the same room.
And the time we filled the Eastman Theatre for Toni Morrison, who had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What I’m Proud of
People have said to me over the last couple of weeks, you must feel really proud of what you’ve accomplished, and I nod my head but I’m thinking of that old biblical saying, “Pride Cometh Before a Fall.” But, since I will be falling out of the Writers & Books lineup soon, maybe coming back occasionally as a pinch hitter, let me mention a few things I am very proud of:
- Of growing the organization from two to twelve employees, and never in all those 35 years was I not able to make a payroll for the staff. I may have gone a month or more without paying myself but always everyone else on staff got paid.
- This year over one quarter of our SummerWrite students will attend on scholarships
- The number of Staff members who started out by taking youth writing workshops with us and now are integral parts of our organization
- Also, the number of individuals who have taken writing workshops with us, either when they were young, or as adults, who have gone on to become published writers, and teachers of writing
- And, also, being able to walk through the halls of W&B on weekday evenings and seeing every classroom filled with people in writing workshops, sharing their writing with others and gaining real feedback on how to make their writing even better, and then, at the same time, attending a reading in our performance space and hearing the wonderful work of both local and visiting writers.
- Of our work with teens in our community as part of our Breathing Fire teen poetry slam program and sending a team of young slam poets to the national championships where they will meet and hear the poetry of other teens from around the country, at the same time as they are performing their own poems
- Having a vital role in the establishment of the Neighborhood of the Arts and ArtWalk.
- Of owning, debt-free, two separate facilities in which we can offer such a wide variety of literary programs, making us the only community literary center in the entire country that has two very separate facilities
People also ask what I will miss the most:
- Hearing the kids in the playground playing Quidditch in the summer
- Welcoming the new Summer Interns and Apprentices and giving them a tour of the building and filling them in on the history of W&B
- The intensity and ecstatic exhaustion of Rochester Reads Week
- Interacting on a regular basis with the writers and teachers who make up our great teaching staff, and have helped create a meaningful support system for new generations of writers in our community to flourish
- Working with such dedicated Board Members
- And , most of all, The daily interactions and camaraderie with the staff including poutine on Fridays
My Final Responsibilities
As the person who started Writers & Books 35 years ago, it seemed to me my final responsibility, almost equally important as starting the organization, is to make sure that it will continue and flourish long after I am out the door. And I have spent a good deal of my time over the past year working on that. We began a campaign just a little less than a year ago with the goal of raising $300,000 or more in order to pay off the mortgage on our building at 740 University Avenue, which would free up over $22,000 each year that could be put to much better purposes in expanding our outreach to audiences, and to put in place a fund that can be drawn upon to take advantage of opportunities to create exciting new programs for youth and adults, or to finance improvements to our facilities that would allow us to better server our audiences. I’m very proud to announce that just this past week we have received contributions and pledges that have allowed us to reach that $300,000 goal.
However, any funds we raise above that amount will allow us to do more and I invite you, if you haven’t done so already and would like to join us in this effort, you can still make a pledge or a gift. Campaign Chairs: Bruce Giannini, Ken McCurdy, Lois Taubman
The second part of my task to assure the continuation of Writers & Books was to make sure we select the best possible candidate to be my successor and carry the organization forward in even more successful directions. I was not alone in this endeavor as there was a great committee made up of staff, Board, and community volunteers who worked together for an intense 6 to 7 month period narrowing down over 50 candidates to our final selection, a person I have great confidence in, Kyle Semmel.
Gratitude not Pride
So, the emotion I feel most strongly now, after all these years, standing up before you, is not pride but gratitude. Gratitude for all the supporters, members and donors, who have helped over the years to take a brand new idea, a community literary center, and grow it into a vital Rochester presence and a nationally-recognized literary organization. Gratitude for having allowed me to live a great, great adventure, meeting and becoming friends with some of the great writers of our era. Gratitude for all the writers, visiting and local, who have graced the classrooms and podiums of Writers & Books.
But allow me to single out some of the people and organizations I feel most grateful for:
The Rochester community, which has been so generous and supportive of Writers & Books, NEA and The NYSCA who were our first supporters and have continued to support us over the years
Jan Gleason and the Gleason Fund,
Jean Ryon for her great generosity in all things,
all the Board Members we have had over the years, and especially our current Board: and our Board President, Jenny Kellogg, V.P. Trevor Harrison, Treasurer, Chris Eichelberger, and Secretary , Kim Mura, who we are especially thinking about tonight
Staff Members who have worked for W&B in the past, including Steve Huff who is here with us tonight.
And the current staff: Sally Bittner-Bonn, Al Abonado, Chris Fanning, Dan Herd, Tate DeCaro, Kathy Pottetti, Sarah Brown, Emma Lynge, Abby Johnson, Emma Lynge, Karen vanMeenen, and Alexa Scott-Flaherty.
And of course my family, who have come along on this entire journey and without whom I could not possibly have stayed the course for this long.
My daughter Caedra, who I have had the privilege of watching, since she first sat on my lap at the age of 5 and 6 and dictated stories with complex plots and fully developed characters that I would type into our word processor, grow up and become an amazing writer, and now a mother, who must balance those two roles, always a difficult task.
And Alexa, who left New York City, and an acting career there, to come back and help me grow Writers & Books, for the past 8 years, in to a much more successful organization. Those years working with her have been some of the most rewarding of my life.
And my wife Liz, who began the Book Bus adventure with me, and who has spent many a night and weekend as a “literary widow”, if I may coin that phrase, in order that Writers & Books could fulfill our mission. Thank you so much!
Finally, when I look back on what has been an amazing experience, meeting and becoming friends with some of the greatest writers of our time, I would like to quote a Yankee, (even though I feel I am in some way betraying my Pittsburgh Pirates,) who gave one of the greatest farewell speeches of all time. So, let me say along with you, Lou Gehrig, “Today I feel like one of the luckiest guys alive.””