In the wake of the pandemic, arts organizations have been hard hit, including stalwarts like L.A.’s Beyond Baroque. A conversation between new Executive Director Quentin Ring and new board Vice-President Shonda Buchanan on how the literary home has survived in the age of Covid-19 and continued to break barriers for creatives in L.A., including offering a prize for young writers in honor of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, who is a part of the Beyond Baroque family.
Shonda Buchanan: How long have you been involved with Beyond Baroque and when were you asked to become executive director?
Quentin Ring: I first got involved with Beyond Baroque in 2012 in the way most everyone else does-by attending readings and workshops. I was writing fiction and was deeply invested in reading and thinking about poetry. The next year I started volunteering. In fact, one of the very first things I did here was help dig the Ocean Friendly Garden directly in front of the building. The space had been a dead lawn, and now, thanks to the efforts of groups like the Surfriders Foundation, Kiss the Ground and our current garden partners, Safe Place for Youth, we have a beautiful community garden. I think there’s a metaphor somewhere in there.
Sometime in 2013 or 2014 I started writing grants on a very part-time basis for Beyond Baroque. Initially my involvement was pretty limited, but over time I took over more and more roles, learning the nuts and bolts of the organization as I went along. Over time, this encompassed everything from bookkeeping to programming and long-term strategic planning. Starting in 2017, I took on managing the bulk of our 50th anniversary planning for 2018. That was an amazing, exhausting project, but it was incredibly rewarding as we put on a full year of special programs and festivals that culminated in a 10-day celebration that included the Southern California Poetry Festival and a gala honoring our founder, George Drury Smith, our longtime friend and supporter Viggo Mortensen and our poet-in-residence, Will Alexander. In 2019, I was appointed executive director. That wasn’t something I ever expected when I was rooting around in the dirt outside Beyond Baroque back in 2013.
SB: What did you think of Amanda Gorman’s presentation at the inauguration?
QR: Thanks for asking that! It was unbelievably inspiring, not least because Amanda is part of the Beyond Baroque family. In fact, right when I started at Beyond Baroque I met her after one of our workshops I think she was maybe 14 at the time, but she already had incredible talent and charisma. To see her not only become the youngest poet ever to read at a Presidential inauguration, but to see her move an entire nation after years of racism and right-wing political violence was incredibly moving. It reminded me of why we do the work we do, and why poetry matters.
In honor of Amanda and the impact she’s had, we’re going to launch a prize for young poets of color that will be named after her. More details to come!
SB: I’m so excited about that! What are some other top priorities for you in this role? And how did BB survive this last year?
QR: Good question! It was only in February 2020 that I fully took over as executive director following a transitional period in which our previous ED stayed on staff. And then, one month later, Covid-19 hit. Whatever I had thought might be our priorities immediately went out the window as we had to focus on just surviving as an organization.
Beyond Baroque has many facets, but throughout its history it has always been a space for writers and artists to gather communally in our workshop space, theater, bookstore and gallery. The pandemic-enforced closure of that space was initially terrifying. Terrifying on a financial level since much our income depends on our events, but even more terrifying because it’s the ability to gather in person around a shared love of literature and art that drives the work we do. Fortunately, we’ve been able to survive thanks to the generosity of our community. There has been a tremendous outpouring of love for the work we do, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
As a result many of our long-term goals remain the same. Beyond Baroque has always focused on nurturing writers and the literary arts, and we want to expand on that mission. We want to develop a much more extensive workshop program to provide more opportunities for people to take classes, learn from established writers and meet each other. We want to continue to cultivate connections between literature and the other arts by providing space and resources for collaborative interdisciplinary projects. Above all, we want to make Beyond Baroque an inclusive space that serves the full diversity of Los Angeles’ literary communities, and nurtures writers and artist who don’t necessarily have the means to pay for expensive MFA programs.
SB: This past year must have been extremely difficult for Beyond Baroque as it was for most arts organizations nationwide. Here in Los Angeles, we saw the loss of one of the most important diversity-centered emerging writers programs at PEN America. What were some of the things that fell by the wayside for BB and how did you recover?
QR: In normal times, Beyond Baroque hosts approximately 200 events a year. These are mainly readings, but also include talks, performances, films, art openings in our Mike Kelley Gallery and all kinds of other community gatherings.
Following our closure due to Covid-19, there was no way to continue programming that kind of volume of events online. We simply don’t have the staff-or the income-to support it. Initially we chose to focus instead on workshops. That included moving our free workshops online and expanding our paid workshops. That has allowed us to continue paying writers, and to give our community the opportunity to work on their writing while they’re quarantining and to find community. That’s been a great success.
After we rebalanced a little, we started bringing more and more readings online. These included big joint programs like the One Poem Program in support of Black lives that was held in collaboration with the national Poetry Coalition of 20-plus poetry organizations. We’ve held book launches, author interviews, and the Poetry Stage Redux, which was an adaptation of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books Poetry Stage for a virtual space. It’s been really thrilling to reach audiences around the world with our programming-I think we’ve had people tune in from ore than 60 countries.
In some ways we were fortunate because the pandemic hit right when we knew we needed to be developing new plans and new initiatives, and not when we had already launched any intensive new projects that depended on the status quo. So it’s been fun to experiment with online programming, and also to dream about new ideas for whenever we’re able to reopen.
SB: Can you share the history of Beyond Baroque, and who are all those celebrity supporters, actors and musicians who frequented the workshops? Tell us about some of the changes that have happened over the years. Have they been good or bad?
QR: Beyond Baroque was founded in 1968 in Venice by George Drury Smith as a magazine focused on experimental writing. George had received a very modest inheritance from his mother, and decided to devote the money to a literary project. At the time Venice was a low-rent bohemian enclave, and he was able to purchase a storefront on what’s now Abbot Kinney for back taxes. Almost immediately, Beyond Baroque became a space for the literary arts as poets and artists began congregating there once George started hosting readings, art exhibitions and concerts. That happened for 10 years on Abbot Kinney, and then in 1979, Beyond Baroque moved to its current location, the historic old Venice City Hall on Venice Boulevard.
Almost from the beginning, Beyond Baroque existed to nurture aspiring writers and artists. That started in 1969 when the writers John Harris and Joseph Hansen launched our Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop. At the time, Los Angeles had very few spaces for writers to congregate and exchange ideas, and Beyond Baroque’s workshops and programs became the city’s unofficial school for poets, writers and artists. Indeed, Wanda Coleman, who was an integral member of the workshop and of the community, used to like to say that Beyond Baroque was her alma mater, and the poets she met here were her classmates. And that’s been true for many, many other poets and writers. Amy Gerstler, Lee Hickman, Aleída Rodriguez, Harry Northrup, Mike Kelley, Bob Flanagan, Viggo Mortensen-there have been many over the years. Famously, Exene Cervenka met John Doe in the Wednesday Night Workshop, and as a result the band X was formed. It’s not so much that celebrities and famous artists just like to frequent Beyond Baroque, it’s that we’ve provided a home, resources and a community for all kinds of talented people to develop their art when they were just starting out in their careers. That’s the work we do. And the legacy continues to build-Amanda Gorman, who just became the youngest-ever poet to read at a Presidential inauguration, got her start as a poet as a teenager in our Student Poets Program.
This work isn’t easy, however. Arts organizations, and particularly ones like Beyond Baroque that are dedicated to a sense of experimentation, are very fragile entities given this country’s lack of public investment in the arts. As recently as the middle of the last decade, we were struggling financially and didn’t really have the resources to invest in developing new programs. That was a particular challenge because Venice had gentrified greatly. We couldn’t depend on having a diverse community of artists on our doorstep to the same extent any more. We’re now on somewhat stable footing, other than the pandemic, so we’re exploring how we can more to serve literary communities across the city, especially communities of color.
SB: Beyond Baroque has a reputation for being a poet’s enclave yet what do you offer fiction and nonfiction writers, as well as the screenplay writers and journalists?
Beyond Baroque is a space for anyone who wants to explore the artistic possibilities of language. I think it’s poets who are most deeply invested in that project, but it’s one that also encompasses fiction, non-fiction, theater, music and, in many ways, all the arts. Those have have always been part of Beyond Baroque, and we’re developing more workshops and collaborative projects to serve all of the literary arts. In the past year we’ve had workshops for playwrights, fiction writers, memoirists and more, and those will continue to expand. Its language as an artistic medium that is at the heart of everything we do, and fiction, nonfiction and all the literary arts are a big part of that.
SB: In the time of Black Lives Matter matter, how has Beyond Baroque answered the call for increased diversity and equity?
QR: One of my priorities when I took over as director was to put diversity and equity at the center of our long-term planning. Fortunately, I’ve had a board that has been very receptive to that priority. We’ve rewritten our mission statement to focus on building a diverse literary community. We’re in the process of developing core organizational values focused on racial equity. We’ve committed to diversifying the organization at every level.
We’ve already made progress. When I started at Beyond Baroque, our board was almost entirely white. Over the past couple of years, all five trustees who have joined the board have been people of color. These are some really brilliant people, folks like Ramón Garcia, Siria Contreras, Dana Johnson and you, as our new Vice-President, Shonda Buchanan! And that’s only going to continue in the coming years. We’ve formed a DEIA committee to focus on making racial and cultural equity central to every aspect of the organization. To be honest, there’s a lot more that has to be done, especially as we all struggle with the pandemic and the continued loss of loved ones, but as we look towards reopening we’re working on new program ideas that will further those commitments.
We’re also trying to be cognizant of the fact that the whole field of the poetry and the literary arts need a radical transformation. Our society has consistently failed to invest in the literary arts while at the same time it has refused to invest resources in exploited, marginalized communities of color. The result of both this racism and this disinterest in the arts is that a lot of the literary ecosystem depends on a good deal of unpaid labor in such a way that only people of means, largely white people, are able to forge careers in the arts. That has to change. So we’re also part of a lot national work being done with other literary organizations to advocate for large-scale public and philanthropic investment in the literary arts so that poets and writers can be paid for their art, and so that Black, Indigenous and other people of color can have viable career paths in the arts without having to rely on unpaid internships to get their start. That’s a long-term project, but it’s incredibly important.
SB: Do you think Beyond Baroque will be up and operational for in-person events in the summer or fall? And if so, or if you’re online, what are some of programs and events you’re going to offer?
QR: At the moment, we’re anticipating opening in the fall for in-person events. Depending on how the the vaccines go, we may open our bookstore and gallery in the summer, but we’re not going to plan on having any live events in our theater prior to fall.
We’ve got a couple of big things on the calendar for the year. On May 6, we’re hosting a virtual fundraiser titled “Beyond This Moment” featuring readings and performances from an array of poets, writers, celebrities and artists. We’re solidifying the details of that right now, but I was excited to have Tyehimba Jess just sign up for that.
In September, we’re thrilled to bring the Southern California Poetry Festival back to Beyond Baroque in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. That’s going feature readings, workshops, panels and commissioned work.
SB: So glad to share all that. What do you think are some of the most pressing issues that the L.A. literary community needs to focus on and why? What do you envision for the future of Beyond Baroque?
QR: Los Angeles has long suffered from a lack of investment in the literary arts relative to cities like New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago. In some ways, that’s been a beautiful thing because it has allowed an incredibly diverse literary scene to flourish largely free of the hierarchies that define, say, the New York publishing world. There are so many incredible literary communities and scenes here. There are iconic venues like the World Stage, Tia Chucha’s and the Poetic Research Bureau. There are presses like Writ Large, What Books, Kaya and many others that do incredibly community-building work. And there are larger, national organizations like PEN America that have done a huge amount for Los Angeles literature. But because there isn’t the same public investment in the literary arts that you find in some other cities, it’s difficult to build a region-wide network of literary communities. That’s especially true given the scale of Los Angeles and the surrounding region. The result is that Los Angeles is, in many ways, underserved by literary infrastructure.
That’s especially unfortunate because Los Angeles is incredibly diverse, and is producing an astonishing number of talented poets and writers, particularly poets and writers of color. But those poets and writers aren’t getting as much as much support as they deserve. Earlier, you mentioned the PEN Emerging Voices program being canceled. That was especially saddening because it was one of the few programs that really provided a high level of support to writers from marginalized communities. What Los Angeles needs, however, is multiple programs that do a similar job investing in writers from those communities and giving them mentorship and a network. That takes money, but I’m hopeful that Beyond Baroque can raise the funds to provide some of that support, and I’m hopeful, too, that we can support other organizations’ efforts along similar lines. I think there’s a great need to build ties across the region, and to use those ties to really champion the writing produced by Los Angeles writers.
SB: Finally, how can our community support the efforts of this iconic literary venue?
QR: To be honest, I’m more interested in how Beyond Baroque can do more to support the community. And I think that’s where our future lies-to build out or programming and our collaborations so that new generations of L.A. poets and writers can find mentorship and support in developing their art, so that the wider literary culture here in Los Angeles thrives, and so that we’re all able to support and champion the incredibly array of talented writers here in Southern California.
Quentin Ring is the Executive Director of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. At Beyond Baroque, Ring has conceived and implemented new artistic initiatives, written and administered grants, created new giving programs and co-organized the Southern California Poetry Festival. He holds an undergraduate degree from Pitzer College, and a MA from the University of Chicago, where he studied poetry and poetics. Prior to joining Beyond Baroque, he worked as a freelance grant writer, and in international education as both an instructor and nonprofit administrator.
The author of five books, Shonda Buchanan is a daughter of Mixed Bloods, tri-racial and tri-ethnic African-American, American Indian and European-descendant families who migrated from North Carolina and Virginia in the mid-1700 to 1800s to Michigan. Black Indian, her recent memoir, which won the Indie New Generation Book Award for Memoir was chosen by PBS NewsHour, as one of the top 20 books to read to learn about institutional racism. Her poetry collection Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? was nominated for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Library of Virginia Book Awards. An award-winning poet and educator, Buchanan is a Sundance Writing Arts Fellow, a California Community Foundation Fellow, a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, Literary Editor of Harriet Tubman Press, an advisory board member of Angels Flight • literary west and Vice-President of the Board for Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. In addition to her work as a literary activist, a teaching artist and a mentor for young writers, she’s taught at Hampton University, William & Mary College, California State University, Northridge and Mt. San Antonio College. Buchanan earned an MFA from Antioch University and teaches at her alma mater, Loyola Marymount University. She lives in Los Angeles and is finishing a collection of poetry about Nina Simone.