The 10-year-old series' final page was turned Friday night, and it was a happy/sad sort of affair: Unlike arts groups that fold for lack of funding, or just fade from relevance, Gist Street went out under its own steam and at the top of its game.
The event made me think about what might take Gist Street's place on the local scene, and turned my thoughts to a promising new reading series across town.
More about that in a minute. But first back to James Simon's cozily funky Uptown sculpture studio, where Gist Street's monthly pairings of poet and fiction writer have been held since early 2001.
The studio, like a small loft, seats only about 80. And it wasn't long after Gist Street started that you couldn't get in the door for these 8 p.m. readings unless you showed up like an hour early.
The reason had much to do with the programming, of course. Co-founders and organizer Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski regularly brought in quality artists, most of them also pretty good at presenting their work (especially for audiences as attentive and appreciative as Gist Street's.)
The series sometimes featured local talent, like poet Terrance Hayes (well before he won the National Book Award). But it specialized in out-of-towners who might not have made it to Pittsburgh otherwise, like poets Ilya Kaminsky and Tim Seibles, and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning short-story writer Lori Ostlund (who just read here last month).
But the series' cult status also had to do with the casual but deeply felt hospitality of the place: You felt like you were listening to great writers read to you in a cool pal's living room. A cool pal, by the way, who generally supplied very tasty food, including but not limited to whole roasted turkeys, homemade ice-cream and a bathtub full of beer. All this, for most of Gist Street's history, for $5. (The price went up to $10 last year.)
No wonder the line often wound around the block, and organizers sometimes had to turn away as many people as they let in.
No exception last night. The line began forming in the below-freezing chill, organizers said, at 5:20 p.m, or nearly two hours before the doors opened. Attendees outdid themeselves with the potluck feast, most of it home-made.
And it was a fine reading to go out on. San Diego-based poet Jericho Brown read, mostly from his American Book Award-winning collection Please, with considerable stage presence. And North Carolina-based Holly Goddard Jones offered an incisive selection from her collection Girl Trouble.
Just like nothing can replace the International Poetry Forum, which closed its doors in 2009, nothing can really replace Gist Street. But that doesn't mean the literary landscape is lying fallow.
On Nov. 20, in fact, I attended the first installment of Speaking Of ..., a new monthly series at the North Side's Amani Café.
In one sense, Speaking Of got off to a Gist-like start: It packed at least 100 people into its little space and had to turn more away at the door. And the attendance wasn't due primarily to the writers bringing their tribes. The strong line-up of poet Elizabeth Hoover, spoken-word artist Brian Francis and Flick herself (she's a fiction writer as well as an arts organizer) were new to many in the crowd, who'd apparently just shown up because they heard something new was afoot.
So kudos to organizers including Phinehas Hodges. With little but word of mouth, some handbills and a slick promo video on their web site (speakingofpittsbugh.com) they've gotten off to a running start. It's taking December off, but look for Speaking Of again in January. It'll be interesting to see whether it can keep up the quality level, as well as the diversity of performance-based and more literary work.