Poetry for Southern California
Tebot Bach: How did you become involved in nonprofit work and how did you come to Poets & Writers?
Ryan Tranquilla: In 1995, a little less than a year after moving from Vermont to San Francisco, I was hired by the Cartoon Art Museum, the only museum west of the Mississippi dedicated to the collection, preservation, and exhibition of cartoon and comic art. This was my first nonprofit arts job, and I started as the bookstore manager – ordering and marketing books and related merchandise, arranging book signings with artists and writers, and managing school tours, among other things – without a lot of experience. I’d been an English major in college, waited tables, worked for a couple of professors doing research and some editing, clerked in a record store, but nothing that specifically qualified me for an arts job. I hit it off with the museum director, though, and that break gave me the experience that brought me to P&W.
After leaving the museum in 1997 – by that time my title was assistant director, and the Executive Director and I were both fired by the museum’s board after a nasty fight over finances – I wanted to remain in the arts world and so concentrated my search on that type of organization. I found the job opening at P&W through a career center geared toward nonprofits. The then-director of California programs, Karen Clark, had gotten lots of resumes, many from experienced writers and editors, but very few from people who had worked as an administrator at an arts nonprofit. At the museum I’d written grant proposals and reports, edited exhibit wall text, and organized (as I mentioned above) a series of author events, which fit with some of the work I’d be doing at P&W. I worked with Karen as program associate – and later program manager when we added a third staff member – for four years, and learned a tremendous amount from her about the literary field in California. When she left in the fall of 2001, I was lucky enough to step into her shoes, and in the spring of 2002 moved the California office of P&W from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
TB: As you travel California, what differences do you see in the literature climate? Is there a different mood, style, personality?
RT: Each region of the state certainly has its own atmosphere, for lack of a better word. Stylistic divisions are more prominent in the Bay Area; geographic distance dominates the culture in LA; the Central Valley and the Sierra foothills have pockets of writers and presenters separated by stretches with little literary activity. Being in the Bay Area or LA, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of the state – a huge area – is predominantly rural. About 70% of the money that P&W grants every year to support public events is spent in the greater Bay and Los Angeles areas. But the remaining 30% funds events at a wide variety of galleries, senior centers, cafés, bookstores, art centers, and other community venues in small towns throughout California.
TB: Are there differences in venues and hosting styles?
RT: In the fiscal year that ended in June ’03, we funded events in 48 of the state’s 58 counties, through 154 different sponsoring organizations. The challenges of being a rural presenter are very different from those of a group in a larger city: you might have to pay writers more, since they’ll have to come from farther away, your potential audience pool is smaller, and there are fewer foundations, companies, or other sources of funding. On the other hand, in a big city there’s more competition for audience attention; if you’re a literary presenter in a rural community, everyone interested in writing will definitely be at your event. This diversity is one of California’s strengths as a community of writers and literary presenters, and at P&W we’re always looking for ways to bridge the distances between different regions of the state and bring people together.
TB: Are there differences in a sense of community among writers?
RT: I don’t think so. Writers in rural areas might be a little more isolated, but they’re sure to have developed their own networks of support. Because there tend to be fewer resources available for writers than for, say, visual artists, they need to be more creative in forging a sense of community, but it seems to happen in just about every corner of the state.
TB: What are the satisfactions or rewards in your work for P&W?
RT: Being able to support the literary community in California – arguably the state with more writers than anywhere else in the country, with only New York as a rival – has been wonderfully rewarding. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of creative, talented, innovative writers and organizers, all doing the thing that makes them happiest with very limited resources and a very slim chance of monetary gain. It’s inspiring to be part of a community that values words and what that can mean to kids, seniors, or any other member of our society. I’ve gotten to travel to New York, Montana, Portland, Seattle, and all over California as part of my job, and have seen some amazing readings and discussions in unique venues.
Acting as a funder has its own rewards, as giving away money certainly makes you popular. At last year’s Book Expo America in Los Angeles a writer from Berkeley whom I’d never met, but whose events we’ve supported for a number of years, came up and introduced herself. She gushed about what P&W’s funding has meant for her, allowing her to reach new audiences, pay some bills, feel validated as a writer. It made me blush a little bit, but was very satisfying to hear!
TB: And what are the drawbacks?
RT: Never having enough money or other resources. P&W is California’s only statewide literary service organization, and the only one with a grant program that’s simple and accessible for small literary presenting groups to use on an event-by-event basis. But the amount of money and staff time that we have for grants and projects doesn’t meet the demand from the field. Literature is the most under-funded of all the arts, and we can’t always help every writer or group – especially in a state the size of California, and in a time when both public and private support for the arts has shrunk so dramatically – in the way that we’d like. That’s frustrating, but it’s also a spur to try new things and think of creative ways to help.
TB: Does your position with P&W help or hinder, work for or against, your writing life?
RT: Well, I don’t actually think of myself as having a “writing life”! I’ve been writing poetry lately when I have a chance, although my background’s in fiction. I’ve rarely been a serious, daily writer, though, and being at P&W isn’t a help in that regard. I meet wonderful writers all the time and hear about their work and how they accomplish it, and I’m extremely lucky to be in the position that I am; there are a tiny handful of paying careers in the literary field. But after a day spent working in the administrative side of literature, it can be hard to keep focused on my own writing ambitions. That said, I do think my job is surprisingly helpful in terms of craft. I write a lot on the job, and grant reports or proposals require a high level of clarity, brevity, and concreteness. That fits nicely with my definition of effective creative writing.
TB: Which writers have informed your work and how?
RT: My favorite writers are Frost, Joan Didion, Alice Munro…I like writers who are precise, careful with language but focused on the emotions behind the words. Munro contains whole worlds of experience in her stories, and yet they’re – mostly – traditional, straightforward narratives. I’ve written relatively little compared to most “real” writers, though, so I don’t want to make too much of “my work.” I’m more of a carpetbagger. But I’m still young!
TB: What are your hobbies or favorite activities?
RT: Reading, obviously. Music is my other great passion. I spend a lot of time reading about new music, searching through the racks at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, and sitting on the couch just listening. My wife and I also have a baby daughter and a dog, meaning there are very few inactive moments.
TB: What books have you read lately?
RT: I’ve recently caught up on a stack of back issues of The Believer, the magazine connected with Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s empire, and just yesterday finished Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning Life of Pi. I tend to go back and forth between trying to keep up with immediate reading – the LA Times, the newest New Yorker – and trying to get through some of the books on my bedside table before the stack becomes untenably precarious.
TB: How would you like people to remember you?
RT: Have you been talking to my doctor? I hope that in my tenure at P&W I can make the life of the writer or the literary presenter – both difficult, underfinanced, sometimes thankless professions – a little easier. Writers are undervalued by many in the arts establishment, especially in the funding arena, and if P&W can provide money and advice that increases the rewards of the literary life while decreasing the hardships, I’ll be happy.
Ryan Tranquilla directs the California Programs office of Poets & Writers, Inc., which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. He has been with P&W for seven years, and was previously employed at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. His work has most recently appeared in the Los Angeles Review.