Beyond What You Know: Cultivate Your Community and Your Platform

sage.gifBy Sage Cohen

When I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2003, I didn’t know a single poet or writer in town. I decided I’d build my own writing community––from the ground up––and started a reading series from scratch in the basement of a friend’s restaurant. Inspired to create a line-up of poets I admired, I attended readings, workshops, conferences and lectures in search of talent. I even advertised for readers on craigslist.org.

Within a few months, I had met enough like-minded literary types to establish a line-up of poets, essayists and fiction writers whom I was proud to present. In a little more than two years, the series developed a loyal audience; readings were drawing audiences of 50-60 people. When my friend’s restaurant closed, I was eventually invited to relocate the series at Barnes & Noble. Today, I have three readers per month scheduled a year in advance.

The truth is, I started the reading series to prevent me from being lazy, and it worked! Knowing I am in charge of creating a great event has kept me inspired over the years to actively seek out, listen to and support great poets in my community. But the rewards of running the series have exceeded my wildest expectations. Not only have I discovered that I am providing a valuable community service by aligning writers with audiences, but my own platform has taken flight in surprising ways. I’ll name just a few:

• Invigorated sense of expertise. I’ve been interviewed about the local poetry scene, invited to teach and lecture, and have consulted with other writers about how to establish their own series. This has helped me take my expertise more seriously––and push it further.

• New publishing opportunities. At one reading a few years back, I met the editor of a publication I admired, sent him a few of my fledgling essays for his review and was invited to become a monthly columnist for his journal.

• Community support for my own poetry. When I published my poetry collection Like the Heart, the World last year and announced this to my sizeable list of literary friends, I was invited to read in eight different venues, including on a local radio show, and had friends reviewing and promoting the book on their websites and blogs.

Through hosting the reading series, I’ve learned that cultivating a literary community can be a fun and rewarding way to grow one’s own platform.

Your turn! Why not organize a one-time event featuring a writer you admire? Not sure how to get started? Consider what types of events you like to attend: readings? lectures? workshops? Is there something you’d like to learn? Someone you’d like to hear? Chances are good that if you create an experience that inspires or informs you, it will attract others who feel the same. From there, you can grow a series––and a literary community––at whatever pace you have time and energy for.
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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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