Public Engagement

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Welcome to couscous

05/02/2012

In the following interview,Associate Professor of Poetry + Poetics Mairéad Byrne speaks with Providence-based writer, editor and poet Amy Pickworth about the popular couscous poetry, music and performance series she has been running since 2008 in various locations, but most recently at AS220 in downtown Providence.

The couscous series takes its name from a French variation on an Arabic word for a North African dish. Are you trying to invite people to something delicious, with many different influences – something you want people to consume and enjoy?

At one time, I sold a newspaper called Libération on the streets of Paris. I had very little money, but one of the colleges in Paris served as much couscous and bread as you wanted to eat for four francs. It was substantial, delicious. It kept me fed. In Providence, couscous is free. It’s a movable feast, a mixture.

Anyone who has attended a couscous reading probably was struck by the very democratic vibe and wide range of participants, from students to professors. There’s a full range of approaches, from machine-gun rapid-fire deliveries that cross into performance art to more traditional readings to experimental music. So what do you think makes a good program? What do you want your audience—as well as your readers—to get out of couscous?

Well, it’s billed as “a movable feast of poetry, music + performance by and for participants from the colleges, community and out-of-town.” So it’s all about the mix – between the readers and audience, the diversity in ages, in cultures, language groups, poetic traditions. The cross-fertilization that happens between poetry and music and performance, the collaboration between art forms.

[Foundation Studies Professor] Mark Milloffwas the originator of the event: he invited me to do it, and he produced the show for years, finding venues and facilitating everything. He’s a blues musician, and his band Sit Down Baby had a standing Tuesday-night gig at Tazza. Mark asked if I wanted to present poetry the last Tuesday of each month, and I was delighted. That was the birth of couscous.

In the last four years, we’ve held couscous at Tazza, Local 121 and the Hi-Hat in Providence; I also instituted the series in Cork, Ireland, producing a mega-show for three years at the SoundEye Festival, where couscous now thrives without me. Here in Providence, we now have a fantastic venue at AS220. Mark continues to be a supporter, but Christopher Johnson and Matt Everett have also swooped in to help me with the music and open mike; they also contribute to the program both solo and as The Entropy Project.

What types of people do you invite to participate?

You know, this series really is a demonstration of generosity. It exemplifies the generosity and the economy of poetry. Performers – at a very high level – do this for no money, only for each other, the audience and the spirit of the thing. In four years of scheduling hundreds of people, I’ve only been stood up two or three times. Only a few people have gone over time. Everyone puts on a good show, and it’s for each other. And sometimes it’s stunning, and magical.

You’re a poet and a teacher. Is this series a natural extension of your own writing, or of your teaching of writing to art students?

My practice at RISD is separate. I put events together for my classes, and for the school sometimes, but I keep them separate from couscous because I don’t want any hint of requirement to this. A lot of my RISD students do really enrich couscous, but they’re free agents, and my own work with couscous has less to do with teaching at RISD and more to do with the fact that I live in Providence.

Doyou foresee anything new as the series continues?  

Lately we haven’t had as much electronic poetry – we haven’t used the projector much – and I would like to see more of that.

I also recently did a book project called Jennifer’s Family with Louisa Marie Summer MFA 10 PH and a family living in South Providence. I’d like to have some of the people in that project involved in couscous. I’d like to bring in more people who’ve never stood in front of a mike, because there are people around us who are thinking and speaking in poetry. They’re artists and craftspeople of language, and what they’re doing is good. I want the people who’ve already joined us to keep going, of course. I want to be there to see it happen – and to know when to leave.

Couscous readings are held the last Tuesday of the month at AS220, 115 Empire Street in Providence. The program is free and open to the public, and runs from 9:30 to 10:30 pm, followed by an open mike.     

related links: 
couscous blog


tags: local/regional, English, entertainment, faculty, interdisciplinary, multimedia, public engagement, Literary Arts + Studies

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In the Painting studios students and faculty pause to consider works in progress.