Back in 2008, safe spaces for Asheville-area women who identify as queer were rare. And those in search of coming together and bonding over a shared interest in literature and poetry found even fewer opportunities.
“It seemed like the only events for queer women were based around alcohol and bars,” says Lori Horvitz, professor of English at UNC Asheville. “Just in general, the [LGBT] community, that’s where they found community. … Their history is that that’s the only place they could commune.”
Much has changed in the past decade, and on Sunday, Sept. 23, Horvitz and her fellow Queer Girls Literary Reading organizers and performers will look to pack out The Mothlight for the fourth straight year after six comparably successful annual events in the library at the Phil Mechanic Studios.
The yearly series first came together when Mark Prudowsky, an electrician and one of Horvitz’s former students, began organizing readings in the River Arts District space. Though important in helping her pave the way for what the events would become, Horvitz says these precursors involved “throwing people together without any real community-based connection.” Professors were put on the same bill with students and given longer slots than less experienced writers — a problematic hierarchical dynamic Horvitz sought to remedy while also providing a unifying event for the queer women community.
Building on Prudowsky’s pioneering efforts and with his help, Horvitz staged the inaugural Queer Girls Literary Reading in the studios’ library. The February day was an especially cold one, and the primary means to combat the frigid air was a noisy heater that Prudowsky turned off when people read and flipped back on as soon as each person finished. Beer and wine were offered for donations, and profits were given as thanks to then-owner Jolene Mechanic, who let the group use the building for free.
With student recruitment assistance from Warren Wilson College professor Catherine Reid, the event progressed and continued to fill up the small space for the next five years, at which point Horvitz invited Lockie Hunter to come aboard as co-organizer. The mastermind of the Juniper Bends Reading Series, which seeks to marry established and emerging voices onstage, and a professor at Warren Wilson, Hunter wove in her connections with some of the community’s younger voices and other writers whom she met through her weekly Asheville FM show, “WordPlay.”
“We have a huge queer writing community, and Juniper’s goal is to make sure all of those voices are heard,” Hunter says. “We injected the series with voices that perhaps didn’t have a chance to be told — those who are marginalized and different.”
For the 2018 edition of the Queer Girls Literary Reading, Horvitz will again read from her own work, as will Hunter, who welcomes the push to create new pieces specifically for the event. They will be joined by Indy Srinath, Sol Esperanza Roja, Maggie Anderson, Mandy Gardner and Carolyn Ogburn, all of whom will receive the same amount of time onstage, regardless of experience or publishing history, and equally share proceeds from the evening.
These and other writers have been the source of memorable performances at past Queer Girls Literary Readings. Reflecting on standout moments, Horvitz recalls her former student Joanna Knowles reading an “amazing, funny piece about growing up in Mexico and being really bitchy to her Mexican maid” at the first or second event that “had people on the floor laughing.”
Also in that vein, Hunter points to a piece by Nickole Brown “about her journey of dating a femme for the first time” that involved the woman’s girlfriend walking in on them. Though the story earned laughs early on, the telling has stayed with Hunter for the way it evolved and went in new directions, stirring different degrees of mirth from the enthralled crowd.
However, not all readings have been comedic experiences. Both Horvitz and Hunter say the supportive audience has given them the confidence to move beyond the emotionally “safer” pieces they tended to choose in earlier years and read more vulnerable works.
Other participants have also taken risks with their selections. The organizers fondly remember Elizabeth Meade, who uses a wheelchair, being worried about how to read her poems, hold the microphone, navigate other logistical challenges and what to do with the pieces of paper when she finished.
“We discussed reading her poetry, which is really beautiful, and then just throwing the page on the stage,” Hunter says. “There was something fabulous about watching that poem that has just been birthed to the world and delivered, and then flying onto the stage.”
A performance by social justice writer Ekua Adisa, who’s active in the Black Lives Matter community, has also lingered. “We purposefully put her at the end because some people are hard to follow,” Hunter says. “She delivered a very powerful piece and then lit candles onstage. I get chill bumps thinking about it. It was a very beautiful way to end.”
WHAT: Queer Girls Literary Reading
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 23, 6 p.m. $5 suggested donation