February 24th, 2011 / 1:01 pm

An Interview with Cassandra Troyan about the EAR EATER Reading Series

Cassandra Troyan & Sara Drake run a (somewhat) monthly reading series out of their apartment in Chicago. Having attended a few of the readings myself, I found myself particularly interested in what Troyan & Drake have accomplished: each reading series brings together (mostly young) people from various backgrounds (though mostly related to the arts/humanities) into an enclosed space to hear 4 or 5 readers. The events straddle the line between house party & art opening (and indeed, at one event there was art displayed on the walls), but it’s the words that get center stage here. I sent Cassandra a few questions through Facebook about the reading series, and hey here they are:

M: I am always interested in the way that people who take a D-I-Y approach to life manage to turn private spaces (the home, for instance) into public, communal spaces. Living in a “college town,” as I’ve spent my entire life doing, it seems more likely to find people at a huge house party than a bar or “club.” When it comes to event spaces, I also often find the non-affiliated to be more comfortable, even more rewarding. People have art shows in their apartment to escape the realm of an institutionalized sense of curation, people have bands play in basements to crowds of many to avoid booking agents and dealing with venue crap, and now you & Sara Drake have opened up your apartment as an area for readings, something that seems to happen most often at bars or academic spaces. What circumstances found you guys deciding to start the Ear Eater reading series?

Cassandra: Much of the circumstances you mention are similar to the experiences and situations shared by Sara and I, which all influenced the desire to create EAR EATER. I went to undergrad at the behemoth institution, Ohio State University, in the notoriously college-run town of Columbus, Ohio. I think precisely because of this, most of my social interactions turned more traditionally private spaces into sites of collectivity.

Sara and I both came from a specific mid-west DIY/punk mentality, based in communal living or punk houses. We often say we don’t trust anyone who didn’t go through a “punk stage.” I’ve spent a lot of time in basements.

I think much of our desire was precisely to find a way to bridge across the realms of stilted boredom in more traditional academic settings, or the kind of distracted drunkenness of readings in bars. People are often more interested in getting their next drink rather than the reading itself. And yet, I don’t think trying to ignore the social register by inserting the situation into a lecture hall with a podium helps either. Having it in our apartment allows us freedom in creating an appropriate structure and atmosphere. There is still drinking, where one particularly infamous EAR EATER was kind of curated around this drink that Megan Boyle invented called “the Tully Bomb,” a shot of tequila dropped into a glass of Four Loko named after Stephen Tully Dierks, dear friend of mine and editor of Pop Serial. What happened after that is a bit hazy besides eating numerous bananas with Sam Pink and talking about Lacan and waking up in a pile of Dada books, but basically what I’m saying is that the home provides a space for experiencing the lived-in chaos of the everyday. It becomes a space that is auto-poetic, in that through its’ organizing it also continually produces and reproduces itself.

M: In a sense, you (& Sara) are “curating” the authors that you have read during the Ear Eater events. In my experience, a majority of readings that are held tend to be tied to either presses or magazines, and, in a sense, they serve (whether indirectly or directly) as promotional events. Do you feel like having carte blanche to try to get whoever you want to read allows more of a focus on the communal aspects of literature? Do you think it helps to highlight the individual authors themselves as opposed to presses or magazines (not that drawing attention to presses or magazines is an inherently bad thing)?

Cassandra: Yes, I do believe the carte blanche aspect is simultaneously freeing and challenging, yet that is the fun of it. The particular curating guidelines I see as getting increasingly specified, or allowing them to provide an alternative perspective to the work itself. Such as for the last EAR EATER, which existed within the concept of “performance,” I was intrigued by readers applying their own definition of the term, and possibly even taking it upon themselves to do something truly performative in the truest sense of the word. Yet, for someone like Jac Jemc, I wanted her to read for the sheer performativity of the language in her poetry. I think investing in intensities provides a much more exciting dynamic for viewers, myself, and even the reader. I think seeing one’s work in a new context is beneficial in a communal sense, in terms of connectivity, and bridging something basic, like the overly specific terms of even allowing poetry and fiction within the same reading event. I am a fan of the anything goes model, yet within a certain frequency, if that makes sense.

For example, I read at the first EAR EATER, and during the event, it was also Mexican Independence Day, and as we live in Pilsen, there was a festival that basically went non-stop on the street right in front of our apartment for three days. I felt I didn’t want to fight against the Mariachi music, so when I performed/read I used a megaphone and went outside and had children read the poetry through the bullhorn to the audience inside. I also played a T.I. song and carried in a light-up Virgin Mary statue with a broken head that Tao Lin put his hand inside. Opening up the aperture for absurdity lets authors explore outside their comfort zone by changing the framework of what is expected of them, and expanding beyond the specific aesthetics of a journal, or the type of work they normally produce. For future EAR EATERs, I am thinking of guiding the curatorial choice with more abstract decisions. Such as, an evening based on the idea of stuttering or stammering without just mimicking the tropes, but rather thinking of what language could sound like that, potentially anything resonating in the historical mode from Thomas Bernhard to Gertrude Stein.

M: And to continue with the idea of a “total freedom” in terms of inviting authors, you guys also regularly have readers attend the events via Skype. This allows a sense of exposure across the country (hell, even the world is possible), and in a way, mediating via digital technology, we can “hang out with” and “interact” with someone who could not physically attend. I feel like this is something that an event organizer who felt like she had to take herself “more seriously” or “professionally” would never do. What made you decide to incorporate readers via Skype?

Cassandra: Well, you have nothing to lose when you have no one to impress. I feel there is no investment of potential failure for myself in my endeavors in this community. I am currently in graduate school at the University of Chicago studying Visual Art, so even though I have been writing for years, my practice has always been a multidisciplinary jumble of video, performance, poetry, curation, music, sound, etc. I am always drawn to the wrong thing to do. It feels strangely more comfortable. Or at least I feel that the art world proper where I am expected to reside feels so stilted, and limited sometimes, that to make EAR EATER happen is the release. I just want to share the work of all these brilliant people through the U.S. and potentially beyond, and this is the most financially feasible way to do so. Plus, it is also engaging in a kind of fantasy hour, or indulgence. Some of the people I have asked to read via Skype I might have had slight internet interactions with, but had never really talked to, or let alone met in real life. It brings admiration into a new space, as the assemblage of the indie lit community is not spatial localized, so why should the presentation or readings be either? And for the Skype readers, if possible we let them hang out for the entirety of the evening as well. At EAR EATER #3 Christopher Higgs stayed for the entire evening, and many people commented on how they loved going over to the laptop and talking to Chris if he looked bored on his couch, and they were able to talk to him as if he were there.

M: The Ear Eater events have traditionally maintained the comfortable feel of a small house party, yet when people are reading the crowd is very attentive & quiet. This is something rare, as even in bars there is often a surplus of white noise brought to the room via customers who are present just to drink, or even from the staff of the bar itself. Similarly, six years ago or so, when I lived in a party house, we actually invited a puppeteer to perform at one of our house parties, and much to our surprise, a group of 50-60 drunk college kids sat down and stayed quiet throughout his entire performance. Do you think the casual environment that a cozy apartment offers helps people to focus?

Cassandra: Absolutely! I think it helps that since I usually serve as MC, I am not shy in telling people to shut the hell up, or sit down, or put out their half smoked cigarette on the back porch and come inside when someone is about to read. If people are on good behavior they do get breaks in between for drinks or snacks. The intimacy makes you responsible in a different way too. Even if you just come to listen it is never passively. Everyone is an active participant just by the fact of their being there. Plus, what is better than live, personal entertainment? Hearing poetry in someone’s living room, you can’t help but feel that it’s actually for you. Or that the pleasure of reading or being read to is so much a part of that.

If you’re in the vicinity of Northern Illinois this Saturday, check out Ear Eater #4: The Apocalyptic Absurd, featuring Lindsay Hunter, Blake Butler, Richard Chiem, Emily Jones & Me. Cassandra & Sara’s apartment is located in Pilsen in Chicago, click the link to the Facebook event for more details!

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  1. Tadd Adcox

      Oh dear lord do I remember the night of the Tully Bomb.

  2. Rebekah

      I spy Tadd.

  3. Cassandra Troyan

      And M. Kitchell himself.

  4. Cassandra Troyan

      It will perpetually haunt everyone, even the ones who were blacked out during it.

  5. King Wenclas

      “–various backgrounds.” Really? The crowd looks extremely bourgie to me. :) “The clean and the saved.” Approved American literature today.
      (p.s. I’ll need some variety for a writing contest I’m running next week at my American Pop Lit blog– http://www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com– which means at least a few submissions from standard trained “literary” writers. I figure this is as good a place as any to find a few.)

  6. letters journal

      Does having readings at your home present any possibility of desegregated literary space or does it preclude that possibility?

  7. Tadd Adcox

      I really need to get those boots back from Jacob.

  8. Frank Tas

      Hell yeah!

      I went to something like this over in Rogers Park a month or two ago. The 1317 Reading Series? Nick Demske read there, and he was fucking intense.

      Any chance I could get the address emailed to me (mrfranktas@gmail.com)? I’d love to go, but I have deleted my facebook account *and* blocked the facebook site from being accessed on my computer.

      And if you guys want to know which person I am in advance: the fiction writer with the forty.

  9. stephen

      Yeah, don’t remember anything from when Ana read until the next morning. Some people (*cough*) at least had the decency to vom outside. Memorable, though :) :)

  10. stephen
  11. stephen

      i spy M. Kitchell himself mid-drink

  12. stephen

      just clicked on my own link to Lyra Hill’s site and saw a homemade dick pipe, lol…

  13. Cassandra Troyan

      Hello! And this info is no secret. Let’s keep it public.

      Saturday, February 26: 8:00pm – 11:00pm
      1622 S. Allport St. Apt. #1
      Chicago, IL 60608

  14. stephen

      Thanks for doing the reading series, Cassandra, I like it a lot :)

  15. stephen

      Thanks for doing the reading series, Cassandra, I like it a lot :)

  16. Frank Tas

      Much thanks!

  17. Frank Tas

      Much thanks!

  18. Cassandra Troyan

      Don’t let those attentive faces fool you about moral/social posturing. Plenty of them are delightfully crooked. And by “bourgie,” do you actually mean white?

  19. stephen
  20. stephen
  21. M. Kitchell

      oh yeah, i meant to comment that they’re normally recorded, ken linked to the recording of the last one

  22. M. Kitchell

      What do you mean by desegregated here? Are you speaking in favor of a heterogeneity of styles or, like, ‘racially’ ? In terms of gender ‘segregation’ there have, I believe, been pretty close to an equal number of both male & female readers.

  23. richard chiem

      that’s a gorgeous picture / reading series

  24. Tadd Adcox

      I feel it is important to note that I did not vomit.

  25. SCS

      get the hell outta my house!!!

  26. stephen

      neither did Cassie, and i’m nearly positive she drank more than me

  27. M. Kitchell

      i did!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. Cassandra Troyan

      You are correct, and I did probably drink more than you.

  29. Cassandra Troyan

      Thanks Richard! Only the best-looking people are allowed in my apartment.

  30. Whatisinevidence

      I imagine racially desegregated.

  31. Ytftyf


  32. herocious

      yes, i think i liked reading this interview. i especially liked the part about pilsen since i used to live in noble square, on chestnut st.

      that was the place where i wrote a novel called CRASSITUDE, which is a mixture between bernhard/sebald. i think that’s the other part i like about this interview, that it mentions bernhard. every time bernhard is mentioned, i have to mention him too. it seems like the right thing to do at this point.

      it’s funny because when i was in noble square people were talking about how pilsen was going to be the next wicker park. by the time i was there, wicker park was, too some, passé. the drift of the avante gard (new wave vomit) was south, and pilsen was where it was headed.

      now it’s there, and i’m in austin. but that apartment on chestnut st was sweet. the view was nothing short of urban. it was a big apartment. i could pace in there like bernhard’s characters in their big cold desolate houses.

  33. Ken Baumann

      Cassandra & Sara: You are both rad, and champions. Love this series.

  34. Janey Smith

      Love the green walls.

  35. Scott mcclanahan

      This is great. I love the audio clips I’ve heard.

  36. King Wenclas

      As a writer, how would you describe the audience? I’m serious. Old-time novelist James Gould Cozzens used to brag that he could look at someone and tell you everything about the person. “Sherlock Holmes” would assess the clothing and the size of the room. “Henry Higgins” would need to hear them speak, then he could give a full analysis. Bret Easton Ellis would merely start listing the brand labels of the boots and sweaters.
      How much variety, exactly, are we talking about? Anyone present who’s a tea-partier, say? Anyone who didn’t graduate college? Anyone who shops at KMart, or worse, WalMart?
      I know that even mentioning the “class” word gets one branded a Stalinist. But, should writers be aware of the hierarchies of their own land? The writer needs to be knowledgeable about society, but also be self aware. Cozzens, for instance, was very much an elitist, snob, et.al., but he was also very self-aware. He readily acknowledged the classism and racism of this country.
      If I can surmise, I’d guess that most of those in the picture don’t need to be too observant. It’s always those more toward the bottom of the pyramid who are observant about those above them. In the same way, i guess, that folks in Third World countries watch everything said by America. Or in the way that anyone’s pet animal is clued in to the master’s every mood and nuance– will instinctively know you better than you know yourself.
      To me, bourgeois isn’t just a background or standard of living or education level. It’s also a mindset, a personality, an attitude. It’s an attitude which surely dominates the world of literature. And so, no, the gentry don’t like noisy hectic readings. (Of the kind the Underground Literary Alliance used to present– the antithesis of the silent church-service events we used to crash.) The gentry are also unused to, and uncomfortable with, strong criticism. i know this from vast experience.
      By the way, I don’t doubt at all that the clean and the saved can be very wicked behind the clothes and the smiles. I did butt heads with the Believer crowd, once, head-on, after all! What do you think my fictional character “Fake Face” is about?
      Sorry for the digressions. I do seriously invite writers here to enter my story opening contest next Monday. Very modest prizes will be given. I won’t be one of the judges– the procedure will be transparent and fair.
      Thank you for your indulgence.

  37. letters journal

      You had to know what I meant when I said segregation. Maybe not. I’m curious to hear thoughts about this, though.

      Homes are probably the most segregated area in the country – both by neighborhood and socially. I think apartment readings sounds cool, but (like house shows) it probably makes desegregated literary space impossible. Or maybe not. It just seems like if you’re doing events in places like Chicago, New York, LA, etcetera and all the people at your event are white, you’re probably doing something wrong. Or maybe not.

      I’ve never lived in a big city or hosted a literary reading at my house (though I have lived in a house that did basement shows), so I’m curious.

  38. M. Kitchell

      I am not the one hosting the events, nor do I even live in Chicago, but I’ll go ahead and attempt to answer this:

      As Cassandra points out in the interview, when she read at the first event she literally “took it out in the community” & had her poems read by local kids through a megaphone. That seems pretty sweet (I missed the first one, but I assume it was pretty sweet), and also since Pilsen is, I think, a primarily Mexican neighborhood in Chicago (at least the part of Pilsen that this apartment is in), seems like a push towards desegregation. In terms of readers, I think at least 4 out of something like 13 readers so far have been non-white. In terms of audience I dunno. I guess it’s been mostly white when I’ve been there? I think, however, the series is kind of just at a “if you build it they will come” sort of point, where it’s expanding from just being an event for an already established group of friends to something that more people are aware of and, thus, are likely to attend, which is what ends up bringing the more heterogeneous crowds in terms of these DIY spaces. I dunno.

  39. Cassandra Troyan

      As M. Kitchell said, the event is in Pilsen which is the Mexican Cultural Capital of Chicago. Also, this is in relation to other ideas mentioned in terms of class and race. People seem to also be ignoring the less visible presence of gender identity representation; even in the picture above, I would say that at least half the room identifies as gay or bisexual or queer, which is just as important as any racially self-recognized public.

  40. Cassandra Troyan

      Thanks Ken! I’d love to have you read at some point in the future.
      Either in the flesh or via Skype!

  41. James Payne


  42. James Payne

      The neighborhood the house is in is far from segregated. I don’t know what house shows you go to, but those are rarely ‘segregated’ either – even in Ohio, where Troyan et al used to book. But it’s more important to think about what this line of questioning even means – so what if a demographic category isn’t interested in an incredibly specific form of entertainment? All one can do as a host or curator is create a welcoming environment, ensure that no one espouses hateful ideologies and invite performers who are reasonably disparate while still cohesive. You can’t force people to want to spend 5 hours listening to shitty poetry – really, you can’t.

      Also, I would really debate that houses as social spaces are necessarily more socially exclusive than certain bars, art galleries or performance spaces. Usually the people who run house spaces hold radically inclusive ideologies regarding their conception of culture – it’s one of the driving reasons to start a space to begin with.

  43. James Payne

      Nevermind. I would delete that comment if I could.

  44. Sean

      Did you just say Tao Lin?

  45. Ken Baumann

      Yes! I’d love that, too. Skype would work.

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  47. Christopher Higgs

      Yes, hip hip hooray for this reading series! I am sorry to be late to comment, but yes this was a great event. Very honored to be asked to participate — it was my first reading in over two years! (Wish I could see tonight’s performance.) Cassie, you should book Ken, ask him to read from Solip, and chances are it will destroy and then recreate not only your place and everyone in it, but likely all of Chicago.

  48. Cassandra Troyan

      What? Yes, he was at the first EAR EATER.

  49. Cassandra Troyan

      Hooray! We will definitely make sure this happens!

  50. King Wenclas

      A push toward desegregation or a push toward gentrification?
      (p.s. The Pop Lit Story Opening Contest has just been opened, at http://www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com Let’s cross those barriers, folks. Thanks!)

  51. Frank Tas

      Despite the fact that these comments are trying to find negativity in a bunch of people finding a place to congregate and enjoy shared interests, I have participated in your contest and intend to win it.

  52. King Wenclas

      Not negativity, my friend– reality. Or really, asking questions.
      (If you win, you get the Elvis boxed set.)

  53. phmadore

      Hall of Fame Nomination: You can’t force people to want to spend 5 hours listening to shitty poetry – really, you can’t.

  54. Cassandra Troyan
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  56. Lyra Hill

      for real, dude

  57. Lyra Hill

      for real, dude

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