March 30, 2017

Pride, Work and Necessity of Side Projects: Poet Hannah Stephenson’s Paging Columbus for the Literary Community

What are you working on—on the side?

Paging Columbus is a project I’ve been working on since 2011. It has evolved since then, but I describe it as a literary event series with a local focus. We hold themed events (mostly readings) every other month, at OSU Urban Arts Space, which is a lovely, large gallery in downtown Columbus, Ohio. At each event, 3–5 writers (mostly those from central Ohio, although we sometimes feature visiting writers and artists) share some poetry or prose that somehow relates to our theme. Some recent examples of themes include “Sanctuary/Refuge/Home,” “Dressing Room,” and “Study Hall.” Although I began it as a solo venture, I’ve been lucky to collaborate with our current co-curators Joy Sullivan and Paige Quiñones (and former co-curator David Winter). I see Paging Columbus not just as a site of events, but as a bridge-building space—we feature and support the diverse and talented writers in our town, as well as foster connections between writers, readers, artists, creatives, and those looking to find inspiration or artistic community.

I started the series in 2011, when my husband and I had moved back to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after living on the West coast (in Vancouver, BC, and Los Angeles). After returning to Ohio to be closer to family and friends here, I was looking for the literary community and and connections that I had come to cherish in those cities.

How do you manage to work
on your side project(s)?

Finding the time and energy to work on Paging Columbus feels both very deliberate and very organic. My planning and programming always comes in fits and starts. Initially, we held events every single month. I held the first event as a way to read poems with some friends who were still in town, and then the Urban Arts Space asked if we wanted to make it a monthly series. It was amazing and easy and swift that first year! The more I held readings, the more writers I became acquainted with and pointed toward. There is no shortage of seriously talented writers here in Columbus, as well as around the state.

However—whew. It was rather hectic to plan events at this pace, and to do it alone. I was also teaching as an adjunct instructor at various universities at that time, in addition to freelancing (as so many of us writers tend to do!). When I was pregnant with my son in 2015, I knew I’d need help, and was supremely grateful to Joy and David, and later Paige, for coming on board to help with our programming. We also moved to an every-other-month schedule…this works MUCH better for all involved. And because there is a always plethora of terrific readings happening in town, I like it better when Paging Columbus doesn’t oversaturate its audience and community.

How do I continue to work on it now? It’s an enormous source of delight and comfort to me. I work one or two events ahead, first solidifying date, readers, and then theme. It’s all very casual…I often am planning it on my phone while my son sleeps on me! As a mom to a toddler, I (somewhat selfishly) crave the company and work of other writers. I adore attending arts events, but am not able to get to as many of them as I used to. So this is a significant outlet for me.

In terms of planning, the helpful thing about an event series is that many of the logistics are already in place (date, times, location). Then, we can simply create on top of the template, pushing or tweaking as we go (for example, we have sometimes held our events in a new spot, or changed the format, etc.). There will always be more events to hold and plan…it gives us so much potential to grow and adapt to our own desires and the ever-changing context of our city and times.

Why have a side project?

As a poet and artist, I truly believe it is my duty to advocate for other poets and artists. And I have always been a person with many simultaneous gigs/projects. Interestingly, none of these feel exactly like “side projects” to me, more like tentacles or wagon wheel spokes that connect to my writerly/weirdo body and brain. My work as a poet is firmly tethered to my literary event organizing work with Paging Columbus, as is my teaching work, my collaborations with artists, and my editing/publishing projects. So when one limb benefits, so does the entire system…if I meet a wonderful writer here in town and feature them at Paging Columbus, maybe I’ll learn about a festival where they are performing, and I’ll attend that festival, and hear a new writer that inspires a new direction in my personal writing. Side projects help me to grow, to seek and nourish relationships, and to remain an active and inclusive literary citizen.

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Diptych courtesy of Hannah Stephenson.

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Read more about the joy of side projects.

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