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Events Fri Oct 03 2014

Two Cookie Minimum Resurrects Silver Tongue Reading Series

As host of the reading series Two Cookie Minimum, I set out each month to book a show that I would like to see and then hope others will be as excited as I am for it. For the October reading, I connected with Mason Johnson, an old friend in the literary scene, to help curate the month's readers (it's gets hard to do this month after month so I asked for some assistance). Johnson is a writer for CBS online, a 2010 graduate of Columbia College's Fiction Writing Department, and author of Sad Robot Stories (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography). When at Columbia, Johnson was host of Silver Tongue, a student run reading series. The series was funded through special events office of student affairs. The advisors (writers themselves, Jill Summers, Dave Snyder and Mairead Case) allowed students to curate readers, book special guests and put out the literary magazine Mad Licks. The series was a sponsor of lit events such as Printer's Ball and Chicago Zine Fest. It booked writers such as Lindsay Hunter, Tao Lin, and Ian Belknap. Each reading featured Columbia student readers. It was booked by students, for students. Due to staff changes, budget and student support, the series ended its run in mid-2013. It began in 2008.

On Tuesday, October 7th, Two Cookie Minimum will resurrect the idea of the Silver Tongue reading series with Johnson reprising as host. The reading will feature past students (all have since graduated) including Lauryn Allison Lewis author of Solo Down (also on CCLaP), Devan Perine member the band Sojourner, writer Andi White, comedian Mr. Dan Shapiro, and writer Ian Jones (who was host after Johnson graduated). Joining will be the series advisors, writer Jill Summers (main advisor for the series' tenure) and poet Dave Snyder (who coined the series' name). Johnson will deliver eulogies for each reader and has a few other tricks up of his sleeve.

In preparation for the event, I interviewed Johnson via email to get a better understanding of what the series meant to him. He provided a brief series history, some memorable moments and how the experience aided his writing career.

Can you give a brief history of the reading series and how long were you part of it?

Two years. I think. Some stuff happened, then I arrived. Then I left. Then some more stuff happened. I don't want to downplay the influence of those who came before (Jasmine Neosh and co.) or after (Ian Jones, Sandra Lee Ersnberger, and co.) me, but I'm the one who brought the pizazz. Everyone else who's been involved has been, like, authentic Italian food and I was Olive Garden. Sure, whatever, your spaghetti's great, grandma, but... well, let's just say I hit that school like a basket full of free bread sticks, and those bratty college kids ate me up.

johnson silver tongue.jpg

When you hosted, what was a typical Silver Tongue reading like?

When I got there, it was your basic reading. A handful of students read to a theme, there was a featured reader, there was food to actually attract students. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, writing and food, it's a good combo, but we got bored. Instead of adding on to the show, we just took the parts that were already there and had fun with them. There was no conscious decision-making here, we just kept thinking of things we thought were fun.

When I got there, the host would just say the reader's name and then got out of their way. So we expanded on that and I was allowed between readers to basically say anything stupid that happened to pop into my mind.

And food! Food is good, we weren't getting rid of it. But we thought it'd be hilarious to print the faces of people in Silver Tongue, or the featured readers, on a cake.
And it was hilarious.

We played with our themes, too. We didn't just leave it up to the readers' pieces to stick to the theme, we'd make heart-shaped Valentines with literal hearts drawn on them with crayons. Imagine getting handed a pamphlet that barely made sense - this was around the time of Chicago elections - that read "BEAR 4 MAYOR."

Imagine Ian Jones in a bear suit and on roller skates zooming around Columbia's computer labs. We were like "this'll totally promote the show," but I don't think a single person who saw this knew what was going on.

And many occasions we ditched the format we had altogether and brought in bigger, outside readings to include students in. Our Encyclopedia Show was one of the best shows we ever did. Our Literary Death Match was hysterical.

So, for me, it was always about doing stupid and fun things and somehow featuring great writing by Columbia students at the same time.

We were only able to pull it off successfully because Jill Summers allowed us to kinda do whatever we wanted - at the time she ran the Office of Special Events, which gave Silver Tongue its funding - and Devan Perine was good at actually planning things and making them happen (all I was good at was showing up and saying dumb things into a mic).


What are some highlights you can share from your tenure as Silver Tongue host?

Arguing with Ian Jones on the street while he wore a bear suit and yelled at passerby through a loudspeaker before the Bears show.

Looking at the scared faces of Printers Ball attendees as Silver Tongue members read poetry and short fiction in the elevators. Dave Snyder dubbed it "Elevated Diction."

Seeing the annoyed faces of Jill and Devan when I told them I'd bought brains and fake blood instead of books as audience raffle prizes. I figured we'd have a "mystery prize" in a bag, so when the raffle winner reached into the bag, all the got was a handful of disgusting, gooey fake-brain. (In the end they didn't let me go through with it.)

madlicks.jpg

I remember, too, assembling Mad Licks - our zine. The poems and stories were superb, but in seeing the design, especially with the illustrations by Ashley Bedore, I felt like I'd finally accomplished something that wasn't a little screwed up. I remember Mairead Case, who helped keep us in line after Dave Synder left, tacked one of the poems up on her wall, along with its accompanied hedgehog illustration (A Poem About Hedgehogs by Adam Lizakowski). I was really happy that someone liked it.

Because of Silver Tongue, I also got to gush all over Patti Smith. That was pretty damn cool.


It sounds like you did more than just host. Did you have other duties associated with the series?

Everyone involved tried to pitch in at every aspect. Most of my contribution was just being on stage and showing up to the meetings. Eventually I created Mad Licks, our zine. I probably learned more from making that than I did from any class. Part of it was the experience of wanting to do this project and actually going and doing it, and part of it is learning how to be an actual editor from Mairead Case.

In fact, being a curator in general taught me more than any of my classes. I feel like so few of the classes I took have any relevance to what I'm doing now as a journalist. It was helping to run Silver Tongue that actually gave me any sort of meaningful experience. In any classes that intend to prepare you for the "real world," you learn how to do things someone else's way. Now that I've been in the "real world" for a substantial amount of time (working at CBS for over three years), I can honestly say that learning to do things other people's way is a waste of time.

Jill Summers let us figure out what we wanted to do, and then she let us figure out how to do it. If we needed help, she was there to offer it, but never made anyone conform to her own interpretation of the "real world."


Silver Tongue was still operating after you graduated. How did you feel when you heard that the series ended?

At one point I heard it had ended. Poof, just like that. It's frustrating to think about Silver Tongue not existing, because there were few organizations like it at Columbia. I make jokes about how we wasted money on stuff like family portraits at Sears, but I got so much out of this experience. I've applied those same stupid methods to my career.
It's a shame Columbia did not keeping Silver Tongue around.

silver tongue sears.jpg

You were also the host of another now defunct monthly reading series, P. Fanatics. How was your role in Silver Tongue beneficial in starting your own reading series?

Through Silver Tongue and other readings in Chicago, I was able to immerse myself in writing outside of my writing program. I was able to become aware of a bigger world. That's important. If you're in college, you begin to think that there's one way to do things. It's amazing after thinking that for two or three years, maybe even four years, then emerging outside of that world and realizing, "There are other ways to do this?"

As a host, I was able to see what others were doing with their readings and sorta test that out with Silver Tongue. It was a great environment for failure. It was a lot of fun on the occasions I succeeded. When you're in school, you take for granted that there are safe places there for you to fail.


For this reading, you've brought back some of the Silver Tongue staff. What can be expected from this one-time return of the series?

It will be fun. No two readers will sound the same and no one will go on for too long. I don't think anyone reading is a "crowd pleaser" - they're not gonna shill. But, with that said, everyone who gets on stage just wants to have some fun, and I think that will translate well for the audience.

Oh and there will be cake.

Two Cookie Minimum Silver Tongue Resurrection, Tuesday, October 7th, 9pm at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont. There will be a $3 donation, free zines, and as there is every month, free cookies.

(Above images provided by Johnson. Includes a family portrait of Silver Tongue staff taken at Sears.)

 
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