When Susan Chute first settled in New Paltz three years ago, after three decades of working as a librarian in New York City, she didn’t have a local support system. But she knew that she wanted to get back into the writing and teaching of poetry that had been her youthful passion — and she didn’t want to do it in a vacuum. So she started networking with Kate Hymes’s Wallkill Valley Writers’ Workshop (WVW), where she struck up a friendship with retired teacher Kim Ellis. “I moved here knowing no one, and found a community of like-minded people through Wallkill Valley Writers,” says Chute.
Chute and Ellis began meeting regularly to write, brainstorm, support and critique one another’s work. But both felt the need to share their efforts more widely, and wondered whether other writers working in isolation in this region might not also feel the same — especially those who don’t enjoy regular publication opportunities. Although certain venues in and around Ulster County host poetry readings and author talks, they noticed, these tend to be more exclusive than inclusive.
“Kim and I needed an outlet for our voices,” Chute relates. “We came up with the idea over the summer to involve SUNY New Paltz with the local community of writers. There’s really nothing in New Paltz that combines the college and the community.” Realizing that the WVW group consists mainly of “writers of a certain age,” she says, “We thought it would be good to involve younger writers.” Thus the concept for Next Year’s Words was born.
The title of the public reading series — the fourth of which will take place at the Elting Memorial Library on January 21 — comes from the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
The lines reflect Ellis and Chute’s vision of a monthly forum in which better-known local authors can pass the torch on to a new generation of aspiring writers in an informal setting: “a community event that welcomes all kinds of writers — town and gown, young and old, established and emerging,” as Chute puts it. “In some ways it’s like a salon, but it’s larger than a salon.”
Each Next Year’s Words evening features two or three “known” authors, each of whom reads from his or her own work for 15 to 20 minutes. These readings are interspersed with open-mic segments for which anyone in attendance can sign up to read original work for two to five minutes. Time is allotted for up to five “unknowns” to participate at each event. There is always a break in the middle featuring “home-baked refreshments,” usually donated by WVW members, and an opportunity for writers “published and unpublished, experienced and new to writing” to mingle and chat.
Chute says that she “thought that the Elting Library would be a natural place to gather the whole literary community,” and that notion seems to have been spot-on, because the turnout for the readings since their October debut has proven surprisingly high, even to their organizers. “We’ve been so gratified, because in November we had 50 people,” Ellis reports. “We get new and different people for each session, depending on who’s reading. The readers bring in their friends,” says Chute.
The English Department at SUNY New Paltz has been an enthusiastic booster of the program, and when professors are the featured readers — such as Jan Zlotnick Schmidt in October, Dennis Doherty in November and Natania Buchbinder in December — their students are “strongly encouraged” to attend and sign up to read their own work. “They’re not experienced, but they have such enthusiasm that they charm the audience,” says Chute of the college-level readers. “We’re all about contrast: young voices and old voices merging.”
Each forum takes place on the third Wednesday of the month, from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Starting from a contact list of names suggested by SUNY’s Schmidt and then reaching out to other writing circles in the mid-Hudson, the two curators have already lined up and paired readers for the next five months. The session coming up on January 21 will feature experimental poet and visual artist Anne Gorrick, along with Bobbi Katz, who is well-known in the area for her jazz-inflected, often environmentally themed poetry aimed at children. Future lineups include Timothy Brennan and Daniel Pizappi on February 18; Barry Menuez, David Applebaum and Ellis herself on March 18; Gloria Caviglia, Holly Christiana and Laurence Carr on April 15; and Greg Correll and Matt Spireng on May 20.
Chute and Ellis plan to conduct the selection process for featured readers for subsequent months in March. Writers interested in being considered can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the series’ Facebook page. The series also has a Twitter account. “Publicizing it is very time-consuming,” says Chute, noting that she and Ellis are hoping to make arrangements with SUNY New Paltz for an unpaid student internship. “We think it could really grow if we had a little help with day-to-day administration…. Once we have a year behind us, we could start writing grants.”
Next Year’s Words #4 featuring Anne Gorrick and Bobbi Katz begins at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21 at the Elting Memorial Library at 93 Main Street in New Paltz. Admission is free and all are welcome. Bring along samples of your own poetry, prose or memoir if you’d like to sign up to read. And be sure to Like “Next Year’s Words: a New Paltz Readers Forum” on Facebook or follow the Twitter feed at hashtag @nextyearswords for regular updates on future programs.