Seen and Heard, the Literary Salon Scene

The November installment of the BLT Salon was held in an apartment near Grand Army Plaza. Photo: Jordan Galloway

The November installment of the BLT Salon was held in an apartment near Grand Army Plaza. Photo: BLT

On a Saturday night in mid-November, in an apartment building off Grand Army Plaza, a troop of women and a handful of men—wine bottles in hand—ascended the stairs to a second-floor walk up, diligently leaving their shoes by the door and dropping their coats off on the bed before making their way to the living room to stake claim to what was quickly becoming limited seating.

By 8 o’clock, the only empty place besides the floor was a chair between the room’s two windows. It was, to the chagrin of some naive newcomers (present company included), vacant for a reason.

The place of honor was being reserved for the eight people selected to read original works that night–works which ranged from poetry to personal essays to fiction and finally a seven-minute, poetic projection of HTML code. Discussion ensued after every fourth presentation between bites of pumpkin cheesecake, and each prompt was as diverse and varied as the person who delivered it, with the singular exception that they were all the works of women.

It was the 13th gathering of the Brooklyn Ladies Text-based Salon—BLT Salon for short—a monthly meetup started by Brooklyn residents Montana Ray and Natalie Peart in the fall of 2011.

BLT Salon is a far cry from Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, site of the most legendary salon to date. In fact, these intimate gatherings of artists, writers and thinkers have a rich legacy dating back to 17th century Europe. Historically however, female influence at such social functions, where guests presented their works or engaged in intellectual discussions, by in large began and ended with a charismatic hostess.

The Drink serves at a summer home for the BLT Salon.

The Drink serves at a summer home for the BLT Salon. Photo: BLT

Stein perfected the role on Saturday evenings at her home in Paris in the early 1900s, as did Catherine de Vivonne, who hosted one of France’s first salons for decades until she died in 1665. For her part, Stein entertained such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in her apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus for almost 40 years, but it’s said that even she excluded other women from these evenings. One exception to this rule of salon culture at that time was Natalie Barney, an Ohioan who lived in France at the same time as Stein. The weekly salons hosted by Barney were famously female friendly.

Barney’s gatherings withstanding, the lack of ladies in earlier salon culture stands in stark contrast to the ladycentric nature of Brooklyn’s current salon scene where today, women are assuming a whole lot more than hostess duties.

“We felt the need to do something that was a positive space for women out there, something that had a voice,” Ray explained over coffee in December when we met up to discuss our borough’s growing salon landscape. “In the beginning, we invited people whose work we wanted to know more about. It set the tone. It was just a good feeling. It seemed to fill a need for people. We have really specific diversity psychosis: 70 percent of our writers are women of color, 30 percent are queer writers and they’re always women except for in April. There are so many great writers and artists, and we’re not trying to just be a literary salon. We’re trying to work with people who work with text in any medium. Usually we’ll have a film artist or a musician.”

True to salon tradition, BLT ran out of Ray’s apartment for its first year—save for a stint this summer in the backyard of The Drink in Williamsburg, a time of year when being indoors in unbearable anyway. Despite its success, or maybe because of it, Ray says, the act of organizing BLT on a monthly basis became a bit overwhelming at times.

“We’ve been lucky, in that whenever Natalie and I feel burnt out, wondering if we should do this anymore, we’ve pulled back, had a dinner with some people that were involved and people have took over,” Ray said. “Letting go at the right moments and pulling back at the right moments is essential.”

Part of pulling back is that BLT has turned into a roving salon for its second year. Ray and Peart have relinquished the reins a bit and now entrust a few of their female friends and fans of BLT with curating and hosting the salon every month. Their next salon is being held Saturday, Jan. 19, at 8pm at Argos Books on Bergen Street.

It’s important to note that none of the salons mentioned in this piece discourage men from attending, they just happen to attract a more estrogenic audience. And whether or not they’re women’s only by design, a growing list of salons in Brooklyn today seem to be benefitting from a woman’s touch.

Storytelling in action at The Shed. Photo: The Shed

At the September gathering of The Shed, a monthly, outdoor storytelling salon held, until Hurricane Sandy, in the backyard of Jason Fried and Katie Cooper in Red Hook, all the presentations were by women save for that of Fried himself who co-founded the salon with Cooper, Chrysanthe Tenentes (a partner and contributing editor at BB) and Audrey Evans in June of last year.

“There’s this idea that when you’re telling a story, you’re shedding something of yourself,” Fried explained in October when we met up to talk at Smith Canteen in Carroll Gardens. “What I find fascinating about the whole thing is that we live in this city, and conversations are often a race of interruptions to one up each other and get your word in, especially in a bar. Especially when people are drinking, it becomes even worse. Storytelling is not just about talking. It’s about listening. We’re bombarded with information and broadcasting all the time, taking pictures and tweetings and calling a texting. All of that sheds away. When you’re in our backyard, there’s no delineation between the storyteller and the audience. It’s like we’re all around the campfire in a sense.”

The crowd that gathered on the backyard patio that night in September was decidedly more gender neutral than what I’d find two months later when I attended BLT, with women making up just over half the audience. The discussions were also less prompt based, though each Shed salon is organized around a theme–September’s was Fall– and evolved organically in between storytellings or while people were eating food around the picnic table in the front yard. While The Shed’s usual location came out of Hurricane Sandy unscathed, it is moving to an indoor venue, likely in Greenpoint, for the remaining chilly months, and will return to Red Hook in the spring.

Bed-stuy resident Idrissa Simmonds started her salon, Brunch and Word, in September, elevating the city’s favorite weekend pastime from a food-only affair through the addition of both poetry readings and discussions. Simmonds plans on hosting Brunch and Word on a seasonal basis—the next one is scheduled for Jan. 19. She selects a single poet to present his or her work and then pairs a meal around the themes they plan on presenting. The afternoons begin and end with music and discussion, with the poetry readings serving as the main event in between. They aren’t specifically for women only, but Simmonds says the majority of attendees at her first salon were women or identify as female, as are almost all the people who contact her about Brunch and Word.

“I began thinking of these connections we have between art and food and space and home and geography and how they weave their way into our work,” said Simmonds, a writer as well as an avid cook. “New York does have an active literary scene, but it often takes place in settings where you have poets performing their work, but you don’t have much opportunity to talk and engage and learn from one another. That’s why the discussion aspect of Brunch and Word was so important to me. It’s really not a Q and A. It’s an active discussion between everyone in the room.”

The Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Series gathers at the Park Slope home of Pamela L. Laskin,  poet and CCNY English instructor.

The Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Series gathers at the Park Slope home of Pamela L. Laskin, poet and CCNY English instructor. Photo WWBPS

It was during a phone call with Simmonds that I learned of JP Howard who runs Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, which she started with Sheila Slaughter during National Poetry Week in April 2011. Howard, who lives in downtown Brooklyn, started running WWBPS on her own in early 2012 after Slaughter moved on to other projects.

“The goal was to collaborate with women—sometimes an honorary man shows up—of all different writing levels in a creative, safe space,” Howard said of the inspiration for the salon. “The influence came from the Harlem Renaissance and how they used to host salons. Usually a woman poet or artist will host [WWBPS] each month in her space. They’re usually potluck style. It’s probably about 95 percent women who show up. The salon is very diverse in terms of the women that we get both ethnically and where they are as artists. I like that it’s a melting pot of New York.”

As WWBPS’ popularity grows through word of mouth and social media, Howard says she’s had to create a waiting list, which she cuts off at 25 people. There were 35 people at BLT Salon the night I attended in November—five of whom were men.

Gender divides aside, as Ray explained, the point of a salon, whether they revolve around women or not, is still the same as it was in Stein’s day.

“It’s about the art of conversation as well as the art that’s on display.”

If you’re interested in attending you can sign up for newsletters with updates from WWBPS and The Shed.

Brooklyn Based delivers free daily emails about the borough's best food, events, attractions and innovators. Get Brooklyn Based in your inbox--sign up here.