A Way With Words
by Mary Vuk
In 1979, Anne Kingsbury and Karl Gartung bought a run-down building at 720 East Locust Street. After much cleaning, repair and tender loving care, Woodland Pattern Book Center officially opened its doors in 1980. “It took three days just to wash one of the ceilings,” said Anne Kingsbury, now Executive Director of Woodland Pattern. “When we moved in it was a disaster. The former landlord expected the street to be widened and didn’t make repairs. We came in and it was a real fixer-upper. It’s still a fixer-upper,” she added with a smile.
Kingsbury and Gartung bought the building because they wanted to ensure that the rent would remain stable. They were able to rent the space to Woodland Pattern at a below-market rate. “Part of me is amazed that 25 years have gone by so fast. That’s a respectable life span for any non-profit. The fact that a literary center has lasted that long is even more amazing – I feel pretty good about that,” Kingsbury said.
Woodland Pattern is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit organization funded through a combination of grants, donations, sales from the bookstore and revenues from events and classes. Their mission is dedicated to the discovery, cultivation and presentation of contemporary literature and the arts. Kingsbury explained, “Although we sell books, we are a non-profit and some people find that confusing. It’s part of our mission to make new writing available for readers to discover. We do this through book sales, public readings, book art exhibitions, music and film programming as well as community writing workshops.”
Building a Cross-Over Audience
She continued, “People want to explore and check things out. So my husband and I decided that there needed to be more ways for people to have access to what was once only on the page. One obvious way is for writers to read from their work; hearing a writer often builds further interest and you can often hear their voice when you read. Book arts exhibitions and book making workshops are also ways of expanding ideas about literature. Our music and film programs build crossover audiences. People who are interested in cutting-edge music and film are more likely to be interested in cutting-edge writing.”
Kingsbury’s own background is in fine arts, but her mother was a kindergarten teacher, which perhaps helped shape her interest in developing innovative children’s programs at Woodland Pattern. “All arts organizations are concerned about their next generation of audience,” Kingsbury explained, “Because there’s been so much talking about overall loss of reading and writing skills, we decided to offer writing classes for children and combine them with other things like music and movement and visual arts.”
Woodland Pattern has offered children’s classes combining writing and yoga, writing and music, and creating zines (handmade magazines), where the children combine writing and drawing. “When children start school, they’re excited about new things,” Kingsbury said, “and somehow that can get drained away. Writing, instead of being an interesting, fun thing to do, can become a punishment. Not always, but unfortunately too often. You misbehave and you’re told to write something. How do you deal with that? How do you bring it back to the kind of exciting exploration that it can be? We’ve been working to change that perception. At the end of our workshops, the students give a public performance of what they’ve written. It’s wonderful to see how performances improve and how pleased they are with themselves and their writing.”
True to form, Woodland Pattern will sponsor a bilingual poetry reading by 5th graders from Escuela Fratney on Sunday, January 30.
Active Community Participation
Over 25 years Kingsbury has witnessed many positive changes in Riverwest. “There is a great deal of neighborhood interest. People work towards what needs to be done in their community. More individuals are able to own their homes. I see a lot of pride here in Riverwest. There are always things to be taken care of, but the people who live here are very active in the community. Woodland Pattern tries to play a part in that,” Kingsbury said.
A non-profit’s cash flow situation may often be somewhat unpredictable and unstable. As Kingsbury noted: “The programming has always been great. Figuring out how to pay for everything is the more challenging side. In addition to book and ticket sales, we get grants and donations.” Many donations come from Riverwest. “I’m very impressed with this,” Kingsbury said, “because the people who live here have been very supportive and they don’t necessarily have large incomes. That means a great deal to us.”
Kingsbury is committed to keeping Woodland Pattern at its Riverwest location despite comments from some people from the suburbs that they should relocate elsewhere with more space and parking. “This is where I feel we’re supposed to be. This is where we can make a difference and where I think we’re needed,” Kingsbury said.
She continued, “So whether it’s related to public school activities, or hopefully getting people who haven’t been used to coming into the neighborhood to come, or giving access … to artists and musicians who normally you would have to go to New York or San Francisco to be able to see, that’s what is really special about what we do.”
Impressive Past, Optimistic Future
Over a span of 25 years, Woodland Pattern has brought in hundreds of poets, artists and musicians. Such writers as Diane Wakoski, Paul Metcalf, Gregory Corso, Wendell Berry, Quincy Troupe, Derek Walcott, Carolyn Forche, and Kenneth Koch are among many others who have graced the stage at Woodland Pattern. “We don’t have the largest honorarium that can be offered,” Kingsbury said, “but we do make sure that a person doesn’t have to pay to come here. Every person is special, and when they come they need to be treated as special.”
Kingsbury is both pleased with the past and optimistic about the future. The staff at Woodland Pattern often asks itself hard questions. “We try to evaluate what we’re doing. Is it still pertinent? Is there still a need for it? If not, maybe we should put our energies into something else. Our goals are like amoebae that keep changing as we get input, but I would say the one permanent goal is to continue serving the community as a literary center with high quality programming. My personal long-term goal is for people to have a sense of trust in what Woodland Pattern is offering and say, ‘I may not know this [artist’s work], but I’m going to try it because I know Woodland Pattern believes in quality and they introduce new and interesting forms of art.’”
Upcoming events at Woodland Pattern include the 11th Annual Marathon on Saturday, January 29, and the Fratney School “Children’s Wishes/Children’s Dreams” reading on January 30. In commemoration of their 25th anniversary, Woodland Pattern plans to publish an anthology of all poets who will read at this year’s marathon. If you are interested in reading at the upcoming event, please call 414-263-5001 for further details. There will also be many readings, music and film events throughout the year to commemorate the anniversary. On February 12, Murat Nemet-Nejat, a Turkish poet, translator and editor, will be reading from his work. In addition, Anselm Berrigan, Rebecca Brown, and George Albon will be reading in the near future, dates to be announced.
Mary Vuk is the founder and director of Shakespeare & Company, a reading circle dedicated to the works of William Shakespeare.
Riverwest Currents online edition - December, 2004