Nitty Gritty Magic City is a literary reading series with a democratic bent, dedicated to showcasing the very best writers in a setting where they can commune with their audience of admirers and take a break from the solitary lifestyle that a life and career as a creative writer often entails. In its own words (quoted from the series’ website): “We aim to galvanize the city’s working artists, providing an open space of creative exchange by way of the spoken and written word.”
The ideal result is better creative output for the writer — who has the benefit of seeing how his or her work impacts the audience and adjusting it, or leaving it alone, accordingly — and an enriching experience for the audience. Rather than the caricature of a poetry reading (stuffy, self-impressed characters in turtleneck sweaters reading often lackluster, fustian work to each other in a suffocating atmosphere, for instance), Nitty Gritty aims for the opposite effect: the audience is genuinely entertained and (since it is a self-selecting group) interested, and the writer is interested in what the audience thinks of the work.
The experience, if all goes well, is as much synthesis as recitation.
The series’ founders, Katherine Webb and her friend Daniel DeVaughn, met nearly a decade ago at the now-closed Greencup Books in Birmingham, where they enjoyed listening to poetry readings. They parted ways for a time, but a few years ago, they reconnected in Birmingham — by which time Greencup Books was already out of business — and decided that there was a niche in the city’s cultural life that needed filling.
Nitty Gritty, said Webb, “started a few years ago when [DeVaughn] returned to Birmingham after finishing graduate school in Oregon, and we were looking for a way to connect with the creative writing community in Birmingham. We’d both gone through traditional writing programs at universities but were also interested in the DIY scene—essentially, supporting writers who didn’t have the built-in support network of a university.
“Many of our writers are affiliated with English or Creative Writing departments,” she added, although these are by no means the only channels through which the series discovers its writers. “Our readers come to us through different avenues,” Webb continued. “Some out-of-town writers who know locals in the English departments reach out when they’re on book tour. Others have heard about us through social media or word-of-mouth. And some of the local writers are our friends or colleagues or audience members who are ready to get their work in front of an audience.”
Nitty Gritty is not strictly a poetry reading series, however. “We don’t discriminate when it comes to form,” said Webb. “We’ve hosted poets, fiction writers, essayists, memoirists, playwrights, musicians, comedians… You name it.
“Last month, Shea Stripling from Huntsville gave a hilarious performance of her work, all of which is inspired by her ‘muse,’ the great Bill Murray. Last year, the local playwright Mike Tesney brought in copies of a script, passed them out to audience members with parts highlighted, and proceeded to lead the entire audience in an impromptu production. Ada Limón, who was runner up for the National Book Award for her poetry collection Bright Dead Things, performed in round-robin style in April with fellow poets Adam Clay and Michael Robbins.”
In addition to these locals and acquaintances and college professors, Nitty Gritty’s stage has served as a display for some serious, national-level firepower as well, including the aforementioned Ada Limón. As Webb said, “[Nitty Gritty] was a way for us to bring working writers together, to put a local writer who hasn’t published a book on the mic the same night as a Guggenheim fellow.” The Guggenheim fellow in question was Joseph Harrison, a poet with roots in Alabama and Richmond, Virgina, and who studied at Yale and Johns Hopkins. His poems have been anthologized in many different volumes, and he has been published in numerous scholarly journals.
And now, thanks to Nitty Gritty, he has also appeared on stage in Birmingham’s Woodlawn neighborhood, at the Desert Island Supply Co. (more commonly known by Birminghamians as DISCO), where the series’ events are always held. The fanciful space, with its nautical-themed décor ranging from large marlins to maps that look like they once belonged to a ship’s captain, is a “a nonprofit creative writing program for students in Birmingham” that provides “free after-school workshops plus in-school programs in area schools” and “serves as a hub for creative community projects and events,” according to its website.
According to Webb, “[Executive Director] Liz Hughey at the Desert Island Supply Company was immediately and graciously on board to host the events at their incredible space in Woodlawn.” Hughey, who is a poet in her own right, also teaches a creative writing seminar at UAB, and in 2013 she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for her poetry.
Webb does not see Nitty Gritty as the sole creative outlet for creative writers in Birmingham; quite the contrary, in fact: “There were (and are) already great literary, spoken word and storytelling events in the city—the universities host established writers frequently; the [Birmingham Public Library’s] Bards & Brews series has had major success bringing large audiences in for spoken word events; and Arc, Birmingham’s take on The Moth’s true stories events, has skyrocketed in popularity. I’m sure there are other folks doing other great things.”
Nitty Gritty’s next meeting is Thursday, October 20, when the guest lineup will include the Nashville-based writer Joshua MacIvor-Andersen, the author of the memoir On Heights & Hunger, and the editor of Rooted, An Anthology of Arboreal Nonfiction. His essays, reviews, and reportage have won numerous awards and nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and can be found in journals and magazines such as Gulf Coast, Paris Review Daily, Fourth Genre, Arts and Letters, Sycamore Review, Sojourners,and many others.
According to the author, On Heights & Hunger is a memoir of two professional and competitive tree-climbing brothers, both hungry for transcendence and adventure, coming to terms with their relationship to the divine, the family that first provided a framework for faith and their own obsessions, victories and failures. (MacIvor-Andersen himself is a former Tennessee state tree-climbing champion.)
Nitty Gritty will, if Webb and her collaborators have anything to say about it, remain a fixture of the Birmingham literary and cultural scene for many years to come.