History of the Fourth Friday Poetry Series
  • example-08

    By: Josh Smith
    January 23, 2012

    *Disclaimer: This article is written in the third person. I have done this so that what you read does in fact read like an article, instead of a blog.*

    In his 1997 book Brain Droppings, George Carlin asked:

    "If a radio station changes its call letters, moves its studio across town, hires all new disk jockeys, and changes the style of music it plays, but keeps the same frequency, is it still the same radio station?"

    In the year 2012, poets could rightfully ask:

    "If a poetry series changes its frequency, shifts the focus of the series, hires a new host, and changes the style of crowd it brings in, but keeps the same name, is it still the same poetry series?"

    On May 22, 2009, Western New York poets Deborah Osborne and Susan Crane-Sundell presented the inaugural edition of the Fourth Friday Poetry Series at Dog Ears Bookstore, in South Buffalo. Since that time, the series' location has remained the same, though its foundation has drastically been changed.

    The Crane/Osborne-initiated series began with the goal of creating more intimacy than offered at other poetry readings in WNY. To accomplish this, the series took away the traditional setting of a stage, and instead, preferred its guests to lounge in the overstuffed chairs and sofas of Dog Ears' Enlightenment Literary Arts Center. Hosts, featured readers, open mic participants, and audience members alike would form a circle with their seats, glasses of wine in hand and ears on the ready.

    In the series' early goings, it heavily mirrored the then-recently-defunct Moonlight Poetry Circle. The Moonlight Poetry Circle, traditionally held on the first Friday of each month in Buffalo, also employed the circular seating, non-stage setting for absorbing poetry. Like the Fourth Friday Series after it, the MPC chose to forego the widely-used institution of open mic signup sheets, instead using a talisman known as "the talking stick" to give its holder permission to speak.

    This format would not last nearly as long for the South Buffalo series, however. Only a few months in to the series' run, co-founder Deborah Osborne abdicated her hosting position to further pursue her career in crime analysis. This sudden paradigm shift marked the first in what became a multitude of changes for the series at 688 Abbott Rd.

    Over the remainder of 2009, host Susan Crane-Sundell battled to keep the series on track. Some months went without featured readers, while other months went without readings at all. The year 2009 rocked many local poetry series, each in different ways. Like the Fourth Friday series, The Screening Room's Sunday Series underwent major changes that year; brand new series began at venues such as Merge Restaurant, and the Musicians' Big 6 Club, before quietly closing shortly thereafter. Come 2010, the Fourth Friday Series would continue without either of its founding co-hosts.

    After the departures of Susan and Deborah, the series existed solely because of the vision of its third and only remaining founder, Dog Ears' owner, Tom McDonnell. McDonnell kept his involvement hands off in 2009. A fan of poetry, though not a poet, Tom's focus laid in keeping the nascent not-for-profit bookstore open for the community. With the series on the rocks however, he assumed interim hosting duties until a successor could be found.

    For most of 2010, the series' trajectory was hard to predict, and equally as hard to follow. In the top half of the year, the hosting reins were hot-shotted around to blue chip poets such as Marek Parker, Josh Smith, and Jim Antonik. With each new host came a change in the series' format. Smith wanted to put more tradition back into the series, while Antonik brought it closer to its original state, instituting a round-robin format; a format that would later be tried by Ryki Zuckerman's Zoned-In Literary Salon, neither with favorable results.

    While some things changed that first year, others stayed eerily similar. The two inaugural featured readers of the series' first run, were its hosts, Crane and Osborne. Excluding McDonnell, each new host also took a turn as featured poet. Like the first run, subsequent installments of the series failed to generate capacity crowds, often having people trickle in, numbering only in handfuls.

    June marked a turning point for the series. None of the veteran poets who took a turn at the wheel quite had the keys to success. With nothing to lose, Tom McDonnell reached out to perhaps the least likely of candidates available. For being in the proverbial right place at the right time, Fred Whitehead, a man who had never before attended a poetry reading, became the interim host of the Fourth Friday Series.

    A former musician, Whitehead met with McDonnell that spring to discuss shelf space for his debut chapbook, Songs, Cradled. His writing portfolio consisted mostly of song lyrics, prior to 2009, but while the only South Buffalo series in recent memory had been spiraling downward, the neighborhood's newest poet was on the rise. So when the latest pick for interim host, backed out due to time constraints, Fred was given the ball to run with.

    For the concluding months of 2010, Fred hosted the series using a MacGuyver-esque combination of instinct, veterans' advice, and pure guestimation. Whether through skill, or fortune, he booked a blend of highly sought-after poets from both the written, and the performance communities. Features that season included: Woodlawn Diner host, Sara Ries; small press impresario, Edric Mesmer; and rising prospect, Nava Fader.

    In January 2011, with the series finally approaching stability, Whitehead was named the third official host in the series' history. Fred's series more resembled a traditional Buffalo format, than previous incarnations. Gone were the days of "talking sticks" and round robins. Employing the "anchor" technique last seen locally by the Poetry in the Teahouse series, Fourth Fridays shows now began with a sole featured poet, followed by an open mic.

    In the course of his first official season as host, Whitehead embraced both the past, and the future. At Fred's invite, former Version One featured reader Ryki Zuckerman, returned to feature for Fourth Friday 2.0. And by season's end, fans could "like" the series on Facebook, or catch up with it on Twitter. As further proof that the series has come into its own, a compilation chapbook is due to be released in early 2012: Brigid's Fire, the South Buffalo Anthology of Poetry, featuring former guests of the series.

    The January 2012 show marks the one-year anniversary of the series' most recent "official" run. Fred celebrates the milestone as both host, and co-featured reader alongside veteran colleague, Josh Smith. This year, the series expands to two features per month. Already booked for February, is the tandem of Robin Brox and David Hadbawnik.

    Once a series hampered by confusion and uncertainty, through the trials and the tenacity of many men and women, the Fourth Friday Poetry Series has since grown to become one of Western New York's favorite playgrounds for new poets, and new poetry.

    Is it the same series that began on May 22, 2009? For an answer, another George Carlin quote could be apropos: "It isn't fair. The caterpillar does all the work, and the butterfly gets all the glory." Without Deborah Osborne and Susan Crane-Sundell, Marek Parker never hosts a reading at Dog Ears, nor does Jim Antonik; and by removing any of those links, the series we know today, does not exist. When appreciating the history of the Fourth Friday Poetry Series, one must go back all the way, past January 2011, and into the circle where poets sat, glasses of wine in hand and ears on the ready.