How to Hold a Literary Salon

Posted Fri, 1/13/2017 - 10:37am by  |  Category:

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ apartment, where they held one of the most influential and famous salons in Paris. Image from Carto’s Library.

Which famous American expatriate in Paris ran one of the last full-blown literary salons?

Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein.

Which notoriously reclusive American poet attended a salon in her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert’s home, The Evergreens?

Emily Dickinson.

Typically, women have been the cultural arbitrators of salons, in large part because salons gave them some clout outside of the (surprise!) male-dominated larger social sphere. True, some men participated; for instance Louis XIV’s petit lever involved a salon where all were required to stand. This scenario went over less well. Participants appear to appreciate seating options.

To hold a literary salon, first one needs a physical space. In fact, “salon” refers back to “sala,” originally the large reception hall of an Italian mansion. Interestingly, some of the earliest salons were held in bedrooms, with the fully-garbed hostess reclining in state upon her bed, as friends gathered round on chairs and stools.

The delightfully eclectic building that is the interim Hugo House has many former bedrooms on the second floor. However, my version of a literary salon—Writing Alongside Local Poets—will be held in one of the cozy chambers overlooking the side lawn.

For the class, I invite four local poets and we use their hot-off-the-press books as our texts, respond to writing prompts based on these collections, and then invite them in to read to us and converse with us in our nifty “sala.” In a relaxed setting, even poets you may have written alongside, or gone to hear present numerous times, are likely to arrive at a new level of candor. What have been their triumphs and setbacks? How did they handle them? How did they find publishers?

Did you know that Elizabeth Colen was the past master of mix tape compilation in high school, and that she applied mix tape principles to compiling her first book, Money for Sunsets? Do you know how long Kary Wayson spends writing each and every day? Were you aware that Richard Chiem compiled his first collection, You Private Person, in part through collage? What is Jane Wong’s favorite extinct animal?

Can a literary salon help your writing career? Can both Gertrude and Emily be wrong?

Deborah Woodard is a poet, translator, and longtime Hugo House instructor. Her winter class, Writing Alongside Local Poets, features salon encounters with Don Mee Choi, Elizabeth J. Colen, Joan Fiset, and Greg Bem.