origins of Speakeasy

"Speakeasy" is the name given to the twice-monthly open-mic performance night at the Kelly Writers House. It's had a remarkable run for a decade. Courtney Zoffness, who now teaches creative writing at CPCW, was then an undergrad and was among Speakeasy's founders. As he was gathering information for the piece he's writing about Speakeasy, Eric Karlan received this account from Courtney:

Speakeasy started in the fall of 1997 (my sophomore year). I'd taken an English 10 creative writing class with instructor Rebekah Grossman the previous spring, and she emailed my friend Emily Cohen and I to see if we wanted to get involved in this new under-construction venue called the Writers House. I came up with the cheeky (annoying?) slogan "poetry, prose, and anything goes" and drew that sketchy mic-man as our "symbol." We recruited fellow classmate (and Wharton patron) Adam Kaufman to help with marketing, etc. Our first semester, we held the bi-weekly event in the basement of "Chats," a cafeteria-style, windowless space across the walk (currently home to a Starbucks, I believe?). We chalked up Locust Walk with big arrows, put flyer-tents on all the Chats tables and plastered all the telephone polls on campus. Alas, our attendees consisted mostly of our friends and roommates and a sprinkling of suspicious onlookers. It was only when we plugged into the now-officially-built Kelly Writers House that we acquired the resources and support we needed to grow and thrive.

For us, back then, Speakeasy was a way to connect to the writing community on our own terms. It was student-run -- which, I think, seemed less intimidating to burgeoning creative types. They weren't being graded. They weren't being judged. In fact, with Al's blessing, we even compiled submissions from regular participants and published a "Speakeasy Anthology." (Do they still do that? They should!)

Now that I'm a bit older, and a bit more settled into a regular writing life, I know that having a creative community is INVALUABLE to a pursuit that can feel overwhelming and intimidating and even isolating. It's why I went to graduate school (twice) for creative writing. It's why I loved going to Bread Loaf. It's why I joined a writers group in Brooklyn. And it's why -- though I may not have been able to articulate it then -- I felt disproportionately attached to the Speakeasy experience and the Writers House at large.

In October 2001 an episode of "Speakeasy" was recorded after it was webcast live. You can see and hear that recording here. For his Notes from the Green Couch series, Eric Karlan has written about the history and impact of Speakeasy.