Feast of Words: Evolving Participation & Connecting Communities

Posted by Lex Leifheit, Nov 10, 2011 0 comments

Caron Atlas’ post about People’s Potlucks inspired me to write about my own experiment in food, community, and art, Feast of Words: A Literary Potluck. Co-founded with Irina Zadov, Feast of Words is a monthly event where people come together to eat, write and share.

Feast of Words is one year old, and since the beginning it has simultaneously been about bringing communities together and expressing, creatively, what sets them apart.

It was a spontaneous idea—Irina had hosted a dinner party where people shared their creative work and was looking for a “third place” that combined art making with the comfort of a shared meal. I had been attending literary readings, looking for one that was a good fit for SOMArts, which is a multidisciplinary arts space and cultural center.

San Francisco has an abundance of literary readings, but there was room for improvement:

  • Most emphasize entertainment value and there is little acknowledgment that the people in the audience are writers themselves.
  • If a reading series is overtly cultural, the dominant culture of the series dominates the audience as well.
  • Writing workshops in San Francisco are expensive and more often about industry (travel writing, food writing, short fiction) than identity.

Feast of Words is about identity and connectivity.

We choose writers and chefs who infuse their food and writing with their heritage as well as their present cultural influences, so that we can inspire other writers to do the same.

Some, like New America Media co-founder Andrew Lam, weave food into a story and collaborate with the chef, even if they have never met before. At the November 2010 Feast of Words, Andrew shared an essay from his book, East Eats West: Writing In Two Hemispheres, and detailed his family’s reactions to the globalization of phở, a Vietnamese culinary staple. Blair Warsham, head of the charitable dining group graffEats, served a version of phở infused with his personal taste (and delicious black garlic broth).

Some months, the writer and chef do not collaborate, but like the best potlucks their juxtaposition provides an opportunity for discovery and adventure.

This was the case when literary guest and gay erotica author Simon Sheppard appeared with Malaysian culinary entrepreneur Azalina Eusope.

The most important ingredients of Feast of Words are in our motto: Eat. Write. Share.

We invite people to get creative and bring potluck dishes for low-cost admission. We encourage our guests to engage all their senses—taste, sight, smell. We inspire them with shared stories from literary and culinary guests...and once they have full bellies and inspired minds it is their turn to write and we lead a writing exercise.

In the beginning, we didn’t know if everyone would write. We tried an open mic format and quickly nixed it because it took away from the “be here now” ethos of gathering neighbors around a shared meal.

We tried having a clap-off for prizes and the audience said it felt too competitive. Now, we lead a short writing exercise at the end of each evening. Everyone has a chance to share with a stranger seated near them. As added incentive for sharing, we ask for volunteers to read to the group, and then select two at random for literary and culinary prizes.

Looking back over the past year, Feast of Words has taught me a lot about my Bay Area neighbors and the many cultures coexisting in this city. We have not changed our vision a lot since the beginning, but we have changed it enough to be responsive and welcoming.

Feast of Words was referenced in a recent report about innovation and participation. And yet, because it is not a workshop or a performance, not culturally specific and not even discipline specific—it is very difficult to find financial support. This will be our challenge for year two!

When we were starting up and developing our structure, I was inspired by Great Small Works’ Spaghetti Dinners and the format of Dinner Party Download.

Have any of you developed innovative programs in the past year?

What history did you draw from, and what did you learn in the process?

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