John Carroll and Laura Relyea settle in around our table at The Warhorse Coffee Joint, and Carroll’s conversant nature becomes apparent. He’s designed for cocktail hour, for copious amounts of everything enjoyable. Sunlight through the windows illuminates his spirited smile, and he apologizes for wearing sunglasses. They’re telling me about the extraordinary new quarterly reading series from Deer Bear Wolf, those cats who introduced us to Natural Selection and the first annual PhoenixFest this past fall.
“Working on PhoenixFest,” says Carroll, “Davy [Minor] asked me randomly if I would do this. Initially, I said, ‘no’ because the monthly format seemed unlikely for what works. I gave it some more thought, kicked around ideas, and hit on some things I wanted to do.”
Carroll stops speaking, and Relyea begins instinctively. Her smile foreshadows intrigue from her poised perch on the edge of the tufted leather settee. Biscuit-colored curls drape her slender shoulders; cornflower blue eyes convey their depth. When she speaks it’s from a wild, independent heart, and I am rapt.
“Johnny was super supportive of me when I started Vouched here in Atlanta. There weren’t many [reading series] at all. Vouched and Write Club started the same month then the scene changed from seven to fourteen per week one month. The formats were similar, and I felt like I was contributing into static. They’re all great, but I saw redundancy in things. Vouched is about bringing independent writing to Atlanta. It was important to take a step back and assess where I was needed. If I don’t take joy in what I’m doing, and I’m not offering something that people need, then…what?”
Relyea is Editor and Chief of Vouched Books, a guerrilla force uniting independent writers with legions of hungry readers. She’s also Managing Editor of Scoutmob. Her book, All Glitter, Everything, will be re-released by Deer Bear Wolf this March and includes several new stories. “I write things down to get them out of me, and I don’t think about them again,” says the author. She has laced the book’s stories with characteristics of women, some of whom are dear friends, and their essential sparkle. These are socially surreptitious love letters to everyone who struggles with owning her essence.
Carroll’s the master behind Make Blackout Poetry, a collection of abstract painting combined with book pages transformed into poignant remnants, Phoenix-like.
His prurient chapbook, Slow Burn, was published in 2013 by Safety Third Enterprises and sold out in a day and a half. The writer’s memories of a Kentucky childhood construct a depraved house of cards that ensnares characters within their own homespun hell. The last chapter title starts with ‘Routine’ and rhymes with ‘duck,’ but to run wouldn’t be Carroll’s style. He embraces what literature has done in his life, saying, “Writing gave me a vehicle for my voice. No one else could get up and read that [material]. It’s a social commentary, and it’s done.” A content, bearded Carroll props his vintage boot steady on the table in front of him, reclines and clasps his hands across his chest. His latest book will be out this year on Deer Bear Wolf Press.
In a culture barraged with miscellaneous information and increasingly circumscribed by unfounded ideology, the pursuit of good literature addresses Relyea’s ‘what.’ At the very least it’s a rational escape and validates the need for a pressure valve release. At its best it effectually illustrates cause and effect.
“I didn't read a book I wasn’t forced to read till I was 18,” laments Carroll. "When I was in high school I didn't realize literature mattered,” “With Laura’s book and mine we want to make it accessible, get people introduced.” Relyea contends, “...challenge how people interact with the written word.”
My dad read a book a day his whole life and still does, [but] I was a rambunctious child. Running around outside is all you can do in Kentucky.” Carroll’s determinedly Christian family later moved to Atlanta, and he discovered atheism and the punk rock culture as a young teen. “We hung out at the Barnes & Noble in Gwinnett, and a guy handed me Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk...I started blogging about my life. I wrote in obscurity for years.”
“He got positively peer-pressured. Shine theory personified.” Relyea contends, referencing her writing. “I’m an army brat. Atlanta was my 20th move. Every time we unpacked, mom marched us to the library. I can tell you all of the books I read repeatedly as a child. Literature was my anchor. The stories I gravitated toward are all survivalist genre. When I got to college we had to do an experimental assignment and the topic was ‘doors.' My teacher pulled me aside after reading my piece and told me to take another writing class."
Four years ago, Vouched launched its reading series at Youngblood Gallery, and late last year in collaboration with ROAMtransmissions, Vouched upturned the reading scene with a unique program of original works of music set to found sound. Despite being 80 people deep at readings, Relyea ended the series last July in exchange for increased focus on cultivating national partnerships. The found sound project with ROAM was the first of these collaborations. Relationships also include Curbside Splendor Publishing and George Mason’s renowned Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
Discussing Vouched prompts a tangential discussion between Carroll and Relyea. He fills me in, prefacing, “The social currency proved its worth with PhoenixFest.” With a nod to Deer Bear Wolf’s landmark celebration of almost extemporaneous literature, craft, art, and music, the two make note to review upcoming reading dates, sensitive to not double-book with an existing reading series. Notoriety requires finesse to create a legacy, and virtue is usually born in a humble house.
They laugh while debating whether to tell me a story. Carroll gestures toward me and proclaims, “Let her tell it!”
“Here I was!” Relyea begins with candor. “I had a brand crush on Purge. It was edgy. The brand was established.” Carroll is formerly the Editor-in-Chief of Purge ATL where Relyea had sent an email asking for a meeting. He responded to her inquiry, writing, ‘Sure, how about we meet at the Clermont Lounge?' Poetic irony not lost, she suggested a meeting at the nearby Bookhouse Pub instead of Atlanta’s first and longest continually operating strip club.
That meeting launched their friendship.
It’s no wonder either that Carroll and Relyea incorporate artistic aptitude in the selection process for Transgressions’ writers based on performance ability or that the budget includes decor, a worthy peculiarity for a reading series. The two also hinted at pop-up readings set in-between the quarterly series. “There’s a window right now in Atlanta,” says Carroll. “People are hungry for culture. We plan to curate and partner with other Lit. groups. Iron sharpens iron. Deer Bear Wolf isn’t here to take all the glory but to Can we add this clause? I'm forever trying to tie in to the obviously intriguing strip club reference, but I certainly don't wanna be suggestive.highlight other people. Promote. Shine a light. Deer Bear Wolf is a machine to pull people up into the light.”
While specializing the talent is principle, bringing in new blood is essential. “We have three new writers who’ve never read before,” says Relyea. “It helps us be engaged and is a better representation of Atlanta.”
“It keeps the community from being incestuous,” Carroll claims with a laugh. “We were all under a rock at one time.”
TRANSGRESSION: An Unorthodox Reading Series, stands to stoke a fire in an exercise at elongating the city’s literary muscle. Conceptually, Carroll and Relyea share a vision, binding the book that is Atlanta’s literary community. Their approach transcends our traditional interaction with literature. Their contributions spark an inspired culture of writers and readers as they speak almost reverently of inclusion and collaboration.
The opening reading of the quarterly series will be staged at the Big House on Ponce January 22nd as CLUE: A LITERARY EVENING OF THE MOST MURDEROUS VEIN. The interactive who-done-it mystery is replete with confessional writing and a cast of dramatic characters moving from room to room in a “literary haunted house.” The series will also collaborate this spring with The Five Hundred, a provocative flash fiction challenge from author Winston Blake Wheeler Ward. An otherworldly Day of the Dead reading is planned for later this year.
Carroll and Relyea depart on their way to Mother or maybe The Bookhouse, and I realize that I’ve become hungry for more.
DEER BEAR WOLF PRESENTS:
TRANSGRESSION: AN UNORTHODOX READING SERIES
Upcoming Series Event:
CLUE | A LITERARY EVENING OF THE MOST MURDEROUS VEIN
Big House on Ponce, 368 Ponce de Leon Ave.
Thursday, January 22nd, 8-11PM
- Written by Amanda Rose