My Tuesday nights are dedicated to a grand experiment that I have been pursuing for almost three years. It is known publicly as Juniper House Readings. One might believe that it is overly romantic to refer to a literary event as an experiment. After all, Flagstaff is home to Flagstaff Poetry Slam and the Narrow Chimney Reading Series, where several accomplished writers and nationally recognized poets wow audiences with their talent. We have members of our community who travel on book tours and compete in the National Poetry Slam. All of these people have edited, polished and practiced their work so when you experience their words, they are as flawless and impactful as possible. But you won’t find that at Juniper House. It’s against the rules.
Juniper House Readings was born from bonfires and gallons of wine. My good friend Tim Leavy and I used to sit in one of our yards and hurl poetry across the fire at each other at the top of our lungs, drinking from a cheap gallon jug of Carlo Rossi and pausing to write down new poems. Sometimes we invited friends to join us and imagined that this is what it felt like to be active in the Beat Generation. We drank in the chaos of the evenings and reveled in the uniqueness of it all. It was exactly what we craved from the literary environment of this mountain town, but hadn’t found in any of its events. So we created our own.
The number one hard and fast rule of Juniper House is to keep it fresh. Every piece that is shared has to be new to the world. Readers are not allowed to perform work that has been published or shared with an audience before. This rule is absolutely key for two reasons. First, it creates an environment in which everyone is vulnerable. Every person who stands up to read their work is doing so for the first time, so through our empathy, we are able to foster a safe space for personal expression, and everyone will clap for you. The second reason is that it forces us to push our boundaries. Through the constant production of new work, we condition ourselves to perpetually experiment, innovate and dip our toes into new streams of thoughts and ideas.
I walk into Uptown Pubhouse every Tuesday with no idea what I am going to perform. That’s because I haven’t written it yet. For years, I have made a challenge to myself to write and perform a piece in the same evening of a literary event. Sometimes I come up with something pretty good. Sometimes I don’t, but at Juniper House, the point is to push my own mental boundaries, in a way that I hope serves as an invitation to others to embrace the experiment with me.
Unfortunately, my participation in the grand experiment is swiftly coming to a close. My wife recently completed her Ph.D. in biology at NAU, and we are packing up to move to Salt Lake City, where she has accepted a post-doc at the University of Utah. As I write this, boxes are littered about the house, and if you are reading this on the day of publication, it is likely that I am loading the last of our belongings into a U-Haul trailer. It is a bittersweet pill to swallow, knowing that I am leaving a perfect mountain town that graciously embraced me while I know new adventures await in a city hugged by the Wasatch range, but fear not! Juniper House Readings is staying here. My co-host, Ky Dio, and our newest addition to the Juniper House team, Andrew Ibrado, are going to take the reins and make the event live and thrive through their joy and passion for the creative community of Flagstaff.
I have never spent any time in Salt Lake City. I don’t know where poets hang out or where the downtown is. I haven’t even seen the house we’re moving into. It’s a new experiment. I would like to think that bonfires, poetry and conditioning myself for new creative adventures will help me when I hit the ground running, but I know that I’m going to miss the niche I created. Several people have asked me if I am going to start another Juniper House type event up there. The short answer is, “No.” Juniper House will have to remain a fresh gem in the pocket of Flagstaff. Maybe you can help keep it that way.
I would like to think, dear readers, that you will wander into Uptown Pubhouse this Tuesday night around 7 p.m., wind your way through the pool tables and sit down among the other people in the far left corner who are there for Juniper House. Do me a favor: Order a beer and a whisky and scribble out some words. Stand up and read them. Everyone will clap for you, I promise. You are a part of the experiment. You are my vision for what comes next for this literary movement, and your voice will push boundaries. Or light a bonfire and howl poetry into the night. We need that too.