The Reading Series in a Chelsea Church
Nancy Hightower on Selling it All and Moving to NYC
In 2013 I quit my full-time teaching job in Denver, Colorado, sold my house and car, and moved to New York City because I needed more magic in my life—and I knew NYC had it. A writer friend rented his three-story townhouse in the East Village to me, and my community of sci-fi enthusiasts—authors, editors, and publicists—nicknamed it The Castle. I threw massive masquerade parties and hosted impromptu salons for artists and writers specializing in speculative fiction, fantasy, and the grotesque.
When my friend sold his place, I bounced around for a few months until my friend Cynthia von Buhler, an immersive theater producer, introduced me to puppeteers Erin Orr and Chris Green. Erin and Chris offered me a room in their puppet and antique filled apartment, which seemed like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Then in 2015, I had the opportunity to rent a room in an Episcopal seminary in Chelsea. Given that my father worked for three televangelists (including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the infamous Heritage USA) and my mother ended up entrenched in the Satanic panic of the early 1980s, I couldn’t believe I’d found a home in a place where priests lived and studied. The seminary reminded me of Hogwarts—it was old, magical, and sacred. It was exactly what I needed.
I was finishing my collection of poetry, The Acolyte, which looks at Old and New Testament stories from a surreal, feminist perspective. Two of the priests in training were also writers, and we formed a small writing group that met every other week. The following year, one of the writers, Alissa Godward Anderson, was working at St. Peter’s Chelsea, just a block from the seminary, and along with interim pastor Stephen Harding, she invited me to give a reading at the church from my newly published book. It was a small audience, but I loved the space for its quietness and the focus its aesthetics lent to the reading. St. Peter’s is beautiful in the way that only old churches can be, with stained glass windows and cushioned pews with little doors that open into the aisle.
I saw the potential for more events at St. Peter’s, but at the time, I was already involved with another reading series, Liars’ League NYC, run by Andrew Lloyd-Jones. I learned a lot from Andrew about all the tiny details that help a reading series run smoothly—from picking the readers and themes to promotion and technical details like microphones and recording devices. In a way, I had the chance to be an apprentice for a year, which was invaluable. When Liars’ League went on hiatus at the end of 2016, I concentrated on my own writing, which was becoming increasingly political in light of Trump’s presidency.
By 2017, Alissa had graduated from the seminary, and St. Peter’s hired a new Arts and Culture Curator, Monica Sanborn, who contacted me about giving another reading. This time, I wanted to include other authors, plus artists and performers, as I thought a multigenre lineup would make for a stronger event. I had attended many HIP Lit events, curated by Erin Harris, Britt Canty, and Kim Perel, and I loved the way they brought in music, art, and performance to go in tandem with the readings.“Writers are busy people, and once I’ve committed to a date, I will be there, even half dead.”
I also saw the invitation as a unique opportunity to have the reading be about resistance to Trump and his policies. Given the strong evangelical backing that helped Trump attain the presidency, what better place could there be for such a reading than a church?
That first reading was called “Artists Resist,” and readers included Brendan Kieley, David Burr Gerard, Jen Lue, myself, and actor Gabriela Barretto. We had music by Marcus Jade and art by Karen Lue.
I didn’t know what to expect, but we had a decent turnout of around 25 people. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and the church has no air conditioning. Fans kept air circulating but didn’t cool us off. We brought wine, which helped. The building’s acoustics are so good, they are almost surreal. The readings were inspiring, lyrical, and heartbreaking. More than one person cried while Marcus played songs about grief and injustice, loss, and the hope for redemption. Gabriela recited Emmeline Pankhurst’s powerful “Freedom or Death” speech without breaking eye contact with the audience. We also projected Karen’s photographs of beautiful, haunted landscapes and portraits on stage.
I wanted to do another event, but decided to wait for cooler weather. There weren’t any regular reading series in Chelsea, so I thought we could build one at St. Peter’s. Booking a diverse group of readers was essential to me—I was disturbed by the all-white lineups at many of the readings and conference panels I’d attended.
I didn’t plan on having themed events, but as I was creating my lineup for October, I realized that many of the readers had written about the idea of monsters and saints, and the timing was right, since the reading was right before Halloween. I told our authors that their readings didn’t have to tie into the theme, but it added a fascinating backdrop to the work, much like the church itself.
Like many NYC curators, I attend other readings to support the literary community and to discover intriguing authors. I featured Swati Khurana at “Monsters and Saints,” as I’d enjoyed a reading she gave at the Center for Fiction. Swati brought her little girl up on stage to act out the story. Rosamond S. King read her poetry and gave me chills when she asked, as a litany in between certain pauses, who is the monster, who is the saint? Other readers included Britt Canty and Jessie Chaffee, who had just published her debut novel Florence in Ecstasy, which delves into the history of self-abnegating female saints. I’d heard Britt and Jessie read at numerous events, and I loved their work. For music we had Master Michael Quinn and Jeff Allyn Szwast, who played a version of “Hallelujah” that left us weeping.
It’s not easy to have a reading series in an old building—there were times we had to borrow a microphone, as the church seldom uses them for the service. At our winter reading, the heat was so loud and steamy it left streak marks on the wall. But no venue is perfect—bars are loud, and people’s apartments can be small. You go to readings for the community, for communion.
Our most recent St. Peter’s reading was in late January, and I was still getting over the flu. I had been at urgent care that morning, but there was no way I was going to cancel. Writers are busy people, and once I’ve committed to a date, I will be there, even half dead. Monica was a great help, as was Britt, who helped me get wine.
Programming the reading, I’d booked two writers I’d read with at other events, Sarah Perry and Jennifer Hope Choi, and invited two more writers whose work I’d admired, Jennifer Baker and Vanessa Mártir. The night’s theme was “Legacies,” since Sarah had just released her memoir about the loss of her mother, and Vanessa had published an amazing essay about motherhood in Bitch Media. For our music, Marcus Jade returned.
In its community building function, a reading series is like a church service. One hopes that new friendships and relationships will develop, that established authors will attract new readers and emerging writers find inspiration, and that we all come away a little better after hearing the word.