“There's a quote that I'm borrowing from Elvis Costello that he borrowed from somebody else,” Jared Duran says midway through our phone chat. “'Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.' I understand that in any art form, that if you analyze it to death, it loses all meaning.”
Which is why Duran seasons his literary analyses with a dash of levity and a decidedly casual, stream-of-consciousness curiosity as host of Limited Engagement, a reading and interview series put on by Four Chambers Press, Phoenix's preeminent literary magazine turned culture and community incubator.
Every third Friday, Duran plays the part of chill tour guide through the psyche of some of the Valley's best writers of poetry and prose. Questions range from inspiration and influences to recurring themes and creative processes. The through line: Duran's self-effacing lack of preparation. “It provides an element of uncertainty and often some humor to it, through the sheer act of fumbling,” he says.
We turned the tables and asked him a handful of questions in advance of October's Limited Engagement, featuring journalist, poet and co-founder of Black Poet Ventures Leah Marché, tomorrow at Remod at the Hub.
What was the genesis of Limited Engagement? How is it different from other Four Chambers events, or similar events in the Valley?
This is an idea that I took to Jake [Friedman, founder and editor-in-chief] because it was a series I wanted to do. I had just started listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast. I was like, "Wow, that's really cool. I wish somebody would do that with writers or something." So I was like, "Why don't we do that? We'll just do it with an audience in a live format"... It ends up being almost a talk show format in the end, as opposed to a traditional reading series, in that we have an opening guest and then the featured person doing a full set if they want, usually a 20- or 30-minute set, and then we sit down and talk for a while, talk about what they write about, and what their processes are and all that. Outside of an academic level, I hadn't heard of any sort of regular program where writers were being interviewed at all, so I thought it would be neat to do that outside of that setting plus, for lack of a better word, jazz it up a little bit.
What informs your interview style? Do you take more inspiration from someone like Maron, as opposed to someone like Terry Gross, who hyper-prepares for each interview?
I love Terry Gross. I listen to Fresh Air all the time. She's an amazing interviewer, she clearly has everything down before that person sits in her studio. And that's just not me. I'm much more of a lazy interviewer. Luckily, most of the time I know something about the person who's going to be reading already. Usually through the act of random questioning and stream of thought, I find out a lot more about them than I had any idea about them before. That encourages me to stick to that process.
What is your process for selecting writers to feature?
I ask them and hope they say yes. The first one, I asked Bill Campana [poet and co-host of the Caffeine Corridor poetry series] to do it because Bill's great and it was a brand new show, brand new format, which we didn't know how big of a draw we could get for that kind of thing. I thought we needed to go ahead and have somebody who had a draw who could bring in people... and for me, that was Bill. Unfortunately for Bill, it rained that night very heavily, so we had a small audience. Still, there were about 20, 25 people who braved it and that was great. He can be a little intimidating. I like being a little intimidated, actually. It was pretty clear from that first show that we were still feeling it out. It was sort of funny, after the first couple [of writers performed and were interviewed] after him, Bill was like, “I want a do-over.”
How has the series evolved?
We keep hitting our stride. It's getting easier and easier to do, and people seem more willing to talk once they've seen kind of how it goes. I'm not going to shy away from asking a question that I think is important to the writing, but it's also a pretty low-pressure, just kind of free-form kind of thing. I think people like that. The feedback I've gotten from everybody is they need to talk about what they do because nobody really asks them.
Do you want to stick to featuring only writers? Or do you want to eventually include musicians, fine artists, etc.?
It starts out as a writing series to me because it's under the Four Chambers umbra and that to me is very literary-based. But that being said, I think it's great to be all-inclusive of the arts through that community setting, fostering creative collaboration and all that... It's currently and ostensibly local, but I would also love it to be a forum for people who are passing through, people who are doing book tours or doing readings around town that are from outside of Arizona. I do believe in local first because I think we have a ton of talent out there that doesn't get featured a lot.
So far, the people you've featured are writers you know from the local literary scene – friends, even. Have you found out anything you didn't know about them? Any highlights?
It's not like they are close friends, necessarily. There's definitely a difference in friendship levels, I think. It's almost like being work colleagues, because we're all out there listening to each other's writing and being an appreciative audience and so forth. I think a lot of that contact is very superficial. There are people I know better than others. I think especially since you don't talk about the inspirations or the stories behind the writing [in regular interactions], you don't know that person very well...
I asked [poet] Jia Oak Baker a question that she wanted to slap me over. It's because there are some recurring themes in her work, one of which was extracurricular activities, so I asked her [about it]. “This pops up in your work,” or, “For instance, your writing about your mother is not always favorable.” I have a curiosity for where that comes from. And that format makes me feel like I can go ahead and put that question forth, where I might not feel like we're on an intimate enough level on a one-on-one basis to just come out and ask that. Which is interesting, and I don't know if it speaks more to me or just the social dynamic, but I think that when you're examining work like that you have, not necessarily carte blanche, but certainly more of an opportunity to delve into the psyche of this person.
What are your thoughts on pairing the opening musical act with the writer feature? Should the two complement each other? Contrast?
It happens to have worked out the last few times we've had music that Jia had a friend who was a singer and... Jack [Evans, poet and Caffeine Corridor co-host] brought Tom [Bell, a local guitarist] with him because he was part of the show and so he opened up for that. Upcoming, we've got [writer and musician] Mike Pfister's group, PressPlay. Every time I've heard Mike play, it's just amazing. I'm a huge fan of jazz, and specifically the era that he excels in. I almost left out [singer-songwriter] Robbie Cohen – he was a friend of Shawnte [Orion, poet and Caffeine Corridor co-host]'s, so he opened up for him...
I think it ends up being that the music pairs well with the reader. I think that's going to continue with Mike Pfister's group opening up for Leah [Marché] just because her style is very musically based and a lot of jazz influence in that as well. I think that's an excellent pairing, but I don't know where it's going to go from there. The November one we're actually not going to have an opening act because I booked two features for that instead, which are Natasha Murdock and Josh Rathkamp, who are married... That's interesting to me as well, two people who are in a relationship who are both creatives... They're both poets and I'm curious as to all of that, how that works in their life, and what kind of dynamic that brings to the relationship.
Anything you want to add, or to let people know about Limited Engagement or Four Chambers in general?
It's been really cool to have that [Four Chambers]. Jake started that, and he really has been working very hard to make that a very well-known presence in the arts community. Because of that, we're able to do all this stuff. I could've started this reading series and I don't know how it would've gone, it might have gone as well, it might not have gone as well, but the fact that I can say this is associated with Four Chambers means that, on some level, there's a built-in audience and a built-in cachet because of that name, and that's a huge credit to Jake and all the work he's done, and all the work we've all done, for that matter... How receptive the Phoenix arts community has been to that has been just amazing as well.
Finally, if the script was flipped, who would you want to interview you?
I think it would actually be pretty interesting to be interviewed by Jake. I wouldn't mind being interviewed by Shawnte, either. It seems like it would be fair to give Jia a shot.
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