The Dollhouse Reading Series Curators Dolly Lemke and Holly Amos: Celebrating the End of Dollhouse

The Dollhouse Reading Series Curators Dolly Lemke and Holly Amos: Celebrating the End of Dollhouse

interview and commentary by Kelsey Hoff

This July, the Dollhouse Reading Series held its 51st and final event in curator Dolly Lemke’s Lincoln Square apartment, bringing its five-year run in Chicago to a close with readings from over 20 poets. The readers popped balloons with scraps of paper inside to determine who would read next, many of them sharing fond memories of Dollhouses past and expressing gratitude to curators Dolly Lemke and Holly Amos, who also read. Some of the poems were written specifically for the occasion or in tribute to the Dollhouse and its curators. Amos read a handwritten letter to the Dollhouse family and memorialized Nathan Breitling, a former Columbia MFA student, by reading one of his poems. Guests were encouraged to live-tweet the event at #DHFinale.

Both Columbia College Chicago Creative Writing MFA alums, Amos and Lemke or, more fun-to-say Holly and Dolly, have provided not only a monthly reading opportunity, but also a community space for new and experienced poets from near and far to mingle. To document their success and perhaps learn some trade secrets of running a poetry reading series, I sent Holly and Dolly a series of questions:

 Dolly Lemke and Holly Amos open the reading. Photo: Kelsey Hoff


CPR: What circumstances led to the creation of the Dollhouse? Was there a niche you were trying to fill or a goal you set out to achieve with the series? Has your vision/mission remained consistent or changed direction?

Dolly Lemke: I moved to Chicago for grad school and I had never lived anywhere but my hometown of Milwaukee so moving was a big deal. I didn't know anyone until I started school and then it felt like "ok, let's do this friends and community and networking thing." So the series really just started as get togethers when a few friends had chaps out. I really wanted to keep that community that grad school offers so that's also kind of where it started and what kept it going in the beginning. A few readings in, it was clear I had no idea what I was doing because I would invite people over at 7pm and maaaaaybe start the reading at like 10pm. My bud Stephen Danos came onboard and helped make it a legit thing. With that said, we always set it out to be an intimate, casual space where anyone could attend, always free, BYOB. We didn't take ourselves too seriously but we set out to do serious work. We just wanted to be the place everyone wanted to go once a month. I think the series was so successful because we let it be what it wanted to be and didn't put too many restraints on it.


CPR: It was mighty brave of you to start a reading series while being so new to the city yourself, but clearly Dollhouse has helped to create the community you were looking for. Do you have any suggestions or insights for poets who are new to Chicago or generally trying to get more connected with a poetry scene?

Dolly: Find out what's going on in the city and attend everything you can. Join Facebook groups and email listings. Talk to people and get out of your comfort zone. There's something going on almost every night of the week in Chicago. Take advantage of that! See what the colleges and universities’ upcoming events look like. The Poetry Foundation has great programming and a sweet library. See what other libraries are programming. Read everything you can. Share everything you can. Be kind and spread love. For poets wishing to get more politically involved in how poetry can change the world or at least make it a little better, The Dark Noise Collective put together some materials: A Call for Necessary Craft and Practice and How Writers Can Join the Fight Against Police Violence.


CPR: The choice of hosting the Dollhouse in a private residence (three different apartments over the last 5 years, if I've understood correctly) makes your reading series a very unique Chicago staple among the many others located in bars, bookstores, and coffee shops. How has this affected your jobs as curators and the experiences of readers/attendees?

Dolly: As curators it made it incredibly easy to keep the series going so regularly. We never had to find a venue, negotiate dates or times, promise attendance numbers, etc. We could focus more attention on researching and contacting amazing poets and writers. Many times throughout each reading, attendees would thank me for opening up my home and I think everyone felt "at home" in a home. We worked to maintain a space that facilitated poetry and kindness and openness.

Holly Amos: Sometimes we had to take a step back and say "OK we have to stop curating until we know if Dolly is going to stay in this apartment because maybe she doesn't want roommates anymore."


CPR: Have you used any specific strategies for curating readers? Do you pair certain readers together on purpose, or does it just depend on who is available?

Dolly: We like to call it "APC" (Always Playing Chess), a term coined by former all-star curator Stephen Danos. For the last few glorious years, I curated with Holly Amos and we were constantly doing any number of things to get each event planned and executed. "Doing any number of things" may or may not be considered a strategy, but that's what we did in a nutshell. I think we just figured out what worked after all these years and a cornerstone of what worked was high-touch communication among the curators. That was essential (kind of sad to say "was" over and over, tear). We texted, emailed, Gchatted, Skyped, had in person meetings and lunch meetings, any and all of it. We were planning out the next 5-6 readings, managing dozens of correspondence threads, and promoting and launching the events, while working our full-time day jobs. Lots of emailing and maintaining a spreadsheet (one of my favorite phrases). Cause and effect comes to mind too: if we sent out three emails for one date to four people, then we had to chill on that date and look further out in the future. If we sent one person three dates then we had to document that and all the correspondence going forward. Again, lots of emails. We were constantly researching who's in town, who's coming to town, who lives close and is willing to travel, whose voices compliment or cause tension with other voices, who's got a new book out, who's never read before. We worked tirelessly to curate and promote events that anyone would want to come to, felt comfortable at, and represented all richness and vastness and craziness the poetry world has to offer.

Holly: We also really tried to balance local and non-local readers. We're fortunate so have curated in a city with SO MANY incredible writers.


CPR: This is kind of a three-part question: maintaining a space that can welcome "richness and vastness and craziness" in a peaceful manner can be difficult; what are your specific rules concerning hateful language and behavior, how did you decide on them, and have you ever had to enforce them?

Dolly: The craziness mostly comes from so many people attending each event, and lots of people Holly and I have never met, so we had to keep an eye out, be aware, and pay attention to who was entering the space. We monitored attendance and shared door duty and made an effort to introduce ourselves to new people and ask how they heard about the series. Some weird and awkward stuff happened but nothing that made us reconsider how we operated as curators of the series. During the intros, we would always remind people that this was a private residence and that we would not tolerate any oppressive or violent behavior or words. We worked with Chicago Feminists Writers & Artists Collective to support the safety of our space and included a statement on all our event listings. We wanted to make sure if anyone felt uncomfortable or threatened that we would take immediate action.


CPR: I know Holly will be busy promoting her new book Continual Guidance of Air; do either of you have any other exciting projects on the horizon to fill the void?

Dolly: Besides book stuff and new poems, Holly is hoping to take some steps forward in being more actively and intentionally involved in animal rights work, though she's not yet sure what that will look like. It's something that's at the heart of a lot of her work, and at the heart of her everyday as a vegan, but she's looking forward to seeing how that will materialize.

I'll maybe get some nicer furniture! Ha! For real though, I'm not sure. It just felt like the right time wrap it up and lots of little variables came into play for myself and Holly. With that said, I plan to focus on my own writing more, which has been dismal at best, and editing for the online poetry journal Pinwheel, which will make my co-editors happy. I'd love to find a way to stay as connected to community and facilitate the arts/creativity and I have my heart and mind open to possibilities. Holly and I will probably do some one-off readings too. We had her book release at the apartment on July 23! We'll be around, don't worry.