Hi, the internet! My name’s Robbie Q. Telfer, and I’m a performance poet and live event producer from Chicago.
The two biggest projects I am currently in charge of implementing are the annual Chicagoland youth spoken word festival Louder Than a Bomb and the monthly literary variety show the Encyclopedia Show. Both events are intensely rewarding, constantly challenging, and deeply exhausting endeavors.
The Encyclopedia Show was created by myself and longtime collaborator Shanny Jean Maney in December 2008 in part as a response to the adult performance poetry movement getting bogged down in cliquey cheerleading and egotistical self-indulgence.
Essentially, Shanny and I saw that there was this huge international community of trained performance artists who, after years of competing in poetry slams, were beginning to itch for new artistic challenges that had ostensible goals grander than “convince five strangers to give me high points in an intentionally absurd competition.”
Oh, that’s a fine goal for a while, but it would be akin to playing Apples to Apples every weekend for your whole life. They’re fun games and all, but there are so many more artistic possibilities if you just change up the rules.
So we created the show with three initial goals:
1) get slam poets to perform for non-initiated audiences
2) get slam poets to perform alongside other artists from across disciplines, genres, schools, neighborhoods
3) have fun, for god’s sake.
Other goals and challenges have sprung up since we began, but those initial three have stuck with us through our journey from solo Chicago cabaret to international weirdo community. To date we’ve had Encyclopedia Shows happen in about 15 different cities around the world, with shows in places like Seoul, Austin, Vancouver, Omaha, and Berlin.
Basically, the poetry slam, now celebrating its 25th year, has set the groundwork for audiences and artists to approach live literary entertainment with newfound structure and endless potential for variation, initially invigorating the idea of a poetry reading.
But for some, it’s lost its edge, and the only options for people in the slam community to achieve inspirational longevity is to become an organizer for the community or to leave it for bigger artistic pursuits (like a job that pays you money). For us, we’re interested in showing the performance poets that there’s a sophomore year for them to apply the skills they’ve been honing in that competition, that the structures of the slam are based in an easily transportable narrative.
Our show is just one of thousands of potential other entertaining narrative structures that people could apply to a literary reading, and we’ve been lucky that a lot of people want to join our ridiculous party.
So this is what the Encyclopedia Show is: each month we assign a group of ten (or so) disparate artists subtopics that fall under a theme. For instance, the first show we produced was on the topic BEARS. We assigned Kevin Coval “The Bear Flag Revolt of 1846,” Tim Stafford got “Kodiak Bears,” Brooke Lanier got “Bear Economy,” etc.
They all wrote different pieces in different formats based on those subtopics and presented them together (alongside a real animal named “Benny the Bearcat” who ate bananas and pulled my hair really hard). The result is a literary show that highlights the goodness in these individual artists, has an entertaining structure (we check in with a phony “Fact-Checker” from the fictional “Institute of Human Knowledge and Hygiene” between acts), and the result is greater than the parts’ sum. We want each show to replicate all the emotions possible in our species, while looking through a, for instance, bear-shaped lens.
Further, should other cities want to play in our international art project with us, they must adhere to some mostly arbitrary rules. They must have a fact-checker, they must not be jerks (this is a real rule), and they must go in the same topic order the Chicago show has gone. So everyone’s first show is BEARS. We’ve done 16 BEARS shows.
Then they cover THE MOON, THE VISUAL SPECTRUM OF COLOR, EXPLOSIVES, THE FUTURE, VICE PRESIDENTS, etc.
We are amassing an “encyclopedia set” of creative material, hopefully with a veneer of fun times, a sturdy message of good humanness underneath, and the opportunity to accidentally learn a lot about stuff that has little practical application. Hooray! You can be a challenging artist AND entertain. I’ve seen it. With my real eyeballs. No foolin’!