Anne Shaw and Toby Altman open up about their innovative poetry series Absinthe & Zygote

Anne Shaw and Toby Altman open up about their innovative poetry series Absinthe & Zygote
(Image from Absinthe & Zygote reading series)

Tonight at 7pm at Sudz Laundry (1425 W Morse Ave) there will be a guerilla poetry reading. It’s just one more installment of Anne Shaw and Toby Altman’s incredible poetry series, Absinthe & Zygote.

Absinthe & Zygote takes place in the most random places. They’ve held readings on a CTA train car at rush hour, a crowded elevator, a hair salon, and even in the dark. Curious about the series and how it came to be, I engaged the founders in a Q&A. Read the interview after the jump for their invigorating answers.


 Tell our readers a little more about the Absinthe & Zygote reading series.

 Absinthe & Zygote is an innovative poetry reading series. The venue and format vary for each reading. For instance, we’ve held readings on the CTA, in elevators, and in total darkness, with poets reading their work through night vision goggles. We also held a literary salon in a hair salon—the poets got haircuts while they read.

 Your reading tonight is at a laundromat, what made you decide on that particular location?

 Part of our mission is to ask people to encounter the poetic in unconventional spaces and at unconventional times. In this case, we wanted to host a long reading, one in which the audience might include people who did not plan on being there, but might listen and engage anyway. What’s more contemplative than watching your laundry turn in the suds? The laundromat seemed like a great place for this; the readers and audience could also do something practical.

 Were there any reading series that influenced you when it came to the creation of this series?

 Yes, in a sense! We both agreed that we were tired of the kind of reading that takes place at a podium in a plain white space. It occurred to us that we could create a series in which the venue and mode of presentation were part of the form. We strive to match readers with the venues and formats, to create readings that can be immersive artistic experiences. We were also inspired by the Red Rover series: Jen Karmin, Amina Cain, and Laura Goldstein have done important work turning the reading series into a space of aesthetic play.

 If you could have anyone read at your series, who would it be and why?

 We don’t know who our dream reader would be—all of the readers we’ve had have been great! When we established the series, we agreed that one of our objectives was to create a space in which both established and less-established voices could be heard. To that end, we look for poets whose work we admire as well as those whose work we aren’t as familiar with.

 What words would you use to describe this series and why?

 Bodacious, because look at us.

 Where do you see the series happening next time?

 We don’t only vary the location, but also the mode of presentation. For January, we’ve asked Chicago poet Laura Goldstein to read the entirety of her new book Loaded Arc.  For Februrary, we’re planning a silent reading. It will be like a Quaker meeting. The poet will be present and will distribute work, but the audience will read it silently. If they are moved to speak or read excerpts or ask questions, they can do so. It will be an intense experience, one that is both private and shared.



(Image courtesy of Anne Shaw)

(Image courtesy of Anne Shaw)

Anne Shaw is the author of Undertow (Persea 2007), winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize, and Dido in Winter forthcoming from Persea Books in March 2014. Her poems have appeared in journals including Harvard Review, Black Warrior Review, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, and New American Writing.  She currently studies sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work can be found online at and at



(Image courtesy of Toby Altman)

(Image courtesy of Toby Altman)

 Toby Altman is the author of the chapbook Asides (Furniture Press, 2012). His poems can/will be found in The Black Warrior Review, Fact-Simile, The Offending Adam, among others. He is co-founder of Damask, a chapbook press based in Chicago and Brooklyn.



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