Farewell Strange Cage: Russell Jaffe’s high-energy poetry reading series comes to a close

Strange Cage bids farewell
After 20 Strange Cage performances, Russell Jaffe prepares to pass the mic. — photo by Adam Burke

Strange Cage 20

Fair Grounds Coffeehouse — Friday, May 9 at 8 p.m.

For three years, Little Village art columnist Russell Jaffe has energized the poetry scene in Iowa City with his reading series Strange Cage. With his move to Chicago in June, Strange Cage 20, held at Fair Grounds on May 9, will be his last. I recently sat down with Jaffe to disucss what made Strange Cage a success and where he sees the reading series, and poetry, going in the future.

Little Village: Poets at Strange Cage 19 said that your emceeing makes the readings exciting. They described your style as PT Barnum meets a pro-wrestling announcer. 

Russell Jaffe: That’s so nice. I want it to be very high energy. I think that the juxtaposition is very interesting, from a high energy announcer, who’s not really there to put himself over. And I really like the idea, because I find poetry tremendously exciting—some of it crazy, crazy exciting—and I just thought, doing the high-energy thing in the style of those pro-wrestling announcers, and really making it feel like a big event was a natural fit for me … My template for a successful reading is the same template I grew up watching on World Championship Wrestling pay-per-views, which would usually have eight matches. Here’s how it should go: The first match of the night should be very high energy, they would usually put in what were called cruiserweights, they’re usually luchadors … they fly around the ring and entertain you.

So the luchadors are the undergraduates, then? The fast and hungry kids?

Usually they’re the undergraduates with a strong sense of performance, to get people excited —wow, what a big explosion! Then I think I want a bigger name, somebody who’s possibly more established and going to put on a good show, before the break. And then the biggest name goes last … A good example is David Trinidad, who was one of my professors and he’s a legend of poetry, he’s been around forever and he’s doing amazing stuff, and he’s got sort of a slow, dry tone, but he went last and you could hear a pin drop while he’s reading. He’s awesome.

When did you start bringing in bigger name poets?

I guess as with any business, it’s like giant stone wheels: It takes a little time to start moving, but once they do, they start moving faster and faster. First, I had to really ask, does anyone want to read? I wanted diversity of the card as much as possible, … so I would ask people. And now I’ve gotten to where I don’t have to ask anybody: Tons of people ask me, which I love.

How did Fair Grounds become your home base?

Steve [Pernetti] is just so cool. He’s been great to me, and he loves Iowa City. Steve lets me run it here, and I thought of it as a symbiotic relationship at first: I bring a lot of people in here and I get to run [Strange Cage] here for free. I actually think now that he’s bending a little bit more because I don’t know how extremely well business does on SC nights—it looks like it does fine—but really he’s just doing this out of the goodness of his heart …

Has hosting Strange Cage influenced your own writing?

Oh, god. Yes. To hear and read so much, there is no better way, and I don’t care what kind of writer you are, [there’s] no better way to improve your writing, than to read and listen to others read. To me, it’s as simple as eating food. Like a plant getting water and sunlight. You don’t just expect a plant to grow in a vacuum. Spoiler alert: it will die.

Has your own style of poetry performance changed since running Strange Cage? 

For me, reading quietly off the paper was not to my strengths. For me, being authentic meant high energy, and I like these events, so it drives me even more. I have a book of Mad Libs poems, which are participatory and invite banter, and I can read it in a high energy way. And I have new poems now, and I’m very interested in the idea of bands I love, like Sonic Youth, that riff off on their own songs. In this new set of poems I’m writing, I improvise during them, so no two readings will be the same …

What have been some Strange Cage high points? 

The biggest high point for me was when, over the summer 2013, we did Strange Cage 12 at the Englert, and I was on tour myself, and I had Chelsea Tadeyeske, and three poets who are on Write Bloody [Publishing]: Ben Clark, Josh Gaines and Stevie Edwards. They came through and crashed at my house, and for the first time I realized that we were at the forefront of contemporary American poetry. That the poet of 2013 is not just a poet but is a promoter, a traveler, a writer, a documentarian, they design their own books, they make their own books, they do it all and they do it all for almost no money.

So why are you moving to Chicago?

I can’t coast by on the adjunct money any more. When I met [my fiancée] Carleen, a lot of things changed, and a lot of things for me became clearer. Then we found out that we were having a baby, which was amazing, it just clicked … Anyway, I want to be close to family who can help raise our child. I think it’s time for new and exciting adventures.

How are you feeling about hosting your last Strange Cage in Iowa City? 

The last one is important for me because Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney are not only two of my [favorite poets], but Johannes was the first real contemporary poet I read who really connected with me—he made a huge impact on me. I’ve been trying to get him since the second one, now finally at the last one he’s going to be here reading. It’s a full circle thing.

Any other dreams for the future?

My ultimate dream is an arena poetry reading, because it’s never been done.

At Strange Cage 320?

Seriously. It’ll be on the moon. In an arena.

Lisa K. Roberts edits Iowa City Poetry and works with the Iowa Youth Writing Project to bring creative writing workshops to kids. She wants to interview you on the moon.