When I interviewed Jeanine Walker back when she was our April Poet in Residence, she was talking excitedly about the return of her Mixed Bag reading series. The series, she said, was on hiatus, but it would be returning in a new home: the Hugo House. At the time, the literary center's grand reopening in the fall seemed so far away. But this Saturday, Mixed Bag finally returns. Walker graciously agreed to talk about what, exactly Mixed Bag is, and what she's been doing in the interim. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
First, I have a very important classification question. Do you call Mixed Bag a literary event or an event with literary features?
I think it's probably best described as a variety show with literary events.
It's literary enough to be hosted by the Hugo House, apparently!
I'm so excited about being at Hugo House, because I had hosted Cheap Wine [and Poetry] and Cheap Beer [and Prose] there for four years, and, you know, it's a brand-new building but to me it has the same vibe and the same energy. This feels right for us.
And I do think that the literary audience is a great audience for us. We write the whole thing to make it literary, but it's also something that's going to appeal to people who love sketch comedy and music and film.
Could you talk a little about how Mixed Bag started?
My husband, Steve Mauer and I — we weren't married then, but we're married now — had started our band The Drop Shadows and we were playing shows, but it was always kind of at inconvenient times — you know, like 11 at night on a Wednesday. And then you had to get up and work, and it was tough. So we wanted to make an event where I could host and we can present our music as the house band at a more reasonable time.
One of the things I loved about hosting is that I could set up the reader to have a really great audience. So I thought, okay, if I'm telling jokes and I'm getting people laughing and comfortable and having a good time then when the reader presents whatever they're going to present, the audience is really warm to them. I love doing that.
The first show we did was in our garage, and both of our PAs caught on fire. Steve had a stop-motion video to play, and we had bought a projector. Something about the projector was messed up and so the PA caught on fire. Our friend brought his PA to replace that one and then that one caught on fire and so we started two hours late. But once it started, it was the most amazing feeling. We had about 40 people, which filled the garage, sitting on makeshift benches made out of cinderblocks and two-by-fours.
I recently watched some of those past shows, and it was just amazing. There's such good energy in the room. It was just fun for us, even though we had all these incredible mishaps in the beginning. We're pretty excited to be at Hugo house because I think it's going to have the same kind of vibe to it.
I've seen a lot of reading series and recurring literary events in this city go on hiatus. Usually, that means 'we're just going to a walk away whistling and never think of it again.' So it's fairly impressive to me that you managed to put your series on hiatus and then restart it in a new place. I was wondering if you have any thoughts as to why it's proven to be so durable.
From the beginning when we were in the garage, we couldn't really invite random people that we didn't know. We loved all the people who came, but we wanted to get people that aren't just our friends to come and we couldn't really do that in our garage. And it was getting too small.
So we went to the Royal Room and that was great — I mean, playing music there is amazing, but it's not quite the right venue for theater. And so we had always kept in mind that we wanted to get into a space that was right for every element of our show.
So when we found out that the Hugo House could be an option, it was really exciting. When we stopped doing it at the Royal Room, we had this move to Hugo House in mind, and we knew it would just be a little while because the space was being finished.
I think the answer to your question is that we already knew our next step when we stopped the previous version. And it helps that I live with the person who is my partner in it. It's our whole life — we work, and then we do a Mixed Bag. So there's not a day that goes by when we're not talking about it, or what's next for us.
Can you tell me a little bit about what's going to happen at this week's Mixed Bag?
I'm excited that Claudia Castro Luna is our guest artist because I love her, and her poetry, and she's been to the show. I remember distinctly that she came to one of the Mixed Bags and she was sitting there laughing and I was just so happy that she was there. I love her energy, so having her be part of this first one at Hugo House is really special for me.
And we have a great cast like Chris Walker, who is my older brother, and Amelia Peacock. It's great that they're returning, and that Jekeva Phillips is joining us on stage — I just love her performance style. She's really been impressive to me when I've seen her perform before, so I'm happy that she's part of it.
One of our old cast members came over the other day and watched us rehearse, and she said 'these are the strongest scripts you've done so far.' I think we keep getting better at it. And because we're about to hit our fourth anniversary, we've been honing what the show is. We're going to be four times a year at Hugo House, so as we continue doing that the space and the audience will shape the show. I feel I feel very comfortable there, so that's a good thing.
Is there anything else that you think our readers should know?
I loved The Last Mosaic and have added Elizabeth Cooperman and Thomas Walton to the bill. Claudia is still our official featured guest, but they'll be performing a short literary dialogue in the second half of the show. We'll have books for sale. And to try to keep up a little of the spirit of Cheap Beer and Prose, we have a drink special: purchasing a $5 limited-edition Mixed Bag pint glass at the show will get people $4 craft beers from the keg all night long.
And in general, I'm constantly thinking about why I'm doing Mixed Bag, and I think one of the things that is important to me is to foster connections with people. My whole hope with this is that there's many genres being presented at once, and that someone who loves music will come and say, 'oh, I guess I am interested in poetry,' and presenting poetry in this form will make it more accessible to people who might not naturally love it.
Or maybe people who come for the poetry will find out that they are interested in stop-motion video. I'm really excited to present each piece, and I do think each part will inform and I hope enhance the others. I'm hopeful that people will come out laughing and enjoying themselves and having a great time. I can't wait to be together with everyone in that room.