Jennifer Lewis, cofounder and editor in chief of Red Light Lit.
On a cold February night, masked performers read for Red Light Lit poolside at the storied Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco. Overhead, leafy branches suggest a proscenium arch. A fire blazes in a long concrete planter. Poet Preeti Vangani delivers, “I want a poem for the man whose idea of heaven is an accidental brush with a woman’s side boob.” Appreciative laughter ripples across an audience of 60 people who drink cocktails and eat under the glow of heat lamps and strings of lights.
Alta Live talks Red Light Lit with Jennifer Lewis.
The event is MCed by the exuberant Jenn Stokes, a producer for San Francisco Pride and Folsom Street Fair, and elements from each performance flow into the next. Allyson Darling kicks off the show with questions like “How do you use a strap-on?” Christine No astounds with surreal poetry featuring “neon fuck ups” and a “church of friction.” Kar Johnson beautifully likens sex to “the elements forgetting their place, / losing the borders of their bodies.” Loria Mendoza reads potent, sensual prose poems about the possibilities of love from her collection Cinco: “Today will simply be the day I listened to your lips kiss every word of a Neruda poem and then licked them clean of cola and seafoam.” Musician and poet Sarah Bethe Nelson’s ethereal voice leads us into Emily Van Dyke’s stand-up comedy set: “Has anyone been spooned by a data scientist?”
This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
Since its inception eight years ago, Red Light Lit has staged more than 100 live shows in a handful of cities, but this is its first since the pandemic began. Cofounder Jennifer Lewis slips unobtrusively along the sidelines with a video camera, capturing performances. She’s pleased the event is running smoothly.
I’d anticipated erotica. Instead, I find a deeper emotional experience, as well as a funnier one, a night of sonic writing that aims not at titillation but at honest vulnerability—even, at times, rapture. It feels spontaneous, but Lewis precisely choreographs each show. Beforehand, she spends around 10 hours organizing the program to create a narrative that “hits all the spots, like a play, so you’re going to get some laughter, some heartbreak.”
Lewis might seem an unlikely champion of work centering on love, sexuality, and gender identity. She grew up Catholic in Oak Brook, a suburb of Chicago, and married her college sweetheart. Both came from conservative families. She wrote fiction in a more Victorian register: “The couple went to the bedroom, and the door shut.” Her voice is reverent when she calls her three children her “heart.” Erotic poetry wasn’t her idea.
When cofounder Veronica Christina approached her in 2013 about starting an erotic reading night, Lewis was reluctant. She changed her mind while earning an MFA at San Francisco State. “So many people wrote about gender and transitioning. I realized how much empathy came from the stories,” she explains. Lewis told Christina she would do the reading series “if it could be about all spectrums of sexuality. If it could include trauma and confusion and heartbreak and disconnection and connection.” Red Light Lit’s first show sold out.
In 2016, Christina left the series, moving to Portland. Red Light put out a series of literary journals in the first few years, then broadened into a small press under Lewis, who published two books while continuing to grow the live readings. Lewis serves as the press’s editor in chief and curates all the shows. Initially, she didn’t realize the extent of the social stigma that might attach to her: “It’s hard to talk about sexuality and not be sexualized. Just because you stand up and read a story about sexuality doesn’t mean you’re down. That’s what I’m trying to establish.” Reading so much good work has emboldened her own award-winning writing. Her flash fiction piece “Put a Teat in It!” reveals humorous indignities of double-pumping breast milk, culminating in revelatory, slant insight. Nomadic Press plans to publish her story collection by the end of the year, though the date may be pushed back because of the pandemic.
Years of yoga and transcendental meditation have taught Lewis how to release anxiety about judgment. She says, “I’ve had to realize what people think doesn’t necessarily represent my life in any way.” Although some of the work she programs and publishes falls outside her own experience, she believes it’s important to give emerging artists, especially marginalized voices, a platform, to make the world safer.
Perhaps Lewis’s safety awareness relates to her brief time working for an investment banking firm with a sexist environment. Red Light Lit doesn’t allow misogynist literary work. Performers gather courage to be vulnerable from one another. She says, “When you’re surrounded by this troupe of people, and you have this supportive environment, and it’s packaged in this way, it gives you strength to share those stories.” Live shows can feel safer than Zoom performances.
The vibe at the Phoenix is glamorous, but Lewis tailors shows to suit their venues. She explains, “It’s important to represent the shadow as much as the light, and there isn’t a lot of space to talk about more complex and dark emotions.” An expansive understanding of intimate experience also animates Red Light Lit’s literary journal and two books: the anthology Love Is the Drug & Other Dark Poems (2018) and Thea Matthews’s urgent debut poetry collection, Unearth [the Flowers] (2020). The books are gracefully edited to contend with human complication: for example, what it’s like to be a sexual abuse survivor, while also being sexual.
Lewis is searching for Red Light Lit’s next book, to be published in 2022. As a fiction writer, she’s open to short story collections. She’s also working on the lineup for the next show, planned for the spring in San Francisco. She anticipates more events with the easing of pandemic restrictions.
When Stokes and performers shout gratitude to the self-effacing Lewis from onstage, she banters but stays out of the spotlight. The generosity that allows her to hold space for others’ emotions is uncommon. Once, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s performance art, Lewis memorized poems from Love Is the Drug. For three nights in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ Boulder Creek, people sat across from her as she recited love poems to them. “Some people cried,” she says, “some people felt really uncomfortable, some people hadn’t heard someone say something nice to them in a long time.”•