The inspiration behind Julia Lattimer’s Allston Living Room Read is storied and personal.
Storied, in that it joins the lineage of movements and organizations before it that were created to provide regeneration and a comforting space for communities and culture. Think of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Manhattan, or Boston’s own Combahee River Collective, whose black feminist and black lesbian members built an alternative to the white feminist movement.
Personal, in that after having read at fellow queer artist Emily Lombardo’s Life Lines show at A R E A Gallery in fall 2017, Lattimer sensed the deep need for more venues and opportunities to highlight queer voices.
“It was a complete eye-opener for me,” Lattimer recalls. “I felt so happy. I had never been part of a curated show of queer people celebrating art, music, and writing before.”
The unwavering question from there: Why aren’t there more art-based feminist and queer events? The question perturbed her.
“So I thought to myself: If I wanted this space, and for poetry, I would have to make it because I didn’t know where to find it,” Lattimer says. “Although that’s not to say they didn’t exist.”
She had moved to Boston from Virginia less than a year earlier.
“[I figured], I’ll do it for the summer. A three-month poetry reading series, for queer people.”
Now having maintained the monthly series for nearly a year, since July 2018, Lattimer credits the sleeper hit success of Allston Living Room Read to “faith” and the support of other feminist-driven collectives like GRLSQUASH, a “Boston-based womxn’s food, culture, & art journal.”
“They are lovely,” Lattimer says. “They were promoting ALRR [on their Instagram Stories] before I had even met them.” After such early shoutouts, Living Room Read began to catch on.
“Let me tell you, I have a moment about every single month, around 7:45, and I don’t know if anybody is going to show up,” Lattimer concedes. “But eventually, people start rolling in, and I get this exciting reminder of, Wow. They’re here. [Sometimes] they don’t even know anybody else in the room, and they still want [this series]. Like, Holy shit.”
On those nights—usually a Tuesday—and in front of a humbly packed living room inside of an Allston duplex, Lattimer introduces herself and the participating poets. The duplex is also home to the up-and-coming queer Latinx performance space Casa Cariño founded by MJ Cordova, Yesenia Mejia, and Véronique Rodriguez, the latter of whom further supports the cause by designing ALRR posters.”
“Sometimes I look around at the poetry scene,” Lattimer says, “and I’m like, We’re all just a bunch of queers in here.”
On a countertop in the apartment foyer is a small jar for $5 donations (you can Venmo too). At the end of the evening, the collection’s totaled and divided to pay artists who read poems and short stories, and sometimes performed an acoustic set. The performances are honest and subtly subversive, as well as hilarious in some cases. For one set, poet Cassandra de Alba read from “The Tyra Poems,” in which she placed the model/mogul Tyra Banks in comical situations, replete with inside America’s Next Top Model jokes.
Up to five poets read from their self-published chapbooks, notebooks, or smartphones. They got involved or were invited via word of mouth, on the recommendation of friends, and through writing workshops that Lattimer is a part of, as she is working toward an MFA at UMass Boston. She’s UMB’s Breakwater Review poetry editor as well.
“It’s like a chain,” Lattimer says. “It absolutely has been, and again, a lot of that has been on faith. Everyone just vouches for each other. I got a friend that does this. This person would be good at that.”
Twenty-somethings have responded the most to the ALRR, and within the cozy and intimate DIY venue, racially speaking, it is majority white. Lattimer acknowledges that while she can’t control who is compelled or willing to visit the series, says she can bring diversity to the performance roster.
“I was afraid that this was going to be a white, lesbian space,” Lattimer says. “Because that’s what happens when you don’t do any work and you’re lazy. … It’s just so not helpful, frustrating, and exclusionary when you go into a queer space and see the same gay, white people. I knew that going into this, for the Allston Living Room Read, I was going to make the conscious decision to have people of color, trans, people from all sorts of groups represented, all the time.”
Her genuine consideration has helped bring in poets like Romeo Oriogun. The 2017 winner of the Brunel International African Poetry Prize, Oriogun read at ALRR last November and divulged the repercussions he has faced because of his homosexuality, along with the courage to live his truth. Oriogun is also a part of PEN America. Colloquially known as “writers at risk,” PEN hosts artists who are at risk for their work in other countries.
“Where he’s from, Nigeria, it is criminalized to be queer,” Lattimer explains. “When you’ve been living in a space for so long in which it’s criminalized to be this ‘thing,’ here we are celebrating that and it really puts it all in perspective. It was rewarding to bring him in.”
It’s been Lattimer’s intention to support more nonheteronormative work and artists who claim queer. The word may have a lot of buzz around it, with woke media monopolizing “queer” as a functioning tool in understanding or unpacking fashion, sexual, and gender landscapes. But for a word that Lattimer’s father remembers being used pejoratively in the 1980s, the ALRR co-exists on a new frontier.
“I think it is very powerful, but also complicated. Queerness is like this big abstract concept and how do you put a border around that? And more importantly, should you?”
Lattimer acknowledges that she’s had her biases about who gets to declare queer, but only because she sensed usurping. This past February, for example, Ariana Grande’s video for “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” was accused of queerbaiting.
“I’ve had moments I felt people were latching on to my queerness to help promote something for themselves,” Lattimer says. “It’s just this weird thing that happens when something becomes a buzzword. Everybody wants it and sometimes [it’ll cause you to feel unsure] whether or not they’ve had similar difficulties coming to their experiences from an honest place.”
Yet, her concern spurred a reckoning. “I also want to step away from the role and feeling of gatekeeping,” she says. “I would rather see a person who thinks they’re queer and explore everything that may mean to them than not.”
With another reading upon us, Lattimer says she’s enjoyed watching the series evolve on an interpersonal level.
“This Allston Living Room Read has profoundly changed my experience of living in [Boston],” she says. “If I didn’t have this, I would know far less people, and without knowing it, lose so much.
“I thought I was going to do this for the summer.”