When she arrived in Colorado Springs four months ago, Abby Murray admits, she wasn't sure if she'd fit in. During her first few days here, she was admonished by a stranger as she walked her German shepherd, then called a "bitch" while out jogging.
Others might have resolved to stay home, but the tattooed, 28-year-old Pikes Peak Community College writing teacher says instead she called her mom, then decided: "I'll make my own club."
So on a recent Friday night at the Inner Space at Poor Richard's, seats are filled for an event Murray is calling the Writers Reading Series. The free public gathering promises an open mic for writers followed by a featured reader.
"I thought there should be something that's a combination between a literary event, a writing group and a date night," Murray says, "something that allows writers to get out, to be nice to each other and see what each other is writing."
"She does this everywhere she goes," explains Deidre Schoolcraft, an English instructor at PPCC herself and occasional contributor to the Independent. "She's really forceful in her own gentle way, and she makes things happen."
"She's very encouraging; she'll say, 'Hey, I'm gonna do this thing and you should come read,' and people do it."
In fact, that's how she convinced Schoolcraft to become the series first featured reader.
Running away with it
As the crowd quiets down, Murray sets the evening's tone with "Me and Coyote," a poem of her own. She then turns over the open mic to a string of student writers, who read: a tale of an impending plane crash; an assortment of poems including an ode entitled "My Dog"; and a memoir of a deadly incident of domestic violence. Each is met with enthusiastic applause. Then Murray returns to the podium.
"I can assure you, you're in for a real gut-wrenching treat," she says introducing the evening's main course. "I know that most people don't consider their guts being wrenched as a treat, but writers are a strange breed."
Schoolcraft warms up with two poems, then describes Migratory Birds, her recently completed novel. "It features a bar, a luthier [guitar maker] who is also a young Oscar Romero-type minister, some illegal aliens, a runaway Navajo girl, some AWOL special ops Army guys from Fort Huachuca, a social worker, a baby and a turkey vulture."
She adds, "It's kind of graphic, so I apologize if it's too so."
She clears her throat, straightens the manuscript pages, and launches in: "He spread her legs and pushed his dick inside her. His sweat-stinking clothes — "
A nervous snicker sneaks out, and Schoolcraft pauses mid-sentence. She looks up at the crowd, then starts to giggle herself.
"So when does it get graphic?" blurts a voice near the front.
Now the entire group erupts into laughter, and with the tension broken, calm returns.
"Stop heckling," Schoolcraft jokes. "All right. I'll start again."
With her listeners ready for anything, this time they're silent. What follows is a numbly brutal scene of a young woman's sexual assault at the hands of a relative. Soon the girl is a runaway, fleeing into the desert, where she stumbles into a group of undocumented immigrants, along with the armed men who accompany them.
As the selection comes to a close, the audience sits for a moment taking it in, then claps and hoots its approval. Murray returns to the podium.
"OK," she says with a little shrug. "Well, that's it."
There's one more round of laughter, this time at the frank and simple sign-off, and the evening officially ends. The readers, writers, professors, students and friends linger offering congratulations, signing up for the group's blog and talking shop.
Shock and awe
A few days later, Murray is sizing up the reaction she got from a pair of students who attended: "Um, interesting."
"I knew what they wanted to say," she says. "'You don't usually expect the word 'dick' in the first sentence of a faculty member's story.'
"So I told them, 'It must be nice for you guys to know that faculty members write interesting, intriguing things and don't just stand up here and talk about thesis statements.' Honestly, I think they liked it and it kind of made them relax."
And that's the whole point of the exercise for Murray, who wrote her dissertation on the "accessibility of poetry."
"You don't have to be this Pulitzer Prize-winning professor in tweed to be a writer," she says.
"I'm totally OK with squashing people's efforts when it calls for it. Just ask my students." But her goals for this venture are different: "I want this to be a good example of community." Then laughing, she adds, "I want to make my mom proud."