When Robert Semple, host of The Bodega Monthly Reading Series at Bushwick’s The Bodega wine bar, talks about his performers or discusses how he puts the show together each month, you might mistake him for a smooth talking agent raving about the next big thing. Semple, who grew up in Long Island, speaks quickly, with punch lines and passion, all while looking you straight in the eye with bursting enthusiasm the entire time. He is charismatic and he truly believes in his performers. Each one is a rock star in his eyes, and he treats them like his prized superstars offering them praise, support, advice and constructive criticism.
“My feeling is that if the talent level stays high, Bodega Monthly will eventually attract attention from other people, whether it be bigger names or someone in the publishing world. Even if they [spectators] are coming to see one particular person, everyone else is going to get seen and they might like them too,” Semple said. “I just want Bodega Monthly to become part of the literary world and earn a reputation—to tell you the truth, I already feel like the talent level is there. There’s a lot of talent.”
The Bodega Monthly Reading Series will celebrate its two-year anniversary with the release of its second anthology this Sunday, April 7. Grab a glass of wine—or beer—and listen to some of New York’s budding performers read short stories, poetry, freestyle lyrics and tell stories. And grab an anthology while you’re at it. Many of the featured writers will be performing and can sign your copy on the spot. The reading starts promptly at 6PM and will finish long before the drinking curfew.
While there are several regular readers who return each month, Semple ensures he has new people performing at every show and welcomes new performers. “It’s like that ‘Best of’ album. You have to have that one new song even if you put out your greatest hits.”
In fact, that’s how Semple got involved with Bodega Monthly, by braving The Bodega stage back in August 2011. At the time, the Bodega Monthly series was run by the show’s original creator Kelley Brannon. Brannon now runs a new series called Sycamore Stories at Sycamore Bar in Ditmas Park.
“I had never performed live before. I only tried it because I was getting frustrated with the publishing process and figured I could make strides and connections by performing live,” Semple recalled. “I tried it and loved it and started coming back month after month.”
When Brannon was set to leave New York in June 2012, Bodega co-owners Ben Warren and Gina Leone asked Semple to take over the series. Over the last two years, Semple said the show has evolved by increasingly having more talented performers grace the stage. When he first took over the series, Semple would put up flyers in lower Manhattan, but now more people are approaching him and asking to be in the show. Semple and his partner, artist Laura Ficarra, also attend readings throughout New York and recruit new readers regularly. If Semple hasn’t had the opportunity to see a performer, he said a reliable indication that a performer will be good is if the reader takes the initiative to approach Semple first.
“If they’re asking me [to be in the show] then I already know they think they’re good enough. And to me, if you think you’re good enough—then you probably are,” Semple said. “Some people say they want to be in the show and then I never hear from them again. My thinking is that, that was just a whimsical passing thought.”
Semple said he looks for writers on the verge, people who can write and if they can perform, that’s even better. He also looks for diverse styles, especially storytellers, who don’t read off the page, because those are the rarest and hardest to find, he said. If a performer bombs the first time he is still willing to give people second and even third chances to perform again, because he hopes they get better with each try. And you don’t have to have an MFA to read either.
Semple, who said he didn’t have much of a formal education, has always liked writing. His primary project is a series of humorous short stories called The Relationship, about an unnamed 40-something-year-old lifelong bachelor meeting the love of his life, of which two stories have been published in the East Hampton Star. He’s also written two unpublished novels which are more serious in style as well as some sci-fi short stories.
“Bodega Monthly is always open to everyone. I love hearing from people and I don’t care what your background is. If you think you’re good enough and you write and you want to take the stage, then I’d love to have you,” Semple said.
Swing by Bodega wine bar on Sunday or contact Semple if you’d like to get involved at thebodegamonthlyATgmail.com.