Art notes: Longtime organizer of Canaan Meetinghouse readings slates his final summer

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/7/2021 9:48:51 PM
Modified: 7/7/2021 9:48:58 PM

CANAAN — Back in 2013, Phil Pochoda was the obvious choice to take over the job of organizing the Canaan Meetinghouse readings.

An omnivorous reader, a fluid speaker, a generous host, Pochoda picked up where William Craig, who’d started the reading series 25 years before to benefit the Canaan Town Library, left off. The first reading of 2013 featured Joyce Carol Oates, whom Pochoda introduced to the audience as “the foremost person of American letters.”

It could have been all downhill from there, but Pochoda drew on his longtime contacts from his career in book publishing and on the deep well of literary talent at Dartmouth College and elsewhere in the Twin States to make the readings an ongoing series of revelations.

Among the writers he’s brought in are the novelists Lauren Groff and Jonathan Lethem. Upper Valley authors have included Tunbridge novelist Jeffrey Lent and poet Vievee Francis, who teaches at Dartmouth, among many others.

This year’s readings start Thursday evening with appearances from Andrew Delbanco, who as the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University has perhaps the most imposing job title in academia, and the celebrated novelist Rebecca Makkai, whose latest book, The Great Believers, “is one of the most important books of the past decade,” Pochoda said.

This summer of readings also will be Pochoda’s last.

“It was just time, given age and recent illnesses, to get this weight off my shoulders,” he said.

Organizing the readings is a year-round endeavor. Pochoda called it “an enormous amount of work,” which entails roping in writers, arranging for travel and accommodations, often at Pochoda’s home in Lyme, and getting food together for a party for the writers, which Pochoda generally cooks.

He will also read most, if not all, of a writer’s work before sitting down to write an introduction for the reading.

“I give it more than it probably has to be, but it makes for a pleasant occasion,” Pochoda said.

Jim Laffan, a Canaan resident of 40 years who has served as treasurer of the reading series for its 33-year run, marveled at the initial challenge that organizing the readings presents.

“It can’t be easy,” he said. “The idea of calling people cold to come give a reading for free.”

“I’ve had a fantastic time getting to know Phil, and his precision in planning is impressive,” Canaan library director Amy Thurber said. “He spends a lot of time getting prepared to choose the authors he chooses.”

And if not for him, she noted, the series might have quietly closed when Craig stepped away.

The rest of the Meetinghouse events, which take place at 7 p.m. Thursdays through July 29, include a reading next week by Cleopatra Mathis, along with a tribute to the late Gary Lenhart, who died March 31, by Mathis and Matthew Olzmann, who were Lenhart’s colleagues at Dartmouth. Also that evening, Sue Miller will read from her 11th novel, Monogamy, released last year.

On July 22, poet Benjamin Garcia will read from his recent collection Thrown in the Throat, and Tom Barbash, who will read from his fourth novel, The Dakota Winters.

And on July 29, nonfiction writer Jeff Sharlet, who lives in Norwich and teaches at Dartmouth, reads from This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers, and Ivy Pochoda, Phil’s daughter, will read from her fourth novel, These Women, which was one of the New York Times’ thrillers of the year for 2020.

This last reading does something the Canaan series often does well, bring together disparate writers whose work touches on similar themes or places. A long piece at the center of Sharlet’s book is set on Los Angeles’ Skid Row, and Ivy Pochoda’s thriller is partially set there.

As with past year, the roster of readers is divided between writers from the area and writers from farther away.

There are a few changes, though: The coronavirus pandemic isn’t over, so seating inside the Meetinghouse will be limited to 100 people, half of its capacity, and masks will be required for people sitting indoors, policies that mirror the library’s, Thurber said. There will be a sound system so attendees can sit on the lawn outside, and, sadly, the Friends of the Library won’t offer the traditional cookies and lemonade at intermission.

The end of Pochoda’s eight years running the reading series will bring back a familiar face. Craig, the former Valley News writer and editor and current author and Dartmouth creative writing teacher, has signed on to plan next year’s series.

Pochoda said he’s pleased with the reading schedule he’s put together for this year, and for his tenure as a whole.

“If I have to go out, and I do feel I have to go out, this is a pretty good way to do it.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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