Hazel reading series(Hazel Reading Series banner, designed by Diana To.)

“We have no prescribed identities,” Sara Marinelli of San Francisco’s Hazel Reading Series says to me over the phone. For us,

[womanhood] is really a non-binary thing, and it’s really inclusive — I would say that one of the goals [of Hazel] would absolutely be to […] deconstruct some gender norms and some expectations, so that the readers and audience felt more comfortable with [gender].”

Started by Marinelli and collaborator Erica Eller in 2013, Hazel Reading Series has other goals as well: To create room for women’s stories in the Bay Area, foster a close and comfortable reading space, and encourage experimentation in form and genre. And after a nearly year-long hiatus in 2016, Hazel is back and well-equipped to reach those goals.

They’ve shifted curators — the series is now co-curated by Marinelli and Shideh Etaat — added a visual designer, Diana To, and moved locations: to Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. In their absence, Hazel was sorely missed — Marinelli tells me that when the reading group re-started many people came to her to tell her as much. “They seemed to have genuine comments about being happy that this kind of format and this kind of space was back,” she says. “So I do think that [Hazel] is part of what is going on in the Bay Area.”

To support Hazel’s aims of community and trust, the group avoids holding their events in public spaces, like bars and bookstores, which may feel crowded and inaccessible to the reading authors. Instead, they utilize places like the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts’ gallery for attendees, offering a focused resfuge for women’s stories. Hazel’s format is also unique in its approach to choosing readers as a means of building community: After taking Hazel’s stage, the readers themselves are invited select the reading lineup for the following month.

At Hazel’s inception, Marinelli explains, “there was this idea of lineage — passing the legacy of storytelling, and sharing stories, and creating this idea of community and connection.” By expanding its network of writers each month, Hazel brings varied genres, cultures, languages, and approaches to writing into the group. “We wanted to [foster] energy needed for sharing stories that are very personal,” Marinelli says. “The idea for us is to create a space like a living room with your girlfriends, [where] the women are telling stories — maybe some confessions, maybe some difficult things that they went through — they need to feel safe in sharing those kinds of stories.”

The investment that Hazel makes in its environment and safety pays off in the deeply personal and adventurous material that readers bring to the group. “It’s important to both the writers and the readers,” Marinelli says. “The people who come to a Hazel reading are there just for that.”

This month, Hazel will be hosting six new readers on its stage: LJ Moore, Sarah Rosenthal, Lisa Gray, Thea Matthews, Ingrid Keir, and guest reader Anita Amirrezvani. The group represents a mixture of prose and poetry (though this month’s line-up is poetry-heavy). As often is true of Hazel guests, these readers have deep ties to the Bay Area, and have varied creative contributions to local arts communities. Notably, three of the readers do or have taught in the Bay Area, while others have created podcasts (Moore), run independent presses (Keir), or served on the California Book Awards jury (Rosenthal). Another standout this month is Matthews, the only student of the group, and the only spoken-word artist. “I’m excited about Thea,” Marinelli tells me. “I like how in her bio she presented how she really wants to change the world…with poetry, as an activist.”

Matthews’ inclusion in the series represents a general shift that Hazel is moving towards: Including more youth voices in their lineups. “I would love for more young people to come,” Marinelli says. “For me, anyone who is part of a younger audience and is not necessarily a writer but is interested in art and […] women’s stories is an ideal audience.”

Also in the future for Hazel are a potential spot at LitQuake, continued monthly readings, and maybe, Marinelli says, joining a women-led press for “a bit of an anthology.” But for Marinelli, the monthly readings continue to surprise and inspire. “I really love live music, and I really love dancing,” she says. “And when I participate in [those types of] events, I feel re-energized, when I’m not thinking about myself, but I’m thinking out of myself — with the people around me.” After Hazel readings, Marinelli explains, she also feels “re-energized. “When I hear other readers at Hazel, I get completely inspired,” she says. “It becomes [a way] to nourish your energy through the work of others, the work of women. So there is no room for competition, or envy. To see that another person can do it […] is inspiring. You think: I can do it too. I can sit there, and work on my craft — I can do it.”

Most of all, Marinelli sees Hazel as a way to continue valuing language and thought. “I believe so much in the power of words, the power of language,” she says. “I think that right now we are in an age where language gets devalued […] that’s why I think it’s necessary to have these readings where language matters, and words matter, and how you say things matters. If [the readers] are able to reach people, and cultivate the power of words and the power of storytelling, I think that’s the purpose of [Hazel].”

Hazel Reading Series, April Edition
LJ Moore, Sarah Rosenthal, Anita Amirrezvani, Lisa Gray, Thea Matthews, and Ingrid Keir
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts
April 6, 2017
7pm, FREE