In Los Angeles, celebrating 10 years of a television show, a restaurant or the rerelease of a classic film tends to bring about red carpets, limousines and the pop of Champagne bottles, but when a literary event turns a decade old, it's often just a footnote in the city's consciousness: a whimper, not a bang.
Last night at the NOMAD art compound in Frogtown, Jim Ruland tried to make sure that didn't happen. Ruland, host of the underground literary event Vermin on the Mount, walked to the stage and grabbed a mic for around the 50th time in 10 years to introduce his cadre of indie authors.
“There have been so many personal and professional changes over the years that I never imagined I would be celebrating 10 years,” he said. “At the same, I knew I wouldn't quit.”
The setting at NOMAD was perfect for Ruland's punk and DIY aesthetic. A disco ball was rotating above the 6,000-square-foot art lab, and there were $1 comic book bins, wall-size paintings, miniature wooden houses and a plastic clown head that could have popped straight out of Stephen King's mind. Behind a wall next to the stage, a barbershop chair had been turned into a tattoo parlor, and free tattoos of different variations of Vermin on the Mount logos were offered to the crowd.
“In any kind of art,” Ruland said after the show, “perseverance is everything.”
Ruland knows something about perseverance, having battled alcoholism and the arduous grind of writing professionally. He joined the Navy in 1986 and was stationed in San Diego. Later he returned to Virginia, his home state, to receive his bachelor's and master's degree. He then moved back to California with an old Navy buddy and started working in a coffee shop in North Hollywood.
At the coffee shop, in the early '90s, Ruland created an open-mic night, and many of the readers were inspired by Henry Rollins. The event started to gain credibility when Angelo Moore from the alternative-rock band Fishbone began attending and reading slam poetry, blowing the crowds' minds. This is where Ruland learned what a literary event could be.
Later, Ruland would start reading poetry at punk-rock concerts, and at one point, he read poetry two acts before the legendary L.A. punk-rock band X, making sure to blend in humor so he wouldn't get booed off the stage. In 1996 he started working in advertising, at one point writing copy for the Viejas Casino in Alpine.
At one point, Ruland decided to start a more structured literary event for invited readers, as compared to the more free-form open mic. “I was a malcontent who would complain there was no literary scene in L.A.,” he says. “Thanks to taking classes at UCLA extension and the L.A. Times Festival of Books, I came to understand there was a literary scene. In fact, there were a lot of them. [I thought] it would be cool if there was something a little edgier, a little different, that united those readings. Poetry, fiction, bloggers, angry people with beer bottles who just wanted to rant.”
Vermin on the Mount started at the Mountain Bar in Chinatown as a middle ground between the Westside and Eastside for the literary scene to congregate, Ruland says. But when the Mountain Bar, with its glorious bleeding walls, closed down, Ruland and Vermin on the Mount had to find a new location. After some time with 826LA and hosting a reading within a classroom, Ruland needed to find a new venue, which he found again at NOMAD.
Incredible writers have graced the stage at Vermin on the Mount. At the first reading, the performers were Joe Meno, an author and playwright from Chicago who has written six novels; Joshuah Bearman, the former L.A. Weekly journalist who wrote the story that would become Argo; and Andrea Siegel, a screenwriter and author of Like the Red Panda. There have been many memorable performances, Ruland recalls, including the time Stephen Elliot, the author who's a founding editor of The Rumpus, appeared unexpectedly on Father's Day to read a touching piece about his father.
Ruland has also taken Vermin on the Mount on tour to D.C. and Denver, where authors including L.A.-based Amelia Gray, author of Threats and finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Scott McClanahan, author of Stories and Stories II, performed.
As Vermin on the Mount has continued, Ruland evolved, too, including starting a new job in advertising at Brierley+Partners. “I think it's safe to say I've changed more than the reading series,” he says. “Shaved my beard. Got sober. A lot of personal changes.”
In addition to contributing to L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times book section, Ruland is the author of short-story collection The Big Lonesome and a columnist at San Diego CityBeat. In 2014, Giving the Finger: Risking It All to Fish the World's Deadliest Sea will be published — a book he co-authored with Scott Campbell Jr. of Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch.
Vermin on the Mount is held quarterly in L.A., and Ruland also hosts Vermin on the Mount in San Diego. Over the next year, he expects to release an anthology.
Last night, the readers were Scott O'Connor, Louis Armand, Melissa Broder, Juliet Escoria and Damien Ober. Here are some of the best lines from the short stories, essays and poems from the event: “My Facebook profile was taken over by a drone.” “I make people up, and I eat them.” “Later when she fucks as quiet as a corpse….” “When the Shaman comes to town, I try and hump the Shaman.”
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