It doesn’t feel so long ago that the Beijinger first reported about a small group of writers, poets, and readers who had gathered to usher in the launch of Spittoon, a new grassroots literary magazine whose purpose was to bring together Chinese and foreign writers and compile and translate their works to be appreciated equally by both sides.
Fast-forward four years and you can barely go a week without hearing about a new venture from the close-knit organization, whose literary tentacles now reach not only across China but also to distant outposts such as Gothenberg, Riga, Lisbon, and Addis Ababa. Events span everything from book clubs to poetry and fiction nights, as well as a mashup of styles such as their “Spittunes” gigs that incorporate readings set to live music.
Their growing ubiquity in Beijing’s art scene is a testament to their hard work and dedication to providing a home – online, offline, and in print – to a community of writers who are increasingly marginalized both because of a steady run of closing of venues and increasingly emboldened censors.
The Spittoon Collective owes much of what it is today to founder and director, Matthew Byrne, who brought his passion for poetry to the capital and saw an opportunity to rally like-minded bibliophiles to his cause. After close to five years of hard work (for little to no pay) and endless hours playing drums and singing with a plethora of bands, it’s time for the Brit to retire back to his homeland, taking with him a renewed sense of purpose and leaving behind a community that’s in good stead to continue on its path to indie-lit China domination.
We caught up with Byrne before his final show on Friday with three of his surviving bands to ask what he’s most proud of achieving in Beijing as well as what the future of the Spittoon magazine and collective looks like without him.
The work that you and the Spittoon team have spearheaded has been instrumental to the growth of Beijing’s literature scene in recent years. Could you describe how the scene looked when you began versus now, on the cusp of your departure?
When Spittoon began in 2015, the most high profile platform for poets and fiction writers, particularly for foreigners, was The Bookworm. It stood as a kind of beacon out in the commercial and cosmopolitan surroundings of Sanlitun, and rightfully so – it always had a big brother feeling to our activity as a young collective, back then and up until recently when it unfortunately closed. Back when we began, there seemed to be a latent energy or a kind of tinderbox atmosphere developing; foreigners of many different backgrounds and native Chinese were making friends and mixing, and the desire to reflect these voices through creative writing and translation happened almost organically. Mado Bar on Baochao Hutong (RIP) was where it all sparked off.
After five years, I’ve found it fascinating that it’s been possible to create a microcosm within Spittoon which caters to poetry, fiction, book clubs, storytelling, and poetry and fiction workshops. Each offshoot has its own organizer and attendees that occasionally mix with other attendees of different events which creates a really vibrant, almost festive, atmosphere. The events are like the trunk of the tree: from them, we found many friends who eventually joined the collective and contributed their unique skills, from event management to website design to translation, graphic and editorial design, videography, illustration… The list goes on! For me, it’s proven that in this world people want to be part of something wholesome, which utilizes their skills and provides them with community. Monetizing the community has always been very low on the list and only employed in the most vital cases – when we need to fund a new issue of our magazine for example.
Spittoon is also thriving in Chengdu with its own decentralized collective run by a lady called Annie Leonard and her team. After a friend (Kerryn [Leitch], Loreli co-founder) told her about Spittoon, she got in touch and we haven’t looked back since – our collectives are close allies and we’ve shared and continue to share China-wide projects. The development of our collective also gave us the tools and awareness to interpret and interact with what was already around us in the Beijing arts scene, and we have collaborated with other collectives and organizations run by Chinese or by foreigners numerous times over the years.
COVID has been hard for the arts in Beijing it goes without saying. The advantage to an organization like Spittoon however is its “flash mob” quality – it’s a mercurial brand that organizes events and activities online in partnership with event venues. It could theoretically happen anywhere and at any time, which is a major boon in these uncertain times because its destiny is not linked to the life span of a venue. Spittoon events have happened all over the city of Beijing, but right now and into the distant future they happen every Thursday night at Camera Stylo!
At the launch of Spittoon in November 2016, you said the title “stands in the middle of a balance between the vulgarity of the name and the beautiful content we enjoy in our reading nights and in the magazine. It seems to me to abstractly capture the damaged beauty of a hutong for example, or an urban scene of some kind.” After four years, would you say that the magazine has lived up to those early guiding analogies? Why?
The collective came first and the magazine is a product of the collective so it naturally took on the same name and feel. The original inspiration for the name came when I was at a poetry night in Manchester, UK – I leaned over to someone and said, “don’t you think Spittoon would be a great name for a poetry night?”
Originally the magazine developed organically as a platform for the writers and poets who were attending our poetry and fiction events. It felt instinctive to develop an artifact that drew people in on a center, to get them excited to read and be published and to anticipate each release. It also had the effect of essentially employing members of our collective in respect to its design, illustration, editing, and promotion. From the first issue, there was Chinese poetry in translation but the majority of the works were English language submissions provided by our attendees. When we came to Issue 3 of the magazine, the editor-in-chief, Simon Shieh, spearheaded a drive to move the magazine towards translating Chinese voices for the English language world to enjoy, with both the original Chinese and English translations available. This opened up a new world for the magazine in terms of the way the team is managed with respect to translation management etc., to the general themes and expressions of the content. It really set us apart as a magazine that had taken it upon itself to be a vehicle for broadcasting Chinese voices in translation to larger audiences.
What are three of your proudest achievements that you and your colleagues have achieved at Spittoon? Any “this fucking sucks!” moments?
The first ‘proudest achievement’ moment that comes to mind would be the publishing of our first magazine, holding it in our hands, marveling at its quality and wondering… how did we do that? It was basically a dismantling of the marketing job I had at the time and using the components for Spittoon – the editorial designer was the designer from the office and gave a great rate, the printer was the printer we used at the office and gave a great rate, and so on. Creating an artifact like that was a milestone and we really proved something to ourselves and, I think, to others.
The next that comes to mind would be the fruition of our recent Spittoon MEGACITY event sequence. We organized events in and traveled to Beijing, Chengdu, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. It was a mammoth effort of event management, logistics, and collaboration with other organizations and it really paid off and proved to us that it was possible. As I’ve mentioned, no one gets paid in Spittoon, all the money we make goes back into the project. Somehow despite this, we’ve managed as a team to pull off these expansive projects, and for me, that’s a testament to the caliber of the team we have, both in Beijing, Chengdu, and around the world.
The third would be the success of our Spittunes – Music and Poetry Collaboration project. We developed a system that efficiently brought together musicians and poets to collaborate, and as a result, we have created lasting partnerships. One such partnership, the partnership of Anthony Tao and Liane Halton in the outfit, Poetry x Music, has already released two albums and they’re working on their third.
As far as ‘this fucking sucks’ moments go, there have been a few. Perhaps avoiding some of the hairier examples, I will say that it’s horrible picking up boxes of magazines from a venue after a magazine launch to take home. They’re heavy and you have a stinking hangover. It fucking sucks.
One thing that keeps Beijing “interesting” is the seemingly never-ending supply of obstacles that it throws at you. What advice would you give to someone looking to set out on a community-driven artistic pursuit whether it be a band, poetry club, or literary magazine?
It’s the people that are the power! Starting a community is a little different from starting something like a band, but it’s similar in a way that you’re trying to get people together to do stuff that doesn’t benefit them monetarily. If you’re going to lead in a situation like that you need to keep people in mind, their feelings, reachable achievements, and goals. If you can build a base like that and you allow people to have a say in where it goes, you’re really increasing your group strength and potential to be successful in what you’re trying out.
Are there any people/venues/food items that aren’t getting the attention they deserve and need a shout out before you leave?
Camera Stylo is a wonderful venue and the home of Spittoon every Thursday night. I’m mentioning them not only because it’s a beautiful venue but they’re also super down to collaborate with their event space – if you have an idea get in touch with them and maybe work something out! Also please support any music venue that manages to open and maintain gigs at their venue, it’s been a huge hit for venues over COVID and they need support. If you haven’t heard of Aotu Space near Beixinqiao, go and check it out – It’s a beautiful art gallery with wicked cocktails.
Also, I’d like to shout out to all my wonderful friends here in this city – you know who you are and I’ll see you all again forever in the perpetual and timeless dreamland of 3am Temple Bar.
Friday will be your last hoorah and a time for you to celebrate by playing in the bands that you’ve been a part of the past several years. What can we expect? Any surprises lined up?
So there are three bands lined up for Friday and I happen to be playing in all of them. The Gurus are a great funky soul band headed by Ophelie Baudoin. We’re about to release our first EP and this also is coincidentally our last and final gig. As you can probably tell this is very special for the band so come and show your support!
Paths consists of myself on vocals, Jeremy on drums, Derek on Bass, Dale on guitar, and Daniel McDarkfire on the keys. We combine spoken word and schizophrenic/soothing soundscapes to both punch you in the face and apologize at the same time – a compelling and troubling experience. This will be the last gig that Paths plays. It’s been a very special experience with these guys with many ups and downs but we’ve come out of it clutching two EP releases and with darkfire memories that will stay with us forever.
Finally, Macondø, who have played together for five years. We’re working on our second album, we’ve toured around China, and we’ve played in most venues I’ve heard of in Beijing. These guys are my brothers and it’s going to be very hard to play this final gig with them, especially if I get as drunk as I did on my 29th birthday – the guys will know what I’m talking about.
Basically it’s a sort of mad, massive goodbye party and we are going to go fucking mental. Come to Yue Space, 8pm, Friday to see what I mean!
Finally, what does your near future look like? What is in store for Spittoon?
My girlfriend and I are going to move back to England and its predictably surreal. There’ll be the 14-day quarantine and then after that… I imagine a sort of collage of long walks, chatting idly with ducks by the canal, seven cups of tea a day, intense job applications. Honestly, though I can’t help but feel cautiously optimistic, I know that goes against 99 percent of the advice and reactions I’ve induced with my revelation, but the impression still stands.
In relation to Spittoon in China, it couldn’t be stronger. I think it’d be a shame if the structure fell with the removal of a key person in any sense. In Beijing, we will have a new coordinator who will continue to work with our event leaders, who together will continue to make the events flourish. In Chengdu, Annie and the team just relentlessly continue to do a wonderful job – if you’re down there at any point then do visit our Chengdu Collective events! We’re discussing the possibility of moving the magazine online to the website to widen its reach and help its sustainability – just a brief impression of the intense conversations that we’re having behind the scenes – we’re not going away! In relation to Spittoon internationally, we are also based in Gothenburg, Riga, Lisbon, and Addis Ababa – I think the model of building literary community catches on and I plan to register Spittoon internationally when I’m in England and to continue working on it – it’s in my blood now!
Photos courtesy of Matthew Byrne, Spittoon