"Making the Lonely a Little More Bearable": An Interview with Mr. Bear, Literary Podcaster Extraordinaire
Kathleen Rooney | October 2015
Mr. Bear is the ideal reader, the kind of reader many authors either explicitly or unconsciously hope for when they sit down to write: someone discerning but generous, funny but sad, smart but not distant, who encounters literary work with a curious brain and an open heart, and who relishes the pieces that hit both places. He shares his readerly skills each week as the host of a show which airs every Tuesday from 8 to 9 pm on Boston Free Radio, and which is also available as a podcast here: http://secretlives.podbean.com/
Each show is an eclectic musical-literary digest that chronicles the tastes and idiosyncrasies of this sophisticated stuffed animal and his owner Georgia Bellas, who received him as a present for her first birthday, and has had him with her ever since. When she and Mr. Bear met a friend, Jenny Magee, who also had a stuffed animal, Stumpy, with a compelling personality, the four of them began doing the show “The Secret Lives of Stuffed Animals” in February 2011. Together they built up a following, and did the program until August 2013. Jenny’s husband got a job in New Haven, so she moved, and at first Georgia and Mr. Bear weren’t planning to do a show solo. Then a few months later they decided: what if we just read? “I had an audience and platform so this could be an opportunity to shine a tiny spotlight on writers and artists and their work,” said Bellas. “I wanted to let writers know their words had touched me and share those words with others who might not have heard them otherwise. So I came up with Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon and have been doing that since February 2014.” During the end of August 2015, Mr. Bear took a break from his busy reading schedule and chatted with me over email about loneliness, where strangers go when they come to town, and the pleasures of life in the big city.
Kathleen Rooney: I love the name and the format of your show, “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” as well as its slogan: “where the sky is evening-gorgeous, the drinks won’t cloud your head, and the cocktail nuts are poems.” How did you decide to go with a saloon-style format, and what is the relationship between literature and the conviviality of a bar? Also, why is the proverbial violet hour such a good time to experience the pleasures of both words and drinks?
Mr. Bear: Thank you, Kathleen! I wanted a name that was delicious, dreamy, something that would feel good rolling around in your mouth. I wanted to create a place that was inviting, and where people would want to be. The word saloon has an old-fashioned connotation to me—I think of Westerns and black-and-white movies—and it feels more romantic and comfortable than a modern bar; time is slowed down. It’s where the locals gather and everyone knows everyone else. It’s where strangers go when they come to town. It’s where everything happens: love, fights, business, promises, death, whiskey. What better room for literature and music than a saloon?
And the violet hour conjures magic and dreaminess, a sense of possibility. In that in-between time of light and dark, where the sky dresses up in beautiful colors, anything can happen. People start to relax, take the edge off, open up. Time feels softer. There is a sliver of rest between the tasks of the day and those of the night. A cocktail helps with that softening, helps extend that sliver of time, that respite; so does a story or a poem or a song. For a little while, you can escape yourself and your troubles, or at least feel not so alone in them.
Rooney: The second sentence of the show’s tagline is “Making the lonely a little more bearable.” You are clearly a bear of great sophistication and erudition, but you seem so outgoing—would you describe yourself as lonely, and why? How does a program like yours provide respite for listeners who find themselves in solitude, and what do you personally get out of it?
Mr. Bear: Even the most outgoing human or teddy bear is lonely. I believe loneliness is part of the human condition, inescapable. And if there’s anything lonelier than a person, it’s a stuffed animal absorbing human secrets and sorrows. But what we all have in common is our loneliness, and when we share it, it’s a little more bearable. We come together briefly and feel a little less alone. And those moments, fleeting as they are, are beautiful, like the sky in the violet hour before everything turns dark.
If you’re a writer, you’re working in solitude and putting your words out into a void. If you hear them come back to you on my program, maybe you feel like you made a tiny difference to someone. If you’re lost or hurting, or have no one to share your days or nights with, maybe you hear something beautiful in the Violet Hour Saloon that gives you comfort or hope, or makes you laugh or cry. Or maybe you just have a voice to keep you company for an hour of your evening.
What I get out of it is great joy in making these connections between words and music and people—I almost feel like a matchmaker, getting to introduce people to each other and to beautiful work. I have a good time hanging out in the studio each week by myself but knowing that people actually listen, that it matters to the writer whose work I read, or to a person at home who discovers something new that moves them, is the most incredible feeling. If one person listens and feels a little less lonely, then this saloonkeeper has done their job.
Rooney: What’s it like being a bear who lives in the Boston area, a very urban and heavily settled place?
Mr. Bear: Being in the city is great. City dwellers don’t usually like to have bears around but luckily I’m a small bear so I mostly go unnoticed, and when they do see me they appear to be mostly amused, not scared or aggressive. I haven’t had to eat any humans so that’s a relief. I love having access to so many restaurants, bars, bookstores, live music, and cultural events but also still being close to trees and water. Plus, the farmers’ markets sell very good honey. I think I’d be lonely in the woods, unless there were very good Wi-Fi and wine available. Also, I’m afraid of the dark.
Rooney: How would you describe your owner, Georgia? And what work of hers would you recommend and count among your favorites?
Mr. Bear: She’s a kind-hearted companion, very tuned into the stuffed animal sensibility. And of course she’s incredibly supportive of my activities, making sure I get to the Boston Free Radio station every week to do my show, letting me use her phone for all my reading and Twitter needs, paying the website fees to archive the podcasts online…I couldn’t really ask for a better human. Plus, I get to ride in her bike basket around the city and travel around the country and internationally with her. I’m a lucky bear. Not all stuffed animals have it this good.
She’s kind of shy about her work but I’d recommend these imaginary postcards she sent herself last year at Little Fiction, this letter-poem at Sundog Lit, her latest film at Split Lip Magazine, and her first published poem at PANK.
Rooney: Any parting advice or words of wisdom for all the writers out here, toiling in what can sometimes feel very much like obscurity?
Mr. Bear: Keep toiling. You never know whose lives you’ve already touched or the ones you might make a difference to in the future. And this bear is on your side! Come spend some time in the Violet Hour Saloon—put your feet up, have a drink, and feed your heart. There’s always an open seat at the bar.
Also, go outside and play once in a while. The fresh air will do you good.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. She is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! She is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings, forthcoming in Fall of 2016. Follow @kathleenMrooney.