Warning: Yes, more name-dropping -- novelists, poets, also one dog-dropping. I don't know how to write about readings otherwise.
I have a list of people I won't sit next to at readings -- the ADHDs (I absorb their restless anxiety) the loud yawners (I embarrass easily) ditto the Blackberry addicts (chin-lit is a bad look anyway) the question askers (I'll get to you) the showed-up drunk (what foresight) ... I've sworn off sitting next to (fabulous) novelist Paul Shepherd, too much like sitting next to a caged panther -- though readings with caged panthers is something we should consider (that and, once again, booze served before and during). To sum, I prefer to sit alone, near an exit.
As a reader, I dig the loud laughers. Novelist Mark Winegardner is a loud laugher. Novelist Frederick Reiken sometimes brings his dog, who is, as I recall, of the sad bassett variety. He (the dog, not Reiken) looks at you so mournfully that you tend to wrap early just to put the poor beast out of this misery. (I apologize profusely to Reiken if this dog has since passed.)
I notice now that I haven't said anything of the ladies, but two come to mind right now. I call them "the sand-baggers". These are the ones who say they're insanely nervous -- they may even claim an anxiety disorder about public speaking and then, for reasons that may have to do with modern medicine, they get up and give a perfect and exquisitely calm and beautiful reading. Here I note: Erin Belieu and Sheila Curran. If they ask you to take a bet on whether they'll throw up from nerves on stage or pee themselves at some point or fall down, don't take the bet no matter how shaky they look. They're just trying to make an extra dime. I wouldn't shoot pool with them either.
Now I've read a lot with Steve Almond because we lived a brief conjoined-twinnish existence as co-authors -- like a Jewishy-Irishy Chang and Eng. Here's the thing if you're on stage with Almond, have good eye-hand coordination and reaction time. People throw candy at him. It's a thing. (And as things go, it's not bad. It could be lasagna, which would be a bad thing though less painful when it strikes you in the head like a wing-nut. I speak as someone who's been wing-nutted by candy.)
Oh, and I promised to tell you about a reading that has always stuck with me -- 16 years or so later. It was a reading by Darcey Steinke, the author of several novels and as I just see now what looks to be a beautiful and stunning memoir -- Easter Everywhere. (Roz, you were right!) But this was her first novel, Suicide Blonde, and it is dark, sexual, wild. Darcey, as mentioned in the summary of her memoir, has a stutter. It's a very, very light stutter now, a hesitation really. And she was wearing velvet pants and a choker with a small bobble that sat right in the dip of her collarbones. The bobble trembled as she read and her reading was smooth -- the material explicit and sometimes had a feeling of being otherworldly. And then her breath would catch; she would hesitate on the beginning of a word, and we would all be held in that feathery breath for a moment of anguished anticipation -- because with Darcey you never know what the next word might be -- and it was with a little terror and anticipation that you waited for it to tumble from breath into air. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
Speaking of Nordan yesterday, I did once cry at a reading -- the U of Cinci's program -- and here I should shout to Cincinnati Review -- a very cool lit mag still printed on actual paper (and steered by Nicola Mason and Michael Griffith, who kick ass, regularly. I was reading from Which Brings Me to You -- which, in looking that link up for you all at Amazon, I find is followed in the search function by Lord, Only You Can Change Me: A Devotional Study..., which gives me pause, kind of ironic pause and then I move on -- and the ending of the chapter caught me off-guard. It's personal, this writing, even when it's fiction. And although I'd read this chapter before, it was different this time, and as it was based on a real person, it surprised me -- how much I felt for this person, how guilty I felt that I couldn't save him. And so it goes. I choked up.
Later, I probably apologized for the crying, but shouldn't have. There's a great quote somewhere -- a British prime minister? -- that's something like: Don't ever apologize for crying because when you do, you apologize for the truth. And there was truth in that moment -- no otherworldliness, no terror or anguish, I don't think, but at least truth.
All of this said, I asked Dave about yesterday's blog -- and Epstein was right. It was Paul Muldoon.
And Dave also tells me that the point here was to explain why readings fail, why they're so generally miserable and hellish and then I go on to talk about great readings -- which kills my point. Fact is, I remember the great readings and the lousy ones blur.
More to come -- as if blogging is some superior form of communication...