(The photo is from Rodrigo Toscano’s “Clock, Deck, and Movement,” a poetics theater work for five actors performed at the Bowery Poetry Club on March 29, 2008)
I remember Tom Mandel once saying to me that giving a reading to a group of gathered friends and other interested people was, for him, in many ways the highpoint of life as a poet. The chance to have others respond to your work, to feel part of a group that was interested in the things you had done, was something that led to a sense of connectedness and value, the sense that you were not alone in the endeavor of wanting to create literature.
Just a few days ago in Washington DC, Tina Darragh talked to me about a reading Robert Creeley gave at Georgetown University several years before his death, in which Creeley had said that for him it was always difficult to avoid sentimentalizing such moments. That in fact, now that he was old, he didn’t always even try to avoid it.
My most recent trip to the east coast reminded me, again, of the significance of literary readings, both to individuals and to a culture. It was great to see so many people I liked, people I had not seen in several years in some cases, people whose character or work or both has been important to me. It was great to meet some people I had never met before and who I hope to see again. And it was gratifying—I’m not ashamed to admit it—to get the sense that people liked and respected the work of mine they heard.
I don’t think I’m being naive. I understand how complicated and even vexing a reading can be. I know that there are conflicts between writers, dubious alliances, misunderstandings, unfair likes and dislikes. I know that public readings are often events during which those problems can be staged. I know that some people don’t like readings but go anyway, from a sense of obligation or just not wanting to be left out. I understand that such events involve a politics and a psychology, that there are critiques and resentments.
For myself, though, whether I’m reading or someone else is, readings are often the way I learn most about writers and literature. Even when a reading is bad—and as we all know, many are—I’m rarely bored. In fact some of the worst readings I’ve been to have also become the most legendary. There may be nothing more fascinating than an epically bad performance; certainly I remember them long after many excellent performances have faded. In any case, listening to someone read their work, whether or not the performance is good, tells me things about who that person is that reading the work on the page couldn’t. Hearing some writers read makes me more interested in their work. Hearing others helps me confirm what I already liked or didn’t.
For those of you living in cities where readings happen all the time, as I did for many years, I understand that after awhile readings can get tiring. One of the things I liked about DC was that we rarely had readings in the summer. Nine months of them, with three or four a month, was enough, and I was happy to go several straight months without a reading. By the time fall came around, I always felt ready to go to readings again. Or if I didn’t, that was a sure indication that something significant was wrong.
But imagine an environment in which there were few readings, or none. Imagine a place where there was almost no one other than yourself interested in literature. Imagine, even, living in a place, as too many people still do, where it’s illegal to gather and say what you want to say. Or, less extreme, imagine what it would be like to not know that readings existed, to not know that there was a culture of people who cared deeply about the act of reading and writing.
In fact, most Americans live in that last place. One of the reasons that I require my creative writing students to go to readings is that many of them simply don’t know that there is such a thing. And some of them, more than you or I might have thought perhaps, are intrigued and even amazed by what they see. They didn’t know that there were living writers, actual people who cared about literature, who would stand up and read it and talk about it. They didn’t know that such people would talk to them. They certainly didn’t know that they themselves might become such a person. And as it turns out, at least a few of them do. And if they do, it’s sometimes the literary reading that most grabs them, that makes the world of literature seem real.
When my students ask me what it’s like to be a writer, many of those questions full of course with preconceptions about publishing and the concept of fame, one of the things I tell them I love most is that I get a chance to know so many interesting people in so many interesting places. I can go to Vancouver, or Portugal, or New York, and not be just a tourist but instead talk to people there who share my interests, who have things to tell me about art and culture and politics, in those places and elsewhere. Some students find that idea amazing. They themselves talk only to their families, friends, co-workers and maybe their teachers. Whether they love some of those people or not, for these students the idea of a world out there, or even close at hand, where literature and ideas are things that one would be allowed to love and talk about can seem a revelation.
I remember what it was like to be 16. I liked books, I liked music. I had friends in heavy metal and southern rock cover bands who would play parties on Saturday nights and we would go there, drink bad beer and rock out. I remember there was a sense of power in it, how that power seemed different from my daily life, the one where I spent most of my time lonely, angry, sad, and working a job I hated. I remember the feeling of being trapped, a feeling that for all too many good reasons I’ve never left behind. But I remember how for a moment, while we were all wrapped up in the music, another kind of world seemed possible. But then of course it was back to the alienation of routine, back to the “no way out” mentality that dominated my life until I was almost 30.
If, when I was 16, working nights at a local fast food restaurant in a suburb as faceless and nasty as every suburb you know about, someone had asked me whether, pushing thirty years later, I would like a life in which I had written books that had been published and knew fascinating people all over the world and sometimes could travel to see them, I would have said yeah, I’d like that, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If they’d said, okay, but the trade-off is that you’ll still have to work as hard then as you’re working now, you’ll still sometimes feel trapped and lost and alone, I would have said so what, I feel that way already, so I might as well get the good part too, right? My 16-year old self would have thought that the idea of that kind of life would be pretty great.
And I think so too. Nor do I think it’s sentimental to suggest that one measure (though hardly the only one) of the value of life and writing can be found in the kind of connections it helps us create with others. If the literary reading, even with its frequent alienation and ridiculousness, turns out to be crucial at least to my sense of that connection, well, so what? The world has always been a stranger place than I imagined.