So… Readings. What’s the point?

il_570xN.160524401If you’re a writer, you’ve likely subjected yourself to awkward, lifeless Readings enough times to wonder whether there’s still a purpose for these mysterious liturgies. We probably don’t need an old time tent revival (I hope not!)… But asking, “what’s the point?” may be long overdue.

What I mean is: perhaps who/whatever began the institution of the Public Reading regarded it as a vital community sacrament, during which writers worked out their literary salvations with fear and trembling. But by the time it was passed on to us, all that was left of it was a form. We’ve kept it up like saints, but at some point we have to ask about the purpose of the rite.

Order of Service

So—why DO we do this??

Here are 8 (fake) guesses based only upon having observed the events. Add yours in the Comments section! 

1. Sellin’ Mass Books. If an author gets out and reads her stuff, the masses will throng to her afterwards and ask for 12 copies apiece, all autographed. Shelves will empty. Publishing gods will be appeased. Money everywhere.

2. Academic Cred (a.k.a. Evidence). Creative Writing Professors hit the streets (or the room down the hall) to mingle with the laity. A prof may say to her audience, Behold my work. And thus you see: I do things. Very cool things.
Students leave in envious awe. Profs keep their jobs. English Departments are stormed by prospective students.

3. Someone invites a writer to read. (Writer says yes.)

4. Dollars. An invitation to read for a Respected University Reading Series that pays some hundreds of money?! (Yes, such things do exist!) That’s more dollars than the average poet sees in a year. Done. 

5. Empty Calendar Space (a.k.a. Legacy Series). An institution must host 3 readers each season, but only 2 are booked! Responsible Party moves to #3 or #4, depending on budget.

6. Routing. An author’s on a book tour and needs a stop in SomeTown, USA. Whomever It Concerns gets an email: “Can I read at your institution on such-and-such date?” (W.I.C. says yes.)

7. Academic Dues. If an author’s in school for Creative Writing, he may want to test his mettle. And/or appease the gods of Academe. And/or have his work heard by peers. And/or there’s beer there so WTH.

8. Networking (a.k.a. Insurance). Author #1 is a bad reader. And you know what? She isn’t even a very good writer. But if Author #2 doesn’t invite Author #1 to give a reading, the literary world will collapse on Author #2: Rumors will spread; careers will end, books will mysteriously be rendered unpublishable, limbs will be torn; vitriol spewed from the lit-blog mountains. Also, epic brutality at the next AWP.

But for Real.

Okay so… While there’s some truth in these “reasons” (and certainly some good in them, too!), I don’t believe they tell the whole Public Reading story. For any of us.

If cornered, few writers would want their Readings to be motivated strictly by the above list. We’re creatives. We’ve built our lives on art. We aspire to something bigger—or at least more deliciously complex—than duty, career, appeasement, dollars, calendars, mutual back-scratching.

But what might that “bigger” (or more complex) be? If the above Group Planning with quotereasons feel too shallow or incomplete, and if we agree that Readings shouldn’t take place just for the sake of having events to plan and attend, what other reasons are there?

To create an experience: of the written work, of text on the breath, the communal ingestion of art, the spark of something live. A human connection in real time, made possible by the written word.

We rarely talk about such things, perhaps because we’re not convinced they can happen at a Reading, or that they matter much when they do. Or maybe we’re not convinced that WE matter, both behind the page and in public.

But we must believe our work on stage matters.

It’s the first “rule” of any performance: We must determine that when we get on stage, we’re doing something significant—for our art and for our audiences. Otherwise, we’re wasting everyone’s time.
The experience we hope to create will vary depending on the vibe of our own written works, our personalities, on what we each envision happening when we connect (in person) with a crowd.
But the key is to have a vision: to generate some ideas and hopes about what could transpire in a room when you read. If the extent of our Public Reading Imagination is “Make words be out loud,” our texts are better left to the page.

But Doesn’t This Require Mass Ego? 

No, but you do have to believe your work is worthy of practice, investment, presentation. Which is no small thing… but you actually already believe it! You believed it enough to write your work, to revise and publish it (and/or endure rejections), to pore over book cover designs and margin widths. You believed it enough to accept an invitation to give a reading.
So it’s not an ego trip to then want to read it well, to embody it somehow, to work to connect it with a live audience. In fact, by this point, such work is just… sensible. (And awesome.)

kind of a big deal

Still, I’ve heard writers express fear that if they try to make something engaging out of a Reading, people will think they’re super-into themselves.

I get this fear. I used to work wildly for chances to perform my songs, only to get on stage and sing them like a spineless mouse. Why? I was afraid to be “caught” believing my work was worthy of emotion, energy, drama.

The problem is, this strategy always backfires. My songs sounded unworthy and unmoving, because I sang them like they were. And who was really served by these sheepish pseudo-performances?
As it turns out, only myself. In trying to avoid appearing too “into my own stuff,” I was actually being selfish: serving my fears and ignoring my audience.

So if you’re worried about ego, here’s something that took me years to learn: for a performer, few things are more egotistical than giving a mediocre performance, thinking it’s worth your audience’s time.

Being dynamic/creative doesn’t mean you think you’re the sh*t. It means you think your audience is. It means you care enough to engage your listeners. And it means you care enough about your art to bring it to life. You already do this on the page! Do it at the mic, too.

And if you get some criticism, well, haters gonna hate. Anything great will earn its critics. Don’t let them shake your commitment to your art and audience.

Getting Started: Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot!

Dear Writers, no more of this meek sagging up to a mic, trying to blend in to the bad art behind you. When you present yourself as unworthy of attention, listeners usually believe you. You inadvertently cheapen their experience and skew the way they perceive your art.

And lo, many will say to me, “When were we acting unworthy? When were we cheapening our audience’s experience? When did we skew their perception of our art?” And I will say, check out these four rules. I’ve never regretted following them:

  1. Always be prepared. (aka Always Practice; click here for planning tips!) When you’re scattered, awkward, and uncertain, you give the impression that this event wasn’t even worth your time. Why should it be worth anyone else’s?
  2. Never apologize, unless it’s a real mistake. I’ve heard writers say, “I’m sorry that was such a long poem,” or, “I’m sorry this story is depressing.” This is your art; don’t apologize for it!  If you’re really sorry it’s long or depressing, don’t read it.
  3. Confide, but don’t excuse. You may be tired, “off,” sick, wired… But you have a “duty” to the crowd that’s gathered to hear you. If you’re losing your voice or you’re under the weather, tell your audience (it may explain the hot toddy).But don’t present it as an excuse. Instead, I Need To Get Me Some of Those Rulesbelieve your art is bigger than how you feel—that it can still make something happen in this room.
  4. If you make a mistake, keep going—UNLESS the mistake is super-obvious, in which case, acknowledge it. There’s nothing more awkward than asking an audience to pretend they didn’t see or hear something they obviously saw and heard. (Plus, laughing with your audience is fabulously connective.)

Start Talking!

So! If we’re ready for Readings to create experiences, we’ll want to talk details—mics, soundchecks, venues—because we’ll want to be heard, we’ll want the venue to support our art, etc. Therefore, up next: microphone and “soundcheck” tutorials!

Meanwhile, join the conversation! Do you have more “Reasons for Readings” to add to the lists above? And if Readings have mattered to you, why? in what ways?
Also, how have you engaged your audiences, made connections? In what ways have you embodied your texts?
Finally, what did I miss here? What do you want me to address?

Comment away, Writers!

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Tasha Golden

Tasha Golden is the singer and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery. Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen or are forthcoming in The Humanist, Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Patrol Magazine. She tweets @goldenthis
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18 Responses to So… Readings. What’s the point?

  1. I love this post. Seattle is exploding with readings, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I co-coordinate one series, The Furnace, and we try to create an engaging experience for audiences in a few ways. We only focus on one reader per performance and create a chapbook of the story read, so the audience can read along, if they like, or read the story again later. We also encourage innovative presentation of the work. In January, Rae Diamond read an essay about a musician’s experience of sound and brought in a vocalist, Jessika Kenney, to make the meaning of her essay a more felt experience. There’s an MP3 of that here: http://thefurnaceseattle.wordpress.com/2013/02/07/mp3-of-three-songs/

  2. An Tran says:

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your run here at Pshares. I agree; writers should begin to embrace the performance aspect of readings. It really is thrilling. Scott McClanahan is one writer who is an incredible performer at his readings. I believe he has some videos up.

  3. Here at the Center for Documentary Studies (Duke U, Durham, NC), we founded a collaborative, multi-media performance series that features writers, specifically because we were so bored by the typical format for literary readings. It’s called “Professor Diablo’s True Revue,” and we’ve done five of them. The first one, which I’m linking below, featured author Donovan Hohn, songwriter Django Haskins, and video artist Marina Zurkow. Others have included the playwright Mike Wiley and writers Randall Kenan, Howard Craft and Paul Cuadros; visual artists Jeff Whetstone and Courtney Reid-Eaton; the musicians Hiss Golden Messenger, Dexter Romweber (Flat Duo Jets), Justin Robinson (Carolina Chocolate Drops) and Hindugrass; monologuist Anita Woodley; and dancers Andrea Woods and Diego Schoch.

    Here’s video of the Professor Diablo’s True Revue I: https://vimeo.com/44170123

    And here’s video of the True Revue II: https://vimeo.com/46299302

    (I’d really like to show you the video from the True Revue IV, featuring Randall Kenan, but we haven’t uploaded that one yet.)

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Duncan!
      I love hearing about experiments in other media, in the intersection of visual and written works, the engaging of the senses… Thanks for your input!
      Quick Question: How do you think the venue (rock club) has affected/influenced your readings?
      Thanks again!

  4. p.s. I should have said that we do all these performances in a rock club here in Durham called Casbah.

  5. Jim Finnegan says:

    I find in this “over-mediated” age, it’s a great pleasure to sit in a room (in a reasonably comfortable chair) to listen to one human voice hold forth. It’s art reduced to its least means. No flash, no videio, no strobe lights, etc. I honestly prefer less histrionic readings, too. Spare me the great one-man/woman show. I’m fine with “shoegaze.”

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Thanks for writing, Jim! I can definitely relate to Media- or Entertainment-Fatigue, and I’ve seen enough “multi-media just for the sake of multi-media” to have viscerally felt that more isn’t always better. :)
      Ain’t nothin wrong with a little “shoegaze,” especially when it fits the work that’s being read, and the reader, and the goals of both!

      But I’m sad to say that I think that I (along with many pshares readers) are simply suffering at this point from Shoegaze Overdose – so that for us, seeing an infusion (not of lights and media but) of energy and creativity – however simply manifested – would be a welcome and very rare change.
      I’ve also found that a lot of shoegazers are such not by choice, but out of fear, intimidation, and/or a simple lack of motivation/creativity (in other words, they haven’t given it much thought). For shoegazers such as these, I hope to bring a sense of worth and art to the reading, to encourage them to believe in their art enough to present it with life.
      But I would never, as you justly imply, want anyone to serve the idea of “show”. Rather, any creativity in a Reading should serve the art and the possibility of communal experience, of connection. And in that service, sometimes subtle shoegaze is glorious.
      Thanks again Jim!

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  7. Billy Mills says:

    Of all the rules, Don’t Apologise is the number one. I’d add Don’t Overexplain!

    Enjoyable article.

  8. Cathy Bryant says:

    Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but the scenarios you describe don’t reflect my experience of poetry readings at all. They’re usually energetic and lively affairs with the audience and performer(s) connected and expressive. Although the odd nervous and/or apologetic performer may turn up, they soon get the idea and on the whole people follow those rules anyway. Is this just Manchester?

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Cathy,
      So fun to hear about your experience… I think we’re all going to move to your fine city!
      Would love to hear a description of a reading you’ve enjoyed — Like what has made readings feel energetic and lively? Something about the venue, atmosphere, readers, audience, expectations, etc? Please share!

  9. Dick Jones says:

    Yes! All good stuff, this, Tasha, from the mock mockery at the beginning to the fierce exhortations that are the main message here. All poetry groups should devote at least a couple of sessions to an in-depth scrutiny both of the corporate objectives when giving a reading and the individual aims and intentions of those poets contributing. Let us now go back to our regional meetings, consider in depth what we want from a reading and then organise for quality!

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Thanks for your note, Dick – And thank you for wanting to spread some of the ideas ’round! I’d so love to see more writers embracing their time on a stage, getting creative with their own bodies/voices/etc…
      If you share any of this, please report back! :)
      Thanks again!

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