I saw Cristina Henriquez read just a few weeks ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where my poet buddy, Sally Wen Mao, took me after a long day in the city. Generally, I’m horrible at readings. I’m the guy seated in the front row, probably running on three hours of sleep or less, glassy eyed (behind actual glasses), with no indication as to whether I’m staring through you in idle boredom or at you in profound thought. But when my friend, Sally, invited me to see Henriquez, I knew I had to go. Sally is mostly in-the-know about all things literary in NYC in addition to having impeccable taste in books. So, I went. It was incredible. Oh, yeah—and it completely changed the way I read Latina/o literature.
If you live in a smaller city and you have even a speck of success as a writer, chances are at some point you’ll be tapped for what I call “The Ladies Who Lunch Literati.” Sometimes they might be fans of your work; in my case they are often people who my mother puts in touch with me (I don’t have to pimp myself out since my mom is happy to do it for me). Since joining the Ploughshares blog, I’ve talked to book clubs, given readings, and even taught a slapdash course in memoir writing. In most of these instances, the participants have been primarily ladies, often retired.
Though I initially worried that some blogging, a newspaper column, and a smattering of publications didn’t really qualify me for these types of events, I’ve come to enjoy them. So for the rest of you who are still in small ponds, I encourage you to hang with the Ladies Who Lunch Literati, being mindful of a few simple guidelines.
One morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.
Leaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:
We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…
Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?
Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.
But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-“activist” writers can take to dive in:
- Identify Our Stories
- Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
- Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”
If 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.
So—why DO we do this??
Here are 8 (fake) guesses based only upon having observed the events. Add yours in the Comments section!
In my previous post, I discussed the crying shame that is the Public Reading. You commented, shared, and agreed. You asked how to feel more confident, use a microphone, give more creative readings, etc. I’ll tackle all of these over coming weeks – starting, today, with confidence.
HAVE SOME COMPASSION.
Let’s bust the myth right now that says you should be able to just jump in front of a crowd and feel amazing. That’s true for almost no one.
Sharing any creative work requires vulnerability and risk. If you add to that an unfamiliar environment (a stage with an audience) and unfamiliar tools (a microphone)… No wonder you feel nervous! So: be kind to yourself, and know you can cultivate ease.
This November, word went out on a network of Boston-area choral singers: a flash mob was being proposed, and the organizers wanted to know who was game. About forty of us signed on, learned the parts we’d been assigned on the group’s Facebook page, and then—following one quick rehearsal—staked out the open-air famer’s market downtown and put on a rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s Make Our Garden Grow.
I love the idea of flash mobs. Singers or dancers, usually dispersed in street clothes in a crowded public place, start in—first just one person, then maybe two more, then a half dozen–with what at first appears to be a spontaneous bit of exuberance. Gradually, more and more people who had seemed to be bystanders join in, until there’s a crowd of dozens or even hundreds mobbing the area with music or dance. The moment the song or dance is through, the performers melt back into the crowd. No bows, no fanfare, no behaving as if anything out of the ordinary has just taken place.