Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Be prepared to read wherever your travels may take you, even
from a smartphone, if necessary. Blurriness optional. 

I reckon that, by now, I have attended and / or managed enough literary readings—from soloist recitals to cattle call events at several national conferences—to aver that I have witnessed better than 2,500 authors officiating at the podium. Some of these readings have stunned me, to be sure, influenced me, and revitalized my faith in literature, while the majority of them have been mediocre, and within that group, I have witnessed several bust-out disasters, and I mean vehicles afire, crashing, amid screams. For those readings (and readers) as well as for the Future of Our Kind, I offer this basic primer on stepping to the podium and offering a sturdy account of one’s writings.

1. BE A PROFESSIONAL. I just love a reader who slinks to the microphone without having selected what he intends to read. He thumbs through a couple books, mutters like a bum, and holds the audience responsible for his predicament. Never mind the reader who arrives an hour late, and must be fed the Big Boy Platter, first, before he can step to the microphone and thumb dumbly through his material. Can you prepare in advance? Yes, you can, Hot Pants, you can apply stickies, if necessary, to your pages, you can be on time, and you can be truly Dependable.

2. COME OUT SWINGING. That’s a double entendre meant to channel the spirit of a boxer, for one, but mostly the spirit of a jazz musician. Be loud. Chase the nerves. If you let the nerves chase you, then your voice will shrink and shrink until it cracks, a sound not unlike a person falling through thin, thin ice into a cold, cold lake. Need to warm up first? Why not sing? I endorse a song, so long as it’s unpretentious, so long as you’re not pretending to be Mr. Five By Five, since, you know, there was only one Mr. Five By Five, and his name was Jimmy Rushing.

3. DON’T EXPLAIN, JUST READ. In all likelihood, you haven’t been invited to preside over a Literary Explanation but a Literary Reading. Show us your work. Don’t launch into lengthy “tellings” that may rival the lengths of your stories or poems. Some explanations turn out to be more compelling than the actual creative piece, leading the audience to wonder why the writer had published the creative piece, as opposed to the explanation. I’m hardly against a few short words to preface a story, or a novel excerpt, or poems, but that’s all: a few short words.

4. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE / KNOW YOUR VENUE. Perhaps you ought to avoid reading your series of gnarly poems—“Gigantic Beef Cutlets, 5 a.m.”—at the annual gathering of the North American Vegan Association. [Aside: I was once invited to read for the Senior Cits group at a synagogue, but all they wanted to talk about was the poor lunch they’d been served; there was no reading!] A daytime audience, for example, in columns and rows, will probably demand more measure, whereas a night-time pub crowd will demand more chaos. Plan accordingly.

5. PLEASE AVOID THOSE FALSE IAMBICS. Not all lines of fiction or poetry are meant to be recited, “whose WEED this IS i THINK i KNOW / his STASH is IN the VILLage THOUGH”, or if they are, then all audience members are meant to go home and register themselves, posthaste, as Next in Line for Invasive Examination. Deliver no two lines the same! You can read slower or faster. With more emphasis or less. Quieter or louder. With potato starch or tapioca starch. With Cholula or salsa verde. You can exclaim. You can hush. You can pause!

6. PRACTICE FOR THE UNEXPECTED. I recommend that you practice reading your writings regularly, and at that, practice with the stereo playing. That is, practice amid distraction, such that you won’t be thrown off-kilter when (A) Riders on horseback gallop through outdoor event* or (B) Engineers with political haircuts heckle* or (C) Chubby man snores in front row and cuts boggling fart—while asleep—that sounds like water cooler gurgling*. (Asterisk = actual event.) Oh yes, The Beast & His Value Set will interfere with a literary reading, again and again.

7. A CONVERSION TABLE ON DURATION. If asked to read for 45 minutes then read for 40 minutes. If asked to read for 30 minutes, then read for 25 minutes. If asked to read for 25 minutes, then read for 22 minutes. If asked to read for 20 minutes, then read for 18 minutes. If asked to read for 15 minutes, then read for 12 minutes. If asked to read for 10 minutes, then read for 8 minutes. If asked to read for 5 minutes, then read for 3 minutes. If asked to read your literature for 1 minute, then read your literature precisely for 20 seconds, including intermission.

8. QUIT ALL THE SELF-DEPRECATING COMMENTARY WHILST ONSTAGE. I just love a writer who interrupts his readings to apologize for the inadequacies of his presentation. He hardly means it, of course. To the contrary, he’s trying to win sympathy from those assembled, and he’s shameless in pursuing such a tack. When he offers—“That giant sucking sound going south isn’t NAFTA, nope, it’s the sound of this reading”—he’s issuing a declaration which compels the audience, in his estimation, to reply, “Come one, man, no, you’re great!” Cut it out!

9. YOU CAN BE TIGHT BUT NOT BLIND. It doesn’t make you tough to empty a fifth of Jack Daniels at the podium, but prepares you, instead, for a series of slurred syllables and awkward stumbles, as your body attempts to reconcile your inebriation with the centripetal forces of the Earth. A drink before the reading can help steady the nerves, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to be “blind” is to invite embarrassment, Hot Pants, not only upon you, but upon the people who invited you to read. Hey: moderation ain’t just a role in a dispute.

10. SPECIAL CASE: IF SCHEDULED TO READ IN THE LATTER ROUNDS OF A CATTLE CALL EVENT. Generally speaking, I do well enough at a literary reading, but I’ve had trouble at the ‘Cattle Call’ events that can occur in and around conferences such as AWP, MLA, or the Waiters’ reading at Bread Loaf. If you go early enough, it’s no big deal, but all that nervous energy can build up, if you’re scheduled to go later in the night. My suggestions: leave the venue at some point; play pinball or pachinko; return a few readers before your slot.

11. WHATEVER YOU DO, MAINTAIN A LITTLE EYE CONTACT. There are probably a few cute people in the room, and you’d miss them, if you didn’t sling your eyesight here and there. You won’t lose your place if you mark your place with the thumb or pointer finger of your free hand. Meantime, check out the hotties. Read to them. You’re not reading to a piece of paper, after all. You’re not reading to a podium. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Laugh at a few of your own jokes, but don’t laugh at all of your own jokes. Maintain an appropriate level of malevolence.  

12. OFFER THANKS. At the end of your reading, don’t forget to thank your hosts, your fellow readers, and the audience. If you’re not in a pub, then proffer an enjoinder such that the audience—including hotties from #11—should join you for conversation at a pub. The reading is one thing, and is great, but community is the next logical thing, the logical outgrowth of a reading, and fine conversation and fine libations should be associated, at all costs, with a great event. I, myself, drink STOUT, but there should be an array of medicaments available for all.

For a few tips on the writer’s lifestyle, see Blogpost to aYoung Poet


Jefferson Hansen said...

Another cool post, Dan. I agree with everything you say, especially the part about being "professioinal." Another way of saying it is "respect yourself, your audience, and the time and energy they spent to get there."


I mean -- having a little bit of 'malevolence' about you is fine, but that shouldn't be directed toward the audience -- that should be inherent in the work and/or in the way one "generally carries oneself." Is all. Thanks for the kind words, Jeff -- I appreciate it.