Dispatches | February 21, 2011

Originally, I planned on writing some sort of Monday morning essay about The Missouri Review’s 4th annual audio competition. Which is important and you should enter (really!). But all week, I’ve been chewing over ideas that are, I think, related to our auditory experiences, and wanted to write about something I experienced last week that actually has a link with our audio competition. Just maybe, this post will come together in some sort of cohesive way. Maybe.

Last week, Orr Street Studios, located here in downtown Columbia, hosted two readers for their (mostly) weekly art series, Seeing Visions/Hearing Voices. On the docket were my friends John Nieves and Amina Gautier. John is a doctoral student here at Mizzou, and his poems have appeared in a slew of places, including RedividerFugue, Adirondack Review, California Quarterly and Florida Review.  Amina is the most recent winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and her story collection, At-Risk, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in September. More than sixty of her stories have been published, appearing in Antioch Review, Best African American Fiction, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Pleiades and Southern Review. Amina’s work has been honored with scholarships and fellowships from places like the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. Basically, it rocked.

(Which makes the fact that I was twenty minutes late even more embarrassing. I am always late to the Orr Street readings. I have no idea why. There was, however, plenty of time for Amina to flaunt the Lakers Game 7 win over the Celtics in my face. So I had that going for me).

Even stranger: Amina literally knocked the lights out. Twice.

Really! I think there was something goofy going on with the motion sensors or something, but yes, twice during her reading, Amina blew the lights out, something that she can proudly tell everyone for the rest of her life.  Weirdly, if this had happened during the last scene of the story she read – “Been Meaning To Say”, which originally appeared in Southwest Review – it actually would have been appropriate (no, I won’t spoil it for you).

I would imagine that most of the readers of this blog have attended readings at least once, if not fairly frequently. One of the things that made the Orr Street reading wonderful was that I was listening to not just writers, but friends. Knowing how much effort Amina and John put into their work, how long it took them to get to this point with their poetry and stories, made the listening experience all the more delightful. A personal connection, a sense of intimacy with the writer’s process, the constant happiness creeping into your smile because you are witnessing the success of friends – their art out there in the world and expereinced live – made the reading all the more enjoyable.

Then there is the other thing: actually being a good reader. Amina and John delivered there, too.

What makes a good reading? Tough question. There’s actually much more to it than just the written word. I’m blown away by how frequently writers will stand up and not tell the audience “Hey, thanks for coming out tonight” or something simple like that. How often the reader will not notice the way the audience responds to the work. Haven’t you ever felt a reader lose his or her audience? The room gets too still; there’s an impatient politeness to the way we refuse to move or rustle; heads turn away, downward, minds on what to pick up from the grocery store on the way home. Even when I first started going to readings, I could sense when a reader lost the room. I figured this was rare: in fact, it’s far too common.

The poet Adrian Matejka was recently thinking about this, too: what about the etiquette of the public reading? Among other things kicked around was the poet beginning with reading a single poem by someone else; readers taking two minutes post-reading to be gracious and say hello to the strangers who come up and say thanks; and not hurrying off to the bar (and out the door) too quickly. What Adrian is curious about, I think, is the sense of the public reading not being such a one-way experience, but a collective experience of art and literature.

N+1 has famously blasted readings as incredibly boring. Sadly, I do partially agree: many readings are, in fact, quite mediocre. They certainly don’t have to be. Writers don’t know how else to promote ourselves, and the public reading seems to be a tradition that we just don’t think much about anymore: why do it, what is its purpose, and so forth. But I’m not ready to give up on them. A few years ago at Washington University, I heard Edward Jones read from his collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. He seemed a shy man uncomfortable in public; his shoulders sloped and his eyes focused on the floor, saying very little when not behind a microphone. His reading? One of the fiercest and most visceral readings I have ever heard. He absolutely blew us away, metaphorically blew the lights out with this commanding, clear, beautiful voice that reverberated all the violence, tension, intrigue, and danger of the story he read. He took 45 minutes. He could have taken 45 days. No one in the audience would have minded at all.

Voices reveal. Voices reveal character, authority, confidence, charm, humor; voices give the story and the poems another element, an extra thing (joy? play?)  that we go to public performances to experience. The best readers, the Aminas and Johns and Adrians of the literary world, know this. Even knowing it, when it works, when it really works, when the reading is that fantastic, we as readers – and listeners – are all the more grateful.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review