Why do you attend readings?

Last night was the Bobbie Ann Mason reading at the University of Memphis. My husband came with me because we had just been at a dinner event for his work. On the way home afterward, he asked me, “Why do they have things like this? Why do people attend them? What do they get out of it?” My husband doesn’t care for literature. He will read my poetry and fiction, and that is pretty much all of the reading he will do the entire year.

The first way I answered that question was from the writer’s point of view: “The writer  reads interesting excerpts from his or her novel or short story to encourage people to buy his or her book.”

Then, from my point of view: “I go to see someone in my profession. I learn from what they do or don’t do and figure out what sort of professional writer I would want to be.”

Then, from other people’s point of view: “I guess they go for some of the celebrity, to see a writer who’s book they’ve read and want to meet, or ask them some questions, hear something beautiful.”

For me, I don’t quite understand going to see fiction writers read. Poetry is meant to be listened to. Most fiction doesn’t have the same musical quality poetry does, and usually there’s only enough time for a fiction writer to read a couple of scenes from their work. To me, these never seem enough. Maybe if they could read the whole piece aloud, I’d feel like I’d gotten some sort of resolution, but just reading scenes feels too much like reading one stanza out of an entire poem. It doesn’t draw me to read more; it just annoys me.

There is also that joy of hearing a writer read his or her own words, but sometimes there is also disappointment: you expected them to have some beautiful drawl or a deep baritone and their voice comes out whiny or soft. I saw Mark Doty read at Rhodes College many years ago. I had read a lot of his poetry and enjoyed its beauty and seriousness. When he came to read, I was surprised how jovial and friendly he was. He read these lilting lines about grief and mortality trippingly. I wanted him to be morose, to wear tweed, to read his poetry with an appropriately morose tenor.

Writers are really never what we want or imagine them to be. They never answer our questions right. They wear an open shirt with no undershirt and a silver necklace nestles in their  exposed chest hair. They make bad jokes or wear ill-fitting dentures. I can understand why people say we must divorce what the author wrote from the author. There is something that  gets ruined when the “real” author bumps up against the author we imagine while we are reading. I build a relationship with that imagined author and then when I meet the real person and he or she is painfully human, it damages that for me just a little bit.

Why do you attend readings? What do you get out of them?

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17 thoughts on “Why do you attend readings?

  1. I’ve been a writer for years and years, and I’ve never gone to a reading. Hmmm. Need to put that on the bucket list.

    That said, I’m just chiming in here because I’m jealous that you heard Bobbie Ann. I live in a little town about three hours east of you, and our library doesn’t even carry her books. Ironic, eh?

  2. I had the same reaction to a Doty reading; I saw him this summer. I’ve always loved his work for its fragility & beauty. Even its somberness. So I was not expecting him to be as funny or as outgoing as he turned out to be. He had an effervescence while reading I never would’ve matched with his work.

    It a strange phenomenon when we know a person’s body of work well & still, you’re right, we’re really just building an imagined relationship.

    I still love Doty; he’s among one of my favorite poets. Probably always will be. & seeing him read in person was a valuable lesson in realizing even if a collection of poems is auto-biographical, that doesn’t mean the poet & speaker should be conflated.

    1. I get that. I also still love Doty.

      It’s good to know I don’t have to embody my work. I write pretty depressing poems myself, yet I don’t walk around weeping and moaning. I also hope, REALLY, help that my audience doesn’t attribute everything in my poems to me, yet I find myself doing that with other writers. I loudly proclaim in workshop “in this line, the SPEAKER said this, etc.,” rather than “in this line, YOU said this,” yet I then expect the writers I hear reading to sound like what they write. Yup. Hypocritical, definitely. Good thing I can now know to work on that!

  3. A good reading, one where the writer is truly engaged with his/her work AND the audience, fills me up with writing energy. That may sound hokey and new agey, but it’s true. I get a zing of energy and come back to the page “fresher” than the day before.

    That being said, a poor reading, one where the writer is angry/tired/snobby/ego-filled/etc and doesn’t engage with the audience, leaves me feeling wrung out.

    Luckily, there seem to be more good readings than poor ones.

    Interesting comment about fiction v. poetry. I go to many more poetry readings simply b/c that’s my genre; however, I do agree with your feelings of being let down after only hearing a scene or two from a novel. I tend to like the short story writers better I guess, in that sense.

    1. How do you define being engaged with the audience? Just in how they read or how they are during the Q & A?

      I definitely get feeling re-energized. The SFB was so great for that because I was constantly hearing great work and people really invested and interested in poetry. You going to AWP?

      1. By being engaged with the audience, I mean several things. One is energy level and a general sense of, if not excitement, at least pleasure in being asked to read wherever said writer is reading. Every once in awhile, I’ve been to a reading where the writer seems to be doing the reading out of a sense of duty or contract only, and that shows. It usually shows in both the reading of the poems / story (lackluster) and the Q&A (short answers without much thought behind them).

        The other thing I mean is how the writer positions himself/herself with the audience. In grad school, I attended a reading of a MAJOR poet and at the after party, one of my profs introduced me by mentioning two of my recent acceptances, which were at really good journals, but not The New Yorker or the Atlantic. This poet looked down his nose at me and shrugged off my accomplishments. Of course, I recovered, but it reminded me how much I hate that sense of ladder climbing some writers have. Seriously, we’re a pretty small group. Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we be invested in nurturing those writers coming after us?

      2. Oh, and yes to AWP. I have two events: one panel reading and one off-site reading Friday night (Barn Owl/Diode). I’ll post soon on my blog about it all, but I hope we can meet up if you are there.

  4. I’ve dragged my husband to several poetry readings, but only one for a fiction writer, Donna Tartt. The reading that my husband liked the best was Billy Collins.

    For me, readings are about meeting the writers and asking a question, just like art openings are about meeting the artists. My husband was an art major, so thankfully we both like literature and art.

    I especially wanted to meet Donna Tartt after reading her first book, but I agree with you about listening to poetry being read making so much more sense than listening to fiction. I think it’s sad that we don’t read poetry to each other. When I was a teenager I’d ask my little sister to read Emily Dickinson for me, which was very funny given her Southern accent. Anyhow, POETRY has an app that allows you to listen to poets. One of the most magical things that has happened to me was way back when I was teaching English to high school students. I was being evaluated and I asked if any of the students would like to sing the British lyrical poem we were studying. I honestly just expected laughter at that a request, but one of my students sung it so beautifully. The room was crazy still with amazement. I didn’t teach for very long, but that’s my best memory from it.

    Another thing I find interesting about poetry readings is seeing who shows up. Many times it’s just students getting extra credit for class, but that’s better than a nearly empty space. I think it was Stephen Dunn who had so few people show up to his reading a few years ago. It made me sad. It’s also inspiring when a lot of people get out to hear poetry read, like with the Billy Collins reading. It’s nice to appreciate writers while they’re alive, and I have to think that having people show up to a reading makes writers feel good.

    Oh, yeah. I also really like hearing backstory surrounding some of the poems. It’s almost impossible to get that without going to a reading.

    1. I’d love to see Donna Tartt! I love love love The Secret History!

      We really don’t read poetry anymore, do we? I remember the first time I read a poem I had written to my husband and it felt so awkward. A lot of times, it comes off as overly romantic and sentimental, like only men who want to woo a woman read poetry aloud. Yet, it’s so wonderful hearing it read.

      At the Southern Festival of Books, I attended a session of 3 poets (Kevin Brown, Ray McManus, and Sheri Wright), and someone asked how we could help sustain poetry. Kevin Brown commented that some poets now do youtube videos of reading their work because it helps capture this era of technology and makes it more “fun.” I don’t know how I feel about that yet. It seems so awkward to video myself reading a poem. One person even suggested reading a poem, recording it, and then selling it on itunes for .25 cents. Maybe this could be a way poets talk about the backstory about their poems too?

      What a great anecdote! I’m teaching a poetry workshop in the Spring and if I could sing, I bet that’d be a really interesting exercise.

      Rhodes College has had an absolutely wonderful readers series in the past: Anthony Doerr, Matthea Harvey, Mark Doty. A lot of undergrads would attend because they were required to, but when Mark Doty came, there was a wonderful group of community supporters that came as well since he’s such a big name.

      1. Tara,

        I was so shy and nervous when I met Donna Tartt at Burke’s. I think it was even my first reading ever. I remember her asking me if I’m a writer. I think I just said “yes.” She signed The Little Friend and The Secret History.

        Have you read The Little Friend? The main character in that book has really stayed with me. I hope Donna is working on another novel.

      2. You are a writer if you say you are!

        I have not. I actually heard it was a big let-down after The Secret History because it’s closer to her own life. With your recommendation, I think I’d be more open to reading it.

      3. You can’t expect her second novel to be anything like the first one, especially with a 10-year break in there. Apparently, she’s taking another 10 years to write her third novel! I can’t complain.

        It’s been close to 9 years since I’ve read The Little Friend, but I do remember that it’s much more real (mature) than The Secret History, though probably less of a page turner. Maybe it’s one of those novels that people won’t appreciate for 50 years. If you’re from the South and you care about social problems, you especially have to read this. Don’t let the critics discourage you.

        If you do read it, let me know. There’s one scene in particular that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. I just wonder if it sticks with other people too.

  5. Peggy, I just read your comment about the scene from The Little Friend that stays with you. I remember being bewildered and entranced by that book.

    At one point, I actually put it down and sobbed for about half an hour. I’m not a big crier, especially not with books, but now you have me wondering if we were both affected by the same part. Donna Tartt writes like every word is a struggle, but good grief, look at how good she is.

      1. Ah, it isn’t the same one. That one is definitely powerful. What got me was Tartt’s description of the boy who was Robin’s friend–the one from the wrong side of the tracks–drawing the picture for him, though Robin’s family had never known they were once friends.

        Ooh. I can still feel that one catch in my chest. One of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

  6. Indyink,

    It’s possible I was really moved by that scene as well, but it’s been almost 10 years since I read the book. The plot details are getting fuzzy! I remember in general thinking that the book has a lot of literary value (as in could be read by students one day), and taught me about the problems surrounding meth use. I really loved how it was set in the South. I felt a greater connection to the story because of that. You’re making me want to read it again to get to that scene.

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