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?

River City Writers Series: Richard Tillinghast

The University of Memphis has a wonderful writers series that simply isn’t advertised enough.

Richard Tillinghast, a poet, will be the first to open the series Tuesday, September 27th at 8pm at the University Center, Room 350.

I and two other poets have been reading his work, samplings from his 8 published poetry books, as well as some from his 3 nonfiction books, and just tackling his amazing biography, in order to prepare for interviewing him.

A native Memphian, Richard Tillinghast last resided in Ireland, where he was awarded several grants just for his contribution to the Irish poetry/writing scene (He also wrote his latest nonfiction book, Finding Ireland, about his exploration of Irish poetry and writing). Before that, he had received grants to study conversational Turkey in Istanbul. While there and some after, he translated the Turkish poet, Edip Cansever, into English with his daughter while staying there. He wrote a beautiful essay about staying in Turkey here.

He studied under Robert Lowell at Harvard, has taught at Harvard, Sewanee, Michigan, and Iowa, and received endowments from really too many places to name. He even once recorded his poetry while the band Poignant Pleclostomus jammed in the background.

For any poet or writer interested in seeing how one gets so many amazing opportunities to get paid to write, he is the one to ask.

I’m a fiction writer. Why would I care about seeing a poet?

Great question. Poetry is about crystallizing images, about treating language in a fresh way. Tillinghast is brilliant at this. There are so many lines from his work that I want to steal, and I think fiction writers would entirely benefit from reading poetry and trying to write a poetry (even badly). Anyone’s fiction would benefit from a thorough study of how poetry employs imagery and language. Don’t be afraid because your teacher only made you read Old English poetry in class. Embrace completely accessible, contemporary poetry.

One example: 

(published online on Agni)

A Hotel in the Rain

Today this place seems chiseled out of the weather—
if you could hammer a hard edge into airy droplets
or drive a steel blade into the staticky
encroachment of the rain and hew out
these however-many square feet
of contentment and efficiency,
with two-foot-thick stone walls and infallible slates.

This hotel, this haven, your bower or burrow,
Badger’s hole from The Wind in the Willows,
where you waken layer by layer
after the best night’s sleep you ever got
like a storybook creature saved from misadventure—
half hearing finger-taps, then lashings
of rain against your windows.

Breakfast under a skylight alive with rain.
Then go out and trawl the second-hand bookstores.
Inhabit the pub till the talk gets dull
and your bad knee insists upon return
to your room up the stairs
where everything has been tucked and turned,
and a sliver of sunlight laid on your windowsill.

Just look at those words! chiseled, sliver, hew, infallible slates. So melodic! So perfectly lovely! Think of these in your fiction! Think of these in your poetry!

Come to hear more.

Tuesday, September  27th, 8pm, University of Memphis, University Center, Room 350