No one cares about public readings — unless, apparently, they’re delivered via telephone. Or so one might conclude by reading, first, a new screed at the New York Observer by Michael H. Miller, “No One Cares About Your Reading“:
Is it a coincidence that this is how parents get their children to go to sleep? It is a dark fate, indeed, the reading that drags on and on, where the only person who has lost interest more than the audience is the author, the room lost in a purgatory of pauses for laughter, met by awkward silences. [...] While these turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events are an evil necessity, not enough people enjoy them to justify their existence.
“Turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events” — I love it! This guy really knows how to pen a screed.
Miller does concede that poetry is something of an exception, although he quotes Paul Muldoon to slam the frequent practice of poets “trying out new work” at readings. On the whole, the article comes down firmly on the side of those who prefer performances to readings.
It turns out, many of the best readings have very little to do with reading. In Boston, Rick Moody and Wesley Stace performed together, singing songs and sharing stories. According to Mr. Stace, the event was a rousing success. Both “readers” had forgotten their books in the hotel room.
Bookstore readings — like brick-and-mortar bookstores themselves — are probably on the way out. But that’s not the only way to use a live reading to interest the public in your work, as Heather Christle’s recent experience suggests. To promote her second book of poetry, The Trees The Trees (published by Portland, Oregon-based Octopus Books), she set up a tumblelog with a schedule for the first two weeks of July, offering to read poems over the phone to anyone who calls up during the posted hours (which are very generous). The response has been surprisingly enthusiastic, including coverage in Salon, on the BBC World Service’s Newshour, and in the Guardian:
“The book itself is full of references to phones and phone calls, and the speaker often seems to mistake the technology of the page for that of the telephone, imagining that the reader is right there in the moment,” said Christle. “My father is a merchant mariner, and when my sister and I were small we would record messages to him on cassette tapes. I’d often ask questions and then pause for his response. There’s something so lovely and sad about the hope that another actual person is on the other end of any technology. So I thought it would be interesting to bring that dynamic forward, to read these poems (which frequently address a ‘you’) directly to another person, across the intimate distance a telephone creates.”
So far she has received around 60 calls, from a multitude of different readers, from a couple from Toronto looking for a love poem to a class in western Massachusetts. “I’ve been amazed at how variously people respond. Some callers state quickly that they’re calling for a poem, listen, say thank you, and then promptly hang up. Others want to chat a little bit about the project. I love it when people tell me where they’re calling from. One man called on his break from work, which made me glow. If people seem chatty I’ll often tell them where I am as well, because I think it’s exciting to know that the poem they just heard was read in the middle of the shampoo aisle at the supermarket,” Christle said.
This is a great idea, and I’m glad Christle is getting such good mileage out of it. Obviously there’s a strong novelty factor at play in the publicity, but I still think we can learn from her experience. What other live-reading approaches might we be neglecting? Door-to-door readings around the neighborhood, perhaps? And this new group video chat thing I’m hearing about on Google+ and Facebook sounds like an ideal format for small readings. Maybe we need to stop planning events aimed at large crowds which generally fail to materialize, and instead embrace the intimacy of a microaudience.