When I read this year at Wiscon, I went first. We were reading at Michaelangelo’s, a coffee shop near the hotel. I decided to read a poem-a long one that I wrote the previous year called “Blood Up to the Bridle,” a very personal (and apocalyptic) poem about my childhood, awkwardness in fitting into various communities (writing and otherwise), becoming a parent, and lots more that hopefully defies summarization. Anyway, it seemed of a moment, and to try something new, I did it.
I got interrupted about thirty seconds in by a gentleman in the back, with a group of 3 friends, essentially telling me to shut up, that he couldn’t hear the person sitting right next to him, and what the hell was I even thinking. As if the 50 people assembled there just happened to wander in, like he did, and that a public reading was so beyond the pale, so beyond what he ought to be privileged to experience on that day. The nerve. He was quickly shouted down by many stalwart audience members, I looked at him and told him I didn’t care, he spoke to management, was rebuffed, and then he sat back down. I continued. I had to continue. After another five minutes they all left. I was shaking. When I got to the point in the poem about my wife and I going to the Czech Republic for IVF, I was nearly crying.
It was a worst case scenario for a reading-I mean, right?-and I keep thinking back to it, even though I’m not viscerally upset about it anymore. But I sometimes wonder whether this is what writing is in contemporary American culture: an annoyance at best. I’ve heard anecdotes online of people who doodle in sketchbooks on buses or trains, or writing down and observing things on public transport, being accosted by police. “What do you think you’re doing? What seems to be the problem here?” And then of course, there are the “free speech zones” at public events like national political conventions or big monetary summits, which do little else to remind you that the powers-that-be have the power to not be afraid of you.
Contemplation or public utterance: the incredibly shrinking voice, the incredibly shrinking space that the voice carries. It’s difficult for the writer enough, hard to stare back at an audience, let your voice carry, treat the proceedings of a reading to be less boring than your average, well-meaning mainline Protestant church service. It’s hard to notice the world around you. It’s hard to step out of the con, or the AWP conference room, or wherever.
But simply being present in space and time with one’s writing is important. Not in a way of self-aggrandizing one’s own accomplishments (such as they may be), but to meet people where they are. The readership. There are no grand illusions about conversion here-I highly doubt that the man who interrupted me thought much about what had happened the next day (with someone so angry, it seems likely that there were a lot of impositions by other human beings that would occupy him). No, it is just as much for the writer’s sake-to be affected by other people when daring to read aloud.
And to let the dice land where they may.