11 May 2006

Two readings: two rowdy audiences


Monday night, Emily Schultz and I climbed into my little Honda Civic and drove to St. Catharines to read in the Grey Borders Reading Series, organized by Jordan Fry. I read in this series a couple years ago, and it was a chaotic affair, though I enjoyed it. Since, I've heard several bad reports of others reading to tiny audiences and feeling they'd wasted their time. It's quite a hike from Toronto, after all.

The readings take place in a wide-open pub, The Merchant Ale House, and it's one of those situations where there are lots of people in the venue who didn't come for the reading, and so they talk, loudly, throughout. The readers stand up on a little stage between two gargantuan beer vats, which is sorta cool. Emily and I were joined by Alexandra Leggat, in from nearby Niagara Falls, and a local poet named Terry, whose last name, I'm sorry, I forget.

Terry was mad and frenetic in his introductions: sort of like a focussed John Barlow, but with rock-star hair. His poems, though, were far more conventional, and quietly delivered. I enjoyed the reading, but the noise from the riff-raff, and from the street, was really distracting. I wandered up closer to the stage for Alexandra's reading: hadn't heard her read in ages, and I was out of town when she read at the Fictitious series. It was neat: she read a piece from each of her books (one poetry, and two fiction), plus a new story. It was the best reading I'd seen her give, though she apparently had a sore throat. She came down from the stage and told me it was a difficult crowd. Might have seemed that way from up there, but from the audience, if you could concentrate amid the din, yeah, it was a good reading. I even really liked the poem she chose, though I hadn't been a fan of her poetry in the past.

Emily was up next, to read from her new novel, Joyland, out from ECW in hardcover (!!!). She's become a pretty masterful reader, and the book sounds good. I have a copy, and I look forward to digging into it soon. Anyway, Emily too was up against the rowdy masses, and you had to be pretty close to hear that reading. So when it was my turn to read, I put my mouth close to the mic and I basically bellowed for 15 minutes. That seemed to generally shut them up, and perhaps starting off with something aggressive -- my advice to young writers entitled "Shut Up Already!" from Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer -- helped somewhat. I read my Heidi Fleiss letter, and then a heap of new poems, including a few I'd never read aloud before. Yeah, I went for laughs a lot, but I ended with a pretty sombre and sobre long prose poem called "Ermine and Pearls," so I could feel better about myself.

We each sold several books, which was pretty good. I reckon there were about 15 or so university students there for the readings. People were pretty nice. Jordan is a funny guy: he used to write some pretty stinky poems, but when he opened Tuesday evening with a couple of his own, I could see he was going in interesting directions. He had one of his Grey Borders editors handing out Hawaiian leis to everyone in the bar, and there were endless dumb jokes about "getting lei'd." Oy. I mean, geez. But the guy is doing this reading-organizing thing, and probably fairly thanklessly, and I was very happy to read in his series. The commute-chats with Emily were pretty neat, too!


I'd been a little anxious about Wednesday's reading for a while, because I was reading to the youngest audience I'd ever encountered: I was told they'd be 8 to 15 years old, but it turned out none of them were likely over 12. This was at Flemingdon Park Library, where Lillian Necakov, a dear friend for 25 years, an amazing surrealist poet, and the library branch head, organizes a weekly book club for the local kids. I prepared by working up a few "kids' poems," including a kiddified version of my old poem "Stubborn Furniture." Some of the kids were noisy, disruptive, rude, chair-scraping, while others were really interested and attentive and eager to participate. But it was really cool that they were there, up in that auditorium, for a literary event. I talked a little about my pre-teen beginnings as a writer, and getting published as a teenager, and I read a few of my poems.

What was neat was that they were eager to talk about each of the poems after I read them. And it was sort of fun to ask them in advance if they understood certain words. We would get into these great discussions of definitions of words like "stray" and "stubborn." And when I showed them my Robots At Night chapbook, I asked them what they thought robots did at night: "They destroy things!" "They talk like aliens!" "They recharge themselves!" It was neat. We then wrote a collaborative poem, one word at a time, and it turned out pretty well. And then those who wanted to came up and recited some of their stuff, and then there was a brief Q&A.

The rowdiness was a challenge all through, and while I found the hour exhausting and exhilarating, I realized Lillian had to deal with these energy-exploding kids for several hours every day. Wow. Overall, it was a great experience. And great to see Lillian again, whose books you should try to find. (There's a good selection of her work in my anthology Surreal Estate.)

Two readings.

Two rowdy audiences.

Tonight: likely a much less challenging audience for the Toronto Wordstage Series at Cervejeria.


I run a very modest listserv called Smallpressers, if anyone's interested. You can join up via Yahoogroups. It's rarely active, but it has a lot of potential, and it's a good place to post info on upcoming events or announce the publication of a chapbook or whatever. You're all cordially invited to join.

Over and out.


At May 11, 2006 9:25 am , Blogger Amanda said...

sounds like fun...I dearly wish I could attend all these interesting readings in cities other than Ottawa. I'm very quiet at readings. Attentive too. It gets rowdy at bar readings here in Ottawa too. Most of the regulars don't know what the heck it's all about and seem offended that their chat time is being interupted by poetry. Wish there was a way for us all to just get along. I don't like reading in bars because I don't feel very welcome and that tendency to want to just entertain comes out. Laughter is wonderful, but there is so much more.

At May 12, 2006 11:27 am , Anonymous rox. said...

rowdy audiences...i'm reminded of bukowski receiving insults and slinging comebacks with mustard and relish...or the blues brothers at the country bar (the best use of chicken wire ever)...or spitting at johnny rotten way back in the day. a friend of mine sometimes plays jazz piano in toronto lounges and he sees those music "fans" who sit very close and talk loudly all the way through only to stop blabbing when the music stops and applaud as if they even heard what was being played. when ambience volume increases, i think of eric satie who encouraged people to talk over his playing; he used their conversation as another instrument.


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