On Reading Out Loud, with the Help of James Ellroy

Pip Smith

What makes a good reading? I have no idea. Or rather, I only have smatterings of vague hunches. And thankfully, there’s no rubric by which to judge a person’s vague hunches. One thing is certain, though – no matter how Nobel Prize-winning your prose is, there is no excuse for reading to a crammed room for twenty minutes, pausing for a breath, and then continuing on as people shift in their seats, answer phones, and leave the room. There’s especially no excuse to then ask if it’s alright to read another, longer story, and when no one says anything, take that silence as a resounding yes please! and continue to read on.

At Melbourne’s Slow Canoe reading last Friday night, this is what happened.

Slow Canoe describes itself on facebook as being a forum “for the sharing of stories, for writers to have their work heard and appreciated aloud, as well as for lovers of stories to hear writing brought alive by the authors.” Each month they gather in the chapel at the Schoolhouse Studios in Abbotsford to listen to five writers read their work. April’s event featured stories by David Mence, Emily Bitto, Steven Amsterdam and Antonia Pont, all excellent writers, most of whom could have read half of what they brought, and we still would have left groggy with hearty fiction.

I am not attempting to compare the readings at salons such as Slow Canoe to the high-energy performative approach you might find at a slam poetry night. They are different things attempting to achieve different ends. Personally, I’ll take either, as long as the writer has thought deeply about what they’ve written, their writing doesn’t obviously fit a prescribed mould, is nuanced, specific, and emotionally engaged. I’d rather hear a considered story, gently delivered, than something written on the bus on the way to the venue, then dazzled up with jazz hands behind the microphone. But even so, reading for a short aeon doesn’t do a piece of writing, or an audience, any favours. I have sat through several of my own reading nights internally angsting over the same tendency and wondering how to nudge a 20 minute mic-hog politely off the stage.

Salons like Slow Canoe feature writers on the gentler end of the reading spectrum. At Slow Canoe, audiences are expected to shift their experience of time down a notch from the usual mania of peak hour Melbourne. I was so eager to attend the Slow Canoe reading that Friday, that I side-swiped the fence reversing out of the driveway, broke my left side mirror, sped through a few 50 zones, then parked in what may have been someone’s driveway. If the tempo leading up to such an event was fuckruninglatewhere’saparkI’malreadylatefuckfuck (or similar), the moment I stepped into a crowded hallway to hear David Mence read a story about a whaling town set in an Australia 100 years ago, I was faced with a choice: give in to the story’s slow pull, or continue to chew over whether or not I parked in someone’s driveway. Usually, the choice to engage at these quieter, slower reading nights is yours. No one’s going to bust out a break dance to keep you interested.

At Slow Canoe I made the choice to turn my phone off, lean against the hallway wall, and give in. As the whaling story unfurled, it felt good to be transported to a cold, blue place of solace between attempts to find a park. There were flashes of violence in the story, but they were the kind of flashes of violence you might dream up while floating on your back in a swimming pool. But then the solace continued. And continued. And continued. Some people left. And the final three readers read to noticeably smaller, limper audiences.

Contrast this with the launch of six Vagabond chapbooks by six vastly different poets three Fridays ago at the Alderman in East Brunswick. The event was held in a similarly small room and was also crammed full of eager listeners. While the reading followed a petcha kutcha-style short, fast reading formula, this compression of writers’ airtime did not result in a diminution of depth, quality or content. Interestingly, by giving each reader no longer than 3 short poems each, and not fleshing out the night with protracted breaks, something happened to the tone of the whole event, so that the collage of voices and approaches to poetry amounted to something larger than the sum of the night’s parts. Hearing Hoang Nguyen’s contemplative tone rub up against Eddie Patterson’s stark wit and jagged cut-up aesthetic tweaked the contrast knob on each poet’s differences. As a result, the range of voices stretched my taste for poetry in six quick bursts, and the brevity of the readings left me wanting more, not scouting out the room for the nearest fire escape.

Why give Slow Canoe such a comparatively harsh review, you might ask? Surely these are sensitive, socially awkward writers you are talking about! Go gently! Go gently!

The thing is, I love listening to writers read, so I get stroppy when they don’t read well. I enjoy hearing how nervous energy sets a text that came from that writer’s imagination into motion. What emerges are un-conscious nuances and intricacies that are simply lost if you read these pieces to yourself, in your head, lying in bed.

Friend and poet Rob Wilson once gave me recordings of Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams reading their own work. I’ve listened to the recordings more than I’ve ever picked up one of their books. Hearing William Carlos Williams read Portrait of a Woman in Bed is, to me, so much more rewarding than reading it on the page. On the page, the poem’s ten exclamation marks can so easily be read as: ‘shout’! or, ‘louder’! or ‘more intense!’, but when WCW reads the piece the exclamation mark after ‘I’m sick of trouble!’ isn’t so much a hands-in-the-air outcry, as a sob, and the line ‘My name’s Robitza!’ isn’t so much a declaration, as a digging in – a stubborn, hardened, claiming of turf.

Of course, this poem is open to interpretation, and the biggest benefit to archiving a poem in text form is the freedom afforded new generations’ readings of the poem. That said, how often do you hear someone perform any of these old poems out loud, let alone give them a new interpretation? You would be hard pressed to find a single year a Shakespeare play wasn’t performed in Australia. And yet what about readings of ground-breaking 20th century poetry and short fiction? (Cate and Andrew! Where is this? I ask you!)

It also surprises me that Auden’s view of poetry as ‘memorable speech’ is only really upheld by the spoken word crew. Perhaps, because so much writing happens as a silent communion between mind and computer, writers easily think of reading out loud as being nothing more than a marketing tool to promote a book or story. I wonder (and secretly hope), that with the huge surge of interest in podcasts such as the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, we might reach the point when writers will be commissioned to read their work as a form of publication in its own right.

I’m often amazed that capital W-writers who consider the importance of every word on the page, especially poets who are taught to consider line breaks, and the specific placement of words across the page, so often deliver long, monotonous, and ill-considered readings. Both readings and print publications are a means of disseminating work, and in some cases I would argue that writers might even reach more readers at a reading than if they were published in a journal or book that will live out its life yellowing on a shelf in storage at the National Library.

Before I get too vitriolic, however, I’m going to yank James Ellroy out of the wings to share his own slightly sleazy rubric for reading out loud, stolen from an interview in the 2009 Autumn edition of the Paris Review:

I semi-memorize the passage so that I can stand at the podium and share eye contact with the audience. I read shorter sections with as few differentiations in dialogue as possible. Never go long. Never try the audience’s patience. Never put in something too plot deep. Never hem, haw, pause, or do anything that isn’t dramatically effective. How many times have you seen people go for forty minutes, lose it routinely, wet the page, cough, fart, belch into the microphone, say “um,” and do everything short of take a shit on stage. It’s deadening.

I walk in and situate myself. I hunker down and read something outrageous. Something with race, class, dope, sex, insane language. I read a section about rug burns—that’s when you’re fucking on a rug and you scrape your knees. Do you want to hear some candy-ass artiste saying, Oooooh, I’m an artist, my characters do things that I didn’t intend? Or do you want to hear about rug burns and get some yucks?

I don’t read for more than fourteen minutes, tops. Then I answer questions for twenty minutes. Afterward, you don’t short-shrift anyone—you talk to everybody. You scope out the women. You have a gas. You’re happy, you’re grateful, you’re God’s guy.

Mild misogyny aside, Ellroy makes enough good points that this is an interview I often remember when I’m restless and fidgety at a reading night. “How many times have you seen people go for forty minutes, lose it routinely, wet the page, cough, fart, belch into the microphone, say “um,” and do everything short of take a shit on stage. It’s deadening.” Indeed it is. And it doesn’t have to be.

I’d like to end this blog post by calming down slightly, and assuring you it’s safe to come out of your homes and read. Please. Get out there, and work out your own rubric by reading out loud (but not for too long) and contributing to the great aural literary journal that is your city’s cafes, houses and bars at night. Reading events are not just for young hopefuls. They are chances to disseminate ideas in a place where the buzz happens live, and with wine. They are potentially a place for lively, considered readings of excellent work by established, as well as fledgling, writers. The only way we can make them better, is if we keep attending them, contributing to them, and thinking of our readings as forms of publication in their own right, without, somehow, taking them so seriously that we forget to let our audiences have fun.

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