Thursday, April 28, 2011

Preparing to Read

One thing my theoretical MFA (or anti-MFA) would definitely emphasize is performance. Not everyone wants to perform and not everyone needs to, but a) readings are a major part of modern literary culture, for better and for worse, and b) they can eventually be a decent source of cash for a fortunate few. Plus, c) I actually like them a lot when they go well.

This is on my mind because tomorrow night I will be reading to my department and maybe some other folks as well. Every graduating MFA at NMSU gives one official reading in his or her final year, and this is mine. The truth is that few people will likely remember it no matter how I do -- they have their own problems, desires, fixations -- but I care about getting these things right. If you're going to ask people to sit still and listen to you for twenty minutes, it's only right that you make an effort to prepare something worth watching.

One thing I've tried to do is think about the best readers I've seen. Probably the single most exciting reader I've ever watched is Abraham Smith, whose rhythm and ear are impeccable -- whose voice is terribly compelling. His poetry is clearly written with performance very much in mind, which is an advantage -- I write for a kind of sound, but my focus is the ghost of sound that words evoke when read silently, the manipulation of air in the body and around it. My sentences sound fine aloud, but they aren't, I think, native to it. 

Another good reader, and a model I've been thinking about a lot, is Michael Martone, whose stories are often very funny, or at least structured like jokes. This is something I'd like to think we share -- most people don't find most of my writing very funny, but I do crib structures from jokes in order to keep myself sharp and concise. When I saw Martone read, he had a percussive cadence and a slightly penetrating pitch of voice, sort of surprisingly aggressive given what a nice and gentle guy he is, that did wonders for the audience's attention span. He knows he's supposed to be entertaining you, and he believes he has written something entertaining, and he delivers his stories with appropriate conviction. Many writers seem to think humility requires them to mumble, to deliver their work as if it wasn't anything special. This is the height of self-absorption: you're already taking up your audience's time, you need to respect them and let them know you've done your best.

Another good reader I've known is Susan Neville, one of my fiction instructors at Butler University. I never saw Susan read her own work, but I always loved it when she read someone else's -- she read with a sort of perpetual sense of surprise and delight, at once precise in her delivery and genuinely having a good time. When I've seen Blake Butler read on YouTube a couple times, I've been surprised to see that he reminded me of her; a similar cadence, a similar sense of surprise at words he himself wrote. (I'm often surprised by my writing, too, so I always find this tendency charming, as if we are discovering the words together.)

I've also enjoyed the readings of my friends and bosses Carmen Giménez Smith and Evan Lavender-Smith. Carmen reads with a clarity and confidence I hope to emulate, and when Evan reads you can hear him thinking through the words again as he performs them, rehearsing not only the language itself but the thought process that led to its creation. And while I have not heard Tracy read often in formal settings, the tenderness and care with which she speaks has always inspired me.

One of my worst habits as a reader is a pretty rare one: I tend to speak too slowly. My theory is that once upon a time I read at a normal rate, because I was pretty serious about acting as a kid and so grew comfortable with the needs of listeners. Then someone (several someones) told me that everyone reads too  quickly, that I would think I was reading at a reasonable pace and actually need to slow down. So I should just read slowly. I listened to them. And this is generally good advice -- most fiction writers tend to turn their own words to mush, they chew through them so quickly. But it was bad advice for me. Combined with my tendency to speak softly in the presence of microphones and my naturally deep voice, the effect can be sleepy and mushy.

I also enunciate a little too much, perhaps, give too much emphasis, pause for too long, as if I am afraid people won't understand. (The truth of fiction readings, as I have experienced them, is that no one ever really understands anyway, although this owes partly to how massively boring they tend to be.)

I've been working for two weeks on my performance, rehearsing it into my computer microphone several times over. I know the phrases that tend to trip me up, and I know where I should let loose a little. I know where to go loud.

The last time I rehearsed I stood up for the first time, and of course this made a massive difference to my breathing, delivery, and pace; of course I would be standing anyway for the final performance, but after that experience I'll never read on my ass again. I also started, to my surprise, doing a fair amount of gesturing as I read. I even -- and I never thought this was going to be possible for me -- started looking up from the page pretty frequently at my imagined audience as I read. I had a little trouble finding my place again once, but all in all it was pretty smooth.

So I guess I feel pretty good about tomorrow, all told, but you can see I'm definitely being maybe a little obsessive about it. Honestly, though, I wish more people were.

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