Jun 27

Gigs, a.k.a. Literary Readings

To get literary "gigs" -- invitations to read one's work to an audience -- you circulate, belong to clubs and groups, know people, pass on the names of underappreciated writers, and stay active on the local literary scene, whether publishing, editing, teaching, or being in the audience. I'm preparing for three gigs: November 14 (poetry), Regional Arts Commission, across from the Pageant Theater, 7 p.m.; November 19, UMSL (prose); then another on December 13, Black Bear Bakery, 2 p.m.

I love gigs because I write to communicate, and they give me a chance to air favorite works that for whatever reason aren't published: because they're new; because they're risky or offbeat; because I haven't a clue as to who'd publish them. A poet is a one-man band -- has to hold the audience as Aerosmith or an opera singer would hold it, without any of the instruments, props, amps or roadies. Just a voice and words on paper. This is one of the greatest challenges anyone could ever face. And one of the most rewarding to ace, whether you get money or not (mostly not). I strive to give a polished performance that offers a few twists and shocks.

You'll see and hear what I mean.
Feb 10

The First Writer I Ever Saw:

norman_mailer_1988 Mine was Norman Mailer, fall or winter of 1972. My then-boyfriend, a freshman at the local college, knew I liked writing, so he took me to see a famous writer. Ignorant as eggs we sitting on bleachers in the gym looking at the first published writer I ever saw. I remember his tightly curled (like sheep's wool) hair. He talked at length about "existentialism," very big then.

Mailer denounced "Women's Lib," and a woman in the audience stood up and said, "Women's Lib isn't ____[forgot what she said]; it is a FACT." And Mailer replied, "Your ass is not a fact." Nobody laughed but nobody left. The probable origin of this then-very-daring/discomfiting exchange: In 1971 Mailer had published The Prisoner of Sex, a book tearing apart feminist intellectuals such as Kate Millett, whose world-changing Sexual Politics (1970) tore apart some work of Mailer's. I would not read Sexual Politics until 1975 (receiving it as a Christmas gift from another boyfriend). And that's all I recall. I don't remember that Mailer's books were sold there or that Mailer read from his books. This was when writers commonly toured. (What writer now would be booked by his publisher on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, so named because calling it UW-Kenosha would make people laff?) But I don't think that at that time writers toured only to read excerpts from their books. If somebody can recall, set me straight on this. It could have been that people sought writers' views on things in general, because writers, or artists in general, were equated with thinkers.

Later. when I read some Mailer, given all I knew of him, I judged him as an excellent stylist with a gift for turning a phrase. I believe he was not as much a thinker as a "doer," which, for all who are doers, carries with it the risk of making an ass of yourself.

[Photo of Norman Mailer, 1988, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.]
Feb 10

When Three People Show Up...

Wednesday night when it was 9 degrees outside I and two other audience members got to question the heck out of Bobbi Smith, author of 54 books with over 5 million copies sold. Her story about the best writing advice she ever got: She wrote her labor-of-love first novel in her basement and writing it had been so much fun it made her truly sad to come to the end. At work (at a bookstore) she was shelving psychology books while crying about this. Her boss asked her what was wrong. Bobbi told her. The boss said, ""Write another one, stupid!"

Wearing her trademark rhinestone pin saying "Bobbi," Smith sat with us, read us some early efforts and told us she writes Westerns because NYC says no romance fan wants to read about the Midwest, or even any Western state except Arizona or Texas. Wyoming does not cut it. We talked about digital, about vampire books, about agents. I don't think I've ever been so close to someone so creative as to invent 54 full-length novels, even if they're not the lit'ry kind I read (exclusively, mind you!). She said a romance-writers convention had once held a Hunk Contest, and the winner got to be on the cover of a romance novel, and it happened to be Bobbi's, and she did her book tour with him, drawing tons of fans smitten not with the novel but with the Hunk.

Above all, she said, "You have no control." Luck. Publishers' and agents' whims. Audience whims. Cultural and technological shifts. Her new book is digital only, and not by her choice; by her publisher's.

If you have ever sought an audience, doubtless the little-to-no audience has happened to you. I have seen a poet at a bookstore bravely reading to empty chairs. Once I read poems in a restaurant on a night raining cats & dogs. There were no diners. The audience: a friend from work and a man who had a crush on me (note: I later married this guy). I have given "workshops" on the topic of, say, writing tone and style, and had two people show up. I have taught classes of two (who stuck with me after others dropped out). Each time I doggedly went through with it. Slightly sick at heart, but it was my own expectations that did that. This happens at last to everyone. But show up and do your job (or your show). We can control only what we do; we can't control results.