Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Word Circus

In Pittsburgh on February 18, 2012 at 9:29 pm

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


This entry ends happily. But first, some bellyaching.

The Gist

Last night, I attended the Word Circus reading at Most Wanted Fine Art. The basic idea is that Word Circus is a free monthly event that showcases Chatham MFA students. I am beholden to Word Circus, because I helped create it, along with fellow MFAer Sarah Leavens and gallery owner Jason Sauer. We wanted to host something free, open, hospitable, and, above all, fun to attend.

I finished my program last May. I no longer emcee Word Circus. And the reading was scheduled for a Friday night. Not ideal circumstances.

Plus, I’ve been going through a minor crisis lately. Minor, but a crisis nonetheless. The last thing I wanted to do was relive grad school memories when I could be watching “Downton Abbey” with my cats.

Yes, PBS with cats. This is what winter does to me.

A Controversial Note About Readings

As a card-carrying member of the Pittsburgh literati, I’ve started to dread “readings.” The more I attend, the more frustrated I become. Writers can be a cliquey bunch, poets in particular. Granted, I say this as a part-time thespian—I know there is no pastime more socially unforgiving than theatre. But writers can be an awkward, hang-wringing bunch, and their secret alliances and backstabbing insults can seem particularly passive-aggressive.

Mischief aside, there is something particularly miserable about a bad poetry reading.

To start, most people attend because they feel they have to. They are obligated, by friendship or by class assignment, to show up at some auditorium and listen to writers read aloud. As a rule, Americans don’t read much, and they’re fatally allergic to poetry. Writers know this, and they respond in one of two (inadvisable) ways: They clam up and get embarrassed, or they get arrogant and hostile.

A bad reading is fairly predictable: (1) The microphone doesn’t work, and nobody knows how to fix it. (2) The emcee does not introduce him/herself. (3) The emcee mumbles, makes inside-jokes that nobody understands, says “Umm” very loudly to make up for a derailed thought, goes off on some personal tangent that nobody cares about, and generally “wings it” as if the audience isn’t there. (4) The writers arrive at the microphone and tell some longwinded, unrehearsed anecdote about a mentor or ex or extremely controversial political agenda, alienating anyone they don’t personally know. (5) The writer reads in that “poet voice”: They READ… as IF… the LAST… syllaBLES… are THE… most imPORTant… PART… in the SENTence… and ALways… END… in a question MARK? (6) At the intermission, most people knock back a cup of cheap wine and leave. (7) For the open mic, each writer gets up and stumbles through a long and hackneyed introduction, mostly apologizing for how terrible their poem is going to be, because they “don’t think it’s very good.” They make statements like, “Don’t worry, it’s short,” or “You can hate it if you want to,” statements that make me want to break the face of whoever made these people hate themselves so much. (8) Everyone sits there, bored and exhausted, wishing that the whole experience would end. Some assholes start whispering and passing notes, or even (I’ve seen this a lot) holding conversations in the back in a normal tone of voice, as if no one else is in the room. (9) Everything abruptly ends. The emcee says, “Okay, that’s it.” (10) Just as everyone has grabbed their coats and headed for the door, desperate for fresh air, the emcee runs to the microphone (which is already turned off), and adds, “Oh, and SIGN OUR MAILING LIST!”

A Controversial Note About “Supporting the Arts”

What makes matters worse is that people feel obligated to “support the arts.” Don’t get me wrong: People should support the arts. They should donate to Public Radio, they should attend gallery crawls, and they should read local literature. This should be obvious to anyone. But artists should also make it worth their while. If gold-hearted patrons show up to 10 lousy readings, and they grudgingly smile through one mumbled, self-involved poem after another, they will think that lousy readings are normal.

Artists need to earn their place. They must engage. They must make these people grateful that they took the time to come out. I live for the phrase: “Wow, that was actually really fun.” They say this with surprise. “I’m actually going to recommend this friends.”

The “actually” says it all. Like they can’t believe they’d recommend art to friends. For fun.

Makes me giddy all over.

A Minor Crisis

As a professional writer of many years, and now an MFA-holding professional writer, I’ve been grumbling about whether anyone even reads anything I write, or anything anyone writes. I’ve been spending time with more filmmakers and musicians lately, and it’s astounding how popular these media are by comparison. I’m not saying it’s easy to be a musician or filmmaker; all arts are tough. I’m just saying that, if the TV is turned on in a sports bar, half the people are passively watching it. Even if these people are drunk or in the middle of conversation, and the TV’s are playing an old episode of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” and there’s no sound or even captions, people will still watch the moving images. In contrast, most people will buy a book only if they’re in an airport and their iPhone fell in a toilet.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am exceedingly grateful. I love being a writer, and I take great pride in my work, and if I’m in the doldrums, it’s largely seasonal. Pittsburgh winters are positively awful; a Steel City February is kind of like Siberia, without all of the adorable sables or Dr. Zhivago or leaping horsemen or even occasional sunlight.

But writing continues to be a tough business. My novel has been read and rejected by five agents, as of last December. I recently arranged a reading at Awesome Books, a wonderful local bookstore, and of the 25 people who said they would come, and the 40 people who “maybe” would come, a total of 10 people actually showed up, all of them very close friends. The irony is surreal: As an amateur photographer and videographer with remedial equipment and experience, I have been receiving interesting offers left and right; as a writer with several books and numerous awards, I’ve been getting the same assignments from the same publications for a while, or else my queries are rejected or ignored. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

This was the kicker: I queried Bicycle Times with an offer to contribute. Usually a writer submits a specific idea, but I wanted to introduce myself and start a conversation about future assignments. After all, I have written about cycling, travel, solo sports and the environment for over 10 years. I have produced video and shot photo essays on these topics. And Bicycle Times is headquartered in Pittsburgh, like seven miles from my front door.

No response. Not even an automated response. Not even a rejection. Nada. It was like I hadn’t even written them. This is a company that actively seeks freelancers. I really, really want to write for them. The marriage of skills and interests is absolutely perfect. Still, only silence.


So I went to Word Circus.

And it was awesome.

There is nothing in life so sweet as (a) expecting the worst and (b) finding the best. Lorena “Lo” Williams, the new emcee, was full of vim and good humor. She had nice things to say about all her readers, but she didn’t waste any time. Meanwhile, filmmaking students at Chatham had the chance to show their short documentaries; each film was beautifully shot and covered an interesting topic, from an Iraqi-veteran-become-firefighter to a couple of competitive pinball players. I am friends with every reader, and I have never heard them read so well, nor present such excellent work.

A fold-out table was pregnant with snacks, and each reader was introduced by a favorite Eighties song (well, that was the idea, but there were some technical issues). At intermission, buskers in elaborate outfits wove through the crowd.

And, might I add, the place was packed.

At times like this, I feel like George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life—full of life and warmth and happiness, suddenly bashful about his doubts. Yes, most readings suck. Yes, the writing biz is brutal. But at Word Circus, everything was going right. And although I hadn’t invented Word Circus on my own (even the name was coined by my friend Sarah Grubb), I felt a proprietary pride. Indeed, I felt rejuvenated. People actually cheered when the readers finished. They stood up and whistled, clapping their palms raw. The reading lasted nearly three hours, but nobody seemed to mind. And incredibly, most people stayed until the end.

I had been asked to take pictures, and I gladly did so. It was nice to use one art-form to celebrate another—what’s more, to use my secondary passion to celebrate my primary. Whatever happens this year, I thought, I hope to keep encouraging my colleagues’ work. One night of Word Circus added a little fuel to the fire. In a discontented winter, such fires burn twice as warmly.