IN THE DAYS BEFORE PODCASTS and YouTube usurped that ever-primal need to go out amongst each other and snap our fingers while poets offered spindly couplets about erotic breakfasts, readings sold books. In the many years since the dawn of video games, public readings have become almost fictive events where dazed literature addicts scratch at their arms, desperately seeking wordsmiths.
A reading occurs at a much lower decibel than video games, arena rock and The Hunger Games, despite offering a higher volubility. Ozzy screamed “alright now,” in just about every Black Sabbath jam known to man. The writer James Greer offered elephants buried up to their trunks in sand as a harbinger of our future. xTx read an ode to bulimia. I danced to Madonna (yes, you read that right.)
So, as a group of keyboard isolationists gathered to battle to the death, each prepared to assault the stage as the house lights went black. A low rhumba burned in the loudspeakers until at last a shadow flickered on the velvet-flocked stage and the crowd went supernova. Tube tops crept lower, fists pummeled skyward. Let there be rock!
Ok, it didn’t quite unfold like that. This was no arena show stocked with salmon-like youth streaming upriver to the endless weekend of teenage. Instead, a group of middle aged folks came down to the lovely Stories Bookstore and Café in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood to root on their friends and family and to drink up the genius. Whether or not they were charmed by the cheap swill, the hundred or so people gathered at Stories represented the natural leather fringe around Hollywood’s PVC thong.
It was 7:30 when an attractive woman in a one-piece zip-up cat suit approached the microphone. This was Antonia Crane, the night’s emcee. Delicate needle-worked tattoos inched up and down her arms. She quietly instructed everyone to let go of the sad events back in Boston for the length of the evening’s performance with such grace, all readily agreed. Then she introduced a very, very, very fine writer to the crowd. And that, dear reader, was none other than myself.
Right from the intro, I had them. For inspiration I’d mixed equal parts Andy Kaufman, Diamond David Lee Roth and Gertrude Stein. Already I’d ably infiltrated a reading celebrating the very website you’re now reading—a website for which I’d previously been unaffiliated. Five minutes was the allotted time for each reading. I would come in just under three, hoping my qualitative thud would trump the quantitative mist of the others. Truth be told, I’m not great with numbers.
I pumped my fists. I flicked my proverbial Bic. “Think of me as your favorite teacher,” I urged the crowd as I handed them a printout of my poem. “Hold your applause until after the Q&A,” I said. After reading my eight line piece, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” chirped out of a boom box planted with an organizer in the crowd and I high kicked my way off stage, as Madge cooed her infamous line, “touched for the very first time.” Who would want to go on after that? Who could?
Turns out, the seven other readers. Lucky, too, for the torchlight was not happening. Instead we came together beneath strands of egg-like light bulbs.
The bright sky dimmed as I left the stage and random hands fetched canned swill from ice buckets. Then, novelist/screenwriter/musician James Greer stepped to the microphone and denuded the night from its hesitant irony. Greer’s short piece started off about elephants and ended with a comment about humanity’s lack of peripheral emotion. Having staved off any kind of profundity with the first act (me and Madonna) Greer switched the tone of the evening. “The elephants make you wonder where before you didn’t wonder,” he said, providing bubbles as well as the needle to burst them with.
Crane introduced the next reader, the writer xTx, announcing there would be no photographs of xTx of allowed. At the microphone xTx exuded comfortable conviction that would decry any need for secrecy. I’m not saying she was hypnotic, but when she started off her second piece, Today I Am a Bulemic, with a list of the things she could swallow, I watched the crowd lock into step with her. “It is unbelievable how much I can swallow,” she said, quickly launching us into her body by any means, by all means. “ I have three nipples,” she casually admitted at one point. While the statement offered comedic relief it also highlighted the figurative shroud under which she prefers to perform. Always keep them guessing but more importantly, always keep them slightly confused by their need to continue guessing.
If you go look up at the masthead for this here webzine, you’ll see Sean Beadoin’s up there at the tip top. He’s one of the head Weeklings. As he took the stage, a couple of stragglers dipped their fingers into the ice buckets for more cans of swill. One popped a top open just as Beaudoin began his Twelve Pointless Observations in Five Blazing Minutes.
There can be no doubt Beaudoin exuded the supreme confidence available only to those who have signed boxfuls of books in a Sea-Tac airport bookstore, which he did early in the day. “Evolution is a constancy, not a finishing line,” he advised. By number twelve, as he expounded on the harsh adjustment of a teenaged homeless shelter volunteer attempting to offer bottom dwelling crack heads some kind of verbal relief, even the swill drinking dawdlers readied for applause.
Next, Los Angeleno Gabe Dunham read from his upcoming novel in shorts, Fun Camp. The title definitely implied a host of teen movies set at summer camp, and true, the selections he read inoculated the crowd with a dose of adolescence. While his words danced around teenage like it was a maypole, at the core of what he read was a dash of Rumi and this philosophical node allowed Dunham to leave Holden Caulfield out in the fields of his strained juvenilia while Dunham portrayed a more universally identifiable youth. “Cool and Creamy,” he half-chanted to the crowd, “do you like it in your face?”
John Tottenham is Los Angeles’s novelty curmudgeon. Crack open the pages of either of his two books of poetry and it’s fast apparent there’s more to him than cranky admonitions. Put him on a stage, his performance utilizes a different rendering of that same fat. Tottenham’s lurid dedication to the dramatic pause is as important as his anti-marriage odes. “At last, “ he said, the mic crammed almost into his throat, “ their smugness is united.” After another significant pause, Tottenham drove deeper into his absurd jeremiads. At one point a group of women and men at the front readied to remove their clothes and shower him with their nude affections, but Tottenham dismissed them with a scornful wave of his hand obviously gleaned from repeated viewings of the 1988 Christian Slater/Winona Ryder vehicle, Heathers.
Artist Megan Whitmarsh claimed nervousness. Then, she offered handouts. One to look at, a few others for those assembled to draw upon, creating more images based on her own original. Sort of a visual take on the game of telephone, where one person whispers something in someone else’s ear, and so on down a line. The end result differs greatly from the beginning. Whitmarsh’s initial drawing of a termite became a dog in the end. So went her genius, mutated and loping elegantly through the audience, letting them in on the joke while citing diverse sources as painter Phillip Guston, Playwright/Egomaniac Julie Taymor, art critic Manny Farber, and visual artist Christian Marclay, uniting them with disarming clarity- from termite to white elephant in five minutes and thirty-one seconds. At the end of the night Whitmarsh looked me in the eye and said, “I’m the real teacher.”
The night drew a close as the last reader, Duke Haney, acknowledged his disregard for the imposed parameters right off the bat. Rather than present his piece, culled from his book Banned for Life, as a story, a poem, or a lecture, Haney took on the role of storytelling pal. He acted out each character, and voiced each line with the care barroom storytellers rot their livers trying to achieve. Haney’s list of accomplishments is fun to list, too. Crane, emceeing her heels across the dance floor of the audience’s mind did just that. But no one paid any attention to Haney’s other credits because the credit Crane led with is a perennial doozy of a credit. Haney is, after all, the writer of Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood. I’d say more but both cameras recording his performance ran out before he ended, before the evening broke up autographs and massive book sales that enabled three of the performers to retire their act then and there, before the impromptu mud wrestling pit was set alight and the night came to a fiery close. None of that was captured for posterity. Probably for the best.