On Literary Readings and Community

The number of “Best of 2011” lists is pretty daunting. Not only does ever major media outlet have a “Best of 2011” list, some even have a “Worst of 2011.” There are lists for Most Overlooked and Underrated and Overrated and probably several others that my brain is unable to process at the moment. Often the effect of these lists is to remind me that there were many terrific books this past year that I did not read and, perhaps even worse, never heard of in the first place.

While I missed many books this year, I went to a ton of author readings. Last semester alone, I attended about seven events at the University of Missouri (new PhD student readings and visiting writers), probably three more at Orr Street Studios, and another, oh, let’s call it five at Get Lost Bookstore in Columbia. Over the last five months, I probably went to an average of a reading per week. If I sit and think about it for a while, there are also all the readings from this past summer and this past spring, which would then include readings I went to in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., where the AWP Conference was in February.

Believe me, all semester long, I bitched and moaned about going to readings. We all did. Hey, people like to complain. There was definitely a time this semester when I looked at my calendar, and there was something like seven readings in ten days. I tried to make all of them, too. But why? Why did I want to go to all these things? Especially when, as you probably can guess from this, more than once, I had the sinking feeling I didn’t want to go at all.

But readings aren’t just about me. They are about my literary community, my arts community, and even when I’m cranky, it was always the right decision to get myself in gear and attend.

Readings are, in many ways, just like editing a magazine journal. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, editing is a we, and one can get somewhat tired of an I. She was talking, of course, about the difference between being an editor and being a writer, and why being a magazine editor is an attractive vocation. But the same idea – being involved and being for other people rather than just yourself – applies to readings.

Writers, when writing, spend their time alone. The solitude is essential for deep thinking and the process of creation. Loneliness, of course, goes hand-in-hand with this quiet, and after spending years working on something – poems, a novel, stories – getting in front of an audience of people and sharing that work can be a welcome shift.

It can also be a disaster. Many of us, I’m sure, have been to readings that were … well, lackluster. We’ve also been to readings where people are trying a wee bit too hard to be “entertaining.” There are plenty of these stories. This makes the readings that are really and truly an amazing experience. For me, hearing Edward P. Jones read his work is still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard.

Readings are the chance for writers to be outgoing, extroverted, friendly, celebratory. Listeners, often writers and avid readers too, are warm and gregarious. Alcohol is (hopefully) involved. We gossip. Laugh. Shake hands. We crave remarks and thoughts about the work, discover what other people are working on, what we’re reading: we want to know who and what is being read not just published. We’re eager to talk.

Here in Columbia, there are three regular spots for readings: any event our English Department holds, the Hearing Voices series at Orr Street Studios, and at Get Lost Bookshop down on Ninth Street. I attend as many as I can, and hope that wherever you’re reading this from, you’re doing the same in your part of the world.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye


Poet Marc McKee, on driving through Missouri like a horse in a desert

Above: Marc McKee performs his poem “Columbia 77”  at Get Lost Bookshop in downtown Columbia, October 10 2011

Today we’re proud to feature the poet Marc McKee, whose first full length collection Fuse has just been released by Black Lawrence Press. McKee received his MFA from the University of Houston and his PhD from the University of Missouri here in Columbia, where he currently ives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. He is the author of What Apocalypse? (2008) and he celebrated the release of Fuse this past weekend at the Columbia Art League with the poet Melissa Range.

Before he moved to Missouri:

I’m originally from East Texas. Grew up in a small town named Big Sandy about 100 miles east of Dallas. When I was 17, my parents moved us to Indiana. I went to college there — IU in Bloomington — then did my Masters at the University of Houston. My girlfriend asked me where I’d want to go if we wanted to move away, and I said the thing I’d most like to do was to go back to school and get a Ph.D. The only place I applied was here, where two of my friends – Nicky Beer and Jason Koo – had gone. We began our tenure in Missouri in the fall of 2006, about two months after we got married.

On settling into Columbia, and the nature of a college town:

I had never been here. I think the most time I’d spent in Missouri – I’d been to St. Louis before on a family vacation, and we’d seen the arch. And we’d gone to the amusement park. And I think that was it, except crossing state lines. So I didn’t have a lot of expectations. But I’ve found Columbia a fantastic place to be. It evokes strong memories of Bloomington – but while Bloomington is more developed and more obviously a blue hub in a red state, Columbia’s not as fierce as that.

But when I was first in Bloomington, I didn’t know the town, the gives and niches it had. I was part of a very specific university experience. I think a lot of kids probably have that same experience with MU. They come to a college town, they live in dorms or on the other side of town, so they’ll radiate between their house, the classes they go to, and the library. And then maybe, maybe, on Friday and Saturday, they’ll venture out to, like, Harpo’s [a local sports bar]. Sometimes in the spring, I’ll mention to my students the True/False Film Festival and ask if anyone’s interested. Not many of them know what that is, or have any plans to go to it.

But having crossed over from student to teacher, things like that have given me a sense of how much these towns have to offer. There are places you can go see music, and you don’t even know about them. And until you start venturing out, you don’t even know how arts culture works, especially in very small ways. I think that’s becoming increasingly vital. There are local bands like Believers that are amazing and play these shows you would never hear otherwise. I was introduced to this kind of culture in Bloomington, and it makes sense here – there are little hubs of grad students or people who are connected with the arts, where they mix with young people.

I don’t think Columbia is quite Bloomington status yet. The journalism school is great and that still kind of eclipses some things. And I think True / False is really big, and I think it’s going to get bigger. I think the Creative Writing program is stellar here, too. I don’t know how long it would take for Columbia to achieve a kind of indie-destination style like Bloomington, Austin or Madison. But I think the town is growing in that direction.

On the inspiration behind “Columbia 77”

Last year I was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Central Missouri, about 90 miles from Columbia in Warrensburg if you’re going toward Kansas City. It’s a smaller town; the university there is about 11,000 students. It was an opportunity to see a lot more Missouri countryside — I mean, I actually had to get off the interstate to get there. And this poem was the first in a series I wrote about my long weekend commute to and from Warrensburg.

It was really the only space that I had to kind of let my mind go and actually focus on writing poems, and it became a traveling office through the Missouri countryside. I would see these fields, tall with corn when I started my commute, and by the time I was done making that commute the fields had been cut down to corn stubble. And that’s an image I use later in the series. But the very first thing I’d see as I hit the interstate was a sign for Columbia – 77 miles away. I started with that idea, and any of the images I’d soak up, any of the dramas from the week of working with freshmen who were scared or nervous, trying to make a good impression, those would inevitably filter in. The first poem I wrote in that series ended up being a kind of “What do I tell them?” poem that’s tracking the concerns of the day and trying to find a way to be at peace with the limitations of being a teacher. And those concerns are kind of lifting out as I’m driving. And as soon as I get to that space, and we’re on the other side, it starts being about my eagerness to get home to be with my wife. The energy shifts, it starts getting looser with the moments I’ve transported from Warrensburg.