On The Fine Art of Reading; Or, Bumping the Microphone

By Michael Nye

Last week, I was invited down to Missouri State University by my friend Mike Czyzniewjewski to visit with his graduate and undergraduate students for the day. Between his classes and his colleague, writer Jen Murvin, I visited three creative writing classes to talk about writing and publishing. There was also a well-attended late afternoon Q&A, dinner with graduate students, and finally, a reading at 7 pm, for which I was only ten minutes late.

The reading was held in the Robert W. Plaster Student Union Theatre, a gorgeous and gigantic room with rows of seats that rose high above where I was, down far below, in front of a podium, off to the left of an otherwise empty stage. High above, there was a set of glass windows where the electronics for the room were controlled, and directly next to it was a clock, with the time displayed in sharp red LED light that I could see with just a glance up from my pages.

The microphone stem was flexible, so I adjusted it closer so I could mostly keep my eyes down, but look up on occasion for emphasis. More than once, I inadvertently did this on “P” sounds but I don’t think it was awful. Also, I had the microphone a bit too close to my face, so I nudged it with my nose more than once, which made no news but which I definitely felt. Perhaps no listener noticed. I had water, which I only sipped from once, and read for a little under thirty minutes, just enough time to read the first chapter of my recently completed novel.

(and, no, do not ask about my novel…)

To my knowledge, never before have I repeatedly bumped a microphone with my nose. Most of the readings that I’ve given were performed with my teacher voice, a learned ability to project loud (enough) into a good-sized room so that everyone can hear just fine. There were one or two words I stumbled upon, which is normal for me too, but I think all and all it went well. Or at least, people said so afterwards. Not that anyone comes up to you after a reading and says “You were terrible!” but you know what I mean.

Reading in front of a crowd can be a nerve-wracking experience; to this day, despite giving probably two dozen readings, I’m always nervous beforehand, a feeling of dread that what I’m about to read will embarrass me and bore the audience. Yet, giving a reading is nice. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I hate reading but I like having read.

I’ve long believe that reading your work aloud is the only way to know if it is finished, if it is any good at all. I read scenes aloud, then rework them; I read the whole story, then rework it from there too. It’s a bit stunning what tics I rediscover about my own writing, just from using my voice. No matter that I’ve been writing for years: I still find repetitive phrases, unnecessary verbiage, my own quirks and “tricks” that I use time and time again, clunky transitions, phrases that twist my tongue (“rusted wheel wells” was one, at the end of a complex-compound sentence, and I could not say that for the life of me), and other errors of logic, syntax, and grammar.

It’s a little weird to read your work aloud. But I’m getting used to it. Obviously, if you write in a cafe, you should get used to reading at home. I’d rather not read to nobody, so I read to my dog, who usually just wags her tail and then chews her paw and stares at me expectantly.

(obligatory photo of my puppy? yes!)


Reading in public is a skill. It’s a performance in a similar way that great teaching is a performance; just knowing the material is not enough to keep your students engaged. When reading, it’s a matter of how and what and when you emphasis just the right thing to keep people listening. There’s nothing wrong with bumping your nose on the microphone. Perhaps it’s just part of showing the audience that you are, in fact, an imperfect person, just like the people you write about in your stories.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Lend Me Your Ears (And Drink Up Those Beers)

By Michael Nye

Two weekends ago was our Editors’ Prize weekend, and my class had the opportunity to listen to three writers read their work in front of a crowd of eighty (or so) people, all of whom had wine and beer and plates of food. It was a Saturday night, and the Country Club of Missouri had two other events: prom and a wedding. There were stretch limos (maybe even a stretch Hummer) in the parking lot and lots of people dressed to the nines. While none of us who went to the Editors’ Prize reception crashed the wedding—as far as I know, anyway—it lead to a couple of good jokes about our Saturday night plans.

So, in class last week, we started by talking specifically about the Editors’ Prize reading, and then other readings that we’ve attended over the years (or, just the semester). The University of Missouri hosted Karen Russell and Colson Whitehead, and those two readings were quite different. Yellow Dog Bookshop is the home for The Next Weather reading series, curated by poet Marc McKee, and usually features graduate students. There is also the Hearing Voices/Seeing Visions series at Orr Street Studios. And, many of the students have been to other readings, at say AWP or (for my graduate students) in their various MFA programs or cities other than Columbia.

When I lived in St. Louis, I worked for River Styx, a literary magazine that hosts a reading on Monday nights. For years, the reading was at Duff’s Restaurant in the Central West End; now, the reading is at a new venue, the Tavern of Fine Arts (also in CWE). This reading series has been established for a long term, but having history isn’t enough to make a reading series successful, and five years of watching Richard Newman make it work taught me quite a bit about what takes place behind the scenes to make a reading great.

I’ve been on all sides of it—reader, host, audience—and after a decade of going to readings, from the small to the big, new writers to established bigwigs, I’ve seen what makes readings work and what makes them a dog. Here are things to keep in mind for organizers, readers, and listeners:

The Venue Matters. A bookstore? A bar? An art gallery? All of these things make a difference by setting the audience’s expectations. A bar crowd might be a bit rowdier than an art gallery crowd. Perhaps not. You never know.

Russell and Whitehead were both guests of MU, but they were held in two very different venues. Russell was in a large lecture hall in the English building that was renovated a very years ago; people that have been here longer than me remember when it was a beautiful library. Now? Taupe. No decorations. No podium for the reader, just a flat computer desk. Bad acoustics. Pretty tricky to make work (though it helps that Karen Russell was reading to an absolutely packed house).

Whitehead was in a different venue, an alumni center that hosts multiple events at one time. The wall behind Whitehead was also the wall for the hallway where the caterers, racing from room to room for various events, could be heard zipping around. With so many events going on, there was a tendency to hear other voices, periodically, or applause, or silverware clattering. Like Russell, Whitehead was a pro, and the audience was captivated, so it didn’t do much harm. Just one of those things that people notice.

Want all the (appropriate) attention on the reader? Keep in mind all those peripheral events and noises, especially the ones that can’t be controlled.

Alcohol = Good. Does this need explanation? Look: it can be box wine. It does not have to be good. Social lubrication is helpful at literary events. As the great Homer Simpson once said: “Alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”

Books For Sale! There’s a saying in small press circles that there is a difference between printing your book and publishing your book. Note: the latter is preferred. Sure, often books are for sale at readings. But having the author carry books in a messenger bag and mumble something about it at the beginning of the reading isn’t really “selling books.” Good readings have a table setup, preferably near the entrance, with prices clearly marked and someone who takes cash (or Square payments) and can speak with enthusiasm and insight into the books. River Styx is excellent at this, something I didn’t truly appreciate until after I left. Especially for small press authors, ones that are travelling on their own dime, this is one of the ways to cover expenses.

Funny = Good. While there is always space for a dark, brooding, complex reading, for the most part, people love to laugh. And, it seems, good humor is hard to write, so hearing it is especially terrific. Ever notice that movies are much funnier when you watch it in a theater rather than at home? Laughter is contagious. When picking a piece to read, something “lighter” is always a good call. The audience will recognize the skill while also appreciate the humor.

Airplane Mode. Hey, Audience! Phones off. You aren’t missing anything within the next hour. Phones trilling during a reading are the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard.

Watch Your Time. The host, curator, organizer, or whatever this person is titled, should tell the reader(s) how much time she/he has to read the work. This is important! Equally important is that the reader complies. Decide how long you want someone to read; if you have a solo act, okay, thirty minutes, perhaps a bit more if the reader is, you know, Margaret Atwood. But if there are two or more readers? Shorter is always better.

Everyone has been to a reading where there are four or more readers, and one clown decides to go ahead and read, I dunno, his entire oeuvre and endlessly rattle until the entire audience is asleep or angry (or angrily asleep). This is brutal and should be punishable by death. Don’t be a clown!

The Hostess with Mostest. A good host primes the audience. The host sets the tenor for the night. The host says thank you. The host tells you to buy books so the author doesn’t like a bad salesperson. The host lets you know what to expect. The host closes the night, reminds you to buy a book, have a drink, say hello, all while focusing the attention on the readers. The host has charm. The host navigates the treacherous and makes it look effortless (yes, I “borrowed” that rhyme).

In the End, It Comes Down to the Reader. A fabulous reader makes any and all sins forgivable. Of course, if you’ve never heard the author read from her/his work before, you won’t really know until thirty seconds into the reading. Everyone is there for the reader, and if the reader delivers, nothing else really matters.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Public Readings and Fractured Voice in New Media

My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured.  At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera.  When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal.  I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal.  Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers.  This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur.  These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.

However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings.  These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses.  First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few.  Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series.  And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events.  This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words.  At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way.  You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.

Supposedly depicting Dickens’s last public reading

Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature.  Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”.  However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates.  When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”.  Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”.  In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet.  This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.

What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature.  I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.

This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature.  The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more.  Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.”  In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all.  Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else.  In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself.  These go beyond words: they are more than words.  That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.

Representative New Media users, engaged

In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity.  Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way.  Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird.  Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)?  Both?  But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter?  Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”

Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity.   “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.

New Media looms at a public reading. Threateningly?

Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings.  A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking.  It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it.  However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental.  Nor are live readings.  Likewise, some other “true” may emerge.  Live reading culture could wane.  If this happens, what will be lost?


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


Hammering Makes The World

The poet Dean Young, ready to drop knowledge and drink ice water.

This past Friday, my friend Marc McKee organized a benefit at Orr Street Studios here in downtown Columbia in order to raise money for Dean Young. In case you haven’t heard the good news, Dean received a transplant last week, and thus far, all news has been good about his body accepting the new ticker. More news on his progress is here. All of us feel tremendous relief at this news. Despite the circumstances, the benefit was more of a celebration, a social event that honors both Dean’s spirit by being as lively, funny, encouraging and deeply benevolent as the man is,  as well as his poetry’s zany and antic cartwheels in the service of art and beauty.

However …

The good fight isn’t over. Surgery is expensive. Heart surgery is really expensive. And this isn’t the time or place for political discourse, but health insurance is only going to get Dean so far. We need your help. Marc, knowing this, asked for a little help. Gabe Fried, a terrific poet himself, helped Marc round up poets to give their time and energy; and Allison Smythe was instrumental in securing the space at Orr Street Studios on such short notice. The three of them put on a terrific and fun benefit last week in the hope of raising whatever amount they could to help with the medical costs. Dean’s friend Joe DiPrisco has been the mastermind behind several national events that have been created in order to help out. Here‘s where you can get the good word.  Joe wrote:

Dean’s expenses will be sky high and relentless for as long as he lives–which is going to be a long time if we can help it. Yes, he has “good” insurance, but insurance does not pay for everything, and we estimate his out-of-pocket expenses to be in the area of $50,000 to $100,000 a year—going forward for many years to come.

At the benefit, Marc let us know that over $170,000 has been raised by nearly a thousand contributors thus far. Eight poets affiliated with the University of Missouri, Stephens College, and the local arts community came together to celebrate Dean’s work; each poet read at least one (often two of Dean’s poems) as well as one of their own. The readers included Marc, Gabe, and Allison, as well as poets were Katy Didden, Jessica Starr, Melissa Range, Austin Segrest, and Sara Strong.

Dean Young is a close, dear friend of Marc’s, and hearing Marc talk about what Dean meant to him, what his poetry has meant to him, and to so many others, was one of the highlights of the evening. Katy Didden shared her story of meeting Dean at Bread Loaf, his pure delight at being there, in open fields under a clear sky, meeting fellow writers with his characteristic joy and good humor.

Marc McKee captivating the audience through lyrical hypnosis.

Here’s something to acknowledge: several poets admitted they have never Dean. I thought this was a brave and marvelous thing.  They only knew Dean through his poetry, just from what they’ve discovered about him through his work, his influence on Marc, and the impact he’s made on “Dean-iacs” over his many years of teaching. His accomplishments are numerous: ten books of poetry, Pulitzer Prize finalist, the Griffin Prize, the Lenore Marshall prize, and the winner of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA fellowships, and so on. But the accolades really don’t matter: something about his poetry has moved us.

It’s strange to hear the cadence of eight different poets reading Dean’s work. I’ve read another writer’s work aloud before, and it is an incredible challenge: the inflections, pauses, rhythms, all of it, is so different when it isn’t the work that you spent months working on. Yet every single poet read Dean’s poems magnificently. We laughed a lot Friday night – how can you not when hearing Dean’s best work? – but there were also moments that also brought us to tears, like the final stanza in “Elegy for a Toy Piano“:

When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.

We also heard “Changing Genres”, “Red Glove Thrown in Thorn Bush“, “Commencement Address“, “Bay Arena“, “Centrifuge“, “One Story”, and “How I Get My Ideas.” It was a terrific, successful, fantastic evening, and we all have Marc McKee, Gabe Fried, and Allison Smythe to thank (along with all the other poets) for such a great event.

One thing I always tell my writing students is “be generous.” Sounds simple, but as we all know, it really is incredibly hard to be a giving and kind person, not just in a workshop, but with our writing, with ourselves, and throughout our lives. And, so, my request to all of you out there in the TMR audience, is just that: be generous. We need your generosity. It would be an incredible gift if you would.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review. Donations for Dean can be made at the National Transplants website, Transplants.org, can be made by clicking here. Remember that any size donation, even just a buck or two, is greatly appreciated and goes a long way towards helping. Thank you!

Turn Out The Bright Lights

Originally, I planned on writing some sort of Monday morning essay about The Missouri Review’s 4th annual audio competition. Which is important and you should enter (really!). But all week, I’ve been chewing over ideas that are, I think, related to our auditory experiences, and wanted to write about something I experienced last week that actually has a link with our audio competition. Just maybe, this post will come together in some sort of cohesive way. Maybe.

Last week, Orr Street Studios, located here in downtown Columbia, hosted two readers for their (mostly) weekly art series, Seeing Visions/Hearing Voices. On the docket were my friends John Nieves and Amina Gautier. John is a doctoral student here at Mizzou, and his poems have appeared in a slew of places, including RedividerFugue, Adirondack Review, California Quarterly and Florida Review.  Amina is the most recent winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award and her story collection, At-Risk, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in September. More than sixty of her stories have been published, appearing in Antioch Review, Best African American Fiction, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Pleiades and Southern Review. Amina’s work has been honored with scholarships and fellowships from places like the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. Basically, it rocked.

(Which makes the fact that I was twenty minutes late even more embarrassing. I am always late to the Orr Street readings. I have no idea why. There was, however, plenty of time for Amina to flaunt the Lakers Game 7 win over the Celtics in my face. So I had that going for me).

Even stranger: Amina literally knocked the lights out. Twice.

Really! I think there was something goofy going on with the motion sensors or something, but yes, twice during her reading, Amina blew the lights out, something that she can proudly tell everyone for the rest of her life.  Weirdly, if this had happened during the last scene of the story she read – “Been Meaning To Say”, which originally appeared in Southwest Review – it actually would have been appropriate (no, I won’t spoil it for you).

I would imagine that most of the readers of this blog have attended readings at least once, if not fairly frequently. One of the things that made the Orr Street reading wonderful was that I was listening to not just writers, but friends. Knowing how much effort Amina and John put into their work, how long it took them to get to this point with their poetry and stories, made the listening experience all the more delightful. A personal connection, a sense of intimacy with the writer’s process, the constant happiness creeping into your smile because you are witnessing the success of friends – their art out there in the world and expereinced live – made the reading all the more enjoyable.

Then there is the other thing: actually being a good reader. Amina and John delivered there, too.

What makes a good reading? Tough question. There’s actually much more to it than just the written word. I’m blown away by how frequently writers will stand up and not tell the audience “Hey, thanks for coming out tonight” or something simple like that. How often the reader will not notice the way the audience responds to the work. Haven’t you ever felt a reader lose his or her audience? The room gets too still; there’s an impatient politeness to the way we refuse to move or rustle; heads turn away, downward, minds on what to pick up from the grocery store on the way home. Even when I first started going to readings, I could sense when a reader lost the room. I figured this was rare: in fact, it’s far too common.

The poet Adrian Matejka was recently thinking about this, too: what about the etiquette of the public reading? Among other things kicked around was the poet beginning with reading a single poem by someone else; readers taking two minutes post-reading to be gracious and say hello to the strangers who come up and say thanks; and not hurrying off to the bar (and out the door) too quickly. What Adrian is curious about, I think, is the sense of the public reading not being such a one-way experience, but a collective experience of art and literature.

N+1 has famously blasted readings as incredibly boring. Sadly, I do partially agree: many readings are, in fact, quite mediocre. They certainly don’t have to be. Writers don’t know how else to promote ourselves, and the public reading seems to be a tradition that we just don’t think much about anymore: why do it, what is its purpose, and so forth. But I’m not ready to give up on them. A few years ago at Washington University, I heard Edward Jones read from his collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. He seemed a shy man uncomfortable in public; his shoulders sloped and his eyes focused on the floor, saying very little when not behind a microphone. His reading? One of the fiercest and most visceral readings I have ever heard. He absolutely blew us away, metaphorically blew the lights out with this commanding, clear, beautiful voice that reverberated all the violence, tension, intrigue, and danger of the story he read. He took 45 minutes. He could have taken 45 days. No one in the audience would have minded at all.

Voices reveal. Voices reveal character, authority, confidence, charm, humor; voices give the story and the poems another element, an extra thing (joy? play?)  that we go to public performances to experience. The best readers, the Aminas and Johns and Adrians of the literary world, know this. Even knowing it, when it works, when it really works, when the reading is that fantastic, we as readers – and listeners – are all the more grateful.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review

More Than Talking Pretty

Last week, I, and what seemed to be about half of Columbia, had the pleasure of seeing David Sedaris live at Jesse Hall.  I had never seen him before and though I only started reading him recently—Me Talk Pretty One Day this summer on my lunch breaks—I knew I was in for a great night when I saw the posters hanging around campus last month. 

As the lights dimmed and Sedaris emerged, bobbing towards the podium and glancing timidly at the anxious gallery awaiting him, I leaned back and prepared for that pleasant belly ache like everyone else.

And, in case you had any doubt, he did deliver. 

After starting off with a piece from his latest collection, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Sedaris jumped from earlier stories, to unpublished journal entries, and lastly, to jokes he’d been told on earlier readings.  Also interspersed was more general oration that proved as entertaining as his writings, including a reading of a book title in what was to Sedaris an unknown language.  When he asked the audience if anyone knew the language, and someone yelled “Croatian,” Sedaris replied, “Come see me after the show.  The book’s yours.” Needless to say, it was a great show; but it was what followed the show that most impressed me. 

The moment Sedaris said, “I’ll be in the lobby afterwards if any of you would like me to sign a book,” I began to make my move.  I was clapping as I did so, sure, but I was more so concentrating on limiting was sure to be a significant wait.   As I rose, made my way out of the row, I saw masses of people flooding towards the exits like there was a fire. 

After standing in line for twenty minutes, two friends approached me with signed books.  On one, Sedaris had sharpied a crying Jesus with the words “Why did you kill me?” above his signature.  On the other, were the words, “I’m glad you can joke.”  My friend had told her best one, upon Sedaris’ earlier request. I guess it hadn’t landed so well, as he’d also crossed out the word “joke” and underneath written “walk.”  I laughed, impressed that Sedaris had taken the time to personalize their signings.  My friends left, and I resigned myself to the long wait ahead. 

Almost two hours later, a story for my fiction class as well as the university concert series pamphlet read, I was next in line to get my book signed.  At this point, I thought, stealing glances at a slumped David Sedaris, I’m sure he’s just signing them.  No way he’s still personalizing each signing.  The person in front of me cleared out, and I stepped forward.

“Hello,” Sedaris said, smiling wide-eyed, as if I was first person to ever ask him for an autograph. 

I said hello and thanked him for coming.  “And thanks for your patience,” I said, “You must be exhausted.”

He paused, pen poised above the title, and looked up.

“I like signing books,” he said, and smiled.

After a moment, “It’s Owen, is it?  O-W-E-N.  Are you a student here, Owen?” Then, following a nod, “What are you studying?”

I told him English-Creative Writing with a fiction emphasis, and he perked up. 

“Do you write short stories?”

A couple minutes and a couple questions later, he handed me my book.  “Thank you for waiting,” he said, still smiling. 

While he talked with my girlfriend, and asked her to tell him about her latest non-fiction piece, I flipped to the title page of Me Talk Pretty One Day.

“It was about my love for Bruce Springsteen,” she said.

He laughed.  “Have you ever met him?”

She told him about the time she touched his sweaty arm and vest at a concert in Chicago. 

“Oh wow,” he said. “Was it everything you’d imagined?”   

As a young writer, I often feel intimated by the literary world.  It is a place of grim prospect.  Spend your whole life in front a computer or notebook, working to communicate something worthwhile and original in a worthwhile and original way.  Sure, there are literary journals to strive towards, as well as grants and fellowships and other awards, but who cares about these things besides other writers?  It’s even worse if you write primarily literary prose or poetry.  Romance or crime, you’ve got a chance, but if you plan on writing anything else for a living, you better start playing the lottery. 

Because of these truths, it’s easy to grow bitter. Many writers work and struggle and eventually prosper while this bitterness consumes them.  I’m sure David Sedaris wouldn’t say he’s never had a bitter moment, but last night I saw no evidence of one.   For at least three hours –we weren’t even close to the end— he made an effort to connect with every single person in that line.  And he’s going to do the same thing every night for the next month.  How does a writer, especially a well-respected literary writer, do this?  Maybe if this was his first book tour, then maybe I could understand his insatiable desire to engage fans, but he’s been publishing books for over fifteen years.  And not only that, but he reads his work, over and over again, with a zeal as noteworthy as his actual prose. 

            This baffles and inspires me.  If David Sedaris can work and struggle and prosper with such an impressive character intact, I have to believe that so too can anyone.  I hope I always will. 

We thanked him and left.  Outside Jesse, we opened our books to the title page.  On mine, he’d drawn an owl perched on the publisher’s name. It looked at me, wide-eyed, patient, still.  And on hers, he’d written “Your story has touched my heart.”

Man on Extremely Small Island Denies Apocalypse

If you are in Columbia, swing by tonight and check out a reading by two fantastic poets: TMR’s own Marc McKee and TMR alum Jason Koo.  Sponsored by Center: A Journal of Literary Arts (another fine journal here at the University of Missouri; their Symposium’s are must reads), the reading will be from 7 to 8 pm in McReynolds Hall, Room 350.  Books will be available for purchase, and there will also be snacks and beverages and general all-around goodness.

About the readers:

Marc McKee received his MFA from the University of Houston, and is completing his PhD at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Conduit, Crazyhorse, The Journal, Pleiades, and others; recent work appears in Barn Owl Review and Handsome and is forthcoming from Copper Nickel. His chapbook, What Apocalypse?, is available from New Michigan Press, and his full length debut, Fuse, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2011.

Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize (C&R Press, 2009) and a Finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. He was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He teaches at NYU and Lehman College and serves as Poetry Editor of Low Rent. He lives in Brooklyn.

Fun at the Editors' Prize Reading and Reception

Editors' Prize Winners

Photo: Editors’ Prize winners with Jeffrey E. Smith at the Editors’ Prize Reading (4/12/2008): (from left to right) Otis Haschemeyer, Jude Nutter, Jeffrey E. Smith, & Robert Kimber.

On the sleety evening of Saturday, April 12, we had the pleasure of hosting the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize Reading and Reception. Despite rampant flight cancelations leading into the weekend, Robert, Jude and Otis were all able to join us. We had an incredible pool of submissions for last year’s contest, but our winners’ readings demonstrated the qualities of freshness and heart that won for them these prizes.

Many thanks to the prizewinners for traveling to Columbia to share their work with us. Thanks, too, to the prize’s benefactor, Jeffrey Smith, and to our local friends for braving the unseasonable elements in the name of literature – and mini-quiches.

Those of you who weren’t able to attend the reading can discover the prizewinners’ work in issue 31:1, now available (those of you who did attend have undoubtedly already secured your copies).

Editors' Prize Audience

Photo: An excited audience at the Editors’ Prize Reading (4/12/2008).

Visit our MySpace page to see more photos from this and other Missouri Review events.

Peden Prize Photos

We had a wonderful evening Monday night with Peden Prize winner Seth Fried.

Seth Fried reads

Seth read from a new piece he’s working on concerning a group of brewers addressing a public health crisis. A good time was had by all!

Friends and staffers of TMR enjoy the Peden Prize reading.