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The Plusses and Pitfalls of the Public Circle Jerk

February 24, 2009

[This is dedicated to Lead Presenter Teryl S who demonstrated a total presence of obsessive-compulsive control and the agile ability to throw me under the proverbial bus.]

Back in college, when I was the announcer and emcee for the CoffeeHouse open mic, it was mostly to avoid reading my own work. I wanted to be involved, but I didn’t want to have to stand up in front of a crowd of people and risk the humiliation of them seeing who I was underneath all the badly timed jokes and bullshit. I learned this lesson from a good friend of mine who was himself deeply involved in the readings. He treated it like it was a three ring circus and people loved him for it. Sometimes he’d get up and read Dr. Suess. Sometimes he’d read Jim Morrison’s poetry. Sometimes, unbeknownst to anyone, he’d sneak in his own stuff . People loved it all – which was cool until it finally got to him that nobody knew the difference between his work, Morrison’s or Theodor Geisel’s. [On a personal note: you begin to despair the species just a little when people of legal age don’t recognize Green Eggs and Ham or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.] I, on the other hand, didn’t mind them not seeing me. As a matter of fact, it was EASIER if they didn’t. It’s a lot easier to have faith in your own genius if you are your only audience.

My relationship with the abstract concept of audience has changed very little, except that I keep stories and poems circulating in the mail, and once I post a bit or send it out, I figure it will stand or fall on its own legs. I write to entertain and to distract myself, and I like to think that there are people out there who might like the same kind of distraction; but ultimately, I write the same whether anybody reads or not.

My thoughts on public readings haven’t changed either. It’s a whole lot of smoke and bullshit. Even when I was trying to organize gallery readings in Cincinnati, I knew what it was. I tried to get other people to read so I wouldn’t have to. Reading my work in front of an audience makes me nervous. The times that I have had to, I started out with two shots and three beers before to steady my nerves, and then got as blitzed as possible after I was done to erase the memory. Standing up in front of people has always made me feel like a clown. When I got into writing, I got into it because I wanted to write, not because I wanted to PERFORM. Ask an actor; they will be able to tell you the difference. The Performance Bug is an entirely different sickness.

But because I have this history with open mic readings, sometimes I can’t help myself. I feel this odd sense of obligation to be involved, or affiliated. I figure that this will work itself out of my system. Eventually. I approach it the same way most people approach trying to quit smoking. It’s a step by step process of deprogramming the body and brain. And it’s nowhere near perfect. Or simple.

The most recent public reading I took part in was during the 2009 Composition Conference at Arizona State University. Now, before you get the wrong idea, let me give you a breakdown of the conference. The official purpose of said conference was to foster community and the exchange of ideas between Writing Faculty. However, my involvement wasn’t limited to reading my work; no, I also volunteered to present at a session entitled “The Plusses and Pitfalls of Online Teaching.” And if that wasn’t enough, I had also wrangled my way onto the Steering Committee practically by accident. Of course, as time went on, I began to realize the truth of my condition, and gradually began to extricate myself. But I didn’t have the willpower to back out of the session or the open mic.

My position on the committee, my decision to present during a session, and my inclination to volunteer to read during the open mic segment were all symptoms same damnable disease. Not the Performance Bug, mentioned earlier. I will refer to this ailment as Academe Dysentery. This sickness causes people to expel great amounts of energy in the pursuit of a professional sense of community that does not, in fact, exist. [ In all fairness, it MIGHT exist for others in the academy; that deeply sought for sense of community and togetherness most likely exists for the tenured, for the poor bastards who have given themselves over to publish or perish, and for departmental administrators who believe they’re still educators because they teach one graduate seminar a semester.] Those most susceptible to Academe Dysentery (or AD… these days it’s not a real condition unless it’s got an acronym) are: adjunct (or part-time) instructors; non-tenure track one year contract instructors; and holders of an MFA who teach outside an MFA program.

For my session presentation I took part of an unpublished paper I wrote about the limitations of online teaching and attempted to modify it. The section discussed the limitations of traditional textbooks in online courses. My statement was simple, really. My claim was that digital classes should have digital text; not only would this be better for the viral environment, but it would be cheaper to produce. The big problem, I said, was that there’s too much money in textbooks and it’s too closely tied to Writing Programs that demand their instructors pick from a short list of “acceptable” texts and whose administrators often write textbooks, as well as university bookstores which survive on the cost mark-up that gets passed on to students. This was a disaster. I was nervous, and my message, while it seemed to appeal to the small group of my colleagues who attended the session, made the Lead Presenter panic. I wasn’t following her “try to look on the bright side and be happy [I] have a job” position that she had expounded upon in our one meeting prior to the conference. (This is also known as the Ringo Starr Syndrome (RSS). People with this pitiful and debilitating disease show a significant decrease in the ability to think critically or independently and instead thrive on the half-hearted and often ironic compliments and liver flavored goodies offered by bosses, administrators, and colleagues who are higher on the totem pole.) Instead of letting me answer questions, she took over my section and undercut my statement with a series of false claims about how expensive ebooks are to produce. Never mind that I used to run a small press that published ebooks. Never mind that she didn’t know what she was talking about and was probably only pissed because she (most likely) has a sideline writing and editing textbooks. I didn’t fight her. I let her dismiss me and my claims. Then the session ended.

I pushed the failed session out of my mind and focused on the open mic. I brought plenty of material… all the stuff I’d written since Christmas… to shuffle through. I chose three poems and a couple of short stories; more than enough material, but it’s better to have too much than too little. I felt nervous. Sick to my stomach. I couldn’t go and have my two shots and three beers because I was being professional and all. So I tried breathing deeply. I found the room where the reading was going to be held. I met with the guy who was hosting… a very cool guy named Dan who played guitar and sang folk songs. He opened things with a couple of tunes. The first reader was a woman reading from a novel she’s writing about puberty, menopause, and womanhood. She performed it with two other women and it was written in alternating voices – this maid/mother/crone deal. It was ok. Not my thing; but then, most things aren’t. I clapped anyway. Then Dan nodded at me.

I decided to read the three poems. That was one of my old rules regarding open mics: alternate genres and styles whenever possible. Not only is this more interesting to listen to, it is generally a good way to cover all the different tastes of a diverse audience. Two of the poems I read were recent (since Christmas) and the third was one I’d drafted in November. I read “The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got,” “The Richest Man at the Bar,” and “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” The title of the third, and oldest, was borrowed from Einstein. The audience of my colleagues didn’t seem to know how to respond to the first two. They did, however seem to like the third.

From this, I gleaned one thing: academics only like poems that sound like academic poems. When you write about real life – the sad, the honest, the absurd – this is almost immediately rejected as lacking any artistic merit. Of course, this is nothing new. Academics are often the only audience for academic writers, and I suppose I am trying to get over being too academic in the same way I am trying to get rid of my AD. If I’m going to write and push it out into the world, then I’m going to be honest. If other suffers of AD and RSD don’t like it, or look at me like I’m crazy or a hack, then so be it.

Writers read in public for the same reason that academics present—they mistake a need to have their ego stroked with a need for community. These events operate on a certain set of rules – and the most important rule is that it’s better to have your hand on someone else’s cock than on your own. It’s better to pretend you care and are interested than to risk having no one listen to you. It’s better to buy into the notion of pretense than to search for honesty. It’s better to deconstruct someone else’s work than to take the risk of making your own. Ego and art are closely linked, it’s true. But in the end, a real writer chooses the risk of trying to make art rather taking the easy splooge of performing for the pleasure colleagues who would sell their first born child for a tenure-track position.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Thanantos permalink
    March 12, 2009 1:24 pm

    I’m not in the “industry” as it were, but I have also wondered about these types of things. I have a lot of very artistic friends who in some ways i never really got. I would at times go to readings and and various functions and generally look around politely all the while thinking to myself “what the hell?”. This is not to say that it wasn’t art or meaningful, just that it missed me. There were pictures and singing and people wearing the appropriate clothing and saying things about meaning and art and creation…..and most of the time I would be thinking to myself “this is pretentious crap”.

    I used to feel bad about this, especially in light of how many people close to me had a passion for the arts. I felt that since my friends took this sort of thing seriously, I should. After a while i started to notice was that the people I knew who actually wrote or painted or whatever really didn’t do it for recognition. They did it because it was something they wanted to do. In a lot of cases the “functions” tended to be social club for the people who wanted to be in the arts, not that some of them did not believe in what they were doing, but being seen that way was more important. This seems to carry over into the academic field it seems.

    I commend you for speaking your mind. You discussed what you thought and you didn’t steer it in any direction based on what people higher up the ladder may think. I will say this will not make you popular, but I think you will sleep better at night.

    Also on a side note “The best writing advice I ever got” struck a chord with me. It brought a scene into my mind which i found entertaining. I am not a poetry person. I do not get most of it, nor do I try to so please take this as a heartfelt stroke o’ the ego.

  2. March 13, 2009 7:47 am

    Thanks, man. Honesty is always the best policy. I’m ok with not being popular, since I’m so good looking.

    Good to hear from you. How are you and Jess doing? Tell her I said Hi. We miss you guys. There just aren’t any real outlaws in the west anymore.

  3. Thanantos permalink
    March 16, 2009 6:17 pm

    Jess says hi. We are doing okay, and we also miss you guys!

  4. April 3, 2009 6:39 pm

    Dude, c’mon! What do you know about your intentions during CoffeeHouse? You were inebriated through quite a few of them!

    And, personally, I always did it for the ego stroking!

    Actually, my thesis is in our garage, I think. And it will stay there for a very, very long time.

    • April 6, 2009 6:42 am

      The fact that I was hammered during most of them DOES, I think, point to intention….

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