March 2, 2003
The Good, the Bad, and the Boring: Writers
It's a tricky business, giving voice to the written word. Writing
turned into performance is a minefield of potential missteps. The
results can be exhilarating or disappointing. At their best, readings
lift the words off the page and let them catch the light. At their
worst, they are exercises in self-indulgence and both writer and
reader are better served by staying home with the book. I had a
chance to see both recently.
On one of February's most frigid nights, a standing-room crowd was
warmed by Wally Lamb's reading at the Boston University Barnes and
Noble. Lamb was reading from his newest book, Couldn't Keep It to
Myself, which he wrote with members of a writing workshop he led
at a maximum security women's prison. He delighted us from the first
moment, thanking us for coming and talking about how the book came
to be written. He was gracious and plainspoken, reading with respect
for his material and his audience. He seemed as pleased as we were
to be there. He invited questions and--a small but thoughtful thing--
repeated them so we all could hear.
By contrast, David Mamet, reading in Cambridge from South of the
Northeast Kingdom, appeared bored. He was clearly unprepared and
he riffled through the book, reading random pages in a listless
and distracted manner. Although many audience members appeared to
know his work well and admire it, Mamet barely tolerated their questions.
I had the impression that Mamet was eager for us all to leave so
he could go for drinks with friends.
Anyone who has attended readings has probably seen the gamut. There
are the readings you wish you had missed by the inaudible reader
who refuses the microphone, the author who goes on too long, or,
more frequently, the one who doesn't go on long enough.
Then there are the shining successes, the writers who truly offer
the words they have written. In the presence of an open-hearted
reader, we are atavistically spellbound--children begging for a
story, cave dwellers drawing close around the fire.
"There is no one way to be a great reader, but a reading gives
the audience a chance to hear how the poet hears her or his poem,"
says Gail Mazur, who knows more than a thing or two about readings,
especially by poets. A teacher and the author of four books of poetry,
Mazur founded and spent 29 years as director of the Blacksmith House
Poetry Series at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education before
stepping down last spring. A reading, she feels, can change forever
how you see a piece of writing.
"Writers have their own styles of reading," she says,
citing some poets she knows and admires. "Frank Bidart is an
intense, expressive reader, who wants the audience to know exactly
what he means by every word and every mark of punctuation. Louise
Gluck has an austere presence, but she reads with utter clarity.
There is a starkness to her poetry and a starkness to her reading.
And there is sometimes also a dry wit that you might not get just
by reading the poem on your own.
"Alan Dugan is blunt and workmanlike in his reading. There
is no separation between him and his poem. And Robert Pinsky is
a brilliant reader of his own work and also of the work of others.
It's thrilling to hear Robert read a poem like Frost's, "To
Earthward," for instance, because you can hear the music and
all the poet's intentions."
The bottom line is probably that a writer who sets out to give a
reading should "give" it in the sense of offering it to
the audience. As readers, writers can be generous or withholding.
To paraphrase an old song, David Mamet heard us knocking, but we
couldn't come in. Wally Lamb opened the door and plumped up the
City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If
you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at email@example.com.