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Empty Theaters Not Yet Swept
I remember running into a review copy of Robin Robertson’s Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame a few years back and R.O.F.L.M.A.O. It was a hilarious read–poets and writers with very recognizable names told their ultimate tales of woe: no one showed up to the reading, co-readers over-read or had considerably longer lines at the signing table, bizarro incidents, malfunctioning technology, etc…you name it, we’ve all been there. In fact, I was just there tonight. I hobbled all the way from Newark, NJ (I taught my Women & Gender Studies class at Rutgers today) to El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan, only to have my function canceled because no one showed up.
(Well, technically there was one audience member but she seemed confused as per her question: “What’s this thing about?”)
One has to be gracious, and I was neither mad or annoyed, just disappointed. And then I moved on. It reminded me of other memorable occasions: once I co-read with Eric Bogosian at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was clear no one was there for me. And after we read, we both had to stand on stage for the Q&A and even I asked Bogosian a question.
And on one occasion, I had my best friend attend one of my readings. While I was being introduced (by Harryette Mullen, no less), the microphone kept fading out, so I prepared myself for the worse. I decided I would project and raise my voice if that happened in the middle of a poem. When I got up to read, I thought I sensed the microphone going dead so I raised my voice volume a few notches. All was well until my BFF finally called out: “Why are you shouting, bitch? We can hear you.” (Thanks, friend.)
And then there was that time at Columbia University when someone turned the lights off (it was a cold winter evening) while I was smack in the middle of a poem. It was so pitch black and no one said anything that I thought to myself: “Fuck. So the rapture is true.” I wasn’t the same when the lights went back on again; it takes a while to shift from atheist to believer to atheist who just got the caca scared out of him.
But you understand me, don’t you. Unlike members of my family. One time I was visiting my cousins in California and they were trying to wrap their brains around what I did–travel all over the country to read my work to other people. For pay. I thought they had figured it out until the next time I visited, one of them said: “Carlos was asking about you. You remember Carlos, the neighbor? Anyway, I was telling him how you went all over the country selling your books, so he asked if there was a chance he could tag along once in a while.” I knitted my eyebrows. “He wants to see what I do?” And my cousin said, “No. He wants to sell burned CDs.”
But the point to all of this is that one must have a sense of humor about the whole po-bizz thing. Taking it too seriously is bad for your health. I’m reminded of Fady Joudah (at our AWP panel on race and poetics) saying that he found out Emily Dickinson’s father was black. No one batted an eye. I even muttered, “Interesting.” And Fady whispered, “I was kidding.” But no one thought he was, because it was a panel on race, so he had to be serious…
Anyway, I just had to unburden myself a bit. Even I have to concede that I need to chillax. But this is it! I’m going post postal after this.