kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy read at Pivot
About a month ago, I went to the Pivot reading series and saw self-described best friends kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jake Kennedy. They … well, read would be the word, I suppose, but it seems like an awfully pedestrian term for what they were actually doing.
It was Pivot’s first run at its new venue, The Steady on Bloor Street, and the room was, unsurprisingly, packed. I suspect a lot of people, like me, were there as much to see the new venue and what it had to offer as to hear any particular poet. Although I missed the first reader, I quickly became very glad I hadn’t missed the reading altogether when mcpherson eckhoff and Kennedy took the stage.
The poets were in town for the launch of their respective books—mcpherson eckhoff’s Their Biography: an organism of relationships and Kennedy’s Merz Structure No. 2 Burnt by Children at Play, both out from BookThug this spring—and their tag-team performance was a kind of absurdist cabaret. Kennedy did an audience-participation crossword, mcpherson eckhoff’s reading featured sound effects he provided himself, and while I can’t remember much of the poetry, I also can’t remember ever enjoying myself quite so much at a reading.
Which got me thinking about how dull most readings are.
I do not mean to impugn the reading organizers, here. The fact that folks like Jess Taylor, Jacob McArthur Mooney, and Daniel Renton can get such consistently good readers on a monthly or bi-weekly basis seems nothing short of miraculous to me. And of course, there are some writers who take performance qua performance seriously. The poet Marc di Saverio approaches recitation much the way I imagine the Light Brigade approaching Pavel Liprandi’s 25 battalions at Balaclava. Michelle Brown has a deceptively funny way of tossing off these totally heartbreaking lines in the same tone of voice one might expect to hear a person discussing cocktails. I have purchased novels by Mike Steeves and Marianne Apostolides solely based on readings they have given. This is far from an exhaustive list—if good readers are not as common as, say, streetcars going the opposite direction while you are trying to get home in a thunderstorm, they are hardly unicorns.
At the same time, these are complaints to which anyone even casually involved in the many excellent reading series hosted every week in Toronto can relate. Standing at the back of the Press Club, or Duffy’s, or the Bell Jar while some poor fiction writer lulls the crowd to sleep mumbling through long, monotonous descriptive passages, or a young poet declaims free verse in a dry monotone often seems not unlike a purgatory that must be endured before refilling one’s drink and catching up with one’s equally parched friends.
ANOTHER sonnet? Jesus.
It is no great insight to suggest that readings (like art openings) are fun as much for the sense of community they generate as for the work performed. When I arrived in Toronto almost two years ago, it was by going to readings that I met other writers, many of whom I am now happy to call my friends. But if that is the primary pleasure of a reading, why go through an hour of deferred enjoyment on the off-chance someone riveting will have a turn on stage? Why not just agree to meet every two weeks to talk about poetry and drink in someone’s home?
Perhaps the obvious answer is that, for all their problems, readings are a key form of advertising. Even if people rarely purchase books at readings, readings give exposure and the opportunity for people creating literature to connect with the people publishing or reviewing it. For not-yet established writers, readings are an opportunity to try things out. For authors with recent books out, readings become a chance to pitch their work to people who would never be exposed to it otherwise.
The problem is that hearing someone read their work is not necessarily a good indication of how good that work actually is. Public performance rewards writing that is lively, humorous, and punchy far more than it does structural complexity or slow introspection. Moreover, the people who write books are not necessarily the ones you want to hear reciting them; that is what actors are for. Indeed, when someone with a theatre background takes the stage at a reading (as Judith Thompson and Meg Coles did at earlier Pivots this year), it is immediately apparent that these are people who have been taught how to make a text come alive. They do the voices. They nail the pauses. They transmogrify what is on the page. Expecting a writer to sell you on their work by reading it publicly is kind of like asking a musician to sell you on their album by publishing the score.
This is what is so fascinating about macpherson eckhoff and Kennedy’s “readings”—they were, in an important sense, anti-readings. Instead of foregrounding the work itself, they foregrounded everything but the work. I had no clue what I would find if I were to crack open either of the books, but I really wanted to know. And I wanted to know because they sold me on themselves. They made me want to like whatever it is they are doing because their performance made me like them. “See how much fun I’m having,” they seemed to say. “Don’t you think someone this fun would write interesting poetry? Why don’t you see for yourself! Look, we have books for sale right over there …”
Readings aren’t going anywhere, and we can’t expect every writer to be a good performer. However, instead of assuming that the virtues of a given short story or set of poems will be immediately apparent, readers should use whatever resources they have to convince the audience that it should care. And perhaps we—the audience members, organizers, and peers—can cultivate a greater appreciation for the reading as entertainment (that dirty and unCanadian word) by making readers feel comfortable taking risks, being playful, and stepping outside of convention.