March 2, 2003
The Good, the Bad, and the Boring: Writers Reading


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 sofa cushions.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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