Stalking the Writer’s Life: Celebrating “Readings”

To gather as a community for a reading, to let an author know I am with her, to let his voice, breath, rhythm enter my ears and lead me somewhere I wasn’t before, that’s a real pleasure. At a good reading, I’m present to an embodiment of language in the person.  If she is a really good reader, I enter a story or another state of mind.  Listening is a rich and writerly moment. Over thirty years, I’ve listened to a couple hundred readings.  Sometimes I try to figure out how the writer is doing what he’s doing, and that’s valuable, but if he’s really good, I am simply pulled in.  Dazzled.  Suspended.  If the author is unprepared or reads poorly, I feel bad for them, bored, disappointed, even pissed—especially if I really like the reader, but I always hope for some gleaning—you never know when a reader will hit that moment.  Though I don’t attend readings as often as I used to, I still find a good reading leads me inside my art more deeply than I was before.  It’s a gift to myself as much as to the reader.

Once, one of my students asked what was the best reading I ever attended and I glibly replied, “It’s always the last one.”  Then I regretted that remark and lingered over the question. There have been a dozen rock-star readings I remember, but they are not about being the “best.”  Comparing reading to reading is an apple to orange problem. Now I suspect good readings combine the receptivity of the listener with the intention of the writer—that match up.  A particular voice at a particular time.  So maybe the question is: for which readings has my receptivity met a writer’s intentions in a transformative moment?  That’s a more personal, more interesting question to me. It allows me to honor many more fine readers, but also to zero in on that combination.

Well. So, here is one.

In 1986, Interlochen Arts Academy’s Creative Writing Department had a robust reading series. With Michael Delp as chair (a position that I would have the good fortune to assume some dozen years later), the department sponsored some of the most influential and controversial writers of that decade.  Delp, as he is fondly called, had received a grant from the Scholl Foundation to support these readings, and so he had created a multi day event capped by readings from three top-notch writers at Korson auditorium.

I was too busy, too tired, too grumpy to drive an hour from Elk Rapids, where I was teaching, to Interlochen Arts Academy, where the reading was held in Korson Auditorium.  But I cancelled drama club rehearsal and forced myself into my car.  Due to a terrible snow storm, the event was poorly attended.  I was among a couple hundred people entering a nine-hundred seat auditorium.  I arrived just as the introductions were being completed.  As I searched for a seat, I felt stupid.  Why had I driven in such terrible weather?  Was I going to get home?  Who the heck were these people?  But under those practical worries, I just felt awful. I ached for something I did not have. It sounds so cliché to say I wanted to be moved, and to move others, to feel deeply, to understand how language triggers the deepest thoughts for both reader and listener, the thoughts that make us more fully human.  I wanted to be in the presence of poetry in all its forms, and to learn to practice whole-heartedly even though I was pretty sure I was a terrible poet.  I hadn’t expressed those longings, or asked those questions of anyone; I was simply living them.  I had tried to write about the natural world, love and death—all of that, but I had not yet begun the necessary journey to discipline and humility.  Or even an awareness of who I was as a writer.  So in that moment, as the lights went down and I took a seat, I told myself I was going to quit this shit.

A woman stepped to the podium, dressed in a plain sweater, her hair in a short graying bob.  I don’t remember her first poem, but when she started, her deliberate and careful expression said, “Here are the poems you need.”  Mary Oliver read her poem “A Meeting” and transformed the moment.  Here’s an excerpt.

She steps into the dark

where the long wait ends.


The secret slippery package

drops to the weeds.


She leans her long neck and tongues it

between breaths slack with exhaustion


and after a while it rises and becomes a creature

like her, but much smaller.


Here she was, breaking all the rules—personifying the deer in the wild.  She read and I listened, my body taking in her wild places.

If that weren’t enough, there was William Least Heat Moon, reading from Blue Highways, and then Gary Snyder.  Holy cow.  My face was not dry through the entire evening. I don’t know if I have ever adequately articulated what happened.  Listening, I felt emptied, as though I had been cleaned out from top to bottom.  I could start again. Oliver’s and Snyder’s work would lead me for years.  Least Heat Moon would offer me my first sense of the essay—my most pervasive genre.  Because I heard them read, and didn’t just encounter them on the page, I had a body-present experience with their work.  I heard their rhythms in my ears; their vision made manifest.  I had been looking for my spirit mentors, and I was given them.

Without knowing, I had been inside that heightened receptivity.  The winter, the storm, the unarticulated longing—all of it was close to but not yet at the surface.  And then these three readers, reading material that was in the same arena as mine, led me into a moment that would become an inspiration.  I owe Delp and Interlochen a huge debt for that opportunity.  But the readers reading their writing,  that was a path, a way to learn and feel.

I don’t know that even one of my poems will ever match the clarity of Snyder’s, or the mystery of Mary Oliver’s meditations.  I don’t know that I’ll ever capture the earth knowledge of Least Heat Moon’s nonfiction.  I have now read work that seems more complex or technically powerful than the pieces I heard that night. But never has there been a reading where the poems answered the question of my heart so aptly and pointed me back to the road that has served me so well in this life’s work.  I look for the echoes in every reading, and I find them.  There they are, again and again.  It is what we do for each other.