Last night I groaned when I realized yet another reading had been scheduled.
The reading was set to commence immediately after the evening reading. The evening reading took place after the afternoon reading. The afternoon reading took place after the morning reading. (I won’t even get into the late-night open mikes, which number two so far, with more on the way.)
It was well past 9:00 when the evening reading wrapped up. Voluntary and involuntary insomnia has plagued conference goers since day one. A week into the conference, everyone is running on fumes.
But the sad little dry-erase board by the stage announcing an impromptu reading by the Sewanee scholars got to me. On the board were eight names scribbled in blue.
Eight! After a full, magnificent day of literature — an emotional Tim O’Brien in the afternoon followed by poet Andrew Hudgins in the evening — I knew the exit door would be swinging fast and wide tonight. People would want a stiff drink, not more poetry.
I’d met a few of the scholars, and I thought of what a pathetic scene it would be if they read to a near-empty house. So, tired as I was, I found a seat. Sewanee manager Cheri Peters asked the audience to fill in the gaps and move close to the stage.
First up was Rebecca Morgan Frank, who organized the event. She thanked the audience for sticking around and explained why they’d added one more to the jam-packed schedule of readings by fellows, staff and faculty. At most conferences, student readers are fellows, who by definition have published a book. This year many of the Sewanee scholars have books too.
Each reader had five minutes. In their faces I could see a struggle. The scholars wanted to give their poems room to breathe. They had a lot to say, a lot they wanted to say, even to an audience this small.
But the readers were disciplined and respectful. Each one scrupulously stuck to their limit, and the time flew by.
In my home city I’ve sat through excrutiating group readings, where almost every writer hogs the spotlight. They read two (or three, or five) poems too many, even when we’re approaching the two-hour mark. (No intermission because the audience will, naturally, bolt.)
At those readings I find myself praying the next reader will glance at a wristwatch and say: In view of the time…
That never happens! The reader is more likely to say: Before I begin, I have a little story to tell…
Why not give a taste of the work, and then tell the crowd if they like what they hear, they can buy the book? Why not leave the audience wanting more? Last night the Sewanee scholars did just that.