Fiction on a Stick: Writers Reading

Attending a reading at the Loft after having been steeped in slam culture is a bit of a shock to the system, a little bit like going to an art gallery opening in your smock after having spent weeks eating saltines and drinking box wine out of a mason jar. Actually, it’s nice, but you feel a bit underdressed.

Besides. They have cake.

Cake!

The Loft is warm and airy, and proper. I mean that with all the good and bad connotations that go with it. Having worked at an arts nonprofit myself, I can see all the marks of a well-rehearsed event setup. The complimentary food and wine, the artsy event attendants (yes, I liked your sweater), and the handful of dedicated and maybe exhausted employees. The glass pitcher of ice water on the low table, with exactly five carefully spaced glasses.

Water Pitcher

Honestly, it’s beautiful and classy, if a bit intimidating. It wasn’t the sort of event at which you’d find a Drunk Girl shouting pithy comebacks, or a writer’s booming voice inspiring the audience to join in shouts of joy or indignation. That’s not always the intention, is it?

After a couple of kind, but distanced introductions by the Loft and the book’s editor at Milkweed Editions, we heard the first reading- an excerpt from Sun Yung Shin’s “The Woodcutter”, based on a Korean folk-tale.

Sun Yung Shin’s poetry background infuses her short story with a lush beauty, perfect for a fairytale. Her soft warm voice gives one the feeling of hearing a bedtime story.

Following the retold folk-tale was Diego Vazquez’s “To Move a Tree”, a piece of narrative that makes you feel you are part of the narrator’s family, and laugh at the descriptions for mud, as if it were your family’s version of the Inuit words for snow. But also, makes you fond of that tree, as if you grew up there yourself. Vazquez tells a good story, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get to talk to him again later.

I’m going to digress for a moment. It was inevitable that I run into limitations as a blogger- I just didn’t realized they’d come this soon, or that they’d be technical. Sure, I’m not making “professional” quality photographs and video, but I figured I’m not being all that formal here. Last Thursday night at Fiction on a Stick (presented by the Loft and Milkweed Editions), I found out just how little video a 2GB SD card in my SD750 will take.

Partway through Chrissy Kolaya’s “Xanadu”, I reached the end of my camera’s available memory. So what we have here is an excerpt of an excerpt.

Kolaya’s everyman story of teens working a summer job at a model home in the suburbs is sweet and tongue-in-cheek from time to time. The possibly overtold story of the “nice girl” who wasn’t as traditionally pretty as the “pretty girl” who is used to getting her way didn’t entice me as much as Kolaya’s description of the garish model home.

Robert Voedisch took the fourth slot, and told the incredibly unexpected story of a former hair-band rocker, who now works as a Zamboni driver and is revisited by his past life.

“Zamboni Blues” is hilarious, and unexpected from this thin young man in a neat haircut and glasses, careful collar protruding from a dark sweater. The main character is superficial and yet nuanced in surprising ways, yielding charming moments.

The final reading of the night took place by May Lee-Yang, for whom I did not even capture a full sentence. Her story of a young girl is full of both domestic conflicts and the sort of familial mysteries that are out of our grasp as children.

May Lee-Yang

After the reading, I found myself musing a long time about spoken word, and whether readings of print could really be considered “spoken word”, and if so, as “spoken word” did this event have some failings in performance. The stories were all beautifully crafted, and very different from one another, but all told in the same soft bedtime story voices. Ultimately, I decided that there is a great continuum, and though words may be performed- that does not make the writer a performer.

Now, this is not to say the writers spoke poorly, or that the event was somehow a letdown. I can say earnestly that I believe every attendee of the event had a good time, and enjoyed the reading quite a bit. I’ve found the reverse of this in slam poetry- a brilliantly performed poem that just felt hollow to me, or lacked something in the writing. Having seen CD releases for Las Palabristas and a Nation of Immigrants, I know the Loft has a number of writers who deliver on both the content and the delivery, and I look forward to getting to know more of their writers.

-Cole

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About Cole

A thumb among fingers. A writer, a photographer, a lover of all things citrusy.
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6 Responses to Fiction on a Stick: Writers Reading

  1. Cynthia says:

    Diego is one of the people that started the poetry slam in Minnesota. He set up the first poetry slam at Kieran’s – the erotica slam, and was on the very first slam team, then acted as the slam master as minnesota became an officially certified venue. He slam mastered until about 1999, when Kate took over.

  2. Don’t I know it, Cynthia! We talked for a great long while after the reading at the Loft, and sometime in the future he’ll likely be one of our interviewees on the blog!

  3. Patrick Nathan says:

    On the topic of the performance aspect versus the written aspect, or slam poetry versus a fiction reading, I think it’s more or less a matter of two different mediums. Generally, a fiction writer’s primary concern is how effective the story will be on the page: reading it is often just something that happens every once in a while. The majority of the fiction writer’s audience will encounter his or her work in a printed medium. From what I’ve seen of slam poetry, it seems that the opposite is true. As a writer whose primary background is “page” writing, I’ve noticed that slam poetry, in general (not all slam poets), focuses more on performance than how the poem comes across written down. There are poets that I’ve seen whose poetry is just as alive on the page as it is on the stage (eww, an unintentional rhyme), but in most cases I’d have to say that the stuff I’ve seen on Tuesday and Monday nights, while great to see, wouldn’t at all survive in a book, at least not when compared to writers who write mainly for those mediums.

    In addition, there are a lot of things that both modes of writing do that the other can’t really get away with. A well emoted rant generally does very well in a slam setting, but if that same rant were written down and sent to a magazine, the publisher would most likely reject it without another thought. Similarly, there’s a level of clarity in some slam poetry that’s very hard to replicate in a book.

    Anyway. That’s my input on the subject. It’s a matter of taste, I guess. I prefer the writing over the performance. In truth, I would really prefer not to read my fiction or my poetry aloud ever again. Should miracles occur and my work get published, reading would probably be part of the bargain, but maybe I can sucker someone else into it. The whole reclusive writer thing is so much more appealing these days anyway.

  4. Michael Mlekoday says:

    Patrick–long time, no see, friend.

    As both a slammer and a page poet, I think both communities have a lot to learn from each other. You’re certainly right that each has different primary goals and stylistic tendencies that cater to those goals. Slam poetry doesn’t need to work on the page, but that’s not to say that slam poets shouldn’t try to write better. And academic poets/fiction writers don’t need to perform very well, but it would definitely help them market their work to new audiences.

    Just my two cents.

  5. Michael Mlekoday says:

    P.S. the first paragraph of this blog is extremely witty and well written.

  6. Patrick Nathan says:

    Mike,

    Long time no see, indeed. Haven’t been to a slam in at least seven months, or any event of that kind. It was wearing me out and I needed a break. Still, I miss all the people. I would love to do something outside of a slam setting sometime.

    And I very much agree that the mediums have a lot to learn from each other. I feel that encountering very organically constructed and in a way visceral poetry has sort of added to my palette, so to speak: I feel that I have a greater range. I’m a collector of influences, I suppose, but then again everyone is, really. It saddens me to see either the slam poet or the academic novelist too rooted in their “genre” and unwilling to explore new avenues.

    Aside from my ever-fruitless endeavors in novel writing, I’ve been thinking about other projects on and off, one of which might be something to take to a slam someday. Anyway, I’m rambling now. If you feel that you’d like to do something, such as read each other’s work sometime over coffee (or tea in my case), send me an e-mail:
    patrick.nathan@gmail.com

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