Last Wednesday night, on a night so unseasonably warm that I drank a cold lemonade at an outside café beforehand, I took a turn reading aloud from my work at Smack Dab, the open mike hosted by the inimitable Larry-bob Roberts and Kirk Read and held at Magnet, the Castro-based health clinic.
I owe both Larry and Kirk a large debt for selflessly hosting Smack Dab, which takes place on the third Wednesday of every month and is open to anyone who has a poem, story, or song to share with the public. Best of all, the event is totally free. The space, the mike, and Larry-bob and Kirk’s banter to open the show, all of it costs nothing to both readers and listeners. Kirk explained to me in an e-mail that he and Larry-bob started the show in 2003 because there were no ongoing performance events in the Castro at the time, and that he and Larry-b0b wanted to create an event “that was free and didn’t happen in a bar.” (On top of their hosting duties, Larry-bob and Kirk are also published authors: How I Learned to Snap (Kirk) and The International Homosexual Conspiracy (Larry-bob). I think they’ve got day jobs too.)
As I’ve written before, my one big regret when I published The Love Thing is that I never read aloud any tricky passages to a live audience beforehand. I learned of Smack Dab only several months after publishing The Love Thing — too late for me to practice any drafts before a live audience. But for You Are Here, I was ready. In the months leading up to publication, I made the journey to the Castro and read the attack scene from Chapter One, the ‘curse’ scene from Chapter Five, the plead-for-life scene from Chapter Nine. Larry and Kirk are nice guys, but they really don’t want you reading longer than five minutes, and so I practiced reading my passages at home, repeating the words aloud again and again, to make sure I could read the sentences out smoothly, without wanting to cringe or laugh out loud, within that time limit. If I could read the toughest passages with a straight face in front of that crowd, I figured, then I’d have no trouble sending the book to print.
What still surprises me is that for all the experience I’ve gained by reading at Smack Dab, I still haven’t quite mastered the dread I feel in the hours leading up to those five vulnerable minutes in front of that mike. My mouth still gets bone-dry when those five minutes are over. But, on the other hand, my hands don’t shake when I hold the book in my hand, and I more or less have learned to keep my voice steady. I’ve also learned the trick of speaking directly into the mike — if you don’t, no one hears you. That said, I still don’t like standing near the mike, which feels too much like an intrusive stranger. By now, I’ve learned that reading at an open mike lays bare the fear that all writers face when they expose their work to the public — and the courage they must summon if they want to be heard. And I’ve witnessed that courage, that naked honesty, in many of the other writers who’ve stepped up to that mike.
So, how did I do last Wednesday? What, exactly, did I speak into the mike for thirty or so people to hear? That’s a topic for another blog post.