Not every writer is a great reader. Within the past month, a variety of authors have read in Seattle to varying degrees of success. Some of them were engaging—David Sedaris had sold-out Benaroya Hall audiences eating out of his hand two nights in a row—but others, like Ben Greenman, reading in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company on a sunny Sunday afternoon, were more awkward. Greenman continually pointed out how the book-tour model of promotion was a weird and unsustainable one in the current economy and anathema to the "private pleasure" of reading. Ultimately, his brainy resistance to the idea of a reading, and his puzzled-but-willing-to-try-anything demeanor, proved to be a winning, charming combination. He was so off-putting, it was on-putting again.
Much less successful than Greenman was the KNOCK magazine issue 11 launch party last week at the Jewelbox Theater in the Rendezvous. A few of the authors whose work appeared in the new issue of the magazine—full disclosure: I have a piece about the imaginary body of work of a pulp fiction author's pseudonym in the new issue, and I read at the launch party—were excellent performers (I give myself a C-plus, as I may have confused someone). Jonathan Evison, the Bainbridge-based author of All About Lulu, read a long, dialogue-heavy scene about therapists in Los Angeles that was funny. But Bryan Tomasovich, KNOCK's editor, was obnoxious. By the end of the reading, he had insulted the audience several times, slurring at one point that, if he really wanted to, he could have turned Evison into his opening act. It was like an embarrassing wedding toast that just wouldn't end.
Local nonprofit arts organization Jack Straw Productions operates under the assumption that while not every author can be a Sedaris-level performer, they can be a little more comfortable—and entertaining—while reading their own work. The Jack Straw Writers Program annually selects local authors and introduces them to live-recorded audio by training them in microphone technique and vocal presentation. There are very few programs that do this; even expensive creative-writing MFA programs pretty much abandon the writers to their own devices when it comes to performance.
This year's crop of Jack Straw graduates is performing over three weeks this month. On May 21, the second reading will feature Alma Garcia, Rachel Dilworth, Laura Hirschfeld, and Kim-An Lieberman. Lieberman is already an emotive, relaxed reader of her own work, so it will be interesting to see what Jack Straw can draw from her; certainly her new, lighthearted poems created for the series—about Fu Manchu flying coach, channel surfing for racist stereotypes, and chimpanzees controlling robot arms with their brains—are quick and smart enough to control a crowd. Hopefully, Lieberman and her fellow graduates will learn that commanding an audience's attention is a vital, and wrongfully neglected, part of the writer's craft.
Jack Straw May Reading Series: May 15, 21, and 29 at Jack Straw Productions, 4261 Roosevelt Way NE, www.jackstraw.org, 7 pm, $5 suggested donation.