Tuesday, April 29, 2008

How to Amuse Yourself at Snooty Poetry Reading Receptions

Rachel and I attended a literary evening of poetry and prose at the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University. Shaindy founded the program and began organizing these events five years ago. She died (young) of cancer two years ago. So this was the second of these events that was subtitled "in memory of Shaindy Rudoff".

On hand were a number of speakers, including the poets Gerald Stern and Peter Cole, and the authors Tamar Yellin and Nessa Rapoport. The guest of honor appeared to be Gerald Stern, an oft-awarded American Jewish poet. He's not quite beat, though he comes from that generation, but he's plainspoken, funny, poignant, and sharp.

Before the proceedings, the attendees mingled among hot drinks, soft drinks, and cheap pastries. An air of snootiness permeated the place.

I don't know exactly why that is. I don't get that feeling before other cultural events, such as musical events, plays, dances, or anything else. Something about a reading. When people talk, you can feel the class judgment radar beeping. People seek out people of higher literate standing and try to ingratiate themselves.

Everyone is dressed like a bohemian or a professor. Half the people stare around the room from the sidelines evaluating prospective conversations; they nibble their pastry or sip their coffee. The other half talk up authors or professors, or bask in being talked up. Conversation consists of praising your partner for his or her work, asking simplistic questions that will allow the author to talk about himself, or exchanging contacts and suggested reading lists.

An older gentleman came up to Rachel and said hello. Rachel introduced herself, but before she could introduce me I said, "I'm Yehuda Berlinger, author of 'Last Chance to Procreate' [1]".

"Ah, yes" said the gentleman, with an intonation that of course he has heard of it, obviously trying to decide whether he could fake his way to claiming having read it. Unfortunately, my wife shoved me and told the man to ignore me. She was a little embarrassed.

Can't say I blame her, but I told her afterwards that she would have been less embarrassed if she had had the presence of mind to just go along with it. In the end, I was the one who was embarrassed, because it turns out that the old gentleman was Shaindy Rudoff's father, and so was probably not disposed to being made a fool of, even for a few seconds, at a memorial lecture given for his daughter who had died of cancer.

Rachel banished me to the corner where I read my book [2] until the proceedings began.

Luckily, I enjoyed the readings, so it was a good night after all.

[1] Literally made up in a split second.

[2] I'm rereading Ulysses by James Joyce.


Anonymous said...

All I have to say is too true and too funny. This coming from someone who minored in creative writing in college and has an english literature degree ... and someone who has read 'Last Chance to Procreate' ... honest LOL

That Buffalo GameBuffs guy

Yehuda said...

Tim -

I decided on two possible reasons that book readings are so much different than other performances:

1) At other performances, you see the entire work. At a book reading, you are only getting a taste. In order to truly to connect with the author, you need to read the work, which is a private experience, with no applause.

Therefore, your only personal connection to the author is talking him or her up when you meet.

2) People don't generally think to themselves that if they just buckle down, they could do that dance, song, or play. But people think that about writing a book. That if they just cultivate the write social circle, inspiration, discipline, etc, then they could produce a book just as great as their favorite authors.