Literary readings are curious animals. They’re the writers’ primary public event to see and be seen, hear and be heard. But what are they really? Theater? A discussion? Celebrity sighting? Two readings in April, one following the other, became a study in contrasts for me. The first, the annual release of sine cera, a DiverseCity Writing Series anthology published by SLCC’s Salt Lake Community Writing Center, and ellipsis…literature and art, Westminster’s annual lit mag in which I was a featured short story writer.
First, sine cera (okay, what is it about magazines using only lower case?) was launched at the City Library downtown, April 18. For those who are unfamiliar with the Series, these are community writing groups with the primary purpose of getting fellow Utahns, with or without formal training, to express themselves. Writer Caz Bevan and I recently launched the latest DiverseCity iteration, what we call “Graffiti Writers,” an urban-centered group that takes the city as our writing prompt, (although, admittedly, we are shaping this group to meet the needs of whoever shows up.)
This broad-net approach can yield starling results. Here’s Caz talking about her experience at the reading, which I would corroborate, last month:
At first, I felt a little out of place and almost like I was in the wrong room although I recognized some people….I watched as each DiverseCity group filled the room and took their corners–at first dispersed in their own cliques. And then, they began to recall from years before other group mentors who said hello, CWC leaders who complimented their efforts in being there, and before the meeting started each group began to relax and smile at one another, greet each other, and wave hello to anyone who seemed familiar from years prior.
Andrea Malouf [CWC Diector] and Faye Fischer, [DiverseCity Writing Coordinator and editor of sine cera] started the meeting with a beautiful explanation of not only the CWC Mission Statement but of this year’s theme, the front cover contribution, and how they would let the first reader express what the theme of “the other side of the window” meant. You could tell that the first reader was not nervous, but touched. Tears came to her eyes before she even began to read. I wondered if the piece was about someone. And as I sat there, it occurred to me that as a writer, our judgments are different. If I were sitting in school, my first thought would be to somewhat laugh to myself and think, “this person is nervous” because of the instant reaction of tears. In this setting, however, I almost wanted to stand up and support her. After all, we are a community. Was this perhaps about a husband? Did he pass away? Why was this hard for her? I had to calm my thoughts to be sure I didn’t miss anything. Her piece was short and it was written well so that everything you were waiting for was in the last line. It left you wondering, still. Yet, satisfied. It was none of those things. She was crying because she was touched. Nothing more. She was touched to be the featured writer. The spotlight.
To give some idea of the range of writing here, we heard (and read) from writers hailing from Bhutan and Iran, combat veterans, as well as PhDs with multiple titles under their belt. Some who are still learning English were coached at the podium. One had us in stitches over his polished satirical performance about the digital “cloud” suddenly bursting, literally. The writing is indeed diverse, as reflected in groups dedicated to gay writing, writing for seniors, for homeless youth, and for women and girls, among others. The startling thing is that of course the context of the writing is the writers themselves. And that was revelatory. Stories ran the gamut: a first-person account of a middle-aged woman, trying to figure out how to live alone after a divorce; a comical love poem framed around the poet’s need to open a bottle of beer and what the American Dream looks like for a father of four, “right off the boat.”
Here’s an excerpt from a poem by “A.F.”:
I saw the pupil implode
Presenting tragic beauty through tainted slime
Combined with blood and light.
This year’s sine cera is part valentine to Salt Lake and its environs and part catharsis for the writer in all of us.
The next night, at Westminster College, the launch of ellipsis…literature and art was a highly produced event, in a black box theater, followed by wine and catered food. Selections from this, the 49th issue, were expertly read by a variety of students. Here, the context of each story and poem, each piece of visual art, was built-in through the kind of craft one would expect in a traditional literary journal. Consequently, the experience was strictly aesthetic, freighted with the anxiety that sometimes comes in these settings. What is good writing? What is the criteria? How will I know? I mention this not because the ellipsis launch was less appealing, only that it was starkly different from that at the Community Writing Center. I was thrilled to be a part of the line-up that included the poetry of Pennsylvanian Sean Thomas Dougherty (“Down at the Zone where the lesbians pull switchblades if you ‘stare at my bitch’ too long,/where Olivera shot that dude point blank in the face coughing starts from a bottle of Nyquil…”) and Washington University’s Marjorie Stelmach (“A stranger passes on the gravel walk–/lowered eyes, heavy tread–/as though he bears a weight/of scruples or/of scars.”) along with the art work and prose of others from across the country and as far away as London, England.
This is a different tribe, indeed, held together not by geography and shared urban experience, but by a curatorial impulse to keep fine literature in front of, if not our seemingly indifferent and technologically-driven world at large, at least one another. Maybe there’s not that much difference in the end? A reading is about people coming together to celebrate the written word.
sine cera: a DiverseCity Writing Series Anthology is a publication of Salt Lake Community College’s Community Writing Center. For more information click here. ellipsis…literature and art is published annually in April by Westminster College. To learn more and order a copy visit www.ellipsis-literature.com.
David Pace is a writer and literary editor of 15 Bytes. Author of the novel “Dream House on Golan Drive,” (Signature Books), his creative work has also appeared in Quarterly West, ellipsis…literature and art, Alligator Juniper, Sunstone, Dialogue and reprinted/posted in Phone Fiction. His by-line has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, Huffington Post and elsewhere. www.davidgpace.com