WisCon 42 Retrospective: A Reading is Fundamental

So, on Saturday of WisCon, I held only my second or third live reading of my work. I say “second or third” because the actual second was very short, having been a teaser for a story at a party I threw last year (more on that in a subsequent post). It took place in a dim, chill environment that I controlled myself, which made it easier, and which convinced me I could totally handle an actual reading, which is why I committed to doing one this year.

I also thought that committing to doing a reading (as in, promising myself and anyone else who asked that I would do one) a year in advance would motivate me to buckle down and really focus on my non-political writing so I’d have some great new stuff to read.

That… didn’t happen. Trying to trick or force myself into writing something basically works no times, but I keep trying.

So when WisCon opened itself up to pitches for readings, I had no idea what I read but a firm commitment to do it anyway. What the heck, I said. I’m going to do it, even if it means I get up there and read tweets.

WisCon has limited programming slots available for readings. The slots are 75 minutes long. The people who handle the scheduling will match up lonely singles if they have to but they much prefer it if you can come to them as a group with a pitch for 75 minutes’ of reading, ideally with a theme that you can fit on a flyer to make sure people come see you.

Well, Jack had previously said he might read some of his poems if I did this thing, so we had two people. I didn’t know what I was reading and Jack’s specialty is short poems so we were not quite at the 75 minute mark, but we had two people. So I put out the call on Twitter a few times: who wants to read with us?

Initial response, I think, was damped by the intimidation factor a lot of people have around me, but eventually I got some more interest.

One person asked if they could read but instead of fiction they would be reading some old diary entries, blog posts, and maybe even a personal letter or some tweets from a phase in their life. “I can’t promise I’ll read anything BUT tweets,” I said. “You’re in.”

S. Qiouyi Lu offered to read a short story they had been working on, but which they feared would be off-brand for our theme-ing. (S. knows well the importance of a strong brand.) “We don’t have a theme yet,” I told them. “I have no idea what I’m reading. We’re going to have to wait and see who shows up and what they do and then we’ll figure out the theme. You’re in.”

At this point we had four people who were all trans and/or genderqueer and/or non-binary, so at least part of a theme was emerging? With that in mind, I put out a more refined call for readers and got a fifth: ace cartoonist (and also he draws well) Dylan Edwards, who wanted to read a comic strip — a very personal diary comic — if we could get him the A/V set-up.

Well, WisCon does have an A/V crew. And they do have projectors available to use. But, I thought. But. They have limited ones of those available, and many of the available reading slots are off-site. It seemed to me like putting an A/V requirement on our pitch would greatly diminish our chances of having a reading.

On the other hand, I did have my own projector. Very small. Much portable. And it would be very in keeping with the eclectic theme to do this guerilla-style, if we got one of the slots in the backroom of a coffee shop and I just set up a projector on a table or something.

“We can make this work,” I said. “You’re in.”

We had five people. One of them let me know they would need more than 15 minutes. A few I knew would take less. We did some timings and figured out how to make it work. I decided, based on the personal nature of several of the other readings, that I would dig out some of my poetry, including unpublished pieces. Our theme, I realized, was mixed media and found objects… which led to the title for the event of “Found Media in Mixed Objects”.

We got on the program, mid-afternoon Saturday at the coffee shop. That seemed like a pretty good slot to me. I practiced. I read one of my pieces — the most personal, the most important, a meditation on grief, mortality, and maladaptive daydreaming called “Out of Balance” — the night before for two people whose opinions I value and received both useful advice (“Slow down at the beginning.”) and reassurance that it worked. I tested and re-tested my equipment, made sure it would work in the ambient conditions of the coffee shop. I was ready.

Then Saturday came and… my projector fizzled. It would turn on, then power itself off shortly after finding the source. Later I would realize I had grabbed the wrong power cord/power source for it… I had two almost identical-looking ones, both of which could fit into it, and apparently one of them delivered not-quite-enough oomph to keep the projector going. It could light the lamp but as soon as it was trying to do that and process any kind input… out like a light.

So Dylan had to read his comic off the screen of my Surface laptop, which was not ideal and for which I am more than a little embarrassed. But he pulled it off well. I think everybody’s readings were well-received.

I admit I’ve never cared much for Jack’s poetry, when I’ve read it on the page or read it aloud to myself. I assumed it was just not my type of thing. There’s something about hearing him deliver it, though, something about the Author’s Preferred rhythm and inflection. I’ve heard that poems are meant to be read out loud, but I think so much of that is impossible to really convey on the page. Anyway, he made a fan out of me.

The only thing that really went badly wrong (and then wonderfully right) is the timing.

See, we’d worked the timing out! We had! And then we got up there, all full of nervous energy, and I think every single one of us except Dylan read most of our pieces muuuuuch faster than we’d anticipated. So much faster that we were left with about 40 minutes left in a 75 minute slot.

Well, I’d prepared and rehearsed more poems than I thought I’d have time to read, so I could read some more to stretch to fill the time slot if that happened. I read more. And then some more. But I didn’t have that many poems.

But! Non-binary author Sunny Moraine was in the audience. They had failed to get in on a reading group this year, and they knew what they would have read and they thought it would be a good fit with our loose and rough-hewn theme, so they asked if they could read it.

I was actually over the moon because Sunny is among my very top tier of favorite authors and I had kiiiiiinda hoped that they would see my call for trans/non-binary authors and join. (We talked about this later and yes, I realize I should have just invited them directly.)

So, Sunny read one of their stories, and then I closed off with a very short piece just to run out the clock, and a good time was had at all. I think most of the people involved in the reading have expressly expressed interest in doing it again next year, hopefully with fewer bumps along the way.

A lot of the positive feedback I received was about the poem I had previewed the night before (for Sunny Moraine, it happened, and Dr. Kit Stubbs), which is called “Out of Balance” and which I don’t believe I had previously published, even for patrons. It is a very personal poem. I had worries about it, that it was too nerdy or esoteric, too flippant to be moving, and when Sunny and Kit laughed at the jokes, it was like… okay, they’re there to be funny, but is this going to stop them from feeling the weight of it?

But they both thought it really worked, and that the humor was a big part of it. After the reading, I don’t remember who said what, exactly, but I think S. and Sunny came to an agreement that my specialty was “funny, funny gut-punches”, which, okay, valid.

Anyway. A number of people in attendance asked me if I would consider putting together a physical chapbook of poetry including the works I read, because they wanted something they could take with them and that I could sign. Which seemed like a good idea to me, honestly. I was having different conversations all weekend about various smaller projects I could do and probably bring to fruition instead of always being super ambitious with my ideas.

So, that’s the upshot. The reading went well. We’re doing something very similar next year, if we have half a chance. I’m working on a poetry chapbook. Oh, and after I finish this blog post, I’m going to be posting “Out of Balance” to my Patreon as a patron-locked post.