A Course Guide to Literary Readings

These days, literary readings aren’t as boring as they should be. But what for the budding author or poet, still in school, who doesn’t know how to smash a guitar or bake a cobbler onstage?

The word is out, and the world of writing will never be the same, now that the New York Times has chronicled this development in contemporary American literature: the latest strategies for keeping a fickle audience’s attention at fiction and poetry readings. Long seen as pompous, boring events featuring ‘guys with ties’ who are ‘often inaudible,’ now literary readings feature guitar smashings, spelling bees, dog shows, and candy making.

Unfortunately, the creative writing MFA at the university where I teach only offers writing workshops and a course in magazine publishing and editing, as well as literature courses and poetry or fiction craft courses. Although our students also get an opportunity to teach and, of course, by the end of their studies must produce a book of fiction or poetry, already they are clamoring for additional courses to help prepare themselves for this brave new world of literary readings. Personally, I don’t see how we can resist offering a new component of classes in Public Reading Culture. My colleagues and I are now working around the clock to be among the first writing programs in the country to meet this growing need.

PRC391: Musical Character Introduction

Catch the attention of those audience members at the back of the room playing Scrabble when you introduce your piece’s characters through little musical ditties that exemplify their complex inner motives or salient physical characteristics. This course will address the following questions: Should a trombone solo signal the stepfather’s untrustworthy friendliness, or might the shake of a tambourine better illustrate his suppressed rage? Just how specific can the Farfisa organ be when illustrating the posture and hair color of your main character, an aspiring bellhop? Is it confusing to introduce a Norwegian border guard by plucking the strings of a Portuguese guitar? Can the kazoo ever be used outside the context of a comedy? Previous musical experience helpful but not necessary. Instruments provided.

PRC527: Mime Your Prose

In those moments at a public reading when the annoying screech of the cappuccino machine, the blaring siren of a passing fire truck, or the squalling of a baby drown out your words, keep on your narrative track by miming the words your audience can’t hear. This course will emphasize the practicing of finger exercises, pressing against invisible barriers, and the slow double-take. Students will learn how to ‘run down the stairs’ while stepping in place, how to embrace the air provocatively during love scenes, and how to give physical shape to difficult descriptive passages (such as a beautiful sunset, a polluted river, or a deserted bus station). Classic silent films will be viewed in class each week for tips on how to create broad facial expressions that even the mentally challenged can recognize from the back of a cafe or bar. (Prerequisite: DAN201, Interpretive Dance for Non-Majors)

PRC814: Sock Puppet Characters

Some audience members grumble that they find it too hard to follow a story at a public reading because they can’t visualize the characters. Face this problem head-on by learning to create a wide array of sock puppets to represent the emotional turmoil of your characters. Choose the right buttons for your protagonist’s loving gaze or to exhibit a glare of disgust. Which color thread best represents the nose of the disappointed lover, the abused child, the alcoholic skydiver? What are the ideal fabrics for hair, and should the author bother with eyebrows? Do plaid socks go best with magical realist stories? Learn the advantages and disadvantages of white athletic socks, winter socks, leggings, panty hose, etc. Special attention will be given to matching dialogue with hand gestures to avoid that ‘lip sync’ look.

PRC533: PowerPoint for Poets

A complaint sometimes heard after poetry readings is that the work was simply much too private and personal for anyone to understand other than those with inside knowledge, such as the poet’s fairy godmother. A course of study in PowerPoint can clarify even the most persistent obscurities. If not a single member of the audience knows what a grackle looks like, or a quince, the problem is solved with a simple click. If the object of a love poem is compared to a ‘trembling meniscus,’ or the phases of the moon are described as a ‘plangent aneurysm,’ an embedded QuickTime animation can give your metaphors real punch and immediacy. Maps, charts, family snapshots (PhotoShop training available), sound effects (a discrete claxon can announce the end of each stanza), and personal letters may all be employed to give any verse verisimilitude.

PRC933: Bungee Reading

Students learn to jump from the rafters (not recommended for venues with drop ceilings) while reciting haiku, sonnets, prose poems, and flash fiction. These techniques can also be effective while reading science fiction or fantasy stories, though for longer works a steady ladder will be necessary to enable repeated leaps. Advanced students learn how to use the Doppler effect to their performance’s advantage, all the while avoiding the tables of jaded members of the audience and waitresses delivering drink orders. (This course satisfies the university’s physical education requirement. Insurance necessary.)

PRC323: Juggling Characters

If faced with the glazed eyes of audience inattention, bring out the juggling balls, each one skillfully painted with the faces of your fictional dysfunctional family. Learn how to efficiently drop the character who dies of cancer or leaves for a trip to the Amazon, how to keep swirling in the air the star-crossed lovers. More advanced students will use exemplary objects instead of balls: a broken wine bottle for the disappointing father, a cheese-grater for the ex-lover, a bottle of hand lotion for the disaffected and lonely teen, a light bulb for any main character’s moment of epiphany.

PRC599: Read Your Tie

If you must be one of those boring ‘guys in ties,’ learn how to use this handicap to your advantage. Combine the sartorial with belles lettres and read your poem or short story from your tie. Standard ties, of course, are not appropriate for longer fiction or epic poetry, so much of this course will be devoted to adapting tablecloths and bed sheets to recreate that most elemental of literary tomes, the papyrus roll. Unfurl your story or poem with panache, capturing the fleeting attention of that yawner in the front row. If all else fails, ties may be used as a demonstration of how to make a pretzel, a dachshund, a lasso, or a noose (not recommended for venues with drop ceilings). This course is cross-listed with KNO351, Introduction to Sailor’s Knots.

Philip Graham is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches From Lisbon. He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor. He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he can also play every musical instrument in the world extremely well in his mind. His seres of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at More by Philip Graham