I recently received an exquisite little treasure: What Could Possibly Go Wrong? Poets & Writers Spill Their Worst Reading Experiences, edited by Richard Peabody of Gargoyle Magazine and Paycock Press. This charming book of flops and failures gladdened my heart, from its laugh-out-loud moments—i.e., Dinty W. Moore’s very first reading in a bookstore filled with “gently used pornographic books and magazines”—to the deeply sad, “Like the time I read a scene about a baby dying in a noisy bar and drunk listeners became suddenly sober” from Melissa Scholes Young.
These stories brought back memories of my own reading experiences. I don’t know how many times I’ve read poems for the public, but it must number in the hundreds by now. Most of them have gone well, but one, in particular, stands out.
In 2017, I was promoting my first full-length poetry collection, Night Court, on a self-designed book tour that took me up and down the state of California. The reading I looked forward to the most was the one I’d scheduled for September 14that Moe’s Books in Berkeley, with Modesto poet Gillian Wegener. When I was a teenager, I spent many hours at Moe’s with my father, browsing the four floors until we reached a happy, book-induced stupor (my father’s preferred state), after which we’d go across the street to the Caffé Mediterraneum for a cappuccino. To be reading there all these years later was a dream come true.
After I parked my car on Telegraph Avenue, I walked the three blocks to Moe’s lugging a box of books, camera slung around my neck. I met Gillian on the way. As we approached the bookstore, we heard helicopters hovering right over our heads. The street was full of people; pretty normal for a late summer evening in Berkeley, but I sensed the tension in the air. Something was going on—what was it?
We went downstairs to the basement, which was all set up for our reading. At the starting time of 7:30, the room was mostly empty. We waited a few more minutes. I could still hear the helicopters. Finally the host, Richard Silberg, started the reading. Gillian and I read our poems to Richard and the five people who showed up. I sold exactly one book, to Richard. At 9:00 p.m., we left, disappointed and nonplussed. The reading was well-publicized and lots of people had promised to come. What had gone wrong?
Feeling sad and tired, I drove the 45 minutes back to my mother’s place in Rohnert Park, where I was staying during this leg of my tour. My mother was watching the news when I arrived at her apartment, and as I walked in, I saw a picture of the Berkeley campus with police in riot gear, students protesting, and concrete barriers at the end of Telegraph Avenue. I plopped down on the couch to watch. As it happened, campus Republicans had invited Ben Shapiro to speak at Berkeley, resulting in the massive security presence, rumored to have cost $600,000, and basically shutting down Telegraph Avenue. The helicopters we’d seen were part of Berkeley’s campus security. Who knew they had helicopters?
Sitting on my mother’s couch in Rohnert Park, watching the blue and red flashing lights on the television screen, I realized what must have happened. Of all the times for this to occur, my first and so far only reading at Moe’s happened to coincide with an event that included the possibility of violence. Not even the most die-hard poetry fans would risk bodily injury to hear me read, nor should they. The five people who’d come must not have realized what was going on just a few blocks from the bookstore. I felt bad for them.
In What Could Possibly Go Wrong, which starts with an illuminating quote from Harry Crews: “The artist lives in an atmosphere of perpetual failure,” the issue of scheduling comes up often. Lola Haskins’ university reading was empty due to the simultaneous audience-sucks of a very important test plus another famous speaker; Jo McDougall was pre-empted by Monica Lewinsky’s TV interview; Marilyn Stablein was upstaged by a “faculty event.” Bar noise, changes in personnel, and lack of promotion added to the woes of reading in front of an audience.
On the back cover, after the price, a short phrase sums up the book’s classifications: Bad Luck / Fate / Literature. Sounds like the plot of a Russian novel.
Or the life of a poet.