A Peculiar Reading, by Latoya Raveneau
[DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Just as all my wine embellished memories are.]
The sudden shift from the construction-site brilliance of the hallway to the comfortable dimness of the studio momentarily shocked my eyes blind. The few other people already gathered around the room seemed to seep gradually into existence, appearing first as little more than shapes, then apparitions, at last settling back into physical forms— some that I recognized immediately though their faces were made nearly incomprehensible by the play of shadows.
As David— my friend and the evening’s host— guided me deeper into his studio, I began to greedily assess my surroundings in a desperate attempt to silence the baseless anxiety that overtakes me whenever it comes to poetry readings. The ceiling was bare sheet rock, limned with off-shade paint and lined with wires. Several chairs and stools and wooden benches and other wooden bench-like things that might be used for sitting when the more normative sitting- type things ran out were placed around the room along with a couch that took up most of the leftmost wall— there weren’t nearly enough people present to warrant that many chairs just yet. At the center of the room was the most obvious and brightly lit fixture: a low, brick and concrete stage, completely sectioned off from the rest of the space by a small wooden gate. At first glance I was reminded of a playpen. And soon thereafter, a petting zoo. And soon thereafter, I apologized to David for not bringing any wine myself and promptly made my way towards the table with the bottles— the prospect of standing in that playpen was somehow much more daunting than any of the podiums of any of the readings I had ever been in before.
The calm, near whispering interactions of the other people did much to settle me. After the second time being asked, I became swifter with a response to the question, “Are you a writer or an artist?” “Writer.” Mostly true. It was too much work to explain that I had been both, that I continued to kind of be both, that I felt comfortable identifying as neither. As minutes passed and the levity and increasing volume of the conversations began to suggest that perhaps everyone was now present or at least sufficiently intoxicated enough to begin the reading, our host mounted the stage and drew us all into silence again. I hadn’t noticed when exactly it had occurred but every chair and bench and bench-like thing had been filled sometime during my idle conversing.
The first person to read was the person I had just been speaking to— one Jonathon Hornedo, who I had never met before but who seemed friendly enough and introduced himself as a writer and a friend of David. He delivered a witty piece of prose that successfully managed to be just as funny as it was erotic. I was pleasantly shocked to see how eagerly people stepped up to read, each subsequent presentation unimaginably different from the last. At one point, writer Tracy Szatan tossed a metallic sheet of wrapping paper across the stage and positioned a lamp over it, reciting her open verse poem as she walked across the silvery carpet, light casting ethereally onto the walls beside her. At another, an artist whose name I was never to discover* theatrically embodied the persona of an old woman, scribing rules for herself to live by in the sand of the desert (or the floor of the stage, as it were.) Performance seemed to be the very nature of the evening and when it came my turn to step into the playpen, I felt a sudden urge to dramatize my poems in ways I had never experienced before while reading them from a podium. As I watched the reading progress and was repeatedly stunned by the humor or thoughtfulness of the pieces, the separation of “writer” and “artist” lost all efficacy— surely Jonathan Tracy, an actor who gave a chilling performance of a short poem he had written was just as much a writer as he was an artist. There was no prearranged order to the proceedings and no one keeping track of those who desired to read, yet the reading seemed to flow without pause as one after another someone stepped into the ring. It was at times difficult to tell what as planned and practiced from what was spontaneous word creation. I will never be sure if artist Ari Marcantonio staged his violent tripping into the stage for the sole purpose of reciting a poem about falling… or if the two events were a happy coincidence… or if perhaps he only created the poem as a result of the act of tripping itself. When at last the momentum of readers ebbed, our host, David Lucas Bell, returned to the pen and closed the reading off with an energetic “story,” assembling the cast of characters entirely from the people he saw in the room. His performance of the space itself felt the most appropriate conclusion to the evening.
And here is the exact moment at which I had believed the reading ended. Good byes and good jobs and we should get together agains all dealt with, I marched my way back to my apartment, thoroughly pleased by the evening and satisfied to have made several new acquaintances. But the next day I was surprised to discover that one of the people I had “met”— one Jonathan Hornedo— was not in fact the person named Jonathan Hornedo but instead a body double arranged to go to the reading in his place— that his entire existence at that time had been one grand performance… I began to consider the identity I had met— a stranger I will never meet again— and the certainty with which I accepted that identity as real, as what he claimed himself to be, nothing more, nothing less. All the people who had met me for the first time that night had accepted me with equal certainty—where did that certainty come from? Perhaps the performances that night had not begun only when we were made to enter the playpen and read but from the very instant we had entered the room. Maybe from much earlier. Impossible to say when the performance began. Even now, I couldn’t know if it has ceased.
* Tara Foley (ed.)