The compressor is too noisy so they shut it off before you read. These twelve foot high pink and white inflatable bunnies slowly flatten. When inflated they are some terrifying bunnies. Once deflated they are easy to stomp on. They belong to the Dikeou collection of contemporary art in Denver, Colorado, occupy two corners of the room in which the readings happen. The wind of their deflation carries no words, but once they are deflated, at the podium the writers read their works between two flat bunnies. If I am ever on the road again I would like to take these two inflatables as companions and release my words into the rabbit wind as they wilt.
At the University of Oklahoma once I was paid $2000 to read to an audience of six people, nice people who told me how their anti-war movement had been betrayed by a faux hippy agitator who instigated riots in 1968. On the night following my reading Czeslaw Milosz received the $20,000 Lannan prize at a large auditorium before an audience of eight besides myself and three of the six from my crowd. Two of the aged Lannan dedicators slept as the Polish poet read. The wind of their snoring was rabbit wind.
In Halifax once I read at a benefit for the Buddhist community many of whom had recently moved to Nova Scotia from Colorado. I was performing with Phil Glass. We both came down to Halifax from Inverness in Cape Breton. The large auditorium was packed with Haligonians, Buddhists, and tourists, most of them there to hear Phil. I read my story called “One Pinch Plut,” which was a much longer read than I had anticipated. When you read prose, it tends to go on until the end. I carried much of the audience through the whole piece, but could sense that many of them wanted me to give way to Phil. For that part of the audience I was all rabbit wind, and the rabbit was deflating too slowly. On the other hand, I thought it would be great to follow Phil everywhere and read to his big audiences, laying a pavement of rabbit wind for his serial music.
The act of performing my works, of reading them aloud, has always added another layer of insecurity to the bright garment of self doubt that makes acts of writing unnerving and vital. When I was a student editor of Epoch magazine the faculty editors wouldn’t let me me read the works I advocated aloud because my readings were too convincing and somehow unfair. I have long grappled with my talent for hamming up a poem. It always confuses me when I read my own work aloud, and grab the attention of the audience by moving them or making them laugh. Is it the quality of the work or the seduction of the performance? This is part of the imponderable quandariness of a life committed to art. People tell me that they are glad to hear me read, that it makes them appreciate the work more. I enjoy the attention and approbation, but always wonder if the work plays as well on the page without the wind of the rabbit. I know that many people take pleasure in reading aloud to themselves. Perhaps my reading helps their process. I enjoy my “dramatic” skills, but I always have the fear that the real attraction may be in the performance, not in the work where I want it to perform by itself, as language alive on the page. Thinking about this is like trying to watch yourself dance. Any glance in the mirror changes the moves. It feels to me a weak diversionary tactic to call my readings “performance”, that great academic whoops of contemporary art.
When Antonello’s Lion was released, Rafael, my son, booked some readings around Portland, Oregon. I read to a nice crowd at Clackamas Community College, then at the very precious Reed College. An old friend from Eugene and Northwest Review, whom I hadn’t seen for years, who taught philosophy there, Robert Paul, the most soft-spoken philosopher in the universe, whispered an introduction. His was a quietly snide introduction, correctly measuring the hubris and pretensions he drew from my lame entry in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. I don’t think anyone heard him. The last reading was at a small resort and vineyard called McMenamin’s Edgefield, a popular watering hole outside Portland, a retreat for people with family or lover. They offer a panoply of activities and games. They had never before presented the attraction of a living author reading from his work, and probably never will again. They brought in fifty copies of the book for me to sign, and them to sell. Obviously they were novices in the book business. For my troubles they gave me a small honorarium and treated myself and Rafael to dinner at their popular roast beef restaurant. It was the time of vendemmia, the grape harvest. They had set me up in a room in their cellar, near the barrels they were filling from fresh pressings of grapes. Guests passed and peeked in to see me at the podium, then moved on to badminton or tango lessons. A few people sat down. Fruit flies ruled the air of the room. Every time I opened my mouth they flew in, checking out anything moist. I was a slave of the flies. The people, some of them perhaps at their first reading ever, witnessed an author who when he opened his mouth to read off the page, immediately breathed in squadrons of flies. I tried to keep my teeth clenched to sift them out, but they wandered across my incisors and did their stunts on the moisture of my lips. So the McMenamin’s guests who stayed witnessed the author of Antonello’s Lion as a swallower and sputterer of fruit flies. Even now, as my bones deteriorate into old age, I occasionally feel the release of a tardy McMenamin fruit fly into the remnants of a rabbit wind.
Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.