Chapter 5: An Interview with Wendy C. Oritz
This series of interviews with writer/organizers aims to explore why and how to have a literary reading—a good literary reading—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience while also creating a supportive environment for readers.
Last week Andrew Sargus-Klein described how he encourages live collaboration across artistic genres. Now we’ll hear from Wendy C. Ortiz, who knows what makes a good reader, hates when they go too long, and encourages readers to converse.
(Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted. When this series is all said and done, maybe we’ll have developed the simple formula for the perfect reading. Or maybe we’ll learn enough to make more questions to answer!)
Name: Wendy C. Ortiz
Location: Los Angeles
What series do you run and for how long has it been going?
WCO: The Rhapsodomancy Reading Series is based in Los Angeles. For the first ten years we had every reading at the Good Luck Bar in Hollywood. This year, I’ve changed up the entire format so now we’re traveling around Los Angeles to different venues.
When I started the series with Andrea Quaid, we had no real experience hosting readings.
Our first reading was in October of 2004. The series ran every other month until December 2014. Now it’s not on a fixed schedule.
Do you feel that there are benefits to moving the location around? Does it affect attendance?
WCO: I’m discovering that in changing the format and the venue, I’ve lost what was a core audience. The series also happened on Sunday nights, and I’ve experimented with Saturday nights for the last two. The first one this year was in the a loft in downtown Los Angeles; the second was in a pizza joint’s art gallery. I do think moving the location around has and will impact the attendance, but I also assume we’ll pick up new audience members this way.
I’ve been talking with a lot of writers about the energy that can occur between a good reader and a good audience, which makes a reading special. Do you think this kind of vibe is something the host/organize has the responsibility (or even ability) to foster?
WCO: Maybe we need to define what makes a “good reader” and a “good audience.” I imagine every reading series has a slightly different take on it. My job as the curator/host/producer is to offer writers I believe an audience will dig and make connections to and want to read more work from. My hope is that the audience will come with open minds and hearts and be ready to support the writers reading–whether it’s in their attention and engagement during the reading, their interactions with the writers, or buying the writers’ books or chapbooks. Good readers, though–well, I have definite thoughts on that.
I’m all ears.
WCO: To me, a good reader is someone who knows the work they’re reading from inside and out (it shows); who comes prepared; who stays within the allotted time given (<—SO IMPORTANT. I have not invited people back for going way over their allotted time); who creates and hopefully sustains a certain energy that shifts the room–or at least, half of the room.
Can you give a brief rundown of how your readings are structured? Length or reading, how many readers, an open? any rules or guidleines?
WCO: In the first ten years, we had four writers. I liked having half prose writers, half poets, plus a mix of “emerging” and “established.” I typically divvied up minutes based on experience or publications—so a newer writer might get 10 minutes, while the established authors might get up to 18 minutes. We’ve never had an open mic.
Now, in this new format, I talk to a writer who’s expressed an interest in reading, and ask, “Tell me three writers you’d like to have a conversation with and the theme(s) you might explore in that conversation, and how that conversation could be facilitated to bring the audience into it.” I help narrow down the other writers and locate the venue. The two writers do short readings (up to 8 minutes max), and then proceed to have a conversation with themselves and the audience. No real rules or guidelines aside from the number of minutes given to read. I’m a super stickler about that, if that hasn’t come across yet.
That is a really cool format. I love the conversation aspect. So, the audience can ask questions too?
WCO: Thanks! I do, too. I’ve been telling people that deciding to do it this way—and even starting the series—definitely has some selfish aspects to it. When we started, we asked ourselves who were the dream writers we wanted to have come read for us, and in what kind of venue? In that case, we had writers like Eileen Myles, Chris Abani, Maggie Nelson, many others, and it all took place in a dark bar with flocked wallpaper close to where we lived. Now, I want to listen in on smart conversations between writers and have an opportunity to ask questions and have a conversation. Audience questions are welcome in this format but definitely not the focus—it’s more like a conversation.
What is the best/funniest/most memorable thing that’s ever happened at a reading?
WCO: I have been asked a similar question before, only it was the weirdest thing that’s ever happened, and frankly, I can’t think of anything that weird, or super memorable. My memorable or best will be totally different from the audience’s. If you figure we’ve had over 200 writers read at the series, it’s hard to say something was “the most” anything. I just know I’ve been moved and honored and humbled and blown apart from various readings and that’s what I’m looking for.
Can you give one piece of advice for others thinking about putting on a reading?
WCO: Maybe with this new format I’ll be able to collect weird experiences because the venues aren’t set and anything can happen.
Don’t let your writers read too long. It’s not cool. No one likes it. In fact, some of us fucking hate it.
What’s one question I should ask the next person I talk to for this series?
WCO: Why are they doing a reading series? What’s different about what they’re offering?
Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014), Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Bruja(Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hazlitt, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and The Nervous Breakdown, among other places. Visit her at wendyortiz.com.