Two weeks ago, I went to a virtual launch for the latest issue of High Desert Journal, whose contributors are scattered across the Rocky Mountains. The event allowed writers and readers in Montana, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado to celebrate their work together, across time zones and communities. A day later, I supported four regional writers for a the launch of a regional anthology over Zoom, and last night, I attended a virtual reading with novelist Rachel Yoder, hosted by Spokane’s very own Auntie’s Books.
Between these readings, hybrid teaching for my freshman comp classes, and a variety of virtual meetings, I’ve been using Zoom a lot lately. It’s a fact of my life these days, no matter how much I complain about it with other writers and teachers. It’s become ingrained in my writing life, the main way I exercise good literary citizenship.
Among my fondest memories of my MFA program were the readings the literary community was able to put together. The town’s indie bookstore hosted poets and novelists, faculty and local authors, on an almost weekly basis. This became the focal point of my own literary family as much as the coffee shop a block down the road where we wrote in the morning and the sketchy green bar two blocks up the road where we unwound on weekends. These readings came to a halt around the time I defended my thesis in March, 2020.
At first, the virtual readings that presses and bookstores organized to replace in-person events felt novel and a little unserious, mainly because we all wanted them to be temporary. The virtual defenses I attended with my cohort had no readily apparent etiquette. Do I keep my screen on? Am I allowed to go to the bathroom? Am I allowed to ask a question? Having taught Zoom classes now, I understand the ambivalence about using Zoom for literary engagement.
I think many of us want to think of pandemic-specific accommodations as just that: a way of managing present circumstances, of mitigating damage, and ultimately saving lives. But I think virtual readings are more than a temporary fix, but a possible adaptation.
I’ve come to appreciate virtual readings, as both an instructor and reader. I talk about universal design—a pedagogical tool to include all learning abilities equally—in my lesson planning, and I think virtual options are a useful part of the design now. They expand the potential for literary participation, adding to the community rather than merely replicating it.
I still miss in-person readings. A screen is no substitute for going to the sketchy green bar after a famous writer gives a craft talk and gossiping with my friends about his haircut or her ecopoetics. But I enjoy catching up with literary friends in different states like this. In the isolation that circumstances impose, I admire writers and publishers who have adapted with what seems, on the surface, an impressive show of grace.
That grace does not come easily. Isolation is difficult for many reason, and writers are much more dependent upon community than many of us are willing to acknowledge. Without such readings, I think I would be wholly disconnected from writing itself. As tedious as the technology can seem, I am glad that I can hop on a virtual reading, hear my friends’ voices, and cheer on their accomplishments from afar.