Not to sound braggy or anything, but I'm sort of an expert on literary events. I've been at Powell's for more than 10 years now and I've been hosting and booking author events for most of that time. Before I worked here, I ran an espresso cart business for five years BUT also hosted a reading series (at the long-missed café Umbra Penumbra) and frequented all the open mics. I've been to so many readings, I'm like a patron saint.
The mysteries and nuances of a good reading (oh, yeah, we prefer to call them events) are something I'm asked about all the time.
Besides the most important element of finding good writers who have interesting things to read out loud, you can spice things up in a myriad of ways. Here are some examples of top notch event ideas.
Nudity! A couple of years ago, I participated in an event called Strip Poetry, hosted by Mykle Hansen. It was in the basement of a Portland café and the lure of real live poet flesh brought out the crowd. It was packed and sweaty. There were six poets who took turns reading their poems through the night. But wait ? what was that giant wheel with the numbers next to the mic? Oh, that was what we spun to see how many pieces of clothes we had to take off before we read. Needless to say, I (and the rest of the readers) made sure to dress in layers for the event. I think it was only an hour later before some full frontal was unleashed. I got down to my boxers before it was done. I'd done a bunch of sit-ups and push-ups all week before this night to make myself presentable, just in case.
Death! Well, not really death but more like a competitive verbal sparring. Poetry slams made this concept popular. I actually did the slam thing for a few years myself in the mid-'90s (a part of my writing career that I try to keep buried). While many don't like the concept of scoring or judging literature, it can add a lot of drama to a reading. Opium magazine hosts what they call Literary Death Matches in a few different cities (possibly in Portland later this year). They tap writers who represent different lit journals to compete for a prize. The winners are picked by local celebrity judges. Imagine: McSweeney's vs. n+1 or Granta vs. Caketrain. Man oh man. Someone might throw a pen at someone!
Themes! One of the readings I'll be doing next month will be something called The Dollar Store reading in Chicago. Apparently, the host of the show is sending me something from a dollar store and I'm supposed to write about it. Sounds like it'll be a budget fiction funfest! One Portland reading series, Loggernaut, also operates on a theme. A good theme can add much-needed focus to a night of talking on stage. Sex (see above) and death (see above) are popular themes. I hosted a short series of readings once called Booty Calls. These were nights where writers told uncensored stories of hot filth. Dead Poets Night is always a good time, too. The ones we had in Portland featured folks dressing up as their favorite dead poet and reciting classic verse from Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, and Charles Bukowski among others.
Truth! One of the best ways to get to the truth is making writers talk without a script. The Porchlight reading series in San Francisco gathers writers to tell their stories off the top of their head. Beth Lisick (one of the most entertaining readers you'll ever see) helps put together this event and it's one of the best. Of course, the Moth reading in New York also features superb truthy storytellers like Jonathan Ames (also one of the best readers ever) and Dan Kennnedy.
Music! We're getting into cross-disciplinary stuff now! Having music at your event can add just the right amount of spark to make it memorable. The Happy Ending series in New York is easily my favorite experience as a reader. Amanda Stern always chooses a quality lineup of writers and mixes in a band or musician as well. One Ring Zero played on the night I read there a couple years ago. What about music and reading mixed!? That might sound crazy but it can be done. I once did a reading where the other authors read with a theremin player and a DJ/sampler/scratcher. I was accompanied by a guitar feedback manipulator. It sounded like swans humping. You could always do the beat poet route and have a stand up bass on hand. One of the best open mics in Portland was the Subterranean Beat Revival, where they had jazz musicians improvise behind the poets.
Mementos! Before John Hodgman was the It boy of odd comedy, he hosted a cool series called The Little Gray Book Lectures. One of the cool things they did was they made a little pamphlet that audience members received at the end of the night. There's something called the Back Room Series here in Portland that does a similar pamphlet thing but from a more scholarly angle. And their events come with dinner!
Audience Participation! The Triple Dare readings here in Portland are masterminded by Reading Frenzy and the Independent Publishing Resource Center. The "dare" part of the evening is directed at the audience. I'm reading at the one tonight (Someday Lounge, 8:00 p.m. Come on down!) and the dare has something to do with magic. Perhaps they'll dare you to put me in a box and cut me in half. I don't know. One of the coolest examples of audience interaction, though, was when I saw Seattle's legendary Typing Explosion. They were three women dressed in retro secretary style that silently and dutifully would make up (and type!) poems on the spot based on what audience members suggested to them. Instant collaborative literature!