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Whiskey and Cookies in the Lobby: Kleft Jaw at Beyond Baroque

 

 

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By: Gabriel Ricard

 

It’s a clichéd saying, but I’ve always liked the notion that cowards die a thousand times before their deaths. I like it as a concept, because you can apply it to so many things. For me, I’ve always enjoyed applying it to any kind of stage performance.

 

Believe it or not, but it’s helped me in the past to think along those lines. Theater, standup, or anything that involves facing a crowd is embracing the exclamation point of my social anxiety. I’m also a shameless attention whore, and I believe in doing everything possible to promote a product or an idea. If that means trying to engage a large group of people, none of whom are entirely sure as to why they’re paying any attention to you, then that’s fine.

 

All of those reasons compel me to audition for plays, pretend I have any business doing open mic standup, or take part in readings. When Frankie Met extended to me the extraordinary opportunity to join the Kleft Jaw staff, I had a feeling that readings were going to be a big part of how the magazine and small press publishing house spent their time.

 

Why not? Ask the guys at CCM, or ask Frankie. Anyone who knows the publishing business at this point in time knows that you could probably sink the Titanic all over again, using only the small press/self-published books (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) that are going to come during 2015 alone. For a dying industry, there are an awful lot of goddamn books around.

 

Readings will help you sell books. You have to promote the event, and you certainly have to bring some books for people to buy. You also have to genuinely enjoy the atmosphere that needs to exist, in order for you to take something that is presumably very personal, read it in front of a crowd, and pretend it’s not that big a deal. It isn’t to some. To others, dying a thousand times before they speak into the microphone isn’t even scratching the surface of the terror they feel.

 

I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. Theater is easier than standup ever was (it might be best for everyone if I never do it again). Writing and reading copy for WNRN in Charlottesville, VA is probably the easiest thing I’ve ever done, since obviously, no one is staring at me. I love doing Kleftikos Radio, which is the fantastic radio show that Kleft Jaw puts out whenever possible. I get to read poetry, play music, and interview the great Kleft Jaw writers that have been published in the magazine and through the small press publishing house. I get to hang out with co-hosts like Frankie, Lindsey Thomas, Mik Everett, and Ryder Collins. It’s a great gig, and it’s far less stressful than theater, standup, pro wrestling, or anything else I’ve done in front of a crowd, that didn’t later end with indecent exposure accusations.

 

By the time Frankie invited me to read with other members of Kleft Jaw at Denver, Colorado’s Mercury Café, I had built up a good enough resume of theater, standup, and all the times I was willing to risk looking stupid in front of strangers and loved ones. The reading was slated for May 2014, and the timing couldn’t have been better. I was going to be in Chicago anyway, riding there from Virginia, and it wasn’t that big of a deal to take a train from Chicago to Denver. It would be a great opportunity to meet Frankie, Lindsey, KJ alumni Dustin Holland, and the others who were going to be on the bill. This was a big show for Kleft Jaw, and it was going to be at one of the most prestigious venues for performance art in the city. I was honored.

 

But I didn’t really prepare.

 

Sure, I knew what I was going to read. I even practiced a couple of times. But I didn’t really work on the material that I was going to read for my set. Considering how intensely fucking terrified I was of doing a good job, in such intimidating, powerful company, before a crowd of seasoned audience members, the fact that I took a casual approach to rehearsing the material is a little stunning to me now.

 

I’m sure there are textbooks that explain people who derive great anxiety from performing before a crowd, and yet are arrogant enough to believe that they don’t really need to practice. I was extremely nervous, but I told myself I could do it. I believed my experience with theater and all the rest would create a formidable combination with my enthusiasm, when it came time to read with the writers and performers I admired so much.

 

So confident in my abilities to just shut up and dance, I even convinced Frankie to let me do some standup to open the show. I didn’t mention that the last time I had done standup, it was such a disaster, a woman at the Brass Monkey in Baltimore told me, as I was sitting down at the bar, “Honey, you ain’t that funny at all.”

 

This is the part in the story in which everyone needs to act surprised that I crashed and burned on both the standup and the reading.

 

Everyone was kind about it. I certainly could have been worse. Even so, I knew that sweating and stammering my way through five minutes of terrible comedy, followed by stammering and sweating my way through a short story I had not planned to read (but I was determined to read something that was affiliated with Kleft Jaw, and the poem I had originally picked did not meet that qualification at the time) was not what I had planned. I was mediocre. When measured against the passion, energy, and originality of voices like Frankie’s, Dustin’s, Lindsey’s, and everyone else who read, sang, or did comedy, I was an embarrassment.

 

Kleft Jaw celebrated on the streets of Denver with vodka and other necessary chemicals that night. I joined in, and I did feel pretty grateful for the opportunity to watch some of the best writers and performers in the world do their thing, but I didn’t feel like I had contributed anything to that evening. Frankie assured me there would be other readings. I figured, but I also decided during the early, warm May hours of the morning after the show that if no one invited me ever again, I would understand.

 

Since I’m a lot more vicious a critic of myself than others tend to be, I wasn’t so terrible as to completely destroy the idea that I could ever be invited to read again. I got another chance this past December, when Kleft Jaw put together a reading at the legendary Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. Once again, being able to do the show came down to the matter of convienience. I was already in Ashland, Oregon with my girlfriend Cara. Getting to Los Angeles from that point would be much easier than getting there from Virginia. I know, because I’ve been stupid and bright-eyed enough to take those kinds of trips over the years.

 

Going to Venice for the Beyond Baroque show meant staying in L.A. with Matthew Guerruckey and Corissa Stuckey. 2014 has given me the opportunity to meet the people I work with at both Kleft Jaw and Drunk Monkeys. They share some similarities, but ultimately, you’re talking about two very different literary journals, in terms of what each one publishes. I get to exist between the two, and that’s something I’m always going to be grateful for.

 

S.A. Griffin, M.j. Taylor, Dustin Holland, Lindsey Thomas, and Frankie Met made up the roster for the show. The audience included Matthew, Corissa, Cara, and several others. Beyond Baroque is a medium-sized building, fairly unassuming in terms of the rest of the Venice area. It offers the performance area, a bookstore, and an upstairs area. It has been in existence for several decades, and it has been a significant creative space for a wide array of poets and off-the-worn-path thinkers. You can feel the history, standing in the enclosed outdoor area behind the building, or walking up the stairs to get to the bathroom.  

 

I understood this history, but the rest of the Kleft Jaw faithful performing that night had a much deeper appreciation than I did. Frankie in particular was nervous to be standing on ground that clearly meant a lot to him.

 

And he was brilliant. You can watch the video on Kleft Jaw’s YouTube channel. You can catch Lindsey’s performance, as well. Lindsey of course wrote Blind Date at the Glass Eye Disco, which is easily one of my favorite books in the KJ canon. Lindsey is not only a great writer, one of the most interesting minds in our arsenal, and incredibly ambitious in what she wants to do with Kleft Jaw. She is also one of the best readers I have ever seen. Her set was easily my favorite at the Mercury Café in Denver. Her set at Beyond Baroque was just as good. She began both readings with a very slight tremor of nervousness. This is just her tone setting itself to the task of burning down the house with her singular sense of humor, her attention to the strangest of the strange details that exist beneath the ordinary, and did I mention her sense of humor? She’s funny. She’s one of the reasons why I love working for Kleft Jaw.

 

But everyone was great. M.j. Taylor reads quietly, trusting the words to get your attention. And they do. Dustin Holland goes about reading in a similar way, but he clearly prefers to put as much performance into each piece he reads as the piece itself will allow. He doesn’t do anything that comes at the expense of what he’s written, and what he’s written often makes for scenes that are as surreal as they are hilarious.

 

And then there’s Frankie. If I could endeavor to emulate anyone’s confidence and energy, I would want to follow in his footsteps. His work is powerful enough, insightful enough, and creative enough to speak for itself. When it is actually being spoken by the man himself, it amounts to one of the reasons why people are still going to shows like these, and why people swarmed the Beyond Baroque bookstore afterwards to buy books and talk literature. I felt small surrounded by those conversations, in the same way that I always do when I’m around people who are more knowledgeable and successful than I am, but it is thrilling company all the same. It is company you can learn from.

 

And I am learning. I learned from my average performance at the Mercury Café, and I gave what I feel was a much better performance at Beyond Baroque. My girlfriend impressed upon the need to know my material, and to even know the order in which the poems should be read. I assumed at Mercury that all my experience on various stages across the country meant I didn’t need to practice. I can tell you that reading poetry or fiction before a crowd of the enthusiastic is nothing like doing a play, performing standup, or anything else in which the eyes of the small universe you’re inhabiting are fixed upon you. Treating all of it as the same kind of thing might work in your case. It didn’t work in mine. I paid attention to people who had considerably more experience with readings than I do, and I practiced my set repeatedly, over the course of the ten-hour drive to Los Angeles.

 

When the show was over, Kleft Jaw and everyone else stood around outside Beyond Baroque. Everyone felt pretty good. There was beer, whiskey, cookies, and other snacks in the lobby. Loose plans were thrown together for the evening, but I had somewhere else to be. Frankie felt good about the show, and I shared that opinion easily. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to end 2014.

 

As 2015 begins to establish a proper breathing pattern, we’re looking ahead to April 25th, in Milwaukee. I know Frankie and Lindsey are going to be there. I know Ryder Collins, who wrote my personal favorite poetry collection that’s available through KJ Press, is also going to be there. I know I am going to be there, as well.

 

I’m hooked on doing these readings. The last year or so has made the case for that. Beyond Baroque made it clear to me that I can do these things. It’s just a question of getting better and better at it. I’m definitely in the best company possible to learn how I can do that. If I can manage ten or twenty thousand more between now, and whenever I get around to dying of a massive heart attack, I’ll be very grateful.

 

 

 

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