First of all…
HALLOOOOO Black Gate Readers!
I don’t even know if you remember me; it’s been so long, and I think there are probably a lot more of you now. Anyway, I’m C.S.E. Cooney, and I’m a writer, and sometimes I blog here, and today is one of those days.
So, hi. Again.
This last weekend, I attended Readercon 24, as participant and performer. This year, instead of signing up for ALL THE SCARILY CLEVER PANELS that I’m mostly unsuited for, I signed up to perform stuff.
Because I like performing.
And since performing is so cool, why, Caitlyn Paxson (another writer, also a storyteller, also a harpist and banjo-player, also the Artistic Director of the Ottawa Storytellers and All-Around Belle Dame Sans Merci, only, like, Avec Merci) and I proposed to teach a workshop at Readercon called “From Page to Stage: Adapting Your Text for Performance.”
But I get ahead of myself.
First, I had to work all day Thursday. Then change from my khaki uniform to my CUTE PIRATE CLOTHES. Then drive two hours to Burlington, MA, listening to the soundtracks from Bernarda Alba and Camelot all the live-long way. My mother, Sita, rode shotgun and napped. This was Sita’s first Readercon. In fact, this was Sita’s FIRST CON EVER.
I put this in caps because I find it very exciting. For over a decade, my mother’s plastered her shell-like ear to her end of the cell phone, listening patiently to all the (not precisely pithy) details about every con I ever attended. And then reading my (exhaustive) blogs. And then looking at the (plethora of) pictures on Facebook. After all that, she finally got to experience it for herself!
And what does she decide to do?
GENIUS! And let me tell you why.
If you’ve never been to a con before, dear readers, you won’t find a faster, friendlier, more useful (I wanted to say usefuller, I really did, but I didn’t, because I’m a frikkin WRITER) way to fit in than to volunteer.
And the great thing is: Con Coms always need volunteers!!! And the greater thing is: if you log enough hours, then you get next year’s membership for FREE!
Bear that in mind, All Ye ConN00bs! Get all cozy and conN00bial with the Volunteer Staff, and do neat-o stuff like serve coffee to writers and check people in and give them their badges, and they’ll sometimes give you FREE PIZZA.
At least, that’s what Sita tells me. And Sita never lies. Well. Hardly ever.
Gosh, where was I?
Mostly Thursday was arriving – late, say, 8:30 PM or so – and eating hummus in the hotel room with friends. Bliss. Bliss, plus some industry gossip drama and hiding behind a curtain in the hallway and crying a little.
BECAUSE IT’S A CON. These things happen.
OHMYHOLYGHOSTSTARS, BATMAN! It was a gorgeous thing!
First of all, I have to read Vourvoulias’s Ink. Because, in a word, luchadores. Or rather, a luchadora, which is… oh, WONDERFUL!
Second of all, I have to own Salsa Nocturna. Badly. I badly have to own this book. With the fire of a thousand exorcised demons roasting on a rack, badly. I burn for it. And then, pretty much, everything Older writes or edits or records in the future, I must consume. It shall be devoured, and I shall be scorched from the inside by its brilliance. This is a good plan. You might want to follow my example. Trust me.
[ETA: This morning, I get a text from Julia Rios telling me to check my front porch. What do I see there but my VERY OWN copy of Salsa Nocturna!!!
Do you think I danced? You bet I danced. Right there in my sweltering kitchen.
You know, Julia appeared in my life one day (I met her at a con; Julia Rios is a great reason to go to cons), told me in so many words that she found me interesting, and soon thereafter helped me carry 50 boxes of books up three flights of stairs to my new apartment, ate some pizza with me, and I've been wondering ever since what I did to deserve her.
SALSA NOCTURNA! IT IS MINE!!!]
Third of all, you should all go out and buy the charity anthology Pen-Ultimate, whose proceeds go to the SWFA Emergency Medical Fund.
Julia Rios wrote this hysterical telepathic squid ghost story for Pen-Ultimate. Not that the squid is a ghost. The ghost is someone entirely different, with a harpoon. It’s gorgeous. And funny. And melancholy. And very funny. But I think I said that already.
Then lunch, then rehearsal in our hotel room, then maybe a nap… What happened? Can’t remember…
3 PM: Shira Lipkin read from her novel-in-progress, Cicatrix. I have heard her read from this piece of work before. I think, convention by convention, Lipkin is inciting the masses to riot, waiting for this novel to be finished. I think she enjoys it that way.
4 PM: Writing About Music, Writing For Music. I attended this particularly because it was Caitlyn Paxson’s first panel, and I thought she might need a friendly face beaming at her from the seethe as she spoke about folk harp.
I ended up just sitting in the back and watching Caitlyn’s eyebrows do these fantastic gymnastics as the panel went astray. Or not astray, exactly, but it did lack focus and direction, and then the audience took over in unexpected ways.
Hey, it happens. Sometimes people just get up and dance. BECAUSE IT’S A CON.
While there, I did jot down the title of a book I want to read: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century by Alex Ross. There seemed to be one of those universal breaths of agreement that it was, in fact, a great book. And it won, apparently, ALL the awards.
Now, I happened to have edited the novel, so this was pretty special.
Mike had a good turn out, as readings go. And he read several very gross passages. Of course, he’d've been hard-pressed to find a not-gross passage. His book is full of cannibals and magic bullets and cleavers and ghouls. And eyeballs on tentacles. That sort of thing.
And isn’t the cover pretty? Lauren K. Cannon is one of my favorite artists at present. I saw her stuff at an art show (I think at World Fantasy in Toronto?), and I took one of her postcards, and it’s been pinned to a wall by my desk ever since. I’d buy her prints right out if I could afford them.
7 PM: A Red Cloak, A Glass Shoe. A panel discussing the meaning and role of clothing in fairy tales.
I mean, could I have missed a panel featuring Theodora Goss – AKA “Swan Princess” — Caitlyn Paxson AND Julia Rios ”Voice of the Rainbow”? (Also Veronica Schanoes and Ann Tonsor Zeddies, but I don’t know them personally.) No. No, I couldn’t have.
And I got an idea for a poem while I was sitting there listening to all the French words for “squirrel fur shoe” and the Freudian philosophy behind it, called “Fairy Tale Wedding.” It’s, uh, a bit slow in the writing, and I’m not sure about any of it, but still I’m gonna try to finish the dang thing. It goes well with a few things I’ve been thinking about this last year.
9 PM: The Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours.
Ah, and now we get to the “Performing Is Cool” part of the blog. Ahem.
Last November in Toronto, Caitlyn Paxson, Amal El-Mohtar, Patty Templeton and I all did a show together, calling ourselves the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. The show was a mix of storytelling, poem-reciting, novel-excerpting, and song-singing. All stuff we’ve written. It was great.
Caitlyn and I figured, LET’S DO IT AGAIN!
And since neither Pattyhawk nor Amalface could make it to Readercon this year, we hijacked Nicole Kornher-Stace into playing with us. She read from her YA novel Archivist Wasp, a post-apocalyptic katabasis novel with ghosts, forthcoming from Big Mouth House.
Well, actually, Nicole read the narrative bits.
Caitlyn got to play Wasp.
I got to play the ghost. It was awesome.
But that’s not how the show started.
We started off with a song from a novel (probably album too) that Caitlyn and I are going to write someday (and maybe are sort of writing in pieces right now, but don’t tell anyone), called Ballads from a Distant Star.
We’ve written, I don’t know, three or four songs, several poems, and some chapter parts, but it’s a far-future project, so don’t anybody get excited or anything.
Oh, all right, get excited. Why not? I AM!
So I stood up, laughed a little to be standing there, and straight off started singing “Song for Jenny and John.”
During rehearsal earlier, Caitlyn was a very wise owl and told me, “Introduce it after. Just sing.”
It proved the dramatic choice.
We went right from “Jenny and John” to Caitlyn Paxson’s storytelling piece about a lady magician’s revenge, called “The Disappearing Assistant.”
Caitlyn, as you may observe from the photographs, wore a top hat with a Betsie Withey flower, and told the story from memory. She manages to infuse a room with creepy sepia overtones just by standing there and talking to you. It’s like her superpower.
From there, we dramatized Nicole’s Archivist Wasp excerpt.
I know I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Nicole Kornher-Stace will make your knees knock, your heart squeeze, your throat close, your soul soar. Her writing voice, people! HER WRITING VOICE! You don’t even know. Or if you do, you’re about to know more. Keep your eye peeled for Archivist Wasp. Big Mouth House. 2014.
And then Caitlyn sang another Distant Star ballad called “Rare Annie,” which was published in poem form in Mythic Delirium 28.
After which, we finished up with a story-within-a-story excerpt from my novella “Martyr’s Gem,” called “The Epic of Shursta Sharkbait.” It rather lends itself to reading aloud, because the character is telling the story to an audience in a hall, during a celebration.
“Martyr’s Gem” was published at GigaNotoSaurus last May. We’d performed this same interactive, call-and-response reading last year at World Fantasy in Toronto, and it was my great delight to do it again.
But the most spectacular part of this reading for me was the fact that JUST THAT NIGHT some Canadian audio-visual wizard friends of mine in Ottawa, Magill Foote and Grant Jeffery of Rule2 Productions, had put the finishing touches on this EPIC (forgive me) “Epic of Shursta Sharkbait” project we’d been working on for a few months.
And here it is… this BEAUTIFUL THING!
It is possibly the coolest project I’ve collaborated on EVER.
After the show, we all went swimming in the salt water pool. Some of us didn’t have bathing suits, so we made due in our skivvies.
We had a lot of fun siren-singing people into the pool with us. Sometimes while they were still wearing all their clothes.
10 AM: From Page to Stage: Adapting and Performing Your Work for an Audience
The title pretty much explains it all. We had some friends among the workshop participants — which was great! — and also some audience from our BACT show the night before. That was unexpectedly moving.
Caitlyn and I both have a lot of stage and vocal training. As struggling upstarts in this highly competitive field, we have found it invaluable that we can, at the very least, entertain people at our readings. And we wanted to share some part of that knowledge with our community.
We talked about stage fright, projection, pacing, eye contact, familiarity with your text, connection with your audience. And we taught a few breathing and vocal exercises that help to warm the voice and settle the nerves before giving a reading.
It was the first thing of this sort we’d ever done together, and we were both impressed by the bravery of our workshop participants, who were willing to trust us, discuss their difficulties with us, and game enough to try the things we suggested. I hope we get to do it again!
12 PM: Unraveling the Unexamined Privilege of Safety.
This panel featured Liz Gorinsky of Tor, writer Victoria Janssen, the AMAZING Mikki Kendall (I met her on a panel at Readercon a few years ago, and have liked her better every time I’ve seen her), Shira Lipkin, and Daniel José Older.
They spoke about power, oppression, healing, language, and literature.
So, basically, folks, if you are ever at a con and see any of those names appearing on a panel, you will want to attend it.
2 PM Nicole Kornher-Stace’s reading!
Now, I could say a whole lot more about Archivist Wasp, since I was lucky enough to BETA-READ IT, but I’m known for spoiling things for people who hate spoilers.
Me, I love to be spoiled. I don’t even consider it spoiling. I consider it hearing a story in one medium before I go and experience it in another. Actually, for me, hearing the whole story of something makes me far more likely to see/read/hear it, because if I get excited about something, I am more likely to pay attention to it. Otherwise, too many things “I positively must do!” come at me, and I shut down.
So I won’t say anything more except… GHOSTS! SUPER-SOLDIERS! SACRIFICE! BLOODSPORT! BAD DOGS!
2:30 PM Daniel José Older‘s reading.
Ah. Didn’t I promise we’d come back to him? I did!
He read, beautifully, from Salsa Nocturna. In hindsight, I wished I’d encouraged my workshop participants to attend his reading, because as a performer, Older does all the things I’d want them to do.
For one thing, he stands IN FRONT of the table, instead of sitting behind it. (Very important. The energy leaps when you’re standing. And there is no artificial barrier between you and the audience.) He is well-practiced, well-paced; he uses his hands to emphasize the text; he projects.
He’s also funny as hell. Or he makes hell funny. One of those.
Toward the end of Readercon, I realized that I was telling all my roommates and anyone else within a certain radius what extraordinary work Older was doing — both in fiction and out of it — which I’d witnessed earlier that year at a con called Arisia, and which seemed only more evident at Readercon. And then I thought to myself, FINALLY:
Cooney! You’re a grown-up. You should probably tell the dude himself. That’d be the polite thing to do anyway.
Because we all like to hear nice things about ourselves, especially when we’re working our butts off. Which Daniel José Older does, I think.
So I wrote him a fan letter, like you do, and said, among other things:
“…Your stories, your voice, your truth, your collaborative spirit, your rage, your humor, your discourse on healing and on messy conversations, are all so powerfully necessary.
I am very glad that you have chosen to take such an active role in your community, working so hard with others of power and voice and truth, and with such outrageous grace, to make this world safer, richer, more full of music, and stocked with the best kinds of stories.
Really, you make the best kind of comedy. The kind, I find, that guts you even as it makes you laugh – often in the same breath – then sews you back up together somehow, better than you were.
Anyway, I think he’s kind of a meteor, and I shall be interested in watching him flame across the dark. AND READING ALL HIS BOOKS!
3 PM: Mythic Poetry Reading.
This was great. I got to read “Bless Us, Nellie Bly, Saint of the Secular Upstarts,” which I’d written for Patty Templeton. First time in front of an audience, too — unless you count my mom, Sita. Which I do.
Mike Allen and Caitlyn Paxson ran it. Sam Henderson sang! And Gwynne Garfinkle read, and Gemma Files read, and Sonya Taaffe, and Nicole Kornher-Stace, and Shira Lipkin, and Alex Dally MacFarlane, Dominik Parisien, Julia Rios, Romie Stott, and JoSelle Vanderhooft. All of these wonderful poets I get to share the planet with!
But it was Rose Lemberg who tore my heart out and gave it wings.
She recited her piece from memory. She cried it out. She embodied it. And it consumed her like a fire. She left me weeping and trembling.
I think her poetry is dangerous. At least, it left me feeling like the most gorgeous shipwreck.
At this point, I don’t know what happened. Nap? Food? (Indian, I think. Food court. Outdoor adventure in cars.)
Then, yes, getting ready for the big event of the evening, which was…
8 PM: A Most Readerconnish Miscellany.
WHY, WHAT IS THIS? you ask. I will tell you!
But I had some experience emceeing open mics, and I said I’d do it if no one else would. Thank goodness Mike stepped in and shouldered the bulk of the evening himself!
The evening opened with the a cappella group Sassafrass (Lila Garrott, Ruth Wejksnora, Tili Sokolov, Sandry Wilkie, Kara Hurvitz) singing “Somebody Will” – a tightly harmonized and passionate tribute to the space program. Music and lyrics and an audio recording can be found here.
Then I got to recite my story-poem, “The Sea King’s Second Bride,” which can be found in my collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes.
Daniel José Older, accompanied by musician Pan Morigan (more on her later), read “Graveyard Waltz” and “Forgive Me My Tangents” from Salsa Nocturna.
Caitlyn Paxson sang “Lost Jimmy Whalen,” a Canadian ballad about a girl and the ghost of her drowned lover.
Sonya Taaffe sang “Midnight Feast” — a demon lover song — and “The Fair Flower of Northumberland,” wherein a girl is not ultimately punished WITH DEATH for falling in love and having sex and making mistakes. It was so refreshing. And Taaffe’s voice! Her voice! She’s classically trained and could have, if she chose, blown the roof off of that hotel. Swept the stars from the sky. Called down the heavens.
It was my great pleasure to introduce Cat Valente, who read from her novel, Six-Gun Snow White, a setting of an old tale in a new world. Or rather, the Old West.
She was breathtaking.
Then Andrea Hairston and Pan Morigan did their reading-and-song performance of Hairston’s Tiptree Award Winning Redwood and Wildfire. I do not know where I first saw them perform this — Readercon or WisCon — all I know is, I was with my friends and those women lit a fire in our hearts and that fire was the seedling-flame for The Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours.
Morigan learned to play the banjo specifically because Hairston asked her to do so. Hairston’s spoken word and Morigan’s wailing vocals entwine together like two sisters ascending into a sunset they’ve just conjured for the purpose. They are an unforgettable act.
Oh, and, I own this book.
You should too.
The last act was John Kessel and Therese Anne Fowler performing a short play called The Doll Hospital by Jeanne Beckwith. Before they went on, we begged one last time for contributions to BARCC and Operation Hammond.
When the play was over, Rose Fox announced that we had made over $1,000 to split evenly between these institutions.
After the benefit, a party.
But mostly I chatted in the hallway with a new friend Valya Dudycz Lupescu, before retreating back to my hotel room and chatting about various affaires de coeur with Caitlyn Paxson until I fell asleep.
On Sunday, it was all about the readings. I saw Rose Lemberg at 9 AM, Theodora Goss at 1 PM, and Ken Schneyer at 2 PM. (Oh, Ken! Will I ever think of children and red balloons again without shuddering?)
At 11 AM, I had my own reading — my last thing I had to do! — and I read a bit of an unpublished novella (or perhaps the first third of a novel called Silver and Bone, who knows?) called “The Bone Swans of Amandale.” I introduced this by telling the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Juniper Tree,” which made my friend April Grant cry, which made me panic slightly. But she says she always cries when she hears or reads “The Juniper Tree.” So I maybe didn’t have much to do with it. Then I recited “Wild Over Tombs Does Grow” and my two Coyote poems from my collection, and then I was done! Caitlyn and I grabbed some breakfast-lunch in the form of small cheeses and crackers, and I was in time to catch the end of Shveta Thakrar’s panel “Writing for Young Readers.”
After Ken’s reading, which was astonishingly disturbing, I went home. Ken drove, and the two-hour trip passed in the blinking of an eye.
And then next day, I was back to work.
“Heigh-ho the glamorous life.”