Friday, October 18, 2019

Writers & One-Nighters

Poetry night at the Barkin’ Dog Grill, Modesto. A warm
room with fellow featured poet Paul Neumann and
gracious series host Stella Beratlis at the mike.
Earlier this week I took a quick road trip to central California to read at the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center’s Second Tuesday poetry series. I was reading with Paul Neumann, a former professor at Modesto Junior College, at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto in this long-running series that was founded by poet Gillian Wegener and is now hosted by Modesto’s city poet laureate, Stella Beratlis. 

That is one healthy reading series; when I got to the Barkin’ Dog Grill, the place was packed, and as soon as Stella and Gillian arrived, I realized that they were waving at or hugging almost everyone in the restaurant—all these folks were there to see the reading (empty-house nightmare averted!). The audience was lively and engaged, with the kind of rapt faces that I always enjoy reading to.

And I would just like to say: This was the first reading I’ve ever done where the audience was eating dinner. And I loved that, and now I’ll always want people to be eating. There was something wonderfully assuring about the clink of forks and the light glinting off wineglasses while I read my work; some little existential cell inside me was happy that these people were getting sustenance. I have a longstanding blood-sugar issue—an aftereffect from a scary health crisis about 12 years ago—and I tend to get glucose crashes at inconvenient moments, like right in the middle of a reading*. So I’m obsessive about eating a solid meal before doing a reading. At the Barkin’ Dog I was able to order a full sit-down meal (and a giant glass of iced tea), and then ate half of it while the first reader performed. This was pretty much a perfect scenario; by the time I got to read, I was warm and tanked up, and there was still food left to polish off after my show was over. All the eating and waitstaff did make for a little extra noise during the reading, but it was nothing a seasoned open mike veteran can’t handle. (What poet hasn’t had to shout over a growling cappuccino machine or a phone ringing or a fight breaking out in the bar?)

Did you know Lodi is full of wineries and has miles
and miles of vineyards? I didn’t.
When I was planning this little road trip, it seemed like an awfully long drive (about six hours) to do in a day, only to return home the next day; I generally turn into a pumpkin after three hours in the car. But my 17-year-old cat had a tough summer healthwise, and I didn’t want to leave him alone too long. So I decided to just see how this whirlwind, long-drive one-nighter went. And it went fine. Great, in fact. To my surprise, I enjoyed the driving and even took a longer route the second day, adding about a half-hour to the trip home**. 

The Best Western in Lodi is right by the truck stop, but
actually really nice. Tiniest lap pool I have ever seen.
Over the last two years I’ve done more than 10 road trips to support my new book, The Trouble with New England Girls. This has made me ponder a lot about the economics and logistics of out-of-town readings, since I live in southern Oregon, a long way from everywhere. Pretty much every out-of-town reading requires an overnight stay, so I experimented with one-nighters and two-nighters, and even a three-nighter, to see what felt best for me. To my surprise, I prefer one-nighters and long drives over two-nighters and shorter, broken-up drives. It may be because I’ve had two high-maintenance cats the past few years (one with diabetes), but staying away a single night is much easier on me psychologically than arranging to be away for two or three nights. And I’m always amazed at how much I pack in during a one-night, two-day trip; when I get back home, I always feel like I’ve been away much longer. And the longer drives are (counterintuitively) bothering me less as I get older.

And did you know the Deshmesh Darbar Sikh Temple
is also in Lodi?
And then there’s the money side of it; of course one night in a hotel is half the price of two nights. We writers have to think about this stuff. Out-of-town readings sometimes don’t pay for themselves. But sometimes they do; sometimes you even turn a profit. In the long run it feels like a wash, and that’s fine. And there are many intangible benefits to doing these readings: meeting interesting people, seeing fascinating places I never expected to run across, and making connections with other writers that often lead to readings and opportunities later on. (For instance, I met Stella Beratlis last year when I read with her at another series in California.)

So here’s to the one-nighters, and pistachios fresh from the orchard, and the Sikh Temple in Lodi, and chickens in the road, and the modern Gold Rush feel of Marysville, and Mt. Shasta with its lenticular clouds. And poets traveling through it all.

We don’t have a Cost Plus in southern Oregon,
so I got a German food fix in Stockton. 

And here I thought Red Bluff's claim to fame
was consecutive days over 100 degrees.
Not so! They have some fantastic orchards
and roadside fruit stands.

The massive burn scar from the Delta fire north
of Shasta Lake is still horrifying a year later. 

I still maintain that the Weed airport, just north
of Mt. Shasta, has the best rest stop on I-5.

* If anyone was at my reading with John Sibley Williams a couple of months ago in Medford, that was why I rudely left the podium for a moment during the Q&A, went to my seat, and brought back a Tootsie Roll and a protein shake I’d stowed in my purse. In the past I would have just suffered, but I could see you were all friends. So I just ate the damn Tootsie Roll and felt much better in a few minutes.

** Southern Oregonians, take note: To bypass that 2-1/2-hour stretch of I-5 from Sacramento to Red Bluff that I always find a bit depressing, take highway 99 north out of Sacramento, bear east onto highway 70 through Marysville, and hook up with 99 past Chico and into Red Bluff. Miles of orchards, rolling hills, and roadside fruit stands. An unsettling view of Oroville Dam high on a plateau. Great vistas that will answer the question of how Butte County got its name. Way fewer semis.