Ever wonder what would happen if you were to herd a group of writers into a bar named after the first base of sexual conquest and let the inevitable madness ensue? It is in the cozy ambiance of The Make-Out Room, where the spoken word series Writers with Drinks convenes each month. For two utterly utopian hours, writers and readers come together to share a drink and partake in an evening of wit, charismatic performances, and humor.
The host and organizer of the event is writer Charlie Anders, a Lambda Literary Award winning author and contributor to various science fiction, erotica, and humor journals, including Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Anders' inconspicuous attire on this particular evening did nothing to tone down her magnetic stage presence: her wavy, strawberry blond crop, impressive height, handsome face, and rollicking alto voice commanded viewers’ attention. She spoke in a puckish and punchy manner that veered madly from one topic to another—a flowing dialogue of idiosyncratic inside jokes that revealed her to be a clever wordsmith and a trickster. The members of the audience responded with knowing chuckles, as if they are in on the joke as well. At one point after the break, Anders bent over dramatically and somewhat suggestively, exclaimed that she needed the audience to get excited for the next act because "I'm bending my emotions for you"—emphasis on bend—in a cheeky reference to her experience as a professional dominatrix.
A man with the likeness of Jerry Garcia stepped out of the audience and onto the stage to present a short story described by Anders as a "time-traveling sex comedy." It was a wildly imaginative story conjured up by a man who, ten minutes ago, was just another face in the audience. I imagined myself grabbing a seat next to him on the Muni and never guessing that he was a vivid and rambunctious raconteur. I attempted to glean from his voice and his demeanor how and what inspired him to write a piece about a man who travels through time each time he approaches climax.
The proceeds from this event support the Center for Sex and Culture. In a city that fosters a fiercely pro-sex attitude, it is only fitting that sex figures into the dialogues shared that evening. The open discussion of sexual desire is made all the more intriguing by the fact that one can actually see and hear the voices of the writers whose spoken words delineate their private and personal thoughts. Indeed, as Verlyn Klinkenborg noted in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, there is a certain "erotic quality," an inherently corporeal connection between the physical movement of the body as it shapes the sounds and cadences of spoken prose and the way listeners' ears receive and process these auditory transmissions. In this way, listening is tantamount to feeling and by extension, our ability to empathize. Reading aloud reclaims words from their abstracted and decontextualized arrangement on the page and imbues the text with a soul, a human referent.
I was struck by a vague sense of nostalgia as I sat on the floor near the stage with a handful of other viewers, exchanging amused glances with the people sitting next to me. It then occurred to me that the last time I sat on the floor listening to someone read a book was in elementary school, my classmates and I seated in a neat semi-circle listening intently to the librarian's fanciful rendering of various age-appropriate titles. While the Make-Out Room floor (surprisingly clean and non-sticky) is no nubby library carpet, Charlie Anders is no shushing school librarian; the readings would barely scrape by with a PG-13 rating. The experiences share the notion that reading aloud educates listeners and fosters feelings of camaraderie; it expands our sense of others as well as ourselves. As an event with a history of showcasing performers, Writers with Drinks advocates reading aloud as a vehicle for reinstating words with their personal, and thus political, ideologies.
While the wisdom of reading literature aloud is debatable, that this series continues to thrive suggests there are a number of effective ways to engage a text. A straightforward explication in which the text is isolated from both tradition and the author's personal history can be effective, as can the sort of deliberately subjective approach that we see here, where the artist’s voice and presence provide a framework through which we understand a piece.
Alternatively, one can envision Writers with Drinks as a work of art in itself in which the interaction between the performers, the audience, and the environment are as much a part of the performance as the spoken word itself. In this way, the performance, the venue, the participants, the viewers, the texts, and the immediacy of the event are all complicit in defining the gestalt of the text as a performance or as art. San Francisco is a city that maintains a tenuous balance between its incentive to serve as a hub for innovative tech corporations (Twitter, Firefox, Facebook, Google, Apple) and its propensity to issue directives toward maintaining the city's cultural integrity and early twentieth century ambiance. The ubiquitous iPhone or Blackberry allows one to read and discuss texts online, anywhere, at one's convenience. Self-publishing online not only provides an affordable alternative platform but can also provide excellent exposure and networking opportunities. I am almost certain that at least a handful of participants at Writers with Drinks "tweeted" about being there. Heck, one can even watch a video of past Writers with Drinks on YouTube. And yet, despite the increased accessibility to literature and our peers online, Writers with Drinks remains a successful and popular event.
There is a certain old-world appeal about Writers with Drinks; it feels like a throwback to the intellectual salons and bohemian cafés of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This older but certainly not outmoded form of discussion necessitates physical presence and face-to-face contact—perhaps a response to the distortion of human interaction through technology. In face-to-face situations, the tendency towards snarky comments may be sufficiently reduced; people are encouraged to live more in the moment, be more receptive than resistant. Physical human interaction regains a form of connection that is lost or skewed by technology-based interfaces. Technology has its merits, but as long as there is San Francisco, there will be Writers with Drinks.
The bottom line is that Writers with Drinks is a good time to be had. It is an accessible vehicle for introducing newcomers (like me) to a thriving and provocative local literary scene, and I eagerly await next month's show. And for the record, Charlie Anders is on Twitter and she's a blast to follow.