I WILL NOT BE READING TONIGHT
BY LEE KLEIN
Mr. Klein wrote this piece expressly to be read aloud at The Americana Project, held in New York, NY,
June 24, 2002, at The Fez.
[Take picture: stage left. Ask crowd to "give me a sexy, seductive stare."]

[Take picture: stage right. Ask crowd to "give me an adorable, bashful, coquettish yet somewhat disdainful look."]

[Take picture: center stage. Ask crowd to "smile and laugh and act like they're having fun so I can show the picture to my parents, who asked me to document the reading in their absence."]

[Mention how Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" advises to always wear a boa when reading to strangers. Put on boa. Then put on "reading hat." Make sure eyes are affixed. Take self-portrait photo.] 

[Say something like "Because the theme of the evening is Small Lives in a Big Country and since my last name means small in German, I figured I could do whatever I wanted to do, and so I will read a memoir-y non-fiction thing."]

[Begin reading.] 

I will not be reading tonight. I apologize to Pindeldyboz editors Whitney and Jeff and any friends who paid $5 to hear me read. I just canít do it. 

I should have followed my first impulse. When Whitney told me someone backed out -- when Whitney asked if Iíd like to read at this Americana thing -- my first impulse was No. No. No. Several times NO.

ďLee, say no,Ē I said to myself. 

ďDonít do it. No,Ē I said. ďNo.Ē

But it was a Friday night. And I was a little more than drunk. And everyone whoís ever been the least bit drunk knows how the word NO sometimes comes out sounding like the word YES. So I committed myself to read, long ago, while my right-minded will drowned itself in lager. And so here I am, apologizing for not wanting to read. 

You might think that I didnít want to read because I was asked to stand in as a replacement for someone who recently backed out. But I didnít care about that. I didnít care about not being considered worthy to make the original line-up.

My first reaction was donít read because last time I accepted an invitation to stand in front of people and render silent prose in slurred speech, it was terrible. For those who did not hear what I just said, I will say it again, and I will say it as clearly as I can: the first and only other time I read, it was terrible. Which is why I will not be reading anything tonight. 

What follows, however, is a brief account of that night. Please bear with me. Please do not exchange glances that intend to wordlessly indicate to a friend how badly I am sucking up here. In fact, letís pretend weíre in elementary school, after lunch on a hot day. Itís story time. Heads down please. Keep your eyes and your hands to yourself please. 

OK. Hereís what happened . . . 

I was ego-surfing the Internet. Which means I was searching for webpages that might mention my name. And I found This Other Lee Klein. Well, there were a few of them. But one was a poet, about my age, living here. There were some poems on the page. And a picture of the Other Lee Klein with George Plimptonís arm around him. I emailed the Other Lee Klein. I threatened the Other Lee Klein to a duel for the right to our name. He was not interested in a fight, as I was, for he was an important man in the world at the time. He ran a reading series at the now-defunct club called Life on Bleecker St. A place where Puffy hung out. 

[Throw paper airplane - Take picture]

The Other Lee Klein invited me to read at Life with all these older poets who were once friends with William S. Burroughs. So all these reformed junky types in dark suits with white carnations in the lapels were there, pretending to listen to me read a story about temping in suburban New Jersey. A story about telemarketing bookmarks that advertise chewing gum to Americaís middle schools. 

I still think itís a good story. Real subtle with some language that looks cool in print, where it belongs, where it was meant to be. But when read aloud in a voice better suited coming out of a wheezing baby squirrel, or some sort of lisping marsupial, than from me, it wasnít so great. 

That night, when I read for the first time, I didnít know how to adjust the mike. So I stood on my toes. I rocked back and forth with nerves. I neither cared to enunciate nor project my slurring wheezing lisping little baby squirrel marsupial voice. And I hadnít yet devised a clever gimmick to maintain eye contact without ever looking up at the audience as I have tonight. 

But damn, Iím a writer, not a monologist, not an actor, not someone who enjoys being the center of attention. When I was in bands, I hid behind long hair and turned my back to everyone. Even now, in crowds, I prefer the peripheries. So the last place I want to be is on stage, listening to you silently suffer through this tale about why Iím not reading a story, as I stand up here and sweat, blinded by the stage lights, on the verge of tears, wanting my mother to come rescue me and cast evil glances at Whitney and Jeff for making me do such a thing against my better judgement. 

The thing is . . . I usually read in a room by myself. And over the years, with practice, I have learned to do this silently, without moving my lips. I thought reading silently was a virtue when I first learned how to do it. A status symbol. A sign of education. We made fun of the kids who moved their lips when they read. We would say ďthey move their lips when they readĒ and that would be enough to exile them to the ice mountains of elementary school, where theyíd be lost forever. But now, here I am doing something very weird, very contrary to my impulses. I know Iíve been read to at bed-time more than anywhere else. Which is maybe why so many readings knock me right out. Reading is something I equate with trying to coax someone to fall asleep.

So, the first and last time I read, with my slurring wheezing etc voice amplified for strangers, an older man, the biographer of Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and Williams S. Burroughs, was lolling on a couch, very drunk, applauding after every time I paused for breath, flinging lit matches in the air. 

ďThis is not reading. This is not writing,Ē he muttered. I think he was originally British before he became an asshole.

As he threw matches in the air that night, I didnít know what was going on, up on the stage. The lights were in my eyes, as they are now. Afterwards, a sympathetic poet, upon confirming it was the first time I ever read, reassured me that it can only get better. 

But it wouldnít for me. It would never get better. I would never read again. 

[Take photo]

And then, years later, here I am. Reading about how I would never read again. 

I actually tried writing a funny little thing to read especially for tonight. Since the theme of the evening was Small Lives in a Big Country, and since I was raised a strict Contrarian, I would write a short, funny, ridiculous story about a giant who made the country seem small. 

And I actually did it. I wrote the story. Itís terrible. So so bad. It starts when the giant is born, a normal-sized infant, but then the doctor slaps him on the ass and he grows two feet his first night alive. Years later he tries to French kiss his mother goodnight, she smacks him, and he grows 18 inches before he wakes up. He gets in lots of fights and comes out of each one a foot taller. And by the time heís 10 heís a professional basketball player, but by the time heís 15 heís way too tall to play basketball, since the hoop is so far below him and the ball is too small for his hand. So he sets out for the northern territories and whips himself with trees until even the tallest of them are too small to spur his growth. Then he realizes that if he stops the progress of blimps and hot-air balloons and eats any women he finds inside them, gobbles them down right quick, it makes him shrink. So he does that for awhile until he returns to traditional height. And then, the big joke at the end, I say that heís actually here tonight. I produce this picture that Iím producing now. And show it to all of you as I am doing now. And, ha ha ha, itís Jeff Boison, editor of Pin-diddily-boz. And I tell all the ladies in the house not to worry. He doesnít bite. 

But the story sucks. Itís not consistently funny. Itís written to be funny and therefore itís not worthwhile at all in terms of funniness. 

I thought for awhile that I could compensate for the storyís lack of funniness by playing guitar along with it. 

Or perhaps Iíd take out my trusty casio keyboard and read over a beat and some dissonant synth chords and then submerge the casio in water at one point so we could all hear how it sounded as it died. 

Or, as an alternative, I could delete all the descriptions in my longer stories and thereby streamline them for the purposes of reading aloud tonight, but when I tried doing that, when I tried to cut them down to their essence, they were neither funny nor full of anything compelling nor moving in any emotional or intellectual way. 

I then thought maybe I could get one of my friends to read while I sat in the corner in a ridiculous disguise, giggling and fiddling with myself. 

Or I could just hand out paper and pencil and ask you to draw pictures of what you imagine your neighborís genitals would look like at various stages of excitement as I read, give you something to keep you from realizing how terribly boring it can be to listen to someone like me read fiction. 

Or I could just spend the allotted time apologizing for not reading tonight, throwing paper airplanes of some of the stories I would have read if I were a better writer and a better reader and a better performer and someone not so nervous and self-conscious and someone who didnít value the thing that happens when you read someoneís words silently alone in your bedroom to yourself. 

And so, in recognition of this, I apologize and will spend the remainder of my allotted time throwing paper airplanes at you all. Airplanes that have printed on them these long, entirely un-read-out-loud-able stories. 

Once again, I apologize for not reading tonight. And I thank you for your patience. Please allow me a moment or two to throw a few stories at you. Thank you again. And as Charles Mingus once wrote -- this being the home of the Mingus Big Band -- ďBring it on, baby. Let me have it. Yeah, thatís right. Just like that. Give it to me. Give it to me hard. Yeah. Yeah. Thatís right. So fine.Ē 

[Play Casio Ė Throw paper airplanes]
*

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