Look Them in the Eye: Al Burian and the Breaking of the Reading

By C.A.B. Fredericks

I think it was Sam, or maybe Stefan–one of the guys from Take the Handle, anyway–who explained to me how they found readings painfully boring, and how release parties really ought to have bands and deejays. The whole point, their argument went, was to celebrate the existence of something you could read at your own fucking leisure. Why have the silent regard of writers, the aura of seated calm respect? Why not just get everyone drunk and excited about whatever it is, and maybe some two people will sex it up afterwards, and really (and at this point I’m deviating a bit from the Handler’s argument), would you rather someone clapped politely as a result of your output or that someone got laid as a result of your output?

I know it was Al Burian, author of the zine Burn Collector and co-front for the defunct brain-in-the-ass punk collective Milemarker, who showed how the balance can shift the other way. Over the course of his reading on March 12, 2011, he demonstrated  how a willing or agile reader has the potential to power a room as thoroughly as any deejay, to bring the noise as well as any band.

There’s considerable merit to the distrust of the podium reading. More than any other artistic outlet, writing can be consumed in perfect private. Indeed, it’s often best in perfect private. The way literature is currently incentivized, any sort of enjoyable verbal presentation is gravy at best. While some writers are brilliant readers, consummate performers of their work, many retain the social awkwardness that led them to embrace the loneliest profession in the first place. Their true craft remains on the page, and is better appreciated on the audience’s own terms. Meanwhile, some outlets–most notably the Moth, though there are others–seek to compile a more ephemeral structure, based on the audience receiving the pieces in the moment. But these, as refreshing as they are, still require the audience to sit down and shut the fuck up. They still fall short from the elemental rapture of getting drunk and moving around.

Burian, reading at Williamsburg’s Bookthugnation to promote Burn Collector #15, came as close as one can to having dancing during a reading. The tiny used bookstore was full, the seats rimmed all the way around with standees; to get into our out of the inward-swinging door required substantial audience agitation. Yet no one was leaving, and I–a late comer, smooshed up against the refreshments table and trying not to inadvertently freak anyone–bemoaned the discomfort less than usual (despite the fact that the owners had stashed the rest of the wine behind the cashbox).

I could tell immediately upon entering that Burian was doing something different. He spoke quietly, unmic’d, moving at random through issue #15, as well as occasionally diving back into the Burn Collector book released in 2000. He kept pausing. Not with the awkward apology of the insecure reader, nor with the studied dramatic assessment of the grizzled showpersonwriter, but with the workaday ADD of the conversationalist who has realized an even more interesting tangent.

He explained, at one point, that he was having trouble keeping his place because he kept taking Joan Jett’s advice: to own an audience, look them in the eye. It made everyone feel like Burian was there for them. Having given away the game, he then proceeded to give away the reading entirely. Literally, hand it off. To us. 

Burn Collector is an intensely personal zine, detailing a shambling punk-rock life in an occasionally overheated but always wry manner. This is a form and tone that lends itself readily to parentheticals and metacommentary, and Burian among other zinesters occasionally nests entire mini-essays mid-sentence. But in this case, he literally had thought of something else more interesting. He would hold forth extemporaneously on civilization, on ethics, on structure and authority, dip back into his text, jump back out. And as the reading stretched on and the wine soaked in, the audience became more and more aggressive about responding. Burian was teased, challenged; he queried the audience for what they wanted to hear next. The audience at times cut Burian out entirely, conversations between attendees becoming the focus of the entertainment.

By the end of the reading, the pieces Burian read became less received and more dispersed. The passive hierarchy of the reading started to disintegrate, and I, at least, experienced a heady rush–much like the “fuck it, we’re rocking” threshold I find myself tipping over at shows. And while the booze remained the same, the ecstasy of dancing had been replaced by something else–an ecstasy of communication, of intellectual interplay, of a temporary community specifically in the absence of consensus.

Who knows if any old Bobby Joe MFA can (or, honestly, wants to) replicate this energy; I enjoy killing my idols perhaps more than most, but I’m grudgingly willing to entertain the idea that certain types of charisma aren’t universal. While it’s true that this kind of reading is unfaithful to the structure of the essays and the zine, so the fuck what? Almost no one attends readings to hear what they’ve already read, they attend to hear what they haven’t (the readings themselves–especially in New York–serving more as an overamped Amazon “Look Inside!” button)–so what preconceived anythings are being betrayed, besides those of what a reading ought to be?