February 18th, 2009 10:31 EST
Extraterrestrials and Writers
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs each year creates a literary extravaganza that ripples out into the culture at large exponentially. There are readings, signings, lectures, symposia, panels, dances, parties, and, most of all, the sort of encounters that shape the literature of our time.
For those of us to whom a root canal is preferable to such intense and oceanic socializing the conference can be rocket science, but if you`re as lucky as I was this past weekend in Chicago in having considerate friends and colleagues, the conference can be profoundly rewarding if exhausting.
For starters, I don`t like flying, but I do like banking over cities and imagining myself as an extraterrestrial.
Then there`s the matter of my filters. They`re in short supply, so impressions rush at me like freight trains on a moonless night. Entering a crowded room is like being processed for an indefinite spell in prison. If there`s a single hostile vibe in a ballroom it`s bound to singe my hair and fry my circuits.
It`s not that I`m delicate, it`s that I`m damaged. I took more than my fair share of hits growing up in boarding school, so forced socialization often reminds me of dodging bullies and molesters.
That said, I had a high old time in Chicago. I signed copies of my first book of poems, Far From Algiers, I read a few of them with other winners of the Stan and Tom Wick Prize, I met people who liked my poems, and I think I met a few people who will be my friends. I hope so, anyway.
And in the course of forty-eight hours I managed, largely due to insomnia, to read two stunning books of poetry, Eliot Khalil Wilson`s The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go (which you can hear by clicking on the title here), and Patricia Carlin`s Original Green. Both are works of genius and innovation. If you want to open a big bay window on what contemporary poetry could be, don`t miss these books.
I had already made friends with the people of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and Kent State`s press. They were there "Maggie Anderson, David Hassler, Alice Cone, Brett Neff, Laurin Wolf "and also some of the wonderful students who had shared my workshop in October "Natasha Rodriguez, Shayna Glenn, James DeMonte and Derrick Medina. It was like having family in a sea where I had expected to be swamped.
My circuit breakers held up and on Saturday I stupefied myself by touring every single one of the booths set up by most of the nation`s literary presses. I chatted with many of the editors and students at these booths, handing out postcards calling attention to Far From Algiers. I glanced at myself in one of the Chicago Hilton`s embarrassment of mirrors and wondered, Who is this guy promoting himself, this reclusive loner? Do I know him? What`s he doing in my body? Who let him in here? What a huckster! Would you buy a used car from this turkey? Give me a break, get this guy outta here!
But there this guy was doing what everybody else was doing, pursuing an agenda, the very thing I was prepared to loathe. Just as I was getting to like him in his old age he had to start acting like a politician. What was I promoting? Well, I want Far From Algiers to be read, but it has to stand on its own, which is good, because I think it may be a lot more likable than I am. And then there is the matter of getting more poems published, perhaps another book, and that`s no more easy than it was the first time. Of course I know more about publishing, but what I know is intimidating. I`d rather dodge bullets.
Still, that`s what so many of us were there for, to learn, to meet people, to promote work, to sell books. This conference represented the nation`s masters of fine arts programs, a huge and growing industry. The fondest aspirations of thousands of people electrified the air. I saw the kind of anxiety in some of the young people that makes their voices a bit squeaky and their behavior a bit showy. I saw the kind of weariness in others that comes of being reminded by each such conference how hard it is to nurture fine literature, to create a society that respects its writers.
Chicagoans seemed friendly and palpably winterized, their lakefront along Michigan Avenue grand but austere, their skyline nonobjective.
But New York had the last say. When my wife, Marilyn, and I returned to LaGuardia Airport I asked an attendant in a red blazer who spoke English with an East Indian accent where the United baggage pickup was and he brought me a wheelchair.