I've come to the AWP Conference to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of bubblegum. I've come to uncover the seedy underside of the largest creative writing based conference in the world, to see what goes on behind the scenes when writers gather together for a long weekend of debauchery. The drugs. The alcohol. The Story of O-reading women ready to go wild and act out all their depraved fantasies, and the Kerouac-reading dudes ready to tear apart the Hilton Hotel like rock stars, tossing tvs out windows and spraying fire extinguishers in the halls. It's all here baby, fear and loathing, the wild side of English departments everywhere, waiting to be uncovered, researched, and experienced, in an anthropological/ethnographical way, by yours truly.
Coming out of Union Station, backpack on back, I'm going against the hordes just getting off work and heading home out in the suburbs. I take Jackson Street east, towards Lake Michigan, then a right on Michigan Ave, heading six blocks south, down to the huge Hilton, and where the Conference is being held. Check in goes smoothly, I get a room on the 20th floor, looking east, and it's only 5:30. Crazy. I have a whole free night before the conference starts, and I'm kinda stumped on what to do. Eat? It's a little early I guess. I feel like I should be experiencing the conference somehow, meeting people, being social and shit.
I wander down to the maze-like lobby halls, where some younger conference people, they must be undergrads, are sitting on the floors reading books, just like at college. I wonder if the hotel staff think this conference is a bunch of freaks. Nah. They've probably seen weirder.
I decide to be brave and go into the hotel bar, Kitty O'Sheas, with the obligatory Irish decorations, including a somewhat bizarre collection of handcrafted walking sticks nailed up on the wall in a row. The place is full but not packed with English major nerds. Actually no, it's not just English nerds, but creative writing nerds—no academics here, though all of the stereotypes seem to be accounted for: of the younger crowd, MFA grad students who somehow swung funding to come to this thing, we have the twenty-something guys, either skinny hipster dudes with short dark hair and some kind of facial hair (goatee or Elvis chops) which they could shave in a second to look respectable, or, the kinda chunky guys in glasses with short hair, who look like they grew up eating Doritos and reading Harry Potter in bed. The female grads are either alternative-looking, with dark eccentric clothes and at least one streak of dyed green hair, or once-nerdy girls now realizing how smart and creative they are, so have cut their hair short and wear thin-rim glasses.
Then a seeming jump of a generation, or two I guess, to people older than me, and in this case the men all mostly have grey Hemingway beards and wear corduroy suit jackets and actually do look kinda academic. The women all the eccentric grandmother types, wearing some kind of purple clothing, usually a scarf, ready to get serious about Alice Munro.
And only at the AWP Conference would you find people sitting alone in a bar reading books, though many are gathered around their Conference schedules, deciding on which presentations and sessions to go to tomorrow, which admittedly is necessary, since we've all only just received them this evening and there are a lot of options. On each of the three days, there are six 'sessions' (which range from presentations of papers, to teaching-oriented type presentations, to readings) starting at 9:00 and going until 5:45, in about seventeen rooms, ranging in size from smaller, to something called the “Grand Ballroom.” And that's not counting the seven other rooms over at the Palmer House Hotel, where additional sessions are taking place. On top of that, there's the evening events, including the Keynote Speaker, Margaret Atwood, at least four bigger readings, plus a dozen “Receptions” hosted by various school-related organizations. That's a lot of activities, and a little intimidating. One could conceivably never leave the Hilton for the whole three days. Oh yeah, there's also the ginormous Book Fair going on down in the basement.
Aside from a few male grad students show offs, who seem to want to talk all the time, for a crowded bar, the place is pretty quiet, probably because we're all mostly introverts. Many of the people have come in groups or pairs, from the same departments back at their schools, though I do see some others like myself, lone wolves. And if I seem a little bitterly critical of the crowd, it's because I'm secretly jealous: Really I'm here as a spy, wanting to be part of a Creative Writing Program at a university. Instead, I'm (merely I guess) a composition instructor at a community college, where I'm the only one interested in teaching the creative writing class, along with my four other comp classes (!). I'm also, seemingly, the only one in the department who writes (poetry, fiction, etc.) on a regular basis, which just seems bizarre. I mean, call me crazy, but I feel writing instructors should be writers. But at a community college, we're not expected, nor encouraged, to be, and in fact passive-aggressive comments from both other faculty and administration abound. Stuff like, 'Oh, you're one of those creative people,' or 'Oh you always do all that poetry stuff.'
Though I'm not to be employed for much longer: Due to budget cuts, and my seemingly inability to play nice with the administration's demands that I present a hundred page teaching portfolio, the equivalent of another master's project, every year for three years, and my disagreement with them about how to handle a guy suing the school because he claims I discriminated against him on the basis of religion when I banned him from my monthly poetry readings after he started sending me more and more belligerent emails (yeah, long story) and apparently because being a “good teacher” (the Dean's words) is not enough, nor being in two different departments and serving on two different committees. All of this, plus the fact that enrollment is WAY down, has combined to have my contract not be renewed for next year, leaving me both bitter and angry, yet relieved in a way.
But now what? Well, with a long list of poems, short stories, and some essays, published in various print and online literary magazines, and a few unpublished novels under my belt, and a self-published book of poetry (copies of which I hope to give away to Important People while here) I'm feeling like, How can can I get into this world? Meaning in a sense, how to get a book published? Because not only would getting a book of poetry or fiction published assuage my apparently huge hurt ego, but it opens up doors to getting creative writing teaching gigs at four year colleges.
So yeah, seeing all these twenty and thirty somethings, some of them instructors already, because they're already published writers, with books and shit, I feel like I'm a microcosm of the U.S., or even the world, right now, because if there's about 10,000 people signed up for this conference, then there's maybe one percent of them who are “published.” I'm part of the other 99%.
I text my personal advisor, Melissa, long ago ex-gf, and now friend, who lived here in Chicago for ten years. She lives in Hawai'i, but will surely have some advice on what a person could do. Texting also has the advantage of making one seem like one is talking to friends who will soon arrive, so as to not appear so pathetic as to be hanging out in a bar alone. After a couple texts back and forth, Melissa just calls me, which makes me feel important. I'm taking a call in a bar! I must be somebody! When she finds out where I'm at, she's like, “Oh my god, you're right by the Jazz Showcase, where I used to work. Just go there!”
So yes, ok, now I have a plan! A purpose! Music! Excellent! Now with a little time to kill, I take a walk up Michigan Avenue. Can't believe the weather: The wind's a little bitter, as usual in Chicago, but the air is actually kind of warm. For the last night in February, that's amazing. Say yes to climate change.
Memories. My mom used to live here, or out in the west suburbs, so when I'd visit we'd come down here for movies, or plays at the Steppenwolf, or the museums, like the Art Institute on my right, or the MCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, farther north. Also other people: Walking up Michigan Ave with another former gf, Nan, fifteen (!) years ago. There's that German restaurant we ate before we said goodbye back at Union Station. Man, I've come downtown with quite a few lady friends. Jen, with who (whom?) I went to see To Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind. And Mabel and I came down here somewhere for her work Christmas party.
Not too many people out, and those that are look like tourists like me, though the restaurants and cafes seem full. Still a little cold for people to really enjoy walking around, and this is more of the business district. Probably more stuff happening up near DePaul and Northside. Man, it's been years, but I still kinda remember how to get around. But, getting chilly, time to turn back south, maybe get a tea and hang out. Still early for music, so I end up at the big Starbucks back on Jackson (vs. the other three I've seen in this area today) where at least a cool cute angry punk barista girl, who really doesn't fit in there, seems to genuinely smile at me. Ah, punk girls....
I get a hot Zen tea and just sit at the window, watching the people go by, warming my hands. This just feels nice, just to sit and be in a strange/new city watching strange/new people, imagining what living here would be like. With this mild winter, that almost seems possible. I don't know, am I a big city guy? Sometimes I think yes, for the music, poetry, huge variety of women. But then I miss the woods, the desert, the lakes, the trees, where I feel tranquil. I mean, I associate being in the city with being exhausted like this. Just always go go go. New York was like that when I was there getting my MFA at the New School. Ok for a while, lots of energy, but man was I glad to leave.
Alright, close to nine, I can at least get to the Jazz Showcase and hang out there. I walk the few blocks back down south, and find it, on a quiet side street. If I weren't looking for the sign I might just walk by it. And inside there's music already playing. Shit, I could have come earlier. Astoundingly, there's a ten dollar cover. Wow. On a wednesday? Crazy.
I go in and sit at the bar, though there are plenty of empty tables. Melissa had said that the place was never really busy. My gin and tonic is seven dollars. So, wow, basically twenty dollars just to go hear some music on a wednesday. Yes the big city offers culture, but yes the big city is also kinda expensive.
Alas, though the band is good, it's jazz guitar. I fucking hate jazz guitarists, back from my days at Musicians Institute. They're always pretentious nerds with no stage presence at all, and think they're the next Joe Pass. This guy at least has the sense to have great musicians backing him up, especially the piano player and drummer, and he steps aside and let's them solo a lot. The crowd seems to be people who know the band, or the individual musicians, and I bet some of the younger ones are their students. And, mostly all dudes. Yeah, a jazz sausage-fest. Still, grumbling aside, it's a good band and I do kinda enjoy myself. I text Melissa again and give her a report. I bet she probably knows some of the musicians, since her husband is a well known drummer from this area. But yeah, aside from texting Melissa, I'm basically hanging out by myself. The music is good, and I stay through the second set, but if no hot babe is going to sit down next to me and initiate conversation, then I'm going to head back and get a decent night's sleep. There's a Conference to attend! Yes, I'm a nerd....
On my way back, outside the Hilton, I pass clumps of smokers hanging out outside Kitty O'Sheas, and suddenly, unexpectedly, I see an almost Amish-looking biker, with a thick white goatee and black leather jacket and cap and glasses: Robert! Photographer extraordinaire and partner of my former mentor Diane Wakoski. He smiles. “John! How the hell are you?”
He and Diane came in yesterday, a day early, and he tells me about his explorations around town today while Diane hobnobbed with folks, and about the Cindy Sherman show he saw recently, and then describes a 10,000 word “rant” he's written in response to a collection of critical essays about her. “None of them even hardly mention her! They're all concerned with talking theory more than the art. Or about themselves! And the language they use, it's just horrible, it doesn't say anything! They didn't even print copies of the photos with the essays so someone could maybe be able to look at what they're referring to!”
He's just down for a last cigarette, Diane's already asleep, so we go in together and he cracks me up saying how people seem to think he's a famous writer, because of his eccentric looks. So, to emphasize it even more, he gets into the part, standing tall and walking about with a serious expression. I offer to act like a graduate assistant acolyte, holding a notebook and scribbling down everything he says. That gets us through the elevator ride, and he gets off a couple floors below me. We say goodbye. I hope he'll join Diane and I for lunch tomorrow, and he says he probably will.
I did not sleep well last night. Strange room. Strange bed. Noisy people out in the halls. And a horrible crick in my neck. Great. But I'm excited to see what the day holds. I shower and brew some green tea to help get me going.
The elevator down fills with older versions of most of the guys in my own creative writing class, but all grown up: There's Eric, looking scruffy with a beard, and Evan, huge Sasquatch-like guy with glasses, and Ryan, looking very earnest, stoic and studious.
Down in the lobby, my plan to grab a smoothie at the café and hang out a bit is thwarted by the fact that there are fifty people in line. Well, ok, I'll slip outside, grab some fresh air and walk down to the first Starbucks. Only, shit, when I get there it's the same thing, a line out the door. Ok, I'll go to the next Starbucks. But, after a couple of blocks I start to worry that I won't be early enough for the first session, as recommended in the Conference catalogue. So, I turn around. I'll have to make due with my tea.
The first session I've chosen is regulated to one of the smaller “Lake Rooms” (In this case, The Huron) up on the eighth floor. I get there twenty-five minutes ahead of time, and I'm one of the first. None of the Lake Rooms (they're all in a row with their doors open) seem too full—I guess I've chosen on of the uncool topics, but it seem halfway interesting to me, and relevant: “Addressing Sentimentality in Undergraduate Poetry Workshops.” Lord knows there's plenty of that. Though, there's also “Wilderness Writing: Theory and Practice” and “The Business of Publishing Your Novel with an Independent Press.” I guess since my school is paying for this whole trip I feel a little obligated to go to some teaching-related sessions. Plus, I just really do wonder how other instructors handle sappy poetry.
And, most of the panelists (? presenters? I'm not sure on the terminology here) look younger than me. Goddammit, why? Or, how did these fuckers get poetry teaching jobs and not me? How did they get a book of published poems? And why am I so angry/jealous/envious? Ok, at least a couple of the presenters (I guess I'll go with that term) seem to be grad students, or (lower caste) lecturers though, so not full-timers—they might even be envious of me for having a 'real' job—moo ha ha, if they only knew the horror of teaching at a community college. But still, a grad student is going to lecture me on how to handle a poetry class? Do I not deal with sentimentality in my students' poems already? Or even their comp essays? But no John, remain open—it's all an adventure, and it's early—take what you can, we're all in this together.
The session starts late and keeps getting interrupted by late-comers, a pet peeve of mine. I mean, really? But if they're just picking up their schedule this morning, which I know some people were, and then had to find out where the rooms were...but...I mean, that's why I would plan to arrive early? Worse, that fucking crick in my neck makes looking up just a little bit a little uncomfortable. Great.
Basically they recommend a lot of things I already do, which is to just have students run through some exercises in class, bring in sample poems and have them emulate them, or warp them, get them thinking outside what they think poetry is, or should be. Also just make students write a lot, which forces them to give up their usual subjects. For example, I have my students do a “28 Days of Poetry” project: writing a poem a day for a month, some of which are poem exercises I give them in class a la Kenneth Koch's Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?
Other suggestions: give students forms where linearity is de-emphasized. Again, I do this already. Don't all poetry instructors do this? Do we need to be told this? The name Charles Bernstein gets mentioned a couple times in relation to this idea, which is big uh oh—I think we have some L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets on the panel. I thought that shit died out back in the '90s. I had my fill of Bernstein back then: very clever, but with no depth, and cleverness is a poor substitute for sentimentality. I can see where having students work in unfamiliar forms, or re-working familiar poems, re-thinking how they look or sound, gets them away from sentimental stuff like, “I love you and always will” though that doesn't necessarily guarantee that they're write something of depth. Maybe that's not teachable? But, expanding options may allow for more paths to follow to depth-ness?
Ok, well, so not a mind-blowing session, but good to know I've been doing some of the same things on my own. Also shows that I did pick up some ideas in my MFA years, from instructors like David Lehman and David Trinidad and others. Also shows me that I could be on one of these panels. Something to consider, if I would qualify. What qualifies someone to be on these things?
Onward to the next session, the very confident-sounding “Ideas That Always Work: Best Practices for the Creative Writing Workshop.” Again, I'm going with the teaching-themed session, opting out of sessions like “Women in Jeopardy: Crime Fiction” or “Troubling the Label: When Does a Text Become Feminist?” which just sound awful (and for the record I consider myself a feminist). There's even the “Wesleyan University Press Poetry Reading.” Yes, at 10:30 in the morning there's a poetry reading. I'm sure it will be well-attended.
Before the session starts, a large woman with even larger hair sits right in front of me. I think I'm a little tired and dehydrated because this seems really annoying. Neck still killing me too.
The session is being put on by a private writing 'group' or...I guess it's a company, which at first sounds like Grub Street, but I think is actually Grove Street, where people can sign up for writing classes, which are cheaper than, and not affiliated with, college classes. I've seen this before in New York, with the Gotham Writers Group. I'm both intrigued and have my doubts. Intrigued with the idea of being able to teach a class away from the evil machinations of a college administration, but doubt the quality of students? Maybe? That serious writers should go to college? Why do I think that? Just because I did? Not sure.
Anyways, the four presenters work together, and the moderator is their supervisor. Basically, this session is about problem students, and how to handle them. Each of the presenters gives a couple 'war stories' of really bad students, but all of their 'solutions' seem to just involve “using our authority as the instructor” and talking to the students about their behavior outside of class, so as not to shame them in front of the other students. So, ok, I agree, and hearing about the problem students is interesting, but really? This is profound? Is this not basic stuff that all teachers, of any subject, do? Or am I smoking crack? Or am I not giving myself enough credit for having picked up some teaching skills along the way?
I'm exhausted already. Fortunately, it's lunch time, and I'm going to have it with the one person I know well here, Diane Wakoski, my poetry instructor from way back at Michigan State University, with whom I've kept in touch with all these years. Diane's the first writing instructor, certainly the first poetry instructor, to take me seriously. She wishes I'd stayed in wildland firefighting rather than get into teaching, especially teaching composition, but has always been supportive of my writing. I think she comes to the the AWP Conference every year. She's one of the most popular poets, selling more books than most from the '70s through the '90s, with Black Sparrow Press (R.I.P.), who also published Charles Bukowski. She's just recently retired from MSU, and is now with Anhinga Press, and is in fact doing a book signing down in the Book Fair tomorrow.
We meet down at the hotel restaurant, which is surprisingly not packed, maybe because of the prices. It's good to see her and get her perspective on the Conference. After one of the morning readings, she's even more tired than I, and grumbles how these conferences make her not want to write poetry anymore, after hearing readings by so-so poets who are somehow big and respected, despite hiding behind a wall of obscurity. Those are my words, but her sentiment—she feels that poetry should have a basic accessibility. I feel it too.
She points out that while I've been going to sessions, she's been down to the Book Fair already, and seen many young MFAers down there schmoozing with the indie press editors and, she says, that this is probably the most important things a young writer could be doing at a conference like this. So, great. Not only am I exhausting myself at the sessions, there're also taking me away from what I really need to be doing. I think it's the 'good boy' in me, wanting to be the good student, and go to all the sessions so I can get my (or JCC's) money's worth, for the teaching part of my life, when really I should/could be selling myself, my writing. Fuck. So, ok, tomorrow I gotta get down there, fuck these sessions, and I gotta do it before they open up the Book Fair to the general public on Saturday.
Diane also disagrees with the concept of having a bestselling author like Margaret Atwood be the key note speaker at the conference like this, that instead we should have someone more obscure (yet still good) because, she argues, nobody here at the AWP is trying to be like Margaret Atwood, i.e. a bestselling famous author. Probably, I would add, even Margaret Atwood wasn't trying to be famous either, but Diane's points sounds true, that most people here would come to the conference with or without Atwood.
There seems to be at least three different 'levels' here at the conference: you can use it as a teaching tool, or as a place to promote your own writing, or to meet with people. At this point in her life, Diane has no interest in the sessions (in fact, she maybe never did). Her days are filled with meeting people she knows: other writers and editors. She'll be a presenter in one session, and appear at the Anhinga Press booth, and go to some of the bigger readings, but otherwise she's just touching base with folks, both as friends and professionals.
Two of Diane's friends join us, a couple from Portland, Sandra and her husband, who's name I don't get and am too embarrassed to ask again. Sandra used to teach at a community college, so we commiserate on the huge teaching load. She now runs a poetry conference, and a reading series, and has had Diane there to read. They've been to Mexico more than a few times, down to San Miguel de Allende, which I've visited, so her husband and I talk a bit about that while the women-folk chat. But, Sandra impresses me, being both passionate about poetry, but also super business savvy. Diane is kind enough to talk me up to Sandra, and I give her a copy of my book, What Nothing Reveals, and she offers up that if I get to Portland, maybe I could do a reading at her center. So, I've actually networked!
Diane kindly picks up the bill for all four of us. I excuse myself, thinking that there's a session on 'duende' starting at 1:30, then when I'm checking what rooms it's in, I realize it's tomorrow. Shit. Well, ok, I'll go to a poetry reading. I'm tired, but a reading shouldn't be as taxing as a session, right?
The reading is in one of the medium-sized rooms, but there's only thirty people, so looks almost deserted. Nobody wants to go to a reading at lunch time I guess. I almost feel guilty, like it's my fault or something. Like I feel morally obligated to support these poor poets. How embarrassing for them. But, I can only get through the first reader, who's name I don't even catch. It's the stuff Diane was just talking about: obscure pretentious stuff. Ugh. I know I want to go to the Alice Notley reading at 4:30, and I want to be somewhat alive for that, so I do the unthinkable and walk out of a poetry reading. I'm sure I will suffer bad karma because of this in the future.
Back to my room for a nap. Waking up refreshed, I refresh myself even more with a hot shower, then a walk outside, where it's still balmy enough to walk around in a jacket and a wool cap. Amazing.
I've heard Alice Notley read before, like twelve or thirteen years ago, back when I was at the New School in New York. David Trinidad was also teaching at Rutgers, across the river in New Jersey, and had arranged to have her come do a workshop with his students, then a reading. He invited his New School students too, though I was the only one to take him up on it. Her book Mysteries of Small Houses, poems about her first husband, Ted Berrigan, had just come out (David had assigned it for one of our classes) and I really liked it. Her books since then have been more and more experimental, and more and more obscure, and I've just never gotten into them, though they have increased her famousness in the poetry world.
My impression of Notley back then was that she just didn't feel comfortable reading in front of people, didn't like the attention, and seemed to be doing it more as an obligation, and I get the same impression this time. She obviously also has a lot of fans here, many of them young women. We're in another one of the medium-sized rooms (the International Ballroom, South—meaning one half of the the whole ballroom) and it's packed. The guy who introduces her gushes over how great she is, how experimental and challenging her work is, to which I'm going, “Uh oh....” The word 'feminist' is used, as is the phrase 'criticizing the patriarchy,' which gets some claps. Again, uh oh.
When she walks up on stage she receives huge applause. Even for her first couple of poems she gets applause between them. She reads super fast though, and nervously, and doesn't really talk between. Plus her newer ones are really dense. In fact, there's a sign language translator standing by the stage doing her thing and I can't imagine how she's translating everything Notley is saying, because it's all pretty weird: not-quite-linear stories surrounded by swarms of extra lines and details.
When she first starts to read, some people (only one or two at a time) laugh or go “hmm” at certain words or line, though seemingly more pretending to react—or overdoing it somehow, but as Notley continues, they stop, everyone just stops, and listens, no reaction at all, and I have no idea if they're enjoying the reading or not. I have no idea. I'm not. There are moments of clarity, especially in the selections from “Ghouls,” including a ghastly story about some girls who kill a dog by tricking it into eating class (how that ties in with criticizing the patriarchy I'm not sure) but she also throws in extra stuff and makes the narrator crazy, which I'm sure the introducer-dude and others in the audience think is a brilliant way to subvert traditional linear narrative, etcetera etcetera, but I don't think writers should subvert listeners' and readers' enjoyment of a good story. I don't know. Still no reactions between poems, which even Notley herself seems to kind of acknowledge, telling us how many more poems she'll read, looking relieved herself that she's almost done. The applause at the end is half what it was in the beginning, making me wonder if some people are experiencing the 'never meet your heroes' phenomenon.
There's of course a Q&A after, with Introducer-Dude, and though I usually hate Q&As, I'm curious to see if Notley can actually articulate what she's doing, of if it's the Emperor's New Clothes. But, the guy starts off with this: “You grew up in a desert, and we see the word 'deserted' in the text. How do these terms relate?”
Oh fuck this shit. I get up and leave, as do many others.
Diane's friend Sandra had shown me a flyer for an 'off conference' poetry reading at a nearby bar, Villains, by some poets she knows (though I'm not sure how?) having a book publishing party by a local publishing company, so I go to that, needing to get the hell out of the Hilton and the conference for a while. I'm thinking that I need a dose of somewhat more accessible poetry, something that at least makes sense, and if they're reading in a bar, then they've at least got to have some attitude. I guess.
Villains is only a couple blocks away, I find it easily. A twenty by sixty box, with a bar and some tables. The reading is already underway. I'm fucking hungry, and there is food being served, but only burgers and fries. Still, grumble grumble.
A young, like really young, looking woman is reading up on a small stage in back. She looks nervous, like she's doing her first reading ever, and it's in a fucking bar—half the people here are watching the tv. About twenty are actually listening, though we can barely hear her, her voice is so soft, and she seems like a nice enough person, but I am so not in the mode to listening to bad, timid, sentimental poetry, while standing up. And she's fucking reading from her book. She has a fucking book of poetry, at eighteen (or whatever—young). How the fuck? How the fuck is that possible???
So, yeah, I'm grumpy, and angry, and jealous, so fuck it, I'm out of here. The only thing that feels good is the cool air outside. I'm probably really dehydrated now. Jesus, who's dick do I have to suck to get a book of poems published? That young woman will probably now qualify for a full-time poetry teaching gig, if not now, soon, while all I'm qualified for is teaching a 5/5 teaching load of comp classes. Argh. Argh argh argh.
Ok, so, food: Falafel plate at a small local place. Delicious.
After that, I wander around looking for one of the indie cafes I saw yesterday, but no-go, they're closed. So, it's Starbucks for me, where my lovely tragic punk girl is working. She even recognizes me. I love it when attractive women recognize me.
Again, I just hang out and look out the window. There seems to be some sort of protest going on, some young folks outside of the bank next door, part of the Occupy! Movement. I think today was a nationwide day of protest. I could be doing that, I think, as I sip my Tazo Tea in Starbucks.
I can't believe how wiped out I feel. I haven't even done anything, just walked around and sat and listened. I haven't even run today, which if I were smart is what I'd do maybe, but I'm not smart, or...just not in the mood. Kinda brain dead, even with that nap. Getting outside helps, though it's a little cooler, just a little uncomfortable. I'm not even sure I'm up for Margaret Atwood tonight. I was thinking it might be cool to go to, but Diane kind of convinced me of the argument that someone like Atwood is like the 'fluff' (my word) of the Conference, a star, but not really relevant to all us lowly writers who don't make a living just with our writing. Plus, the Notley reading leaves me a little anti-reading. Double plus, I'm in Chicago and I'm kinda sick of being inside the Hilton Hotel all day. Maybe go back to the Jazz Showcase? Oy, I don't want to spend another twenty dollars, and I'm not sure I have the energy. I think it's just being around people that fucking wears me out, even if I'm not talking to them. Sad. I think I'm feeling like I spent all this energy today, for nothing. What am I doing here at this conference? Good thing I'm not paying for it, that'd be really depressing. Nope. The only thing I really feel like doing is going back to the hotel and resting. Which makes me fucking angry because I'm in fucking Chicago! At a conference! I should be out having fun! An adventure!
Defeated, I head back to the hotel, passing all kinds of attractive women wearing conference tags, and hosiery too. Fuck.
In my room, I bring up iTunes, and play some early Beatles, which always makes me happy. By the way, $129 a night for a room and I have to pay extra for an internet connection? Really? I could go to the fucking Travel Lodge down the street and get free wifi. Fuck you Hilton.
I brew some green tea and have a nice hot bath, re-reading my Harper's magazine I brought with me. Feels good to just be alone and non-active, just relaxing. Yes, I am an old introvert. Might be nice to have a nylon-clad hottie here, but then again, maybe not. Too exhausting. Maybe tomorrow night.
I also go over the session schedule again. How to pace myself, and give myself time to explore the Book Fair? Problem is, there's like four sessions, or actually readings, that look interesting, ones I actually want to see, not just because I'm a good boy and feel obligated. As they say in Spain: joder. Well, Book Fair first, then a nap, and if I really feel like some sessions, I'll see.
The Book Fair: Wow. Just wow. Four huge rooms (ok, three huge rooms and one medium one) down in the basement of the Hilton, with rows and rows of booths. Small and indie presses. MFA programs with or without the school lit mag, independent literary magazines. Many I've heard of. Many I've submitted poems and stories to. More than many I've been rejected by. I can go down some rows and think, Yep, I got rejected by that one, and that one, and that one, but hey, that one took a poem!
Knowing I'm probably going to get some free samples, and wanting to save my poor lower back, I plan to try and be discriminating at first, so as not to have to lug around lots of dead trees, but I almost immediately end up at the University of Pittsburg Press booth, a biggie in poetry publishing. Their area is twice the size of others, basically a mini-bookstore set-up. And right away there's Paisley Rekdal's new one, Animal Eye, which I was going to buy anyway sometime (I read with her at a Borders in Santa Fe when she was supporting Girls Without Pants—very cool person), so why not now? And then, oh yeah, there's some Bob Hicok books, I've been wanting to get one of his, since I keep seeing good poems by him in various and sundry lit mags and anthologies.
So I'm already acquiring books, and paying for them even. And then I realize that I might not even be able to find certain booths again, and someone tells me that supplies may be limited, especially when this place gets opened up to the general public tomorrow. So fuck it, I'll take books now, especially those from Michigan and the midwest. I'm finally getting to check out Passages North and Third Coast. I also come across the New School for Social Research booth and say hi, and when they find out I'm an alumni they give me a free copy of LIT, which, when I glance through it confirms that yes indeed, obscure poetry is alive and well. Man, how did I even end up at that school? But, the instructors I had, Lehman and Trinidad, and Cornelius Eady, and the director Robert Polito, none of them wrote obscure poetry. It's like a small radical block of obscure students took over the school lit mag.
And then there's the Copper Canyon Press booth, another biggie in poetry, so I swallow the Koolaid and buy a book each from the Brothers Dickman, suspecting that they're going to be as good as everyone says and that that will send me into despair somehow, because they're younger than me. And, as long as I'm spending money here, might as well get the now former Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin's latest, The Shadows of Sirius.
Hordes and hordes of people, with me bobbing and weaving between them. Many of the Booth People seem eager to talk and push their product, and some just seem bored, which is cool, I respect that, but too much idle chatter is wearing me out again, already. Still, I schmooze. And I am finding some new journals that seem to actually have the same aesthetic as me, like the wonderfully named Toad Suck Review, right up my irreverent alley, with excerpts from the new Charles Bukowski book More Notes of a Dirty Old Man. Turns out there's actually even a place in Arkansas name Toad Suck. That rocks.
And walking and walking. Hot down here. Everyone handing out flyers and buttons and bookmarks. Collecting more free books here and there, because some journals are just giving their shit away, while others are only charging like three bucks. I actually have to make a run up to my room just to drop some off. Am I really going to read all these? Or, am I really going to be able to carry all these back to the train station on Sunday?
And walking. And talking. I can't go on. I'll go on.
And then, out of the people swirl, appears Bonnie Jo Campbell, a Michigan writer from over in Kalamazoo area, who's hitting it big these past couple of years with her National Book Award for the short story collection, American Salvage, a fucking great book, kinda brutal, about lower-class rural life in lower Michigan, something I can relate to. I wrote a review of the book for thecollagist.com and in fact tried to get her to come over to JCC and do a reading. She wanted to do it too, but by the time I got permission from my department she was already booked up.
I say hello and introduce myself, and she surprisingly remembers me. I saw her speak before at the Rally of Writers up in Lansing last year, so I already kinda know what she's like (i.e. awesome) and I embarrassingly find myself a little tongue-tied talking to her, mumbling about how I've used some of her stories in my creative writing classes, and trying not to gush. She's reading tomorrow and says she can't decide which story to read. I vote for “The Solutions to Brian's Problem,” and she agrees. She's busy doing readings all over the country, though just received a Guggenheim and (she says) should be just working on her new novel, but she wants to ride her wave of popularity while it lasts. I assure her that it will last. Yeah, I'm gushing. We say goodbye and she wanders off, no one else recognizing her. Ah well, I'm sure there's other writers here that I'm not recognizing.
One of the sessions I want to attend, with the odd long title of “Ghostwriting the Eulogy: How to Survive & Make Your Name beyond the Academy” [sic, I guess, on the capitols] is something I've become even more interested in with my looming loss of a teaching job: how to make money doing writerly things besides teaching writing. Though I also have to confess I really want to go just to see Kim Addonizio, one of my favorite contemporary poets, and an amazingly attractive woman. Alas, I think she's a lesbian now. All the good ones are. But I mean attractive for who she is, what she does, which is being a kick ass poet outside of the academy (though she takes Poet-in-Residence gigs from what I've seen). Plus she likes to play blues harmonica. I've used her poem “The Matter” in both my creative writing and comp classes, as an in-class writing project. In the style of Kenneth Koch, I'll read the poem, then have students emulate it. It's a chant poem, with driving repetition, each line beginning with “Some men...” and there's sex and anger and sadness, and it always invokes some strong reactions, especially from students who don't realize poetry isn't pretty flowers and birds.
And then she has to show up to the session in a short black skirt with black fishnet hosiery and black leather boots. God, women can be amazing sometimes.
Speaking of women, I strike up a convo with the two on either side of me, one of whom is a recent MFA grad, and the other (I think) is still in a program. I'm surprised to find out that they're impressed that I have a full-time job, and that I can actually offer them some advice about getting adjunct teaching jobs at community colleges (the one thing a MFA degree actually does qualify one for).
The moderator is a former student of Addonizio's, and a recent MFA graduate. And only 27. But, he's now realized how useless a MFA basically is, and to give him kudos, part of why he's set up this session is to learn from the other presenters, though part of his story is that he indeed got paid to write a eulogy for someone. He really lays out how little adjuncting comp classes pays, using a friend of his as an example, who figured out she took a 50% pay cut from waitressing to teach one class. Sounds right to me—that to even earn 30,000/year adjuncting, you'd need a course load (at multiple schools) of 7/7/5! The only way I got away with my adjuncting was working as a wildland firefighter in the summer, something that has sounded more and more appealing once I became a full-timer, and even better now with unemployment looming.
The options put forth by the presenters aren't the greatest, and it turns out two of them do have full-time teaching gigs. Grant writing is one. Addonizio stresses the possibility of giving private classes at home, saying, “If you've been through a MFA Program and have written a while, you have something to teach people.” I get the impression that she's a hustler, and knows how to sell herself and her abilities. Which sounds like prostitution, but that's kind of what writers do. And all the presenters stress that writers do need to be able to promote themselves, through a website and/or blog (both of which I have btw). Still, the pickings seems slim for writing-related work, and I wonder if the best option might indeed be, as one of the presenters suggests, to get a 'day job' and have writing to look forward to at night. Which is what Diane always told me to do anyways.
So I don't know, I don't know. I'm not sure this session has solved anything for me, and it's actually scary to think how many MFA grads are being churned out every year, and then disillusioned when they find out they're basically qualified to work at Starbucks. Seems like we'd all be prime candidates for most 'regular' jobs though, with writing skills plus the ability to think creatively, which is the only advantage we might have over people in China, for example. I'd hire a MFA over a MBA any day. But, that's why I'm about to be an unemployed writer.
The session of course has to have a Q&A, but I can't waste my energy, I've got other sessions later on that I want to go to, and don't want to exhaust myself. Which means that I'm totally chickening out on introducing myself to Addonizio afterwards. I would probably just gush. She'll probably be swamped with admirers anyways, though I don't actually stick around to see. Argh. I'm hopeless.
My exhaustion and need for food and a siesta now totally means I'm going to miss Bonnie Jo Campbell read in the Grand Ballroom for the “National Book Critics Circle Celebrates Award-Winning Authors” session, the very one I helped her decide which story to read at. It's just, I'd like to eat lunch, and have a nap, before 3:00. I know she'll be good, but I'm not sure about the other writers. Oh hell, I know they'll be good too. I just have to pace myself. Forgive me Bonnie!
I duck out the 8th Street exit of the hotel and cut west. Rain. Wow, I didn't even know. I haven't been near a window in hours. Hm, there's a Caribou Coffee, I'll keep that in mind, though it looks as crowded as the Starbucks, probably with people who are boycotting the evil Starbucks corporation, whereas caribous are cute and friendly. And then, weirdly, I see a building with “The Blues” on a sign outside. The blues? Wait a minute, oh, it's Buddy Guy's Legends. I've heard about this place. I didn't realize it was right here. And they're open. And they have food. And, aw, I just missed the acoustic lunch from 11-1:00. But, I'll try it, even if it's just bar food.
It's a medium-sized place, with a nice stage, empty now, but with some amps and a drum kit set up. There are two bars, only the one in front is open right now. I grab a table. The crowd is AWPers for sure: AWP tote bags full of free books everywhere, and everyone's wearing the nametag necklace thingies. And, miracle: they have veggie burgers, AND veggie gumbo. Oh hell yes I'm having some of that. Nice! Plus the waitress is hot.
Back to my room for a power nap and a quick shower to refresh, then dash down to the Lobby level for a session in one of the medium-sized Continental Rooms called, “The Necessity of Duende: Letting the Demon on to the Page.” I'm not expecting many people, not expecting anyone to be interested or even know what duende is, since it's a Spanish term/concept, from flamenco music, and poetry, made famous (if at all) through García Lorca. But the place is packed. Duende's not exactly translatable into English, but the first presenter pretty much nails it by comparing it to the blues. To me, it's finding beauty in darkness, and the second presenter shares a really good example of this in her half creative non-fiction/half academic essay about a Spanish man who decides to explore this deep cave near his family's farm, by lowering himself down with a rope and some candles. No one has ever been down there, or at least not in a long time, and everyone in his family and the surrounding area just thinks of it as a cave where bats live. But what he finds are ancient cave paintings, like those at Lascaux.
Duende is the search, the exploration, and the discovery.
Interestingly, the third presenter talks about the poet and writer Robert Bly, who it is true, as she says, 'Devoted most of his life to the idea of duende,” but the reaction from the audience is almost snickering, and much crossing of arms. Bly seems to not be much liked by the AWP crowd. Well, he would probably like that.
CK Williams is reading this afternoon in the Grand Ballroom. I want to see this. He's one of the bigger poets in the country. I confess to not having any of his books—Sometimes I like individual poems, when there's humor, but whenever I've held one of his books in my hands, the poetry as a whole comes off as dense: he writes longer poems, with longer lines, so they just look dense on the page. Though, come to think of it, that's how one might describe Allen Ginsberg's poems, and I like those. So I don't know. I do have another minor connection with him: I entered a poetry contest he judged once, and though I didn't win, I received a rejection slip with a handwritten note by someone, a woman, saying that Williams had enjoyed my poems. Which, you know, was nice, though it made me then wonder why he didn't then choose them. So maybe I just harbor anger and confusion because of that. I'm a horrible person.
The Ballroom is packed! For poetry! Impressive. Equally impressive is Williams. His poems are good, funny but/and deep—all from his latest book, which isn't even out yet, and there seems to be a policy of having sign language interpreters (? I think that's the term?) for the hearing impaired at all of the sessions in these larger rooms, which kind of fascinates me, because how does this work exactly? I dated a woman, briefly, who studied sign language, and I remember her saying that it doesn't always follow the word order of spoken English, so I'm wondering how a poem 'sounds' in sign language. I mean, does the interpreter make her own decisions about word order? Is stuff left out? I'm starting to get distracted just thinking about it. Equally distracting, in a pleasant way, is the fact that the woman interpreting is very attractive, in a cute librarian kind of way, with her hair in a bun, and a kind of diaphanous blouse, and a nice juicy butt. I'd love to ask her about signing poetry, the perfect 'in' to be able to ask her to grab a coffee, but she alas has a wedding ring. I suppose I could still ask....but anyways, her hand and arm movements create a kind of dance paralleling Williams' words.
I am definitely going to get Williams' book when it comes out. He's also a good speaker, keeping things interesting between poems with some funny patter. Unfortunately there's a Q&A after. I cringe, but decide to stay, just because I like him so much and want to hear him talk. I'd rather he read more poems, but oh well. The moderator, name quickly forgotten, is horrible. This seems to be the Achille's Heel of the conference—no one seems to know how to ask questions in a way that draws out speakers. Where is Terry Gross when you need her? Almost shockingly, Williams loses patience with her after about ten minutes, saying simply after one question, “Thank you,” and gets up and leaves the stage. Well, good for him.
One of my neighbors from the “Kim Addonizio's legs in black fishnets” session earlier had mentioned a cheap Thai food place up on Jackson Street, so I proceed there. And it is good.
After another tea from my punk barista at Starbucks, I return to the International Ballroom (as opposed to the Grand Ballroom from earlier) for maybe the high point of the conference: the Poets Laureate from England and America, Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Levine, reading together. The Ballroom is huge and packed, though I'm able to find a free seat down front. Duffy is introduced as “the first Scott Poet Laureate, and the first woman Poet Laureate,” which gets huge applause and cheers, but she rocks the house when she gets to the podium and says, “I'd like to add that I'm also the first gay Poet Laureate.”
She's slightly chunky, with medium-length dark red hair, looking très Scottish, though wearing a strange floor-length green dress that bulges out at the sides, and it's so unflattering to her, and old-fashioned-seeming, that I wonder if it's some kind of ceremonial garb she's required to wear for her position? But if she's the first woman Poet Laureate, then surely there's no precedent for this? In any case, nobody in America cares about that shit—surely she could have gone casual for this.
She is a great 'show person' with that dry understated humor that it seems all British people have. I'm not sure if I've come across her poetry in anthologies (or maybe APR?) before but what strikes me is that she is above all a formalist, with rhyming and rhythm, though the way she reads her poems, they sound almost natural. Also mythical, at least with these first ones, earlier work before her appointment, in which she imagines the wives of mythical men, like Midas and Lazarus. They're darkly humorous, and the 'myth' or power of their husbands serve as stand-ins for the way 'real' men lead their lives, and how real woman deal with that. Social commentary, yes, but kinda sorta spot on.
Her more recent poems seem to lack the mythic quality, and the humor, and Duffy seems to feel less comfortable, or at least has less patter between them, which is too bad since the crowd was loving her.
Levine is such a contrast it's almost funny. Hell, it is funny. This is the former factory worker from Detroit, who spent most of his life in Fresno, California. He's an anti-academic and looks it, with worn out-looking pants and a wrinkly dress shirt with no tie. Well, I guess that could describe academic, so maybe it's his attitude. He too is humorous, though of the irreverent American kind, not taking himself or his gig too seriously. Like C.K. Williams, I've wanted to like Levine's poetry more, and have liked certain poems, but just never bought an entire book. I'm from Michigan, love the references to Detroit and factories, but I guess some poems just come across as too melodramatic, too....something. But tonight's poems are clear and profound. Unfortunately, he only reads for like fifteen minutes, seemingly underestimating how well he's going over. I mean, the crowd visually (and aurally) reacts when he says he's done, with people yelling out, “Read more! Read more!” Especially because that means more time for another Q&A, which I think everyone at the Conference now knows suck. Still, we stay, because we like both poets, see them as wise elders, and just want to hear them say more wise, witty, funny, stuff.
And they don't disappoint. I mean, the moderator is another AWP nimwit, with less than spectacular questions, but Duffy gets back into dry, sardonic personae, and Levine just acts like a blue collar dude from Detroit—a great mix, especially since they seem to like each other, and play off each other, though they've only just met before the reading for dinner. And we learn interesting facts like that the British Poet Laureate is appointed for 8 years (vs. two here in America), and doesn't actually make a lot of money, or is at least not paid by the government. And that there's a tradition of the Spanish government sending the British Poetry Laureate some sherry because some previous British king had paid that Laureate in sherry stolen from some invasion or other. Can you imagine the uproar form the American right if our Poet Laureate were given alcohol from another country?
Overall a good evening! Three good poets in one day! And my night is not over: I head back over to Legends to catch the blues band, trying to beat this crowd (though maybe this crowd wouldn't go listen to the blues? Surely Levine would?) Anyways, another ten dollar cover. Ouch. I guess that's the going rate in the big city. All the tables full, but I can still get a stool in back with a good view of the stage. The band has just started, with a latin-y instrumental number, with which they segue into a honky-tonking blues. I don't know who they are, the bouncer told me, but all I got was that they're up from Jackson, Mississippi. They're good, especially the drummer, super solid and flamboyant, and also especially the guitar player, a tall mixed-race man in jeans and a white t-shirt, just wailing on his Strat, a la Stevie Ray Vaughn, or even Buddy Guy. Now that's guitar playing. Fuck that timid acoustic jazz shit! Bend those motherfucking strings! Make it cry!
Heads nodding, feet stomping, clapping and whistling between songs. The songs get a little funkier, then a little more pop-ish when they do a cover of Bob Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door,” along with everyone else and their brother, but it's ok, based on the story the guitar player tells, of being in Iraq to play for the troops (in fucking Fallujah!) and a young soldier asked him to play that song, his favorite. So, to honor him and all the troops, he now plays that song every show. Ok, I know it's a little sappy, and I don't think our troops should be there, but at least this guy is remembering them, when most people apparently seem more concerned with Dancing With The Stars than what our government is up to in other countries. On the other hand, the rest of the band doesn't seem too excited by it, maybe only because they've played it every show. And then the guitar player has to turn it into a sing along. I always feel weird about sing alongs, but ok, for that soldier I'll sing a little, and the crowd is drunk enough to get into it.
One set is enough. It's midnight. I know, maybe I should stay up and be a wild and crazy guy, but I'm just hanging out by myself, and just don't want to feel hungover and dragging tomorrow. When I leave, there's still people streaming in—the night is young for some—a pang of regret—but no, get to bed Johnny.
By Saturday morning, many people are already checking out, suitcases on wheels trailing behind them, even though there are sessions and readings scheduled all day. I suspect everyone is feeling like I do: a little exhausted, sessioned out, with free books to last months.
I take one last pass through the Book Fair, seeing if there's anything I missed, any last interesting lit mags to add to my vast collection, and to unload the last copies of my book on any potential editors. But I can feel a headache coming on just being down here, the Booth People like vultures, waiting to suck my energy. No, they're ok—it's me. I also buy some creative non-fiction journals I've wanted to check out, like N+1, Fourth Genre, and The South Loop Review (the last of which the editor gives me for free, so I give her a copy of my book as a trade). I'd thought that the place would be packed now that it's open to the general public, but it's not. Maybe the general public doesn't give a fuck about literary magazines.
And I don't want to just wander around forever. There are some readings later in the day and I want to have plenty o' energy for them. So, adios Book Fair.
I briefly run into Diane on my way out, who looks as tired as I feel. We commiserate. She's only returned because she promised the editors at Michigan State University Press (which I don't even remember seeing) that she'd stop by. Otherwise she's going to go sit down somewhere. And she says again, “The only really good thing about these conferences is meeting people.”
I head over to Caribou Coffee to hang out for a bit, really just waiting until I can decently have lunch. The café is packed and busy, with conference-ites plus looks like locals and some construction dudes in hardhats. I luck on a small table and which I share with another guy doing the same thing I'm doing: checking email and FaceBook. And of course nothing important back in my Real Life is happening. If anything, staring at my Macbook screen just increases my brain deadness. And, with all the free books I've accumulated, I've brought none of them. So I read the news on democracynow.org and get depressed, lightened only by running into Bonnie Jo Campbell again, who says hello. I'd've thought she wouldn't even recognize me. Alas, since I'm sharing the table with that other guy I don't feel I can really invite her to sit down, but she's getting a coffee to go anyways. She's off to go meet with someone, sounds business-related. The life of a busy semi-famous writer. Actually, sounds exhausting. I can't imagine doing all the conference activities, and then meetings too, though she's probably like Diane, skipping the sessions and even more of the readings.
For lunch I find another cheap Tai food place, again, right around the corner from the hotel. And it is good.
I can only bring myself to go to one small session, more of another teaching-oriented one, based around non-fiction, which I'm hoping can have relevance to my comp classes. I'm also just intrigued with one of the presenters, Lad Tobin, who I've read, both his book Teaching Relationships, and some articles, during my two years at Eastern getting my Teaching of Writing MA. He's someone I see as a role model, who lives both in the composition and creative writing worlds, seemingly seamlessly, one of the second generation Peter Elbow-ite insurgents who (still!) think all writing is creative writing and composition isn't merely to prepare students for future classes at school.
The small room is surprisingly crowded, people are still here. The session is called “Narrative Transitions: Teaching & Taking the Reflective Turn in Creative Nonfiction” and the focus is, according to the moderator, who is also presenting, to talk about ways to encourage deeper thinking in students essays, rather than a summary of what they've already said, or “moment of shit” (he doesn't say that—I'm stealing the term from tv sitcom writers) where it's like, “And then I never stole again!” or “My mother is the best mother in the whole world!” My response to moments like that is to encourage what Diane Wakoski taught can be done with a poem: end with an image‚ avoid trying to come up with some lame platitude and leave the reader with a visual moment.
This moderator-dude doesn't seem to like that, claiming that doing so is to ambiguous, and avoids the effort of trying for real insight. I'm not so sure—I mean, life is ambiguous, but I'm willing to listen, though he doesn't really convince me of anything, other than “asking more questions can guide students to deeper reflection.” Which may be fine, if you have the time. He apparently has enough to be able to have private conferences all the time with his students. I take it he is blessed without a 5/5 class load.
The other three presenters don't seem as concerned as he about having the reflection right at the end of the essay, and in fact, more interestingly, they read essays of their own, as examples (I guess) of reflection in general, in non-fiction in general.
I didn't realize how much Tobin is involved in the creative writing side of things, as his bio reveals. He's the best presenter of the session—funny, relaxed, talking about his writing process in an excerpt from an essay about exploring the music scene of this town in his 40s, which is enjoyable, and shows reflection throughout, as he thinks about the reason why he's re-discovering live music so late in life, and how it makes him feel to be in a generally younger audience.
I chicken out on introducing myself—or rather, there's yet another horrible Q&A at the end, with people either asking silly questions, or offering their own unasked for advice. I'm outta here. Yes, I've gone from thinking that leaving in the middle of a session is rude to being one of the Rude People.
Onward to the next session, a bigger one, back in the Grand Ballroom, this one called “Literature & Evil,” featuring three novelists, the only one of whom I recognize is Ha Jin, though I haven't read him. The moderator, smartly, changes up the format by having the Q&A first. Unfortunately, she also just doesn't know how to ask good open questions, and there are a lot of awkward silences as the authors' answers kind of sputter out. Her focus seems to be starting with Moby Dick, which seems odd, since, in my humble opinion, I don't see Ahab, or the whale, as being really evil, and the authors don't seem to take that bait either. Ha Jin offers up the most interesting discussion point: how evil happens through the crowd mentality. No coincidence, his latest book is about the Japanese army's “rape” of Nanking during WWII. But no one takes him up on that idea. In fact, there's no 'discussion' at all—none of the authors are talking to each other, just responding to the moderator, who just goes down her list of questions, not responding to anything new that comes up. Opening up the session to questions from the audience of course doesn't help. Even an interesting question like, “Who do you see as a mythic evil character in American Literature?” gets kind of avoided—or so it seems, from their expressions, they seem to not want to say, like they're avoiding answering. Why? I could name some off the top of my head, like Injun Joe or The Judge from Cormac McCarthy's novels. That's who they should be talking about. And I'm not alone in thinking so, because another audience member stands up, actually asking, “What about the Judge from Cormac McCarthy's books?” and some other people actually applaud in approval. Astoundingly, none of the three authors claims to have read McCarthy, at least “not in a long while.” Wtf?!
At the end of the session, the authors read short selections from their works. Listening to Ha Jin is painful—his accent is so bad I, we, can barely understand him, and there's some unrest in the audience as people begin to consider bolting. I almost do, but decide, ok, fuck it, all have to do is listen for twenty more minutes. The other two writers are ok, forgettable I guess, and every one leaves seemingly as unsatisfied as I feel. I know an hour and fifteen minutes isn't a lot of time to talk about evil, but come on, there was a huge crowd for this—this is an issue for us writers. I would have rather heard one person, one smart articulate person, give a lecture about Evil than hear this.
After that session I head over to Legends for some more veggie gumbo and another veggie burger, thinking to catch the 6:00 pm acoustic performer, except that, with 10,000 people in attendance (even if many have left by now) there's still plenty o' people, some of whom have the same idea. So, no table.
I grab a stool at the front bar, where there's only one bartender for the bar plus all the floor drinks. But I get an order in and the guy performing starts to play, though I can just sort of see him around a thick support column. Just him and his (electric) Stratocaster, and he's certainly pimped out in a bright white suit and hat, which is a warning that he may be overcompensating in the playing area, and it's true, he's not that good. So alas. But the gumbo is yummy, and there's a steady stream of creative writing hotties, including one I remember seeing on Thursday, at the Alice Notley reading, which I remember only because it seemed she was maybe checking me out, and here now she also seems to be at least glancing at me. And she's looking good, dressed up in a tight little black dress with nylons. Lordy. What a juicy ass. Plus she's gotta be smart. And I'd swear she goes out of her way to walk by me twice, and look at me, and do women think that way? Is she offering herself for an invite to talk? Yet surely she must be here with friends? All dressed up sexy? But then, no, she's sitting by herself at the bar. She's ordering dinner and sitting by herself, just like me.
Should I? Dare I? Invite her to eat with me? I almost chicken out like I normally do, but no, fuck it, I'm in Chicago, at a Conference. Even if she laughs at me, I'll be gone tomorrow and no one I know will know my shame. So, summoning all the courage I can, I go over and introduce myself, saying I recognize her from the Conference, and inviting her to come down the bar to join me.
She looks a little surprised but, surprisingly, say ok. Yes, I am now the Super Stud, walking back to my place at the bar with a hot woman in front of everyone.
Fortunately I have the conference to ask her about, while also finding out where she's from, which is Minneapolis, and that she edits an undergrad lit mag at her her school. So, wow, she's an undergrad. Looks a little older, but...ok.
Jen too is a little wiped out, and she hasn't even been to that many sessions, three total for the whole conference (!). Instead, she's been going to a lot of offsite activities, apparently knowing some people, through her school and the lit mag, confirming without meaning to that I've been missing out on all the cool 'behind the scenes' stuff, which I'd like to find out more about, but before I can ask, her food comes, and she holds out her hand to shake. “Sorry, I have some people waiting for upstairs at a private party. Nice to meet you.”
Ah. Alas. She is with others. Well, she did at least come chat. I shake her hand and tell her she looks great, to which she smiles, and she walks off. Man, I hate to see her leave, but love to watch her go. Sigh. No last night of passion at the AWP Conference.
I finish my veggie burger and split, perhaps to return later when the headline band comes on. Depends. There's another reading at 8:30, so with a little time, I head up to the Jackson Street Starbucks for a walk in the cold, but fresh, air, and a Zen tea, and to see my infatuation of the week, the punk barista. But alas upon alas, she's not working tonight.
This Starbucks is far enough away from the hotel to not have many, or any, AWP-ites, and I can just sit, without a computer, just a notebook, and my free copy of the The Sun to read, or I can just veg out and stare out the window at the people, and the El (which en español se llama 'el El' I guess).
For the evening readings I have a choice: either a formal poetry reading, with Nikky Finney (whose work I'm not familiar with) and Lyn Hyjinian (who I am familiar with, though not a fan of)(she's associated with the Language poetry movement, meaning her poems don't make sense) or, I could go to what's called the “Literary Rock & Roll” reading, which features Irvine Welsh, who's novel Trainspotting is brilliant, one of my favorites books of the '90s. Plus a blues band? No contest here.
I'm tired though, and half just want to bag the whole night. Maybe I should have left today, just so I could recover tomorrow before going back to school. Well, next time I'll know what I'm getting into. Will there be a next time? Is this all worth it? Did I indeed do anything constructive, like make connections? Well, ten people will (maybe) be reading my book of poetry. I did find some new lit mags that might like my stuff. I saw Diane, met her friend Sandra, who I could call if I end up in Portland (which is an option). Met Bonnie Jo Campbell finally. Got some ideas about teaching writing, or not 'got' but got me thinking about teaching writing, though the sessions were really maybe the least interesting part of the whole weekend. Saw Chicago again. Got a sense of where I'm at in the writing/publishing world (ie outside looking in) though found, or was reminded about, my people, my tribe, that I feel more a part of this world than the community college comp crowd. Also invited an attractive woman to talk with me, with partial temporary success.
The Literary Rock & Roll seems geared to the younger crowd, if a little oddly, with a huge PA, and drums and amps on stage behind a regular AWP lectern. Plus a light show, and the whole room, (the combined International Rooms, as big as the Grand Ballroom) lined with the same small uncomfortable chairs set out in rows. I grab one off to the left of the stage, both for the decent view, leg room, and to be able to escape easily if this sucks.
This presentation, or 'reading' (?) is being put on by the Fiction Department of Columbia College (according to the Chair, who makes the intro) as part of a sneak preview to something they do in March called “Story Week,” a series of shows combining stories and music performers. Interestingly, poetry is not mentioned. Pairing short stories with the blues seems odd, but here goes: the music guest is guitarist/signer/band leader Ronnie Baker Brooks, a native Chicagoan, and a fucking good guitar player. Unfortunately, his band only does one song, getting everybody pumped and tapping their toes (or that's what I'm doing) but to be continued later, after the readings. Odd, and kind of funky, but I guess alright—maybe the getting-pumped feel changes the typical dry readings, especially by fiction writers, who don't ever seem to read very well, to perform well—that and/or the 'story' writing form at least, just takes a big chunk of attention to get through, vs. poetry where the poet can talk and joke between poems, to vary the mood.
The audience: This is the hipster crowd. There was no mention of turning off cellphones for the reading—noise and sound and multi-media seem to be encouraged. The woman next to me is older than I, and there are others near my age, but I do feel on the older side, which is bizarre because I fucking remember when Trainspotting came out.
The first couple rows are reserved, for who I'm not sure, but these Important People begin to trickle in, including, I think, my lady-friend, with some older professor types. I'm not sure, the room is kind of dark, and she's on the other side of the room, but it looks like her, and I'd swear that she kind of scans the room and looks at me. A ha, so maybe this private party involved the three readers? I bet so. Yeah, I would've ditched me too.
The three readers are all Chicagoans, and well known by the crowd, though I've never heard of the first, Audrey Niffenegger, one of the fiction faculty at Columbia, and from her bio, a seeming Jill-of-all-creative-trades. I'm kinda underwhelmed by her story, though it's well written—I guess just not my thing, though the audience (which by now is huge) seems to like her.
The second reader I've heard of, but never read, that I can remember: Aleksander Hemon, from Sarajevo but now living here in Chicago, and fucking writing in English, more than just fluently. When he reads, he has a slight accent, yes, but he's got the slang down, and the rhythm (versus Ha Jin). His story is good, he reads engagingly, sounds like Chekhov, a first person POV Chekhov, with some subtle humor. Someone to check out.
I love the headliner Irvine Welsh's style, the way he puts Scottish accents down on paper, like Mark Twain, with all the profanity and unique terms, and weird scatological Scot humor, pushing the envelope on what is writeable in English. He has the unconventional style of Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr., two of my favorite fiction writers. The story he reads is in the Trainspotting vein, and just over the stop in scatology, but has the audience roaring, and not just from the story, but his performance. First, I love that he just pulls his story out of his back pocket—loose sheets of paper folded in four. Second, he's the only writer this week to take the mike off the lectern, holding it in his hand, close to his mouth, sometimes YELLING into it, simulating factory noise. He also simulates the postures and positions of his characters, and walks around the stage. Now this is rock & roll. Man, I haven't read him in a while, I'll have to re-investigate his stuff. He's got a couple new books, including a prequel to Trainspotting coming out, so hell yeah, I'm in. This was the highlight of the Conference!
I don't stay for the band. Just seems weird after this great reading. On my way out of the International Room, I pass the Continental Rooms below, where one of those receptions is in full swing, with lights and a dance floor and loud dance music, and young people out shaking their booties. Wow. Writers dance?
Nor do I go over to Legends for some blues. I just am not up for another ten dollar cover, then a seven dollar drink. I just want to go back to my room and take a bath, and read, and be quiet, though I feel guilty—My last night, maybe I should get out and explore and just sleep on the train ride back to Michigan tomorrow. Which is depressing—everyone else seems to have somebody to do something with. Though no, when I really look around, I see other solo folks, sitting in corners of the lobby halls, probably feeling like me, wanting to do something maybe, though not anything too crazy.
Nope, it's bedtime for Johnny. Or, relaxing time. In my room, I put on some jazz, make some tea, and just write—freewriting notes on tonight and the whole long weekend. I think part of what made me so frazzled was how little writing I did. Or reading. Just go go go, which I'm bad bad bad at. And though I would love to have a young woman from Wisconsin cuddled up with me tonight, I am content to have a quiet inexpensive night in. Tea. Writing. Bath. Reading. Sleep. A last look out the window at the city lights. But not goodbye forever, I'm sure. As Arnold says, I'll be back.
My train doesn't leave until noon-ish, so I have time for one last mini-adventure: the lake. To see it finally, and say hello and goodbye.
Fortunately, no wind. Grey sky, and a few snowflakes drifting down. I walk through Millennium Park, re-living past marathon glories, when the whole park was filled with people. Almost no one here now. And here's the lake, calm and gray as the sky. To the south, the museums and aquarium, to the north the Gold Coast and Navy Pier. A few runners are out. Damn, why did I not go running while I was here? I even brought running clothes. But the cold and exhaustion, and I realize now maybe the overwhelming sense that the Conference was everything, all important, to the exclusion of the normal things I value and which keep me sane.
I meander north. Man, when was the last time I even meandered by the lake? I guess if I lived here I'd be down here all the time, running, or just to getting a bit of nature/sanity, because that's what I like about Chicago, though also any of the coastal cities, that no matter how big and sprawling, there's still a point where the city ends, and space happens, and beyond There Be Dragons.