Thursday, April 16, 2015

AWP - Hanging Around the Booth

On the way back to the booth, I passed the table of Bad Penny Review. Those guys have been busy manufacturing little boxes filled with postcards, coasters, chapbooks and other printed material, and offering them for sale at very reasonable prices. (I would have bought one but it occurred to me I might just as well rummage a little through the drawers of my old desk.) 

I also ran into my colleagues at Bookmobile, Gretchen Franke, Nicole Baxter, and Rachel Holscher. I had never met Gretchen though we've emailed many times. I recently sent her a note saying: "Ignore that last PDF I sent. Some additional corrections are on the way." She replied, "Thanks, John. I usually do hold your files for a few hours before running them. I've noticed that your 'last minute corrections' are seldom really the last ones you send." It's sad, but true.

It was a special pleasure to reconnect with Rachel. The last time we spoke face-to-face was at a printing workshop in Brainerd maybe ten years ago. At that time her kids were young and she was a worried that her camping days were over. I asked if she'd been doing any camping lately.

"Oh, yes. We go twice a summer. My children are both teenagers now. They like it--though they'd rather sleep in their grandparents' fifth-wheel than on the floor of our tent." When I mentioned that Hilary and I were contemplating a backpacking trip, she brought up Isle Royale, where she and her husband had gone on their honeymoon.

Hanging Around the Booth

But hanging around the booth can also be fun. I work with authors from Nodin Press fairly often, and then, following the intimacy and intensity of assembling a book together, they disappear. Or maybe it's me who disappears.

In any case, it's always a pleasure to reconnect with poets and historians I've worked with, and also with those I hardly know.  At various times I shared the booth with Freya Manfred, Kate Dayton (who has a wonderful hoot of a laugh, and lets it loose often), Norita Ditterberger-Jax, and Margaret Hasse (who brought me a ham sandwich on Friday after watching me eat a deep-fried chicken fillet sandwich from the concessionaire the previous day. Gee thanks, Ma!)

I had never met Joyce Sutphen, though her poetry figures prominently in the new Nodin Anthology. I got to talking with her when she visited the booth, and after I made mention of her poem about the scythe that appears  in the new volume, she said:

"Right now I'm memorizing a poem by Robert Frost called 'The Mowing.' I often drive to St. Peter to teach, and I have the text beside me on the car seat." And then she recited the entire poem to me in one of the softest voiced I'd ever heard.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground...

It occurred to me only later that perhaps I'd now experienced the full decibel range of personal poetry recitation. Twenty years ago I ran into Robert Bly at the Blockbuster video store on Hennepin Avenue. Before long he was reciting a new poem he'd recently translated at the top of his lungs. Twice.

The point here isn't "brushes with fame." It's that people who love poetry and live in that world find it natural to recite poems to perfect strangers. I like that.

Joyce and I discussed the pronunciation of "scythe," and I confessed to her that the word "chasm" also troubled me. Was it "ka-sem" or "cha-sem"?

"I think it's "kas-em," she said, "but I haven't had occasion to say it very often."

Mike Hazard sauntered up with some poem-sticks in front of his face. I asked him what he'd been working on.

"Two days ago I finished my documentary about George Stoney," he said with a grin.

"That's huge," I replied. "You've been working on that for twenty years. Isn't he sort of an idol of yours?"

"Don't say idol," Mike corrected me. "Stoner was totally against idols." We chatted for a bit about Wiseman's recent film, National Gallery.

"That film was good," Mike said, "but it could have ended at any point. But all Wiseman's films are like that." 

Several people who stopped by were aspiring authors who told me stories of painful mental illnesses, autoimmune diseases, or of deaths in the family that were part of the memoirs they were writing and hoped we'd publish. Others had taken classes from Linda Back McKay, and were equally impressed by her motorcycle trips and her surreal imagination.

And my old buddy Glenn Freeman, who teaches creative writing at a small college in Iowa, stopped by early in the event.  He'd just attended a morning panel about funding college writing programs."Demand is up, funding is down," he told me. "At the panel a recent survey was unveiled that will help me convince the dean that my program is way underfunded."

Glenn and his wife, Mary Beth, had been over the previous evening for some impromptu catching up on the deck. I'd like to say we served them a fine platter of meze dishes, but the spread was actually concocted of odds and ends from the fridge. I guess that's more or less the same thing—sliced gruyere cheese, reheated ratatouille, cole slaw from CostCo, spanikopita from the freezer, and left-over quinoa salad with asparagus and mushrooms.

But the most surprising visitor to the booth was Tim McDonnell. The last time I saw Tim, he was a scrawny, sixteen-year-old pouring Swiss Miss from a box into small plastic bags. We worked at the same canoe base. He was the outfitter; I was a guide. In the forty years since then, Tim has lost most of his hair but grown a thick salt-and-pepper beard. Yet I recognized him immediately. He's still the same thoughtful, soft-spoken soul  that I once knew, and he's written a few books to prove it. He and his wife are both kindergarten teachers. "We love kids," he told me, "especially the ones that go home at 4:30."

Tim has moved on from canoeing, and now leads kayak trips in his spare time in Pukaskwa National Park, on a roadless section of the remote northeastern shore of  Lake Superior.

The Panels

The organizers of AWP winnowed down 1800 panel requests to a mere 550, but all the same, it's largely hit and miss whether you'll sit in on a good one.

I attended one devoted to non-fiction in the age of the internet, and the talks went like this:

A: I was suffering from postpartum depression so I started stalking my neighbor and made a video about it. It went viral, the text was included in a non-fiction anthology, and now I write a regular column for the New York Times.

B: Yeah, well I wrote a blog mythologizing myself, everything was true, but exaggerated, like me drinking from beer bottles that had been used as ash trays. I have done that - but not all the time. So you see, it's true, but not true.

Panel lesson number one: always sit near the door.

I attended another panel devoted to issues related to how "the past" can be used in travel writing. The first speaker, a professor from Chicago, used the F-word thirty times during her twelve-minute talk. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that the rest of her vocabulary was equally limited and cliché-ridden. Flaking paint in student apartments, etc.  

I felt sorry for her students and former students, many of whom were in attendance. But a woman who came by the booth later told me, "Her students love her. I thought she was funny myself!"

At another panel, I listened to a young scholar advance the argument that Paul Celan wrote poems that cannot be understood—on purpose. But everyone fails to understand Celan's poems in a different way, and the panelist made an attempt to describe how his failure to understand the poems differed from the mistaken interpretations of other scholars.

As I listened, I was reminded of the scene in Renoir's The Grand Illusion where one captive in a prison camp tells another that he's passing the time by translating Pindar. The first man picks up the book from the desk, then looks down at the translator's notebook, and says, "Poor Pindar."

On the other hand, listening to poet Tony Hoagland read for five minutes at a Greywolf reading was truly memorable. The words were thoughtful, the delivery restrained, the pacing perfect, the effect sublime.

I even served on a panel myself, doing my best to loosen up the crowd with a SNL intro to distinguished Nodin Press authors Lori Sturdevant, Jim Gilbert, and Margaret Hasse. The turnout wasn't bad, considering it was Saturday morning and people had already been there for three days.

And as far as I could tell, nobody slipped out early!

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