To my dearest darling readers:
The first weekend of February I had the pleasure of attending the annual AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] conference with my boyfriend Jim, who was manning the Poetry Foundation booth.
The Hilton New York was crawling with literary glitterati. The following is a representative sample of the many star struck exchanges Jim and I had over the course of the weekend:
JIM: Hey. There’s Yusef Komunyakaa
ME: Really? Oh my god. I was, like, totally supposed to read one of his books once.
There were a lot of people at AWP who had written books I was totally supposed to have read.
There were even a few people there who’d written books I actually had read.
Amy Bloom, for example, whose short stories I discovered in a creative writing class at Colby College, was giving the following presentation:
R128. Autobiography, Angst/Anger and 'Catharsis': Being Crazy Doesn't Make You Interesting. (Thomas Jeffrey Vasseur, M.L. Williams, Marita Golden, Amy Bloom, Bob Shacochis, David Kranes) This panel concerns a phenomenon & occasional problem every creative writing teacher has experienced at some point: when the creative writing workshop becomes confused with appropriate clinical therapy. These participants bring an impressive set of credentials to the subject matter & teaching experience ranging from institutions such as the University of Iowa, FSU, Virginia Tech, Emory, Yale, etc.
I should have attended this presentation two years ago before entering the Creative Writing Program at Boston University and subjecting my classmates and professors to thinly veiled autobiography about girls named Lauren who attend Colby College and make out with boys who are mean to them. It surprises me that Amy, who in addition to being a fiction writer and a creative writing professor at Yale is also a psychotherapist, is down on the idea of workshop-as-therapy. After all, if anyone is qualified to run a writing workshop/clinical therapy session, it’s her. Yale could probably charge twice as much for her courses if she allowed them to be listed as writing/mental health workshops in the course catalog. I hope Amy realizes how lucky she is to be able to draw on her patients’ insanity when writing fiction—the rest of us have to make do with only our own. (BTW, Amy, I so enjoyed your previous work that I bought your most recent novel without reading the book jacket. Dude. Historical fiction? Barf-o-rama.)
The presentation I was most psyched to see (and for which I blew off a Care.com conference call—sorry guys) was this:
R163. A Tribute to Russell Edson. (Russell Edson, Brian Clements, Robert Bly, Charles Simic, James Tate) Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics presents Robert Bly, Charles Simic, and James Tate discussing the work of Russell Edson, followed by a reading by Russell Edson.
I discovered Russell Edson in a creative writing class at Johns Hopkins, a place my parents still refer to as the real school I used to go to even though it’s been eight years since I transferred to Colby. My creative writing teacher was an adorable graduate student named John Stinson on whom every girl in the class had a major crush. We read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, and each memo was a lecture on a different virtue of good writing, like quickness or lightness or exactitude. Then we read fiction and poetry which exemplified these virtues and tried to incorporate the virtues into our own writing. I don’t remember what virtue Russell Edson was supposed to exemplify—I don’t think fucked-uppedness was the subject of any of Calvino’s memos—but I loved him. His bizarre prose poems (prose poetry was genre I hadn’t even known existed previously) frequently featured apes, monkeys, and familial squabbles which escalated immediately to screaming. Brilliant.
Making Edson even cooler was that he was supposedly very reclusive and nearly impossible to contact. We read “The Blank Book,” a poem in which a husband and wife discuss mailing a package to a fictitious address. The husband says, “But no one lives there. Don’t you know, hardly anyone lives at fictitious addresses. There’s barely enough reality there to provide even a mailing address.” John Stinson told us that the creative writing program had attempted to invite Edson to read at Hopkins, and that they’d mailed a letter to the address given to them by his publisher. But the letter came back stamped “return to sender” because Edson himself lives at a fictitious address. And this, of course, was enough to blow all of our eighteen-year-old minds.
So I was surprised that Edson had agreed to make a public appearance at AWP. And I was even more surprised when Jim told me that he had come across Edson’s Stamford, Connecticut address when he was putting together a Poetry Foundation mailing.
But in spite of my desire for him to be an elusive recluse, it was pretty exciting to see Edson in person. Jim managed to take some video of Edson reading “The Family Monkey” and “Ape and Coffee.” After the reading several people approached Edson and asked him to sign their books. I didn’t have any of my Edson books with me, and Jim wanted me to ask Edson to take a picture with me, and I was starting to get all flustered just like I did at the They Might Be Giants concert. I’m easily star struck, and apparently I’m even star struck by poets, who are, like, the lowest men on the totem pole of fame. Jim himself is now so famous what with his AP article and his NPR interview that I’m starting to get a little nervous even around my own boyfriend. Anyway. Jim and I were standing there fighting over whether or not I had to have my picture taken with Russell Edson, and then suddenly I turned around and C.K. Williams, who I recognized from the Who-Is-Your-Favorite-Graduate-of-My-High-School poll in the left sidebar of this very blog and who looks an awful lot like an elderly Bob Saget, was standing right behind us. Without missing a beat, Jim shook his hand and said, “I’m Jim Sitar. I work at the Poetry Foundation. This is my girlfriend, Lauren. She went to your high school.” Oh my god. I was dying of embarrassment and I said the very first thing that popped into my head, which unfortunately was “When I was in high school we inducted Lauryn Hill into the Hall of Fame.” But C.K. was very kind and said nice things about our high school and pretended not to notice that I was acting like an idiot. So that was good.
Anyway, the other day Jim told me that the Poetry Foundation mailing that had been sent to Russell Edson came back stamped “return to sender.” So even though I’m an idiot, Russell Edson is still bad ass.