Friday, July 25, 2008

Re-post 4/5/05, AWP highlights, comic relief, Susan Musgrave, Anne Carson et al.

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[April 5, 2005: A few selected highlights from AWP Vancouver (3/31—4/3, 2005)

Susan Musgrave, who was the Canadian poet who preceded Michael Ondaatje, was a wonderful surprise. The dramatically lit great hall was full—it seemed thousands were anxiously awaiting the start. I was not familiar with her work though I had heard her name before. It was hard to tell how old she was—maybe fifty or so? She had long gray hair and a slightly wobbly manner at the microphone. When she started speaking, it seemed as though she had had a few before she’d gotten there. She suggested that she might skip reading and just do Irish drinking songs for twenty minutes. She actually faked starting in on one song, which was very funny. She went on that she’d already cashed her check, and what could they do?

Then she suggested, "We should create a whole new country made of writers, including Canada, New York and Hollywood. We’ll call it A-W-P,” she said. This was all very amusing because of her delivery, which felt very uninhibited and spontaneous.

Then she told a harrowing story of how her husband (or ex-husband) who was an American was arrested for trying to transport thirty tons of marijuana into Canada. I think she said it was on a boat, and somehow things went very wrong so that her husband was being chased by the CIA, the DEA, the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounties all at once.

Somehow he eluded almost everyone and was running through the forest and only the Royal Canadian Mounty was chasing him. (Isn’t their slogan “We always get our man”?) When the Mounty caught him, the Mounty slammed him in the head with his rifle butt, which made him protest, “I’ve got rights!” (just like an American would, of course.) Then the Mounty shouted spitefully down at him, “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!”

This was so hilarious due to the way she said it that my friends and I were parroting her line all night and even the next days.

Then she said that “You’re in Canada now, m*#%@^$@#$@^!” was going to be the title of her next book, unbeknownst to her publisher. (She confessed that it was a very un-Canadian title since Canada was the land where, if any American were to bump into a Canadian, the Canadian would always apologize.) She also mused that maybe her publisher wouldn’t feel so bad about the title if they knew a Mounty said it.

People were laughing very hard through all this, and I was struck by the humor that combined so much irony, absurdity and pathos.

Her poetry was very sharp and a powerful mixture of hard realities on the one hand and a larger ironic vision on the other. It was excruciatingly beautiful. I was really moved.

After the reading by Michael Ondaatje, one of my famous Philly poet friends, Harriet Levin, saw Erik and I near the elevators and invited us up to the private reception; she was going up with David Mura, Gary Pak and Marilyn Chin, so we got to stand around the top floor with the gorgeous panorama of Vancouver all around with all the VIPs and the exquisite catered seafood and the snooty wait staff.

(You know you’re in the VIP reception when the wait staff with beautiful hor d’oeuvres are reservedly revolted by the hordes of unwashed writers, poets etc.)

Susan Musgrave and Michael Ondaatje were both there talking with their friends, and there was a complimentary open bar, which a few people took too much advantage of, including one young guy who all but demanded a cigarette from Erik or me, and was very angry that we did not have any. Then he stalked off in disgust.

It had been a very long day at the bookfair and an equally long night of great readings, so we were all pretty exhausted. Kazim Ali made a brief appearance (sort of apparition like, to me, by that point). I told Erik what a genius Kazim was at running Nightboat Books, which elicited an embarrassed laugh from Kazim. (Kazim and Jennifer Chapis somehow started their own press just a few years after NYU and got things off to a great start.)

Anyway, the next day at the bookfair I saw Susan Musgrave walking by herself past my table. She looked a little sad, I thought, or maybe she was just very tired from the previous night’s performance. I told her that I thought her reading was very hilarious and poignant; she seemed very happy to hear this. So I went on to say, “It was very moving. It was inspiring,” and this made her smile. Then I said, “It was excruciatingly beautiful.”

That made her pause. Then she actually pulled out her little notebook and said, “No one has ever said that to me before” (she was really flattered), and she wrote it down in her little scrawl with quotation marks around it. “I want to use that,” she said. “I’m going to tell people that is what it was like when they ask.”

Then I was flattered, but I said, “Thanks, but— hey! you have to attribute it to me,” I said, giving her my card.

She said okay and scrawled my name down dutifully next to the words, and she kept my card and went off (happily, I think) on her way.

(I asked for this attribution because I once blurbed Sherman Alexie’s poetry book when I was writing reviews for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Hanging Loose Press took my best line for the back cover and didn’t use my name! They just attributed it to The Philadelphia Inquirer. I was the only blurb author to be “anonymised” in this way. Thus, if you see a Sherman Alexie poetry book, The Summer of Black Widows with a blurb on the back with the word “Whitmanic” on it, that was me.)

Vancouver itself was very beautiful—the architecture was elegant and had a strong Asian influence. Most of the skyscrapers were not too large but extremely interesting geometrically. They could have been in Taiwan or Japan. Chinatown was also very nice though Erik and I were only there once for a late dinner—the food was great and very cheap. The neighborhood nearby was sketchy though; we were accosted by a few strange guys who might have been selling and/or on drugs.

The last day’s big reading was Anne Carson and W. S. Merwin. It was slated for 4:30 p.m., and I’d been very sleep deprived from the start, and the AWP bookfair staff wanted to kick us all out totally by 5:30 p.m., so I had to pack up everything I could carry and grab a cab and head across town to the hotel where Erik and I were staying. Then I had to rush back to the conference hotel to make the reading.

Anne Carson was a classicist, and she was extremely funny and beautiful in an eccentric way. She was actually crying a little as she got up to the podium (due to the very laudatory introduction?) and said, “This is a WAY lot of people.”

(It was standing room only, and I was, in fact, not there but in the adjacent room watching a simulcast on a big screen, which made her luminous, youthful face much larger than life-size.)

She pulled herself together a little and improvised some kind of a thirteen-second poem with audience participation. It had two choruses, A and B. She deftly divided the multitudes with an authoritative gesture, saying, “You are Chorus A,” and waved them off. Then divided the other half off, saying “You are Chorus B.” In her almost-parody-of-a-professor, she said, “Chorus A, your line is: “I’ll buy it! with an exclamation point.” This made everyone laugh. “Chorus B, your line is: “What a bargain! with an exclamation point.”

After she made the audience rehearse once, the thirteen-second poem flashed by in her fine high voice, and she merely gestured to each chorus, and it worked perfectly. The audience exploded in playful laughter and applause, and she applauded them too.

Then she had some unusual and quirky translations of Catullus, and she recited many of these. They were interesting—I’ve read enough from antiquity to know that they were as—if not more—sex-obsessed and idiosyncratic as anyone is today. She had a way of bringing to the fore just how much Catullus was so near to us. She somehow sneaked into her translations refrigerators and other modern machines. She ended this series with the most sexual lyric poem, tapping her neat stack of vertical pages on the podium with a final, “So much for the classics!”

This was followed by a really unusual poem inspired by a woman painter, and she admitted up front that she had no opinion of the art work. But she had thought about it very extensively, so her poem was comprised entirely of “If” clauses.

She was very self-deprecating as she introduced her poem. She declared something like, “It has about eighty clauses, but to you it will seem interminable.” Everyone laughed. “But let me give you some markers along the way to help you....” Then she said a key phrase for one point and another, and she said “Freud” would show up near the end, which meant that when we heard his name, unlike upon any other possible occasion, his name would give us hope. Everyone laughed at that too, and as I think about it now, I realize that her joke had many layers of meaning aside from the obvious one. It was indirectly quite revealing, in a way.

The poem was wonderful—the clauses added up to something much greater than they began with—there were significant shades of meaning in the digressions. It ended beautifully, and it did not seem long at all. Her delivery was so clear and her voice so resonant in its pitch—she might have had a soprano voice. (Somewhere during the earlier poems she sang a little, and her singing voice was very charming and lilting.) She had one of those faces that seems ageless—she could have been twenty or more years younger than she was. I was astonished to read online what year she was born!

The applause she received in the end was very warm and long. She did not stand there to receive it very long though; she took herself off the podium quickly and modestly. This reminded me of her tears before she began—it made one wonder a little about her. Did she actually know how great she was?

W. S. Merwin had to follow her, and that was an unenviable spot to be in even if you are W. S. Merwin, which he himself admitted right away. He said something about having read after Anne Carson before, and how he hadn’t learned anything (meaning: she’s a tough act to follow).

Then he told a touching little anecdote about Robert Creeley, who drove through a snowstorm to pick him up with another poet in upper state New York. Creeley accidentally, while waving his arms around talking, knocked the headlights out and just kept driving down the highway in the thick snowstorm, the snowflakes strangely luminous and falling at them. Merwin was in the back, watching all this, and his other friend carefully reached around and got the headlights back on, and Creeley kept talking, waving his arms around, and driving as if nothing had happened.

I must admit that by that time I was feeling the hours of work and the time of concentration before had taken most of my attentive abilities out of me. I was able to really focus on a few of the poems, at the start and the end, and they were very beautiful. Merwin spoke at great, great length sometimes between poems, and this seemed very spontaneous, which was good, but it seemed to take a while to get to the poems, which were better.

It was a little funny that he read one of his own translations of Catullus, which was loaded with assonance and alliterative effects, and it did sound more “poetic” than Anne Carson’s translations, but the sense of a vital and other personality coming through the translation was not as strong. He actually addressed Anne directly in the midst of his reading at that point, to talk about translating Catullus, which seemed a little unusual to me.

Harriet, though, was in heaven, and she felt like Merwin’s reading was just transcendent. I am also a Merwin fan, but I’d never heard his actual voice before, and the adjustment was not easy for me.

Believe it or not, then there was another event with Wayson Choi and Ursula Leguin, and they were at 8 or 8:30 p.m. and they were the last readers. Erik and I went out to dinner with Patrick Lawler (a very funny and wonderful poet) and two of his good friends.

Patrick, Erik and I were all still parroting that line from Susan Musgrave, “You’re in Canada now, m#$%#$%&#$&*!” We didn’t pronounce the whole thing because we were at a beautiful waterfront restaurant, and the waiter seemed to be so nice, respectful and dignified—I think we didn’t want to throw him off stride.

Anyway, the story by Wayson Choi was indelibly moving and framed perfectly by his casual conversational tone. He was clearly a master at doing this sort of performance.

Ursula Leguin admitted right away she was no talker but a writer and would just read, and then she read an interesting experimental story called “Ether OR,” meaning, a town named “Ether” in “Oregon.” A very northwest Pacific Rim kind of humor, I guess. She was great reader and there were many funny, strange and insightful moments in the work, which featured many voices of the people in the town. It was a nice, soft ending to a hard-working conference. There was a huge mob of fans for autographs afterwards.

My novelist friend from Philly, Simone Zelitch, was there in the long line. We chatted a little before Erik and I headed out—it was late, after all, and we were exhausted.

Most of the long days' hours had been spent at the bookfair, which was intense and hard. We were selling books, after all, to the toughest (and the best) audience in the world.

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