–by Dan Reiter
I am in a dive bar in Minneapolis, waiting out the interlude between poets, watching William Tyler navigate a tractate of reverb. The thought of tomorrow’s panel discussion––”The Writing of Atrocity”––has me locked in a cycle of dread and procrastination. They expect me to speak ten full minutes, yet I have nothing prepared, no idea where to begin.
Behold the young literati: bold-rimmed, russet-bearded, baroque, well-inked. Come here for truth. Tyler’s pick sends out blistering messages; he manipulates his pedal until his guitar is playing three-part harmony. Why hadn’t I worked on my presentation last night? Who wastes a perfectly free evening unscrolling the #AWP15 twitter feed? But God, that tweet of Melville House’s––Saeed Jones (@theferocity) flaunting a gorgeous paperback of Baldwin’s last interview––was a classic: “James Baldwin and @theferocity give better side eye than you.”
The face of Saeed Jones, luminary poet of the #AWP15 twitter feed, is commanding in its beauty, provocative, cocked at the eyebrow, framed by an asymmetrical coiffure, and decorated with a slim, elegant nose-ring. It is the type of face that succors procrastination, forces you to seek it out on YouTube and watch a live performance of “Boy in Whale Bone Corset.” When Jones channels the line, “His son’s a whore this last night/ of Sodom,” you begin to apprehend the point of all the @theferocity pics on the Twitter feed and are grateful, in the end, for having been made to look.
Before last year, I had never published a story, had never heard of AWP, or realized editors were warm, breathing people. When Karen Russell delivered the keynote in the grand auditorium, it was my first time attending a reading with over twenty people. Her practiced confidence, her instinctive locution, her hair (what kind of conditioner did she use?), were inspirational. And my… wasn’t she prepared!
Seeing a literary icon in person is one of the more meta ways to procrastinate for a panel discussion. Here: Roxane Gay rains down all the right phrases, suggests that if you can only read 600 words on the internet, you need to have a conversation with your god. Is she looking at me? T. C. Boyle reads an unpublished story, fresh from the pen, with the panache of an actor, or a Yiddish uncle, rolling his rr‘s, sporting red kicks. Below the stage, the sign language interpreter does his best to transmit, but cannot keep up with the flow. How the hell are you supposed to sign “revelation from the mouth of a flour tortilla”?
The trellised dome of the Bookfair provides a more-than-adequate procrastination spot. Publishing houses smile at you, offer up their anachronisms, paperbacks, tactile fetishist pieces to fit in the pocket, or magazines with the feel and glow of vintage vinyl albums.
Joel Smith of Spork Press, part lumberjack, part Dior runway model, sells cassette tapes and artisanal hardcovers, publishes poetry, hangs with Jim Jarmusch, could just as easily not give a shit about you, but is famous for doing precisely the opposite.
I stopped to chat with N+1, The Paris Review, did a shot of whiskey at Juked, talked baseball with Hobart, hung at the edge of the fair with the cats from McSweeney’s. One booth exhibited a cardboard sign advertising “free handjobs.” I bought as many flash journals as I could, talked about snowflakes with Stephen Corey at the Georgia Review, filled a tote bag, brought it up to the room, came back to fill another.
The AWP Bookfair is the like Taj Mahal of indy bookstores. As good a place as any to go broke. Two tote bags later, with too many books to read in a year, I returned to the room to have a conversation with my god.
The Nicolette Mall evokes Midtown Manhattan under a code yellow warning for airborne toxins: a scattered populace, skyscrapers linked with raised walkways, a general distrust of the atmosphere. I return from the poetry reading to the Hotel Ivy, resolved to put my nose down and prepare for my discussion. Should I open with a quote? This one from Mark Twain seems clever enough: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.”
No, it doesn’t have the proper ring. And there is nothing in it that speaks to “The Writing of Atrocity.” I lie on my stomach on the bed, tell myself that the panel will go fine.
Maybe I’ll just leaf through these books for a while.
Dan Reiter (www.dan-reiter.com) won the Florida Review Editor’s Award for his short story of the Holocaust. He has written flash fiction for Tin House, Word Riot, Spork Press, Cease Cows, Bartleby Snopes, Matchbook, Hobart, WhiskeyPaper, McSweeney’s, and other journals. He lives five miles south of Cape Canaveral.