Return of the Dancing Bear

mywall1This is the brick wall I stared at for three days straight.  It was a nice wall, sturdy and white, with an electric outlet, which would have been convenient if the Hilton didn’t charge $20/day for internet access.  I really did mean to live-blog.  Lots of interesting people stopped by the booth, and had I been able to immediately post pictures, I probably would have taken more of them.

Here’s a partial list of Rattle contributors who stopped by (sorry if I’m misspelling any names, but I’m not going to look them up):

Michele Battiste, Vievee Francis, Anne Haines, Michael Meyerhofer, Patricia Smith, Richard Jackson, Brian Trimboli, Eric Kocher, Traci Brimhall, Christine Hamm, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, Janice Harrington, Molly Peacock, Brent Goodman, Gary McDowell, Hilary Melton (I think), Lucille Clifton (smiled and nodded as she passed), Tanya Chernov, Jonathan Wells, Steven Schroeder, Karyna McGlynn, Charles Harper Webb, Todd Davis, Susan Elbe, Doug Goetsch, Joy Gaines Friedler, Anne Whittemore, Ricardo Pau-Llosa (I think), Kip Deed’s S.O., Jamey Hecht, Alan Soldofsky, and Ash Bowen.

I’m probably forgetting several, but it’s a challenging exercise trying to remember.

I was one of a select few who spent the entire conference behind a booth — most presses sent several reps and rotated, or else abandoned their posts for long stretches at a time.  Surely there were other dedicated troopers, but I didn’t see them, because I was behind my table and not roaming the halls.  I only attended one event, an off-site reading after hours, featuring Patricia Smith, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, and Jeffrey McDaniels, which pretty well rocked (and what a diverse group, too…Patricia’s passion, Susan’s intricacy, and Jeffrey’s humor).  That was enough for me.  It was only my third AWP, but already the panels have started bleeding in together — seen one, seen’em all.

Far more interesting to me is the challenge of being a used car salesman, a task I wasn’t designed to do.  I’m not extroverted or charismatic; I don’t dress well, can’t lie with a straight face.  But I think I’m getting alright at it.  Rattle sold out, and I sold all but three copies of American Fractal.  By the end of the week I’d developed an accidental conversational flow-chart in my head, like a good telemarketer:

Are you a poet?  Do you like poetry?  No? Well, we’re the journal for you — check out this short poem by Brett Myhren.  Isn’t it funny how we accept that fiction can be written simply, while remaining complex and powerful, but we think poetry needs to be opaque?

mytableThat was definitely the most pleasant path in the chart — if I could get them to read a short poem, the strict fiction writers almost always bought in.  I mostly used Brett’s poem, and “Bach in the D.C. Subway” by David Lee Garrison, from the winter issue — each probably a dozen times — and every single time, if I could get them to actually read a poem, their faces instantly flipped from suspicion to curiosity.  It really is magic.

The elevators at the Hilton had little televisions screens, playing CNN on the first day, which at some point switched over to short films from the Poetry Foundation.  Cartoons of poems by Russell Edson and CD Wright, among others.  Video killed the library star…  Not once did my elevator mates seem to enjoy these poems, and I can’t help but think we’d be better off with “Telemarketer.”  But it’s too easy to criticize someone else’s choices, so I’ll refrain, except to say that I actually liked a lot of the poems I saw on my trips up to the 20th floor, but found the presentation too pretentious (or maybe self-righteous) to really enjoy.

Selling poetry to non-poets always seems like a difficult task, and it’s probably my main job as an editor of this magazine.  But for three days I couldn’t believe how easy it was, when you just let the poetry speak for itself.  That’s a lesson I took back to California with me.

Still, I’m not a social person, and by the end of each day I became fairly loopy.  I made a game out of shouting random phrases at passersby, like a hotdog vendor on acid.

“Get your fresh hot poetry here!  If you can’t stand the heat, go back to the fiction!”


And so on.  Anything to amuse myself, and laughter came easy.

Once in high school, we did a physics experiment rolling a ball bearing down a track (F=MA, etc.), and I volunteered to stand at the end of the track and catch it.  A friend of mine told me to catch it in my hat, so I did.  Others started yelling to catch it behind my back, then in my pocket, and then someone just yelled, “Dance!” and I did a little dance.  For the rest of the year I was the Dancing Bear, and stood up to do a little jig on command.  It was amusing for a few weeks, and then it got old.

That’s exactly how the AWP Book Fair feels.  Thank God it’s only three days.  A good three days, but I don’t think I could handle four.

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