I went to an off-site reading this evening given by an MFA program and two small presses, New Rivers and White Pine. It was at Blackie’s bar not far from the conference hotel and the readers were wonderful. The crowd in the back room of the bar was a book loving crowd from all over the country, and as one of the readers said, it was so nice not to have a cappuccino machine going in the background. At the reading I met the artist whose beautiful watercolor image will appear on the cover of a forthcoming book of mine which my publisher says we’ll be editing soon. I saw friends at the reading. I didn’t get a glass of wine because I was tired and it was a few blocks’ walk back to the hotel, and I needed to have my wits about me for the walk. I didn’t realize just how tired I was till the reading began.
I was happy to be there because it was what it was, and because it was a distraction from the thing that’s been on my mind since we got to Chicago.
I’ve been running the wompus booth in the book fair and that’s been wonderful, meeting and greeting some of our authors and authors-to-be and having many conversations about books and about the writing life. But before the book fair opens in the morning and after it closes, it is a friend who is on my mind, and the news I received yesterday at dawn.
It seems strange to say, an unexpected death. Some deaths are more expected than others but all death is expected, is the central fact of our existence. But most of the time we don’t walk around with the full consciousness that anyone among us could drop dead at any moment, even though it is a fact.
This one hit me with the force of a kick to the chest. I was slightly out of my body for some hours, from the force of the news. I wanted to be of help, to be of use, but I am far away. And I have work to complete here in Chicago.
One of the poets at this evening’s reading read a haunting description of a body in the crematorium as it was consumed by flame. There was a moment when I wanted to put my head down and cry.
When I got back to the hotel I wandered around for awhile. There are AWP folk everywhere, drinking, talking, on laptops or cell phones in lobby chairs or seated on stairs and carpets. Someone was playing a baby grand piano above the lobby on a balcony, playing an intensely sentimental song from Bernstein’s opera, West Side Story, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” It drove me to an elevator, to my room.
I had to write, and i didn’t want to write. I wrote last night too out of grief and lostness. The kind of writing you don’t know, at the time, whether it’s okay, it’s not bad, or it just completely sucks.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s just what we do. It is the act of writing which matters because when we are out of breath, out of energy, out of answers, out of time, writing is there, to exercise our grief, and if we’re lucky, to help exorcise whatever demons that grief summons. Maybe writing is a small act of affirmation. I’m not sure about that part.
Today Chad Prevost signed copies of his Greatest Hits to an enthusiastic reception, and tomorrow we’ll have three more author signings ay Booth 721, by Karren L Alenier, Karen Schubert, and Zack Rogow.
It’s comforting at this moment to be deeply engaged in this work of bringing books into the world, and I’m grateful to all of you who make it possible. If you’re here in Chicago I hope you’ll stop by the wompus booth at the book fair and introduce yourself.