Brooded & Loned in Denver

I’m in Paris on the Platte, which means I’m in Denver, which means I’m at the AWP Conference, which means I’ve been boomeranging from panel to reading to panel all weekend. I’ve listened to Donald Revell and Tony Hoagland debate the future of poetry and the future of humanity. (Revell: “Humanity is one of those experiments that didn’t quite work out.” And Revell again: “As long as we don’t say anything, Tony and I agree.”) I’ve heard Steve Almond, Beth Ann Fennelly, and David Kirby riff (respectively) on Hitler, John Berryman, and Jesus. (From Kirby’s “Talking About Movies with Jesus”: “I shrug and say, ‘Oh well, German-Schmerman, Jesus,’ and Jesus smiles / and says, ‘German-Ethel Merman, Dave. / Did you know her real name was Ethel Zimmerman? She was a Jew, like me,’ and I say, ‘I don’t think there’s a whole lot / of Jews like you, Jesus.'”) I’ve stared wide-eyed as my new favorite Israeli Oscar-winner/short story writer/graphic novelist Etgar Keret read “Fatso,” which I had heard read (by Matt Malloy) only a week earlier on “This American Life.” And I’ve swooned to the sentence-sounds of George Saunders — or, as his Web site rightly puts it, Saunders! Saunders! Saunders! (Keret, on Saunders: “If they ever shoot a commercial for humanity, he should star in it.”)

Yesterday I spoke on a panel titled “Shift the Ground Under Your Feet: Studying Writing Abroad.” The highlight of the panel, for me, was Rebecca Hoogs’ hilarious account of her travels in Europe. (And yes, Rebecca, I’m challenging you to post the transcript.) My portion of the panel went more or less like this:

In Chant 4 of “Song of Myself,” Whitman describes himself as “[b]oth in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.” And I’ve always thought that was the ideal artistic stance. You’re in the game: you’re close enough to have an actual firsthand experience, an emotional experience. And you’re out of the game: you can pull back, identify patterns, gain perspective. Or this: you watch: you pay attention to everything, you stay extra alert, you take notes. And then you wonder: you let those associative imaginative gears take over, you make connections. Whitman’s passage continues, “Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders, / I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.” Being abroad, in some way, encourages you to be a perpetual witness: What was that? What did it mean? And these questions are constant. But you often have to wait for the answers, at least the kind of answers that arrive in stories and poems. I ended up writing a good bit about Marrakesh, but I did it while living in Madison. And while I wrote plenty of poems about Thailand when I was in Chiang Mai, my better poems about Thailand were written five years later, in the foothills of the Ozarks.

Writing home from Ethiopia, Rimbaud asked, “What am I doing here?” And that’s a good question to ask. (Some of you might be asking it now.) Paul Gauguin has a triptych painting of a South Seas island scene that hangs in Boston and is titled, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” If you can answer those questions, or even remember to ask them, you’re in business — and I think you’re reminded to ask them more often when you’re in a place that’s unfamiliar. As for that last question, “Where are we going?,” well, I once traveled to a small Indonesian island where corpses were placed in bamboo cages and left outside to decompose. Then the skulls were stacked up, pyramid-style. The Lonely Planet guidebook advised: “For macabre interests only.” So that’s one answer.

Baudelaire, in “Any Where Out of This World!,” writes: “This life is a hospital in which each sick man is possessed by a desire to change beds. One would prefer to suffer by the stove. Another believes he would recover if he sat by the window. I think I would be happy in that place I happen not to be, and this question of moving house is the subject of a perpetual dialogue I have with my soul.”

Right, but still. Without changing beds, without changing time zones, I couldn’t have written about an old Balinese man who told me, through semaphore, to grow a long beard. I wouldn’t know that parts of Taejon, Korea, smell like fried silkworms, or that it’s possible to pass the evening in Hong Kong by watching The Cosby Mysteries. And if I hadn’t been taking notes, would I remember the Korean census taker who used to offer me cognac, or the Thai monkey who lived in a cage on a beach and who stole my glasses just as I was reading, in my slow, I-only-sort-of-understand-Thai way, “Don’t get too close to monkey or it will steal glasses”?

(Language study, of course, contains its own kind of absurdist poetry. I used to hang out in Korean coffee shops practicing sentence patterns with my American girlfriend. “Is this a tree?” “No, this is not a tree. It’s a tennis shoe.”)

When I was around ten years old, I collected bumper stickers. One read: “BE ALERT. THE WORLD NEEDS MORE LERTS.” Again: being abroad encourages you to bear witness, to stay alert. In Prague, I saw an overly cautious crystal shop that advertised itself as having “Probably the Best Czech Art Glass.” In Krakow, I saw a woman wearing a shirt that read “DON’T LEAVE ME” and immediately wondered, Is there any woman in the world more likely to be left? In Budapest, I read the following in a free magazine: “In Budapest, the Kek Duna (Blue Danube), as it is known, cuts right through the heart of the city, both literally and geographically, dividing hilly residential Buda from flat commercial Pest and running right up the middle like a gash across a wounded lover’s chest.”

Being abroad reminds you that the world is vast and unknown and also shockingly small. On a Berlin street corner in 2004, I bumped into my best friend from my time in Korea, a friend whose contact information I had lost and whom I had feared I would never see again. We immediately retired to a restaurant called Faustus, which seemed right. Later at a bar we met one of those alcoholics of the single object — in this case, escalator installation. He told us about escalator installation in Kazakhstan, in Seoul, in Taiwan. The escalator guy’s friend had other passions. “I will tell you the truth,” he announced, in a tone that suggested he spoke for all Germans. “We love big tits, blonde hair, and nothing else.”

Howard Nemerov, in his essay “Bottom’s Dream: The Likeness of Poems and Jokes,” writes that both poetry and jokes find “fault in this world’s smooth fa??ade,” and they do so with an “economy of materials,” a “sudden reversal of the relations of the elements,” and “an apparent absurdity [which], introduced into the context of the former sense, makes a new and deeper sense.” Traveling, too, helps us to identify these fault lines: the ground, as our panel title suggests, shifts under our feet. As a writer, I want to be on shaky ground, not quite knowing where my next step might land. It’s a little scary, but, as Berryman writes, “We must travel in the direction of our fear.” The difficult thing is the more interesting thing.

“What are we here for?” screams William Burroughs. “We’re all here to go! The earth is a giant spaceship!”