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Writers’ Inscriptions: The Wise, The Vague, The Ironic

After the AWP conference this year, a guard at the Boston airport security checkpoint took one look at my rolling suitcase, and then asked me to step aside.   “Ma’am,” she said to me, annoyed, “I need you to make sure your suitcase complies with our carry-on luggage requirements.”

Sighing a little—I make a point of not being rude traveler, but my exhaustion was making my manners slip—I lifted my maximum-size-but-still-a-carry-on suitcase onto the rack, pushed it down, and found that it would not slide inside the provided structure.  Like most AWP-goers, what was taking up so much room in that suitcase on the return trip was not my barely-presentable-to-begin-with, snowed-on-and-sweated-in conference clothes.   It was all those books I bought, many of them signed by the author.  I had to check my bag.

I love having my book signed and inscribed.  Nothing is more pleasurable than pulling the book off the shelf, years later, having forgotten the inscription, and reading it again.  One day, I think to myself, I will not remember meeting these writers, and the books will help me remember.  And one day, these authors will no longer be living, and this will be a part of what they leave behind.

But now that my first book of poems has come out, I’ve become increasingly aware of the challenge of writing a good inscription to a reader.  As soon as I’ve got the pen in my hand, I become the most unoriginal message-writer on the planet.  And, usually out of nervousness, I end up misspelling a bunch of words, thus necessitating the awkward ink-blob correction.  Not to mention that what I write doesn’t make any grammatical sense.

Of the books I’ve had inscribed by writers I admire, their messages usually, though not always, fall into these categories. Do any of these sound familiar?

1.  The “Heartfelt, I’m Proud To See You In The World” inscription.  This is one of the best kinds of messages, and it often comes from a writer who knows you, and has been a good teacher and mentor at some point in your life.  Rather than talk about their own greatness—the point of the book, as you, the eternal student, might see it—this inscription focuses on Your Own Greatness, thus inflating your ego, and making you feel nurtured in a way you haven’t since you were a student (maybe an undergraduate) way back when.  The message may include phrases such as “It has been such a pleasure reading your work,”  as if you’d written this very book yourself.  However, if the message turns flirtatious, we all begin to worry a bit.

2.  The “I Know You, So We Have This Inside Joke” inscription.  This kind of inscription avoids the traditional wishes of “Happy Reading” and “It’s Great to Know You.”  The writer is your past or current pal, perhaps a friend from the MFA, if you’ve done one, or some other time in your life.  She/he mostly wants to embarrass you by quoting something stupid you once said.   You were probably in a bar when you said it, because you actually went to bars, once.

3.  The “I Don’t Know You At All, Not Sure What To Write” inscription.  This is the weary (or perhaps just timid) writer’s message, the one that usually reads “Have A Good Time Reading” or, perhaps, the less enthusiastic “Best Wishes.”  (“Best,”  often used as a closing in emails or letters, is a word I always find somewhat brusque. I’ll save discussion that for another time. )   This kind of inscription, believe it or not, can also come from people you DO know.  Once,  from a poet I knew and respected more, no doubt, than she respected me:  “Have Fun.”

4.   The “I Don’t Know You, But I Always Know the Right Thing To Say” inscription.  These inscriptions, like the ones I described in #1, are the kind that make us all weep.  They usually include traces of the writer’s virtuosity.  If the author is a poet, the inscription may actually be a poem.

5.  The “Cool” inscription.  My generation of (hip) nerds, in particular, is a big fan of the ironic approach.  These kind of inscriptions may operate by the principles of random association. They may mention events that have no apparent connection to you, to the writer, or the book.  They may include portraits/ illustrations or you, the writer, or other living things or objects.  (Sometimes, the writer can really draw well! Sometimes, stick figures. )    The inscription may be totally nonverbal, relying on other modes of communication: symbols, scents, smoke, or blank space.

The best inscription I got at AWP this year included touches of the sincere, the complimentary, and the ironic.  Wendy Xu’s book, You Are Not Dead, was just published by Cleveland State University Press, and I happened to be there when she was signing books.    “I hope you like these poems!” she has written first:  humbleness, classy sincerity.  And then, for the unexpected twist: “Your cardigan is changing my life.”