April 7, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsReading

AWP: When Writers Attack

Last week, on a flight from Detroit to Los Angeles, I read Chuck Sambuchino’s When Clowns Attack: A Survival Guide. I was preparing for the AWP Conference—an annual 12,000-person pileup that I look forward to, in a way, but that I also dread. From Sambuchino’s book: “So what you need to do now is go to the window and listen for circus music or any hyuk-hyuk laughter. Peer out into the street to check for unicycle graffiti or plainclothes clown gangsters selling laughing gas right there in broad daylight. If it’s all clear, then you’re safe—for now. Deadbolt the doors and settle in.”

I settled into a hotel room about two miles from the site of the conference. I needed both the physical and the psychic distance; I needed to space out my hyuk-hyuks. My obligations at the conference were fairly minimal (just a podcast interview and a book signing), so I was able to spin away with friends and see a play, a baseball game, a show at the Comedy Store. I took my first Uber ride—and learned, within three minutes of entering the car, that my driver would never get married because, as he told me, “I would one hundred percent cheat on my wife. And I couldn’t do that to a woman. One hundred percent.”

At some point each day I trekked to the conference. I heard smart panelists discuss empathy, Korean American poetry, and George Washington’s teeth. (In Roger Reeves’s account, our first president’s teeth came from the mouths of his slaves.) I picked up bracing books by Derek Sheffield, Molly Tenenbaum, and Jaimee Hills. (Here’s an address to a new child from Hills’s “True Knot” that I can’t get out of my head: “Bated mammal, you discover / vernix, torsion, the joy of air, // your name, typewritten, escaping limbo, / bound to my heart, a reservoir.”) I heard Laura Kasischke give this excellent bit of advice: “If Adele calls and says Hello, hang up immediately.”

I saw several post-panel Q&As hijacked by audience members who didn’t have questions but just wanted to speak into a microphone. My favorite of these moments came after a panel on stand-up poetry, when the questioner-without-a-question went on and on, sending the eighty-minute event into overtime. He redeemed himself slightly with this odd gem: “A friend of mine went to clown school for two weeks by accident.”

I was late to my own signing because of an explosion on Grand Avenue that (a) caused me to scream and (b) turned out to be part of the filming for a TV sequel to Training Day. (My source: the woman sharing my UberPool ride.) At the Waywiser Press table, a Donald Trump piñata received a number of whacks from an orange whiffle bat. I heard lots of debate over whether or not the piñata had candy inside. Joseph Harrison’s theory: “No, just hot air.” Another woman sneered and said, “I wouldn’t eat anything that came out of him.”

As the book-fair exhibitors began packing up, I learned that I had won the Poetry Northwest raffle. My prize: a Fifty Shades of Grey bottle of wine. I shared about fifteen shades with the Poet Laureate of Kansas; we left the other thirty-five for the hotel staff. The clown survey, perhaps, had put me in the mood for something harder. As Sambuchino reports: “All clowns also own a ‘flask cane,’ which unscrews at the top to hold a half-liter of grain alcohol mixed with root beer—the drink of choice for men of the paint.”

On the way out of town, I saw two dogs wearing socks. So: two dogs, eight socks.