KR OnlineNonfiction

AWP

“Writers Resist Trump (unaffiliated with PEN’s Writer’s Resist events) is an action planned for Friday, February 10. It was loosely organized in the weeks leading up to the conference by Robert Marshall. . . . Writers have been posting to the [Facebook] page for weeks, with Marshall helping to organize groups of writers by state and congressional district and encouraging them to write and collect letters and other materials pertaining to the new administration and then make appointments with representatives. . . . The action will be followed by a rally at 4:30 outside the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. As of this writing, almost 1,500 people had joined the Facebook group.”
        —Craig Morgan Teicher, Publishersweekly.com, February 8, 2017

“Poor snowflakes.”
        —Edward Brazas, Publishersweekly.com, readers’ comments, February 9, 2017

• •

Wednesday, February 8, 2017:

On the train to DC, my phone is, I fear, dying. Not just: needs recharging. Dying. How will I make it through this “action” without it? Well, I tell myself, the French Revolution was pretty much accomplished without phones. The poor thing is plugged into the outlet by the seat rest, but, so far . . . just the thin red bar. I try to study the statistics about HIV and Medicaid which Mark from Act Up gave me. Which I’m supposed to talk about in the Gillibrand meeting. (Helen’s in charge of that.) I can’t focus. Out the window, Charles Burchfield’s trees. Oh, magic New Jersey! February glare of light. Light as thing in which malls and power lines and cattails dissolve. My back hurts. Cartilage: among the things I’ve lost. I’ll spend the night with T. Maybe he can fix my phone.

How will I explain what I’m doing in Washington to T? He comes from the more centrist wing of my family. He works for State and isn’t always a fan of protests and whatnot. But then again things have changed.

Maybe he’ll fake being impressed. Maybe he really will be impressed. I’ll never know. I imagine explaining how I’ve been trying to match people who are from the same states with each other.

“How’s that going?” imaginary T asks. So many of my conversations with people take place when they aren’t physically present. Perhaps a bit one-sided.  “It’s like herding cats on valium,” I imagine telling him. But then worry he’ll find that too weird. I often worry T will find me weird. He is my nephew. I hope he can fix my phone.

I’ll never not love the landscape of northern New Jersey.

• •

A good evening with T. Since Mom died, since all the fights that followed, the family’s been in disrepair. Much work is needed. Basic infrastructure. I know he’s trying. While we talk, there’s a shooting in the alley across from his apartment. He thinks it might be a car, backfiring. I’m pretty sure it’s a gun.

• •

Thursday, February 9:

Taxi from T’s to the Renaissance Hotel. He wasn’t able to fix my phone. No one’s able to fix my back. Then a taxi to Capitol Hill. Need to do “reconnaissance” for tomorrow’s “action.” Supposed to be a big storm today. Hasn’t yet come. I ask the driver. “Media gives false information!” he tells me. He’s not joking. I’m interested in the ways ideas migrate. He’s playing Strauss waltzes, he’s from Eritrea. Came during the war. The thrill of the Capitol dome, unexpected, gleaming white against gray sky, as we approach on the avenue. DC, so beautiful in winter.

The oddness of finding DC beautiful. A misalignment, perhaps, between surface and meaning? Which I wouldn’t have felt in 1973. That spring Mom and Dad brought us here. The cherry blossoms were out. Were they showing us the place we might soon move to from Arizona? Now I’ll never get an answer. Did Dad really think he could win the election?

How foolish that would later seem. How foolish this may later seem. I enter the Capitol. Mistake. Somehow I’d thought the Senate offices were accessible this way. They’re not. Good I’m doing this reconnaissance. I ask a guard directions to the Russell Building. “Go up the stairs.” What stairs? I find some. Cross the empty plaza. Leaves blow. Autumn burning smell. But it’s not autumn. It’s as if no one is here. As if a neutron bomb . . . people don’t talk about neutron bombs as much as they used to. Emptiness at the center. What happened to my feelings for E, I wonder, as I cross the plaza. Absorbed into my feelings for D? Could they still be recovered? Or have they disappeared forever? Like moderate Republicans? I don’t think anything disappears. Did Goldwater’s conservatism become absorbed in Nixon’s? I don’t like it when people misunderstand Arizona politics. When they don’t know the difference between Goldwater conservatism and, say, Evan Mecham conservatism. I’m alone in this world in many ways.

I pass through the Russell Building’s rinky-dink security. The center of power, but you’d never know. The halls are empty, lined with furniture soon to be discarded. Deported, like. . . . All the Senators’ doors are open. As if it were an abandoned shopping mall in Dayton, about to be torn down. If ten percent of the people at AWP were to come, I tell myself, if they were to take the fifteen-minute trip from the conference, we could shut this place down. If this were 1968 . . . but it isn’t. On Facebook, people write: “NOT NORMAL!” But then go on as if everything were normal. Without any disruption of their lives! I tell myself, passing through the empty halls. I have copies of the emoluments clause and a long list of grudges: all the people who promised to help but didn’t come through. I will distribute the emoluments clause to as many offices as I can.

Not so sure what I’ll do with the grudges. I go first to McCain’s office. The staffer boy is blond and on the phone. Looks in a stupor. “Yes, the senator will be having a town hall. Yes, in Chandler.” All the weary staffers, where do they all come from? I tell him I’m here from Phoenix. “In town for a conference!” I wonder how faggy I sound. “And I want to express my support for the Russia Investigation.” He manages to be pleasant for a moment. Tells me I should visit Senator Burr. Apparently he’s investigating this, too. “That’ll be the big one,” he tells me. Wonder if that’s true. I go to Burr’s. Don’t fake being from North Carolina. All the staffers seem in a stupor. I visit Flake, then Cruz. Why Cruz? I imagine being asked. “Like you’re going on a tour of hell and you’re not going to call on Lucifer? Rather rude.” Anyway, the door is open. An African American woman greets me. My dykedar goes off. DC is so weird. We have a friendly chat about the emoluments clause. I hand her a copy. She’ll be sure to pass it on to the senator. I’d visit more offices but my back is killing me. Need to go back to the Renaissance to pick up the pamphlets S was supposed to FedEx.

They have miraculously arrived. Fifteen minutes on the heating pad. 600 mg Advil. Then into the fray: the convention center. I would say that not having a phone is like having your citizenship revoked, but people are having their citizenship revoked. Or this will be happening soon. I can’t contact any of the people I’ve been trying to organize the last six weeks. The plan was to give some of the more responsible members pamphlets to distribute. But now this isn’t going to happen. And the signs for the rally . . . who is making the signs. . . . All the people I’d told I’d contact once in DC. . . . Oh, well. Sans phone, dead. But still conscious. A ghost. I go to haunt the AWP book fair, on the lower level of the convention center. Massive sea of booths. Small presses, smaller journals, writing programs, MFA programs: the familiar ocean of despair.

“Hi, I’m Robert, I’m with Writers Resist Trump. I want to let you know about our action tomorrow. . . .”

When I was twelve, I went door to door for McGovern. In Phoenix. Across the dead lawns, in the heat. This isn’t quite as bad as that. But it’s less honest. Then they just slammed the door in my face. But I was for peace and kept going. I expect slammed doors. Here, at AWP, everyone tells me they’re going. I know they’re not; I’ve done direct marketing. And I’m feeling quite righteous about this, about their indifference. I realize I feel this way because I’m the organizer. It’s my thing. If someone else had organized it, I might be . . . meh . . . I might be: got to promote myself! But still, holy fuck, I think, we’re fifteen minutes from the Capitol! People are being deported, families split up, the planet destroyed, freedom of the press. . . . It may not be fascism, but it may be getting there. In the lower level of the convention center, people go booth to booth, politicking. Chit chat. I’m not incapable of this, but not to this degree. What do they possibly chat about? “Oh hi! Shitcreek Journal! You’ve rejected my stories fifty-two times. I just wanted to say hello!” I wend betwixt, giving people my pamphlets. They, in return, invite me to their readings. At moments it’s fun. I get lots of praise. “So great you’re doing this!”

I mean who among us isn’t doing it for the praise? At the Green Bridge Review booth, after my spiel about how we’re going into their offices, a young woman asks, “Is this the same as the vigil at the White House?” Does she really think Congress and the White House are in the same location? “No,” I explain, smiling. “That’s the next night.”

AWP disgusts me. My insignificance, so in my face here. That’s the truth of everyone’s life, I tell myself. Famous writer, obscure writer, nonwriter, legislative aide, president of the United States. That’s what Trump wants to avoid, his total insignificance. Thus his gilded grandiosity. He wants to trick death. We all have our alternative facts to avoid the doom-de-doom. As at all conferences, I tell myself, the subject of AWP is “denial of death.”

I see Jacques Zukowski. Hand him a pamphlet. He suggests I buy his book. “Oh, I have your book!” “No, my new book.” What a crudité. The hard sell. When will they ever learn. Oh Lord, when. All the desperate writers, where do . . .

• •

Later, at the Renaissance, lying on the bed, I try to organize stuff for the rally. Who will speak first? What will I read? Rukeyser? Auden? Too white male? Or the letters from the students who might be deported? They’re afraid. But I’m lonely. I know it’s because of my phone, but still . . . If the phone worked, I could text Lisa or Leslie. I could e-mail Jon. 400 mg. I turn on the heating pad. Takes me to Mom. I’ve placed her photo by the bedside lamp. I usually wait until late at night before I talk to her. But this is an unusual circumstance.

“Where are you?”

“DC at AWP.”

“Remind me what that is?”

“This conference. 12,000 mediocre writers.”

“Oh, come on,” she chides, humorously, perhaps a little jealous. “Aren’t you being a little harsh?”

“There couldn’t really be 12,000 excellent writers.”

“But I’m sure some of them. . . .” She needs to hear good news. A familiar dynamic.

“You’re right,” I say, channeling as much positive energy as I can.

I drift off. Drift back. Where’s Mom? I think about Margaret Ogilvie’s attack. On me. On Facebook. (I didn’t mention that to Mom.) Margaret had said I was “activist-shaming.” I’d written that maybe people should think about taking part in some activism instead of going to panels on activism. Maybe, I’d written, they should protest Trump’s brutal immigration policy instead of going to the panel about the poetics of immigration. Turned out she was on one such panel. Oopsy. Thus, I’m sure, Margaret felt shame. And thus said I was “activist-shaming.” Which made me feel ashamed. Which actually seems to prove the efficacy of shaming, I tell myself. As a political tactic. Not a life tactic. Can I afford to lose Margaret as a friend? Are we friends? Not certain of anything anymore.

I go down to the sports bar for dinner. Lenin, too, often ate alone. In sports bars, not so often. I order a “rice bowl with chicken.” As if it were a mineral bath, I sink into my I’m-eating-in-a-sports-bar bitterness. Writers are the worst! I think. In New York people got their asses all the way out to JFK. Same day the Muslim ban was announced. The taxi drivers organized; the bodegas closed. Here people don’t know the difference between the White House and Congress. Guess I’m just a hopeless nerd.

At another table, three young people, from some writing program somewhere, drink and laugh. Wanting to appear busy, I thumb through the hefty conference program. Who invented the panel anyway? I think, as I wait for the rice bowl. I’m miserable not so much because I’m eating alone as because I’m being seen eating alone. Has there ever been a point to any panel? I ask myself. Ever? Maybe there could be a panel on what’s the point of a panel. Civil rights are under attack. What do we do? Go to panels. Where the fuck is the rice bowl? Projected above me, young men shoot. Duke basketball. I don’t get people who watch sports for nonerotic reasons. Let us all gaze at young men! In general, don’t understand heterosexuality at all. I’m serious. The Advil isn’t working.

If I OD on pain meds at AWP, will I get a memorial reading next year?

The rice bowl cometh.

 

Back in the room, I review the list of speakers for the rally. Review my notes for the Gillibrand meeting. I can never keep the statistics straight. I like to claim I was the most inept person in Act Up, but, like so much else, that’s an exaggeration. Still, my mind does glaze over gazing at numbers. OK, ten thousand completely preventable deaths a year. Under Obama. Whatever. Hardly seems the most important cause now. B’s ghost, where’s it gone? What’s the metric for measuring pain? Oh dear, whoever-I’m-talking-to, whose praise—no, affection—I so want: sorry to be such a bitch. Because of my back. Because of the phone. Because of Mom. Because of things much further back. There’s never a single cause. Our slogans, our rhetoric, our signs—did anyone make the signs?—they’re all too simple. But we need to be simple, I think. I put a pillow between my knees. I don’t know anything. Except: we must love one another AND die. I tell Mom goodnight. One more Advil and two Klonopin. In time it all starts to dissolve.

Author photo
Robert Marshall’s novel, A Separate Reality, was published by Carroll & Graf in 2006. A visual artist, as well as a writer, his work has been widely exhibited in both the United States and Europe. He is currently completing a biography of Carlos Castaneda. www.robertmarshall.net.