September 26, 2016

Report from the National Book Festival


Last Wednesday, when the Politics & Prose cashier slipped a National Book Festival bookmark in between the pages of my purchase (a paperback copy of Howard Norman's I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place), I blurted out: "I'm going to be there."

She was kind enough to tilt her head and say, "I thought your name sounded familiar."

When Rob Casper of the Library of Congress called back in early August, I was standing in a New Jersey kitchen. We had gone up to help my brother-in-law's family move in, and I had taken on cooking duties for the weekend. The reception was echo-ey, faint. I shook the water off a cutting board before making my way to the porch, where I could make out Rob's voice more clearly. A slot had unexpectedly opened up on the "Poetry and Prose" stage for September 24. Did I want to read?

Yes. Yes. 

It's funny how we can hear something, and carry on our half of the conversation, without hearing the idea behind the words. My inner pragmatic piped up: you're local. You're an easy add in terms of the budget. This was an NEA-sponsored stage, and I hold a 2015 Fellowship. I have a new-ish book out. I ascribed being asked to an intersection of conveniences, a series of checkboxes I happened to fill. I was happy to say Yes. I forgot to say to myself, Hey, this is once-in-a-lifetime. Or You earned this. 

Then the bookmark moment. Then my mom emailing everyone in the family, You are in the Book World section of the Post! And it all started to feel really, really real. 

Waiting to be admitted to the Friday night shindig at the Library of Congress, I watched a man come up the steps behind us. I recognized him by his eyebrows. "That's Salman Rushdie," I muttered softly to my husband. 

"Well, we're probably in the right line, then," he replied.

The guard waved his wand suspiciously up and down Hervé Tullet's torso while the tall, wiry-haired children's author turned in a slow circle. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was, literally, a head above every other person in the room. The bartender searched for a fresh ginger beer to top off a waiting line of Moscow Mules while Geraldine Brooks waited patiently for her drink, resplendent in a navy crinolined dress. Joyce Carol Oates darted around, tiny and sparrow-like, wearing a black hat with a wide brim. 




Newly appointed Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden got a hearty round of Woooo from the crowd. The speakers included Edwidge Danticat, James Gleick, and Marilynne Robinson. I've been in the Library of Congress's Jefferson Building for a dozen receptions, but never anything quite like this. There were stations for shrimp and grits, mini-tacos with five different salsa, peking duck rolls and pork buns. I was allergic to all of it, but happy to get another Moscow Mule with a red-and-white striped straw. A few members of the catering staff had been recruited to re-enact the gondola pose from this year's NBF poster for a tableau set up in the middle of the room. 

The next morning, my husband and I left an hour early to trek all of five stops north on the Green Line; that's how nervous I was to not miss Stephen King. Trying to get oriented at the Convention Center, any doubts we had about which door was for the Authors / VIPs was assuaged when the black SUV carrying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's team pulled up. I met Karen, in her periwinkle volunteer t-shirt, who I knew would help us get into the ticketed auditorium. I did a double-take when I realized that the entirety of her volunteer work, for the day, was "handling" me. The bonus, she pointed out, was that it meant she got a seat for Stephen King as well. 


We were second row, dead center. I know he does talks all the time, all over the country, but Stephen King felt present. He showed us his iPad, the remarks he'd drafted for the occasion. Between anecdotes about his modest beginnings (having five people show up for the first Carrie signing), his pride in raising a family of authors, and a dollop of political commentary (he compared Trump's speechifying to "a piano falling down a flight of stairs"), he hewed to the topic of fostering not just literary enthusiasm, but literacy. His philanthropy in Maine is apparently sprawling--he was receiving an award for it--but he found himself hesitant, he said, to talk about something he'd always regarded as needing to be a private act.

Hearing King speak has been a bucket-list goal. His imagery, his sense of both the poetic and perverse, was a foundational inspiration for me. I devoured his books. Nightmares and Dreamscapes is still kept handy on the shelf in my bedroom. 


I brought less expectations to hearing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, simply because I know less about him, but I'd been intrigued since reading Jay Caspian Kang's substantive profile of him for the New York Times Magazine a year ago. He was wonderful: poised, erudite, frank in his approach to racial iniquity ("The only equal opportunity employer for desperate people is crime"), grounded in his faith. Anyone who gets a question about the tradition of the detective story, admires Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and then self-corrects mid-sentence to also credit Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" gets my loyalty. A child asked him whether he prefers being an author or a basketball player. Easy answer, he said--at this point, he's in no shape for the court. I'm glad we've signed him up for Team Author. 

After a hurried lunch of dumplings, I met up with Karen, who walked me down to the signing floor. I wasn't expecting a line--Count the Waves has been out for over a year, with the paperback on the horizon in December. But the dozen or so people I talked with included students from the Writer's Center and American University, two young aspiring poets, the owner of a bookstore up in western Massachusetts who had trekked down for this festival, a heretofore virtual Facebook friend, and a random nice guy who'd found himself in a neighboring line next to my husband. Not to mention the woman who runs a local poetry-book club, which I promptly invited myself to come visit. I'm counting each handshake or hug as an individual victory. 


Our last program of the day was spur-of-the-moment--Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu, with my friend and Washington Post Magazine editor David Rowell moderating. Shimizu designed this year's NBF poster, and the two collaborated on Cunningham's reworking of fable and myth, A Wild Swan and Other Tales; a hypnotizing slideshow of illustrations cycled on a screen to the side of the stage. The conversation was lively, and for a writer married to an artist, it was the perfect date-night note to end on. (To be precise, the "date night" then extended to mezcal cocktails, guacamole, and ceviche at Espita Mezcaleria, two blocks up 9th Street.)

Two small regrets: I couldn't get away to visit the folks selling books for Politics & Prose. And I didn't speak to Congressman John Lewis, though I was thrilled to sit at an adjacent table in the author's lounge for a while. He emanated a stately calm and--on a weekend that featured the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture--a distinct, if slightly exhausted, joy. Being adjacent was enough. 


I read right before Michael Cunningham and Yuko Shimizu. I was touched by the presence of familiar people in the crowd--Rob from LOC, Amy Stolls of the NEA, former students, friends from MFA days and from local literary organizations, fellow DC poets, many of whom have heard me read before and who had so many fancier options of places to be in that moment. I hope I remembered to thank all of them. I thanked Karen. I thanked my husband. I thanked the woman holding up the timecards. I did not thank Siri, who at one point attempted to chime in on the reading. I thanked the ASL translator who dealt with signing "word splooge" on the fly. 

Though I walked up to the podium with I Was the Jukebox in hand, three poems marked, I decided not to read from that collection. I've been fortunate that book has had such long legs. It's usually a relief to reach for poems that are funny and conversational. But the poems from Count the Waves, as difficult and more somber as they may be, are what got me an NEA grant. You gotta dance with the one who brung you. I read new poems, including a sestina, a sonnet, and my contribution to Still Life with Poem (I held the anthology up to the crowd's eye). I took questions. I got to mention Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Sandra Cisneros. I got to talk about the fallacy of form "versus" free verse in poetry. Karen saved the day by getting these snapshots, which my mother had made me promise someone would take. 




I remember the National Book Festival of a decade ago, back when it was still on the National Mall: standing at the edge of tents in years past, trying to stay out of the mud. Waiting in long lines to meet the authors. I can't believe I got to be one of them. 


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