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Notes from the Fence Family Brunch, Part 1 (AWP 2013, Boston)
Each year the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) holds a conference in a different US city that, for about 4 days, will swarm with (among others) poets, novelists, essayists, graduate students, and college professors, as well as people hoping to one day be counted among those previously listed. Also in attendance are editors and administrators affiliated with a huge number of the country’s book presses and literary magazines. Apart from the spring of 2010 when I had tonsillitis, I have attended every AWP conference since 2008. This year, for me, was different from past years in that it was my first AWP where I had a book sitting on a table at the book fair and thus felt fully inducted into my press’s family of authors. It has become a recent tradition for Fence editors, authors, and board members to have brunch together in Fence editor and founder Rebecca Wolff’s hotel room; this year was my first year attending.
Knowing that I had to come up with a blog post for the following week, I had my laptop open the entire time, and conducted impromptu mini-interviews with many of the brunch attendees, often while sitting on one of the two hotel beds, sometimes pausing to add more water to the hotel coffee maker. What follows are brief records of some of these conversations which I hope will tell you things you didn’t previously know, not only about my Fence brothers and sisters, but other topics including but not limited to: Fence managing editor Rob Arnold’s worst job ever, my first experience with light workplace molestation, author Jacob Wren’s feelings on joy and art’s undeserved reputation as something really important, the surprising accessories of a 1970s sex doll, and how looking at someone else’s porn collation can help you become a poet.
[In Part II (available later this week): the new trans/ genderqueer Lit. anthology that you need to purchase STAT, whether poet Brandon Downing is sur or subhuman, why I shouldn't be afraid of marriage, and a new unit of measurement invented by writer and Fence Editor Brian Blanchfield to quantify the exchange of masculine power in various social interactions.]
Approaching the hotel room, I see Fence’s managing editor Rob Arnold and a few other people standing in the hallway while the housekeeper finishes cleaning. I tell Rob that as a college student one of my favorite jobs was working as a housekeeper at the Hilton Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
Rob tells me that though he was not fond of the time he spent in Kmart’s gun sales department, his worst job was working at a hardware store in Washington state. At the time he was so poor that he had to live off of the popcorn served to hardware store patrons from a carnival-style machine by the cash registers. At the end of his first 2 weeks Rob’s boss told his staff that he “was hoping” to be able to pay them, but that the store hadn’t made a sufficient profit for this actual happen.
I tell Rob that my worst job was taking delivery and pickup orders for Hungry Howie’s Pizza the summer before I left for college. Being the only female employee, I caught the attention of a tall skinny guy named Jake who liked jazz, Andy Kaufman biographies, and fondling me while I was on the phone with customers. He wrote a short story that he asked me to read and I said okay. The story was about a man who washes up on a deserted island and is greeted by a young blond girl in white dress who says that she will feed him and nurse him back to health. The girl takes the man to a table laden with a single but enormous watermelon. The man scoops out the watermelon’s pulpy flesh and, after he’s eaten a great deal of it, is told by the girl that the flesh of the watermelon is actually the flesh of her grandmother whom she’s recently killed. Jake told me that I was the girl in the white dress, because I wasn’t as innocent as I seemed.
We’re inside the hotel room now, and I’m talking to Canadian writer Jacob Wren, whose story “A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy” appears in a recent issue of Fence.
Hannah Gamble: Is there anything you want to tell me about Canada?
Jacob Wren: Canadians are passive aggressive. It’s our national trait. But maybe that’s just me and I’m projecting.
HG: Is your story ["A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy"] titled ironically?
JW: No, it’s not.
HG: What’s it about?
JW: It’s about art and life and how to put more real life into art. In the story there’s a woman, a film maker, who decides that instead of filming the screenplay she’s written, she’s going to live the things in the screenplay.
HG: And all this will be completely undocumented–as in, she’s not replacing a scripted movie with a documentary about her endeavor to live the script she wrote for a movie.
JW: Right–she’s not doing this to document it. The message is that the real art is to live– to make art at the expense of living one’s life has less integrity. Art has a good reputation, but I think somehow it’s unearned. There are historical reasons for [art's importance], of course: other forms of religion broke down, people replace belief in God with belief in art. It’s a thing that makes life mean something, so it’s like faith in that way.
HG: That reminds me of this bit from a Matthew Zapruder poem: “I have/ no master but always wonder,/ what is making my master sad?” [Read the full poem, "Erstwhile Harbinger Auspices" here] I always loved the lines, but I think it was only recently that I came to understand them as talking about the anxiety that one feels when living without god, or a rulebook of any kind. You’re free, but you also still want to be a good person, and you feel that someone or something must know more than you know. You want to do right, and you worry that you might be doing wrong. You try to be a good person, but there’s no way of knowing if you’re succeeding since, if there’s anyone or anything who knows what that kind of success is, you don’t know its name or what its face looks like.
What do you do each day to generate meaning in your interactions with people? Do you have faith? Do you have a god?
JW: I don’t have faith or a god. There’s this line from Vladimir Holan: “We who do not believe are always expecting something.” In other words, What’s happening now isn’t filled with belief so something better has to happen soon to make it (life) worth it. Joy itself can be that thing.
HG: Do you have a lot of joy?
JW: No, I’m not good at joy. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but I see it’s value.
Next I talk to Farid Matuk, a poet and editor for Fence magazine. His preschoolish daughter holds his hands while she jumps up and down in front of his armchair. Farid tells me about the best job he ever had: cataloguing porn for his professor of film studies while an undergrad at UC Irvine.
Farid Matuk: [The porn in need of cataloguing included] magazine cut outs from 1940s as well as films on 8 mm, Super 8, Beta Max cassettes, and VHS tapes. All this had belonged to one man who, in his will, bequeathed the collection to his alma mater (a small Catholic college).
Hannah Gamble: Uh.
FM: Right. They wanted to burn it. But the college librarian was friends with Linda Williams, my professor, and gave the collection to her before the school was able to destroy it. [The collection] was super personal; he would clip out pictures of certain models and put them in certain folders. He had a personal coding system for all the folders but our researchers were never able to uncode it. There was also a bunch of anthropological photos of naked people, pulp fiction, and doll. She was folded up when we found her; she had a brunette wig and a blond wig, and and external vagina.
HG: [request for clarification]
FM: The vagina wasn’t built into the doll– she came with diaper shaped thing, or like a white padded bikini bottom that strapped to the doll; the padding, then, had a built-in soft plastic insert for the penis. And this was what affected me the most: the cloth around the insert had sweat stains, I imagine from the man’s belly pushing into it. Seeing that was so intimate.
HG: Has any of this ever made it into your poems?
FM: I think the experience helped me to become a poet: this man’s collection gave me a sense of connection through time to another person. It was icky and uncomfortable, but also gave me an empathetic view into someone else’s sexuality, which, in turn, gave me a more empathetic view into my own developing sexuality.
HG: All of the literature I love encourages compassion, even if indirectly. And I think that compassion for others often leads to some kind of self-forgiveness too…
[At this point Farid’s daughter needs help eating something and I join writers and Fence editors Brian Blanchfield and Andrea Lawlor on the bed by the window. Notes from my conversations with them and also with poet and collagist Brandon Downing are forthcoming. In the meantime, if you’d like to read some of Farid’s poems, please enjoy those featured in the Boston Review as introduced by poet Noah Eli Gordon.