With AWP 2012 starting this week in Chicago, we're posting this topical story by Megan Stielstra. Megan is reading at Joyland's event at Quimby's this Thursday, March 1 at 7PM, along with Jeff Parker, Eugene Cross and Kevin Chong.
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.
—Henry David Thoreau
He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Every year I attend the national AWP conference. AWP stands for Associated Writing Programs, an umbrella organization for writers, teachers and publishers across the country. For five days everyone comes together for scholarly presentations and panel discussions with such titles as “Judy Blume: the Challenges and Pleasures of Writing About Teenage Girls” or “To Censor or Not to Censor: the F-word in the Classroom.” So, picture it: a couple thousand writers taking over convention centers in Kentucky, Baltimore, Chicago, and—this particular year—New Orleans.
I flew in late Tuesday night and took a cab to my hotel. It was in the French Quarter, which, for me, was a dream; someplace you read about in an eighteenth century novel; the Spanish architecture, the elaborate iron balconies, the colored walls and hanging vines and lights and music and laughing, smiling people. So many happy people—it couldn’t possibly be real.
I was sharing a room with my colleague, Abe, who’d arrived a day earlier. Abe taught Service-learning classes, believed fundamentally that good teachers can change the world, and wore very tight jeans. “Hurry up,” he said. He was in front of the mirror, fixing the barely perceptible Mohawk in his perfect hair. “We’re going to the Dragon’s Den, and after that—”
“It’s nearly midnight,” I told him, sitting down with the AWP schedule. Just out of grad school, it was my first year teaching and my first time at the conference. I had a lot to learn and more to prove. “We’ve got to be up at seven for ‘Non-Gender Specific Pronouns in Erotic Poetry.’”
Abe turned and looked at me. “We’re in New Orleans,” he said.
“We’re at AWP,” I corrected. “Remember? Professional development?”
“But you don’t even write poetry! Let alone erotic poetry, I mean, when was the last time you even got laid?”
Okay, so I work a lot.
I know that everybody works a lot, but I work a lot in the way that my therapist calls an “avoidance mechanism.” As in, I’m fairly screwed-up but I don’t have the time to do anything about said screwed-upedness because I’m too busy at work. “Nothing a little fun won’t cure!” Dan says—Dan is the guy I have dinner with occasionally but it won’t go any further ’cause I’m too busy at work—and I say, “Fun isn’t part of my five-year plan.”
Abe sat on the edge of my bed with a very serious face. The kind of face one might
wear during an intervention. Me, I don’t drink much. Half a glass of wine and I’m out to lunch. “Megan,” he said. “You need to have some fun.”
“I need to go to bed.”
I attended seven panels Day One of AWP: eight to ten, ten to eleven thirty, noon to one-thirty, one thirty to three, three to five, five to seven and seven-thirty to nine.
“You’re in New Orleans and you spend thirteen hours in a conference hall?” Abe said that night. He was preparing to go out. I was in bed, preparing for tomorrow’s retrospective on Women Writers of the late 1800s.
The next night, when I got back to the hotel, there was a voicemail message from the chair of the Fiction Writing Department, my boss. “Megan,” it said. “I order you to get out of that hotel room. Meet us downstairs at ten; we’re going dancing.” I pushed delete and practiced my lie in front of the mirror: “Why no, I never got that message!” I said, in my best Oh my officer am I speeding voice, one I’d started with my therapist and perfected with Dan. Like Of course I want to see you, I just can’t tonight! or Of course I’m telling you the whole story, I don’t have anything to hide! or Oh, rats! Dancing! I love dancing!
The truth is, I’m afraid—but at that point, I hadn’t admitted it. Is there ever a point where we admit it? It’s easier to live for our work. For our books. For tomorrow’s panel on Finnegans Wake.
I spent day three of AWP in similar dorkishness, and would’ve done the same day four had I not got a phone call at three a.m. “Get your ass up. Get in a cab,” Abe yelled over the music—more like slurred. Yell-slurred. “And get a pen, I’m giving you an address.”
“Do you know what time it is?” I said.
“It’s called the Funky Butt,” he said.
I hung up.
He called right back. “I’ve had four shots of Jameson,” he said. “I’m totally unreasonable right now.”
I hung up again, and, again, he called back. This time—instead of being all drunk and stupid—he said, “What would Henry say?”
Okay. So, when I was really little, like seven or eight, my dad was writing his graduate thesis on Henry David Thoreau. He’s really into Thoreau. He has exactly three chairs in his house: “One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” When I got my first tattoo, he said, “What would Henry say?” And—you know those leather book covers for your Bible? They say BIBLE in all caps across the front? My dad had one of those around his copy of Walden. You see where this is going, right? I spent the first eight years of my life thinking Walden was the Book of God. I even had to memorize passages! Picture it: Daddy’s Little Girl in her OshKosh B’gosh and pigtails reciting Thoreau the same way other kids did the Pledge of Allegiance or John 3:16—
“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”
“How vain it is to sit down and write when you have not stood up to live.”
—and now picture me nearly two decades later: in my pajamas, in New Orleans, reciting Thoreau’s words over and over as Abe gave me the address.
What would Henry say?
He’d say, Get your ass to the Funky Butt.
(Except he probably wouldn’t say ass.)
I stepped out of the hotel and was shocked to see the streets so alive—I thought I’d be alone in the dark like Chicago at that time, but this was the French Quarter and there were people everywhere, laughing and drinking, walking with arms locked and greeting complete strangers like they’d known each other all their lives. “Here honey, you need some of this!” said a bead-draped redhead, handing me a Styrofoam cup filled with some kind of fruity daiquiri. I’d soon learn that if I walked into one of the numerous, open-all-night liquor booths on every cobblestone corner, I could refill that Styrofoam cup for a dollar. I stood there in front of my hotel, drinking that daiquiri like it was juice and watching the crowd pulse around me. That’s when I heard the music.
Granted, music was coming from everywhere—the bars and stores and second-story balcony windows—but this was different. This was coming from the next street, right around the corner, and I followed the sound. The strange thing was, it moved. I rounded the corner and could hear that I’d just missed it so I rounded the next corner, and the next, all the corners of cobblestone streets set like a labyrinth and all the while the music was getting louder until finally—
A marching band.
A full marching band at three o’clock in the morning. They were all suited up, duck-bill hats and feathered plumes, spats on the boots, and a hundred buttons. There were trumpets and drums and trombones and clarinets with Dixieland sound, fifty people strong all step-marching and moving their instruments in rhythm. There was a crowd of people following behind them, everybody dancing and trying to copy the choreographed marching movements. I could feel the daiquiri icy in my head, and it was so late, maybe I was still sleeping, maybe I was dreaming and you can do anything in a dream, right?—so I did it. I joined. “I don’t remember the last time I danced!” I yelled to the guy next to me. He was wearing a giant foam carrot on his head. “That’s the saddest thing I ever heard!” he yelled, and then we laughed, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed, either. I suddenly felt this rush—the rush of the repressed, we’ll call it—and I ran around the band, passed them on the sidewalk and shimmied into the street in front of them. I marched high, my knees coming up level to my stomach, and tossed an imaginary baton in the air.
That’s when I saw the street the concierge had told me to take, so I walked backwards and waved goodbye to the Drum Master. He smiled, I skipped off down my street and—
They followed me. The entire band and the growing crowd behind them followed me around another corner, and another. And another. And of course I wasn’t really leading them, of course I was just walking the same route they were taking, of course! but sometimes, we have to believe the fantastic.
I got to the Funky Butt—a wild, second-floor jazz club over a jam-packed cigar bar—waved goodbye to my band, and ran up the stairs to find Abe. He was dancing in a sweaty, sardine-packed crowd, and I rushed over to tell him my news.
“I led a marching band!” I yelled.
“I lit my pants on fire!” he yelled back, and put a shot in my hands. And then another, and another and dancing all night long, me and Abe and a million people I’d never met but somehow knew. My boss was there, too, smoking cigars and spinning pretty girls around in circles. He dipped me low to the ground and, when I was down there, inches from the floor he asked: “Having fun?” he asked. Fun, fun—who knew! I didn’t, not me, not this girl, who was this girl I had suddenly become? One thing’s for sure—she was way more interesting than the one at the erotic poetry seminar.
For the record: I love erotic poetry. I love poetry, period. And novels, period. And short stories and essays, all of it, erotic essays, even! I don’t care what you call it or where you shelve it or what it gets printed on, I just want the words, the ideas and the stories handed to me like birthday presents. I want to find my own feelings in someone else’s experiences. I want to live lives I couldn’t possibly have lived, exist in a reality that can’t possibly be real—that’s what a story can do.
“What about your actual life?" asked my therapist.
“Do you want to have dinner this weekend?” asked Dan.
“Having fun?" asked my department chair.
“You want some crepes?” asked Abe. Ask-yell-slurred—and suddenly I felt that click that happens when wild, drunken abandonment becomes a slobbery, drunken mess. My head was throbbing, the music was too loud, who were all these people sweating all over me?
“I have to go!” I yelled at Abe.
“No, stay! There’s an all-night crepe place! We’ll have mimosas!" he yelled back, but I was already running down the stairs, out the door, into the street and—
There they were.
The trombones. The clarinets. The drums—all of them lined up in perfect rows, all of them frozen still in attention, all of them watching the Drum Master’s hands. They were suspended in the air, tense and ready, but his head was turned to me. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said. I could only see his mouth. The rest of his face was hidden under a giant, duck-billed helmet with a long feather plume.
“Ready for what?” I whispered.
“This,” he said; dropping his hands, and it all began again, fast as a needle scratch on a record: the explosion of sound, a crowd appearing from nowhere, everyone dancing in crazy, synchronized choreography, costumes made of feathers and sequins, and—high above the quarter—the sun started to climb the sky. “You look like you need this,” said a bead-draped brunette, handing me another Styrofoam cup, and Abe appeared at my elbow. “Fuck,” he said. “You really do have a band!”
Then he grabbed my hand and we jumped into the street, tossing our batons as we went.
I don’t remember the rest of that trip. I don’t remember the flight to Chicago, the cab ride home to Humboldt Park. What I do remember was my blaring alarm clock at 6 a.m., and the jackhammers pounding in my temples, and, for some reason, this stupid discussion I’d had in grad school that escalated into a stupid fight. I said that if the writing was good enough, you could live the experience through the words and never need to have it for yourself. “Why do I need to drink? I’ve read Hemingway! I’ve read Beowolf! I know what drinking feels like! Here, look at this passage from Kingsley Amis describing a hangover. It’s perfect! It’s poetry! I don’t ever need to have one!”
I went on.
And on and on.
I was insufferable in grad school. I knew everything in grad school, except the fact that I didn’t know shit. My jackhammers were not Kingsley Amis. My experiences were not Finnegans Wake. My life didn’t exist inside a conference room. It was here, in Chicago, with the jackhammers and the alarm clock, so I showered quickly and ran down the front
stairs with my hair still wet. In the front hallway, I searched for my car keys, hoping I didn’t forget anything, coffee, I forgot coffee, I needed coffee and I threw open the door—
And there they were.
On my tiny square of lawn was the marching band from New Orleans. Same duck-billed hats, same spats, same dancing crowd behind them. Their music blended in with the West Side noise—the traffic and yelling and little kids screaming and—
I shut the door.
It can’t be, I thought, and opened the door.
—the music swelled again, loud and joyful, and—
I shut the door. Just how many brain cells had I killed with those fruity Louisiana daiquiris? I peeked through the eyehole. The band waited patiently, instruments at the ready. I cracked the door just a little bit and—
—The Drum Master dropped his hands and the sound exploded.
I slammed the door this time. Hard. Then I ran back upstairs, through my apartment, out the back door and down the back stairs. I can shake them, I thought. Just gotta be fast enough, gotta—
Bastards, there they were! That fucking band, all lined up in formation, instruments at the ready. The Drum Master’s hands were in the air, and he tilted his feather in my direction. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said. I looked back towards my apartment with its bed and books and locks, and then out to the band. The sun was climbing behind them, over the alley, the three-flats, my city. I thought of that morning in New Orleans and how much fun I’d had. I thought of my students and what I wanted to teach them about writing, and all of a sudden, I felt that click: when avoiding your life becomes more difficult than actually living it.
“Fine,” I told the Drum Master. “But no ‘Saints Go Marching In.’” His feather nodded and, in one fluid motion, he lifted up on his toes and dropped his whole body.
Humboldt Park didn’t know what hit it.
Since then, they follow me everywhere. They’re there—in the produce section at the Jewel. Near the free-weights at the Y. Pumping gas at the Citgo. When I’m teaching, they stand in a line at the back of my classroom, and whenever I make a joke about the Oxford comma the drummer does a BA-BA-BAM! When I get on the el to go home, they’re there, playing Dixieland for the commuters. When Dan comes over for dinner, they play—something slow. Sultry. They’re rooting for me. They’ve become a part of how I do things. Like, I’ll be running late but it doesn’t matter, I have to stop and listen. Even now, as I write this, I can see them out of the corner of my eye: all of them dancing in my living room, their helmets a carpet of waving feathers. They want me to loosen up a little. Shake my shoulders, give a little shimmy. Later tonight, we’ll go out—you’re welcome to come—and I’ll lead everyone down the street—Humboldt to North Avenue and Ashland from there. We’ll pick up a crowd as we go, and all of us will dance in the street.