by Michael Henry

Lighthouse went to the AWP Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles last week. Our executive director shares some of his thoughts from the event.

We’re On Our Way
The Uber guy driving us from LAX seems nice. He’s quiet. His name is Raoul. We’re in a black Lincoln Town Car, a large boat with leather seats. Traffic is bad. It takes 40 minutes to get downtown. It’s 8:00 AM on Thursday, and I can see the Hollywood sign, very small, off in the distance, on the brown hills.

Working the Floor
People, people, people everywhere. Interesting eyewear, some awkwardness and introversion. Greeting people we know. It’s like attending one’s own wedding, but without the cake and the first dance, etc.

It’s great when you see those people you know not too well, but when you see them you’re filled with a bloom of joy. Witty banter is imminent. Just hearing their voice makes you giddy.

Ballroom Reception
We’re at a party in a gigantic ballroom that’s been apportioned off by the tall, fake, moveable walls that all hotel ballrooms have. The lights are dim, and it’s as if we’re in a massive cube. Like a giant terrarium for humans. (Maybe all of AWP is a big terrarium. For writers. We are all pets. We are a segmented population of geckos, or lizards, or hamsters. Maybe the ceiling will slide open, and a giant’s hand will drop sustenance—cheese, fruits, crackers, and shrimp cocktail. Rain down bottles of beer and gin-and-tonics.

Anyway, there’s our poet friend, looking fit and trim, a drink in his hand. He’s been living in L.A. for several years now. I am suddenly blooming with happiness at seeing him, at hearing his gravelly voice. I tell him he’s looking good. He says he likes to keep in shape. He says, “I like to swim (pause) in the ocean. (pause) I wear a full wetsuit.” The pauses are dramatic. It’s just the way he talks, which is yet another thing I like about him.

He goes on to tell us a story. One time he was swimming off a beach, and he came across a platoon of fins sticking out of the water. He was sure he was about to get eaten by a family of sharks. He swam as quickly as he could back to shore and told the lifeguard. The lifeguard dismissed him. “Those are just dolphins, dude,” the lifeguard said. “Some lifeguard you are,” the poet said back. And then, to us, “I told the lifeguard that he’d never cut it on Baywatch. He didn’t make me feel safe at all.”

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Well, I Like Jonathan Franzen At Least
Supposedly no one likes Jonathan Franzen, but I do. It seems like he generates a whole lot of snark from the world of writers, but I think that’s just mean and petty.

Anyway, Jonathan Franzen is at AWP. He gives a reading and a short talk/Q&A with another writer, Elizabeth McKenzie. They’re on a big stage, sitting in leather chairs. We’re in the second row. Someone introduces Franzen, and as he stands to go to the podium, he gets tangled in his cordless lapel microphone and almost trips. The mic is yanked off, and the whole thing falls to the floor. He almost falls, too. He makes an awkward “I am such a klutz” face, rolls his eyes, turns red, and makes his way to the podium.

That’s when I decide I like him even more. Tripping over one’s microphone is something I would totally do. Plus, he’s a brilliant writer. Sure, he says things that upset people (i.e., Oprah). He’s not polished. He’s not a euphemism machine. He can’t seem to keep up the veil, the façade, of “Famous Writer Who Does Nothing Wrong and Therefore Does Nothing Too Human,” like some writers. I don’t mean to criticize those writers; I think it’ smart to pay attention to how your public persona is perceived. In control, smart, non-klutzy. I guess I just value human-ness in people—like Franzen. He’s human, like us.

When he gets to the podium, he reads from his new novel, a scene in which a couple has sex on top of a thermonuclear missile.

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Elizabeth McKenzie and Jonathan Franzen

On My Own Two Feet
When I stand too long—which happens every day at this conference—my feet ache like a motherfucker. They ache so bad I want to die. I want to lie down on the floor of the convention center and hike my feet into the air, like a turtle who’s fallen on his shell and can’t turn himself over. (I am a turtle. An overturned turtle. An overturned 49-year old turtle poet at AWP, with 15,000 other writers. I will take some time later to unpack this metaphor.)

The first day here, I decide to buy some more comfortable shoes. I walk (painfully) to Macy’s and try on a bunch. The clerk talks me out of the shoes I really want—they’re floor samples and a tiny bit scuffed. So I buy another pair. I throw out my old shoes and wear the new ones on the way back to our hotel.

The blisters start to form by the time I leave the maze of Macy’s capitalistic shininess. By the time I get back to the hotel, I know I will never wear these shoes again, as cool looking as they are. (Black, kind-of-wingtips, in suede, with a gray sole.)

I wear my workout sneakers the rest of the time. I’ve become one of those guys who wears sneakers and a suit jacket, not because it’s a cool-casual look that I can pull off, but because I am old and my feet hurt and when I lay down to go to bed, I can feel my pulse in my arches, throb, throb, throb.

Life is A Rumpus, Don’t Ya Know
Friday night. We attend a reading at a trendy art gallery near some highway. The emcee, a tall blonde with bright red lipstick, shiny, tight (really tight) pants, wears a t-shirt that reads, “My parents think I’m in college.” She has to be in her mid-thirties.

In between readers, she grabs the mic and says random odd things like, “I used to be a meth head!” Excited, smiling, proud. Then, almost less proud, “I haven’t had a drink in 20 years.” I assume that means she is sober and not doing meth anymore. The crowd cheers her on—for saying she was a meth head.

I know very little about meth, except for what I learned while watching Breaking Bad and from some disturbing billboards that used to be up all around Denver. I wondered about that cheering though and that almost braggy declaration. Was it supposed to be funny? (She also said that she was a sex addict. Excited, smiling, proud. Of course she is.)

On our walk back to the hotel, we walk under a busy highway overpass. Along the sidewalk, there are at least 10 tents set up. It’s quiet. I can only assume that people are sleeping in each tent. This is their home. This is their world. I think of the emcee woman and can’t figure out a way to reconcile these two things—the homeless people in all those tents, this woman bragging about her addictions in her expensive outfit, in that trendy art gallery with the worn-out-looking wood floors, the artwork on the white walls, each framed item selling for at least $400.

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Lighthouse instructor Erika Krouse reading from her novel, Contenders

Tangled Up in Blue
On the way from our hotel to the convention center, we walk past the Grammy museum. for some reason, every time we walk past, they’re playing Bob Dylan. I hear lines like, “…when she bent down to tie the lace of my shoe…”

Pets
In the past 24 hours, on the streets of downtown L.A., we’ve seen two people with pet rabbits.

My Hearing Ain’t What it Used to Be
Things I heard, or thought I heard, my wife say these past few days:

“They never have my coffee brewed when I get here. It’s a total serial bummer.”

“Is this a new Macy Gray song on the PA system?”

The Final Hours
It’s time for us to pack up and get out of our room. Then, we’ll go back to the conference hall, and our booth, where we’ll see people we know and meet people we don’t know. And off in the distance, there will be a stage, and someone will be talking, and we’ll be able to hear the voice—the tone, the pitch, the cadence of the words—but will not be able to discern any actual words.

Someone will hand us a postcard promoting their self-published book on how to write. Someone will give us a book of their poetry, and they’ll sign it and say something nice. Someone will buy tacos at the stand in the corner of the book fair room, far away from all the booths. Someone will ask me for a copy of my book, and I will promise to mail it to them. Someone will smile as they walk by, wearing a t-shirt that says something ironic, and we will know that all is going to be okay, once we get on our plane and take off for home.


Michael J. Henry is executive director of Lighthouse, where he also teaches poetry and memoir and essay workshops. A former recipient of a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship and a PlatteForum Fellowship, his work has appeared in such places as Copper Nickel, Threepenny Review, 5280, Many Mountains Moving, Pleiades, Red Rock Review, Rio Grande Review, Georgetown Review, and Bloomsbury Review. He’s published two full-length collections of poetry, No Stranger Than My Own and Active Gods, both with Conundrum Press.