Upside-Down (Chestertown, 1988)
Robert Day was showing me around the Literary House on the campus of Washington College. The Lit House housed a large letterpress room and bindery as well as classrooms, offices, and a public reading space where I was going to give a reading. The hallway walls were filled with finely designed printed broadsides and colorful posters, beautifully framed, advertising all the individual writers who had visited over the years. Walking slowly through the halls, we admired the gallery of famous names, and Bob related interesting anecdotes about each occasion. I noticed that every once and a while one of the posters was hung upside-down. After I had seen a number upside-down, I asked Bob why that was. He told me those had been the writers the students hadn’t liked. I hoped then that my poster wouldn’t end up so. Near the end of the tour, we came upon a poster hung not only upside-down (I imagined) but also back-to-front so all I could see was the brown backing paper. “The students really, really didn’t like that one,” he said. “You want to guess who it is?” And I did.
Lowest Common Denominator (Portland, 2006)
I was in Portland for the Writers on the Edge Conference, and wherever I went to eat—a truck on the street, a cheap diner, a fancy sit-down place—they all had a Caprese salad on the menu. All the Caprese salads all listed the same ingredients too—fresh buffalo mozzarella, sweet basil, and heirloom tomatoes, always heirloom tomatoes. I mentioned I noticed that every place in Portland seemed to carry a Caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes to Lidia Yuknavitch, who laughed and called the Caprese salad Portland’s lowest common denominator food. It didn’t matter how nice or nasty, everyone had a Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. She asked what Tuscaloosa’s lowest common denominator food would be. I thought about it, and I finally settled on Buffalo Chicken Wings with blue cheese dressing.
Decoy (Baltimore, 1980)
James A. Michener had finished his newest novel, Chesapeake, an epic historical fiction of the region. He lived in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, researching and writing the novel. I never met him, and I missed the reading he gave when he was invited to Johns Hopkins to lecture. I had been positive the other student writers would attend. I was distracted, trying to finish my little book of stories that would become my thesis. My stories were set in Indiana, but I didn’t want them to be about the expected Hoosier subjects—basketball, cornfields, and the 500. I thought I would avoid what I thought Chesapeake would be about—blue crabs, geese, sailboats, and duck decoys. The other student writers didn’t attend either. I think we all thought that the literary was more important than the commercial. Our professors let us know of their disappointment. I was embarrassed that I blew off the chance to meet Michener. Soon after, he moved west to Texas and settled in Austin where he wrote Space, Texas, and Mexico.
Gasp (Cambridge, 1989)
Now when I give a reading, I think of Gish Jen. I always make sure to check the order of the pages I am reading from. Are they in the right order? I was reading a long story in the Dolphin Moon Series at the Cambridge Y in Central Square. I was new in town and many local writers had come out to hear me. I wanted to make a good impression. Theresa was there with Sam, who was just a baby, asleep when I started to read. The story was building nicely to an exciting ending. All the pages were in order. As I finished reading the last full page, I realized I had run out of pages. The ending page was missing. The pages had all been in order but not all there. I had to stop and confess to the audience what had happened. Theresa, in the back of the room, gasped and woke up the baby with a start. Gish Jen, sitting next to them, gasped too as I paraphrased the ending. I now check that the pages are in order and all there.
Real Estate (Syracuse, 1994)
Jonathan Franzen was in Syracuse visiting David Foster Wallace. Jonathan was thinking about moving to Syracuse, getting out of New York where the rent and real estate had gone mad. Could I drive them around? I had a new car, a Corolla station wagon. I drove them to Syracuse China’s seconds shop. Every piece had at least one interesting mistake. I showed them Lake Onondaga, then the most polluted lake in the world. There was big mall nearby. I drove by the zoo. In Manlius, at the Stickley factory, I showed them the swimming swans in the nearby pond. I drove around the drumlin hills to see the four-square houses, the Dutch colonial houses, many empty and going for a song. I ended up at the bungalow on Maryland Avenue where Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher had lived. I thought about buying it when I moved to Syracuse, but its history had put a premium on the price. In the new car again, I told them I was still breaking it in. The dealer said, I told them, that if Lexus made a station wagon, this would be it.
Flamingoes (Madison, 1984)
As undergraduates Michael Wilkerson and I wrote poems on the streets of Bloomington on any subject. We called ourselves RKO Radio Poets and charged twenty-five cents, our motto being “A Poem Must Not Mean but Be Twenty-Five Cents.” Now Michael was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he invited me there when my first book came out. Lorrie Moore had just joined the faculty. We told her about Leon Varjian who had traveled from Indiana to Wisconsin, too, and famously constructed the submerged Statue of Liberty on a frozen Lake Mendota and in the spring filled the Hill with a huge flock of pink plastic flamingoes. It was all new to Lorrie. We found it all difficult to believe, hard to take seriously where we now found ourselves, lost in staid ancient institutions that seemed to tolerate, for now, our silly juxtapositions. The reading took place in Helen C. White Hall, a Brutalist concrete building constructed in response to the unrest of the 1960s. It was designed to be difficult, almost impossible to find a doorway in. It took a while, but I did.
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