Friday, December 04, 2009

A Day (or 2) in the Life of a "Poet"

It starts with a phone call, telling me I won the award. This is a good feeling, though tinged with more than a little disbelief. I ask the very nice woman who broke the news to me exactly which poem won, as I cannot remember what I sent where. She tells me and I remember entering the contest. I assume the poem won due to its length. Ambition often nets rewards. As Burnham might have said: “Make no small poems.”

I agree to travel downstate to read at the ceremony. Why not? I’m as egotistical as the next fellow, assuming the next fellow writes long-ass poems that won’t likely show up in literary journals, as no journal wants to waste that much space on an unknown. At the very least, I am glad the poem found a home, if you can call the internet a home. And then there’s the money…

Cut to the day before the big ceremony. I go to work like a goddamn tool and run the silliest of errands that might fall under the expanding umbrella of “assistant.” I make coffee. I get scolded for making it too strong by my boss, and then, after making a weaker pot, get told by the rest of the crew that the brown water in the coffee pot is undrinkable. I run to Potbelly’s to pick up lunch for my boss. Prior to that, I answer questions about a recent settlement our law firm has worked on. The questions are almost always about money. “Where’s my money at?” they ask, dangling their participles. Or: “Why am I only getting this much? Who gets the rest? The attorneys?” I assure the class members—who have not had to fork over a cent and, in most cases, did not even know they were being ripped off—that the attorneys get paid from a separate pot of money that does not affect the settlement pool (pool-pot?). No one wants to believe me. Why should they? Everyone knows attorneys are scum, right? No amount of sexy TV dramas starring Julianna Margulies can alter that perception.

Before 4:00 PM arrives, the time I am allowed to leave in order to make the 5:15 train to Springfield, I also throw away old documents, call the office landlord and ask him to send an engineer (some of the staff is complaining about the cold; the others, after the adjustment, will bemoan the heat), answer stray emails from students (“My grandmother died. Can I turn my paper in next week?”), and sift through a stack of papers that have been idle in my in-box for close to half a month. I think about my in-box. I wonder when in my life I ever wanted an in-box. Remember the Aspidistra? I used to make next to nothing there, but at least I never had an in-box.

Cassandra meets me midway and we walk to Union Station. I know the place like the back of my hand. It used to be my favorite spot to kill time when I worked for MCHC. Many a mediocre lunch has been eaten in the Great Hall.

We catch the train. All the way to Springfield, I am tense; I try to unwind from what has already been a rotten day. Nothing like 3 hours on a train to further knot the nerves. A few seats behind us, a child wails. His mother (oh, the poor child) is the wreck of human you often see in train stations, but more often in bus depots—a fractured, hideous creature with a nose full of burst blood from years on the bottle. Her voice is serrated, terrible. She threatens her young child. “If you were just a little bit bigger…” she says and mimes a punch to the face. She tries all the usual fuck-up techniques for soothing a cranky youngster: fear, then, after smacking him a bit, reassertion of her authority. When the kid is suitably upset and beyond the point where violence or intimidation will work, she pleads with him. “C’mon, let’s try and get along. We got a long trip.” I walk to the bathroom and catch a better look at the two: a tattered kid and a woman who could walk onto Jerry Springer’s stage without anyone batting an eye. She sucks a lollipop and then gives what’s left to the kid. I feel sick. Springfield, here I come!

Despite the kid screaming and the general discomfort, I read all of Achy Obejas’s We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? (Support the local writers.) Some of the stories are amazing. A few miss with me, but I am immediately reminded of what good writing is, or what I think it is, which is not saying a whole lot. As Bolaño said, anyone can write well. There’s a bit more to the game, I’m afraid. Regardless, Obejas has it down. I also peek at some stories but Virgilio Piñera. One of them is incredible—short, macabre, perfect.

Gods be thanked, we arrive. The first question Cassandra asks: “Where’s the hotel?” I know the general direction, but failed to write the address down. I tell her this. It is not well received. Can you blame her?

The taxi driver drives us a few blocks and drops us at the Hilton. This building, aside from being the tallest in the area, boasts the city’s sole Starbucks, or so I’m told. It is closed, which is unfortunate. A chai would’ve been nice. Look at the fancy fucking writer.

We eat at an “Italian” place still open. The salad is drowned in oil and vinegar; the pasta sub-par. But the beer works. And I finish Cassandra’s wine. Sleep is coming soon.

In the morning I go to the workout room, which was one of the selling points of the Hilton. It is small, very small. I run on the treadmill and consider the metaphor of such an act. How to extend this? After 20 minutes or so, I go back to the room and shower. The time is coming when I will have to read aloud. I feel under-slept and a bit disconnected. A trip to the lobby, an overpriced breakfast, and a Red Bull set me back on my feet, so to speak.

Another laughably short cab ride later, we are at the State Library. A walk through the metal detector, a meet-n-greet… I get a call from my mother, who, along with her best friend, has made the trip to watch me play writer. She needs some general directions to the parking lot. Eventually, we find each other and the festivities begin.

I read as best as I can, though I could always do better. It’s strange. Later, I will read the entire fucking thing into a tape recorder for the Illinois Poet Laureate to post on his website. It takes a good ten minutes. Why am I always overwriting? (Asking yourself that right now, ain’t ya?)

Along for the ride is the Secretary of State. He sits at our table, eats lunch and invites us to view his office, which is big enough to qualify as a junior high school track. The day has become surreal, though this feeling is increased by a trip to the Abe Lincoln museum, complete with holograms and FX heavy biopics. During the Civil War scenes, the seats shake. I swell with national pride.

Back to the train station, we are very hungry. Sadly, there are no restaurants in sight. Plenty of pubs, but no diners. We splurge on vending machine cuisine and get to our seats for another long trip home.

It is not terribly late when we get back to Chicago, but it might as well be. Spent, stirred, shaken, I spend the first of my prize money on a cab home, looking at the lake and the buildings until Lake Shore Dive ends. Then I go the fuck to bed.