The Auction of the Mind of Man

by Mara Jebsen

Images-4Or, I Did AWP All Wrong, And This Is What I Learned:

Every year, thousands of writers collect at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention. In some great origami-like structure, panels and panels unfold in every direction, and lovers, rivals, business partners and strangers rub shoulders (and egos) in a heady atmosphere of nerves. The scale of it, the booze of it, the ambition, and the camaraderie of it, taken together, give the “emerging writer” an occasion to a) lose her mind b) consider the ickiness of networking; the fascinating collisions between the inner lives of artists, and the surprisingly high costs of costly educations. Here is a sort of dream log-book of my not entirely representative experience, and a list of take-aways.

Initial Impressions:


New York is far behind me, and the bus has clunked down heavily in Boston. Here, the entirety of the available air is taken up with snow that arrives sideways, softly in drifts. The first thing I do, made immoderately confident by my new smartphone, is stride trenchantly off to the wrong convention center; one at which no conventions are being held; one I will find out later is near the airport, and which I sense is near the airport, because of the eerie white nothingness of the landscape, and the deepening sense of ‘wrongness’ growing in my stomach. Snowflakes are matting against my glasses. The hand holding my little weekend bag is red—and I wish I hadn’t come. Off in the distance is a parking lot in front of a hotel, manned by a warmhearted guy in a little toll-booth dealie. I approach him through the blizzard for hours, and when I get to him he chuckles: “You look like you ran away from home.”

This feels correct. Trips that you worry about bring out the superstitious side in most of us. “Is this an auspicious start?” we ask. “Are the signs good?” Being lost is a bad sign. This nice man is a good sign. Already I’m off-kilter and have entered into the zone I call “the agony of interpretation”; the one that will mark two of my three days at AWP. For some reason, the stakes feel high, as though what happens in the next three days will define my attitude towards the literary world that simultaneously allures and repels me, a world I and so many other hope to join.

The man pulls out a series of ever-larger maps, and eventually rights me like a little wind-up toy so I'm ready for Take Two. All my urban slickness rubbed off, I find I'm cowed by the cold and austere geography of Boston.

Convention Center

The convention center is probably made out of huge lego hexagons, and I think it could be successfully filmed by Kubrick. Its so flat, wide and symmetrical, with screens flashing rectangularly and writers factoried up and down the escalators in neat lines. Once I’m in that place, I think of Whiskey. Whiskey was my pet rabbit, and a terrible trial. When we went on vacation, he had to be carried in a little pen, and then loosed into some room, which he’d explore in terrified test-jaunts. If any mildly frightening event occurred, he’d scamper back into the hateful pen. In exploring the convention center I am furious to discover that I am exactly like Whiskey or another small rodent, never getting anywhere, never making it very far. This feels inauspicious. I see tons of people I know, some of whom I can place, and some I can't– and they smile and wave while hurrying off on mysterious business, as if they were waving at me from on television. Or as if they were seaweed in an aquarium.

The Book Festival

I figure out immediately that writers who are wondering if they belong here, and have just paid thier registration fees, are very much at cross-purposes with the nice folks manning the booths at the book festival. They want to sell books and we want to get published. Places where I have been published are fairly easy to deal with–I thank them, and sometimes buy a book, and the exchange between us makes sense. But the places where I wish I'd been published seem to have an invisible velvet rope around them. This is where the weirdness starts:

Everything is like the first day of school. I'm actually trying to walk as if I were a very terrific writer. Like: if I hold my face the right, literary way, that journal will check out my name badge and when I submit, they will remember me? I decide that later, when this phase is over, I'll have to figure out what this insane descent into unreason and dorkishness is about. A buddy of mine–a fiction writer, joins forces with me, and we meander lane after lane of book merchants, responding every time we recognize our favourite presses. I absolutely cannot control my brain. For example, I'm thinking this: once, this buddy and I were extras in an independent film. We were told not to bother coming up with fake conversation, and that it'd be ok to just silently mouth the phrase “peas and carrots.” I submit that it is nearly impossible to mouth “peas and carrots, peas and carrots” to a good friend, over and over, without cracking up. They almost had to kick us out of the movie.Pretending to be friends with someone you are actually friends with feels about as silly as walking around pretending to be a writer, when you are actually a writer. I feel absolutely goofy, but I have a feeling that everyone around me is regressing, too.

Second Impressions:

I couldn't possibly walk anyone through my recollections of the jumble of panels, hotel parties and drive-by encounters that start to occur with increasing speed, and no one would want me to. It seems that a thousand other writers have the same bright idea that I do about how to manage nerves and exhaustion: Drink. Dance. Discover, in a hotel bathroom, a photograph of a man on a horse, that seems to include a bronze penis resting slackly on the horse's neck. It is particularly lewd, even as penises go. Nearly collapse laughing, and note that the hotel room full of luminaries whose names you should probably know, are collapsing in laughter, too. At one point, at another party, I am sitting on the floor, and my bones are throbbing in my riding boots, but a buddy of mine is reading from his new book. He's on the balls of his feet, kind of bouncing around like a boxer, doing a real hell of a job storytelling, and suddenly something real happens, and it goes through me like lightning. It is the moment when someone's inner life collapses into yours. Perhaps this is why I came? But no, we could have had this experience back in New York.

Saturday Rises Out of the Jumble

Saturday's the last day. Maybe that's why it feels different. The sun is actually out–absolutely frozen orange-juice orange in tone, and its burnt away a lot of the snow, and now the three Boston streets I seem to feel are my home are streaming with pleasant rivulets of melted snow and the architecture is emerging, glorious and stony. Today I visit a panel between a good friend of mine and his mentor, and find, despite myself, that I'm really learning something–something about the exact intersection of poetry, drama and teaching that obsesses me, but it is being discussed in such a way that I understand that I need to study more. I have an inkling about what I need to know, and it has to do with particular lines of history. I'm excited.

After the panel, my friend invites me to a five-hour lunch, and I find myself at a long table where many of the most famous poets in the world are hanging out. Everyone here is relaxed, and the entire energy around them is so mellow and flat that I can finally breathe. No one seems to want anything from anyone. I try not to blink when I see people's name tags because I don't want them to see how impressed I am. Some of these poets I know only by reputation, and some I know from heavy, hard, serious study. It is the ones I feel I know intimately who are hardest to talk to. I feel like we've had some intimacy, but they were asleep and don't remember it–to show any familiarity would shame us both. Nevertheless, the conversation is easy: they are talking about dead poets they admire; and about opportunities to study with great poets like Lowell and Brooks and Bishop, that they regret missing, because they were bad when they were younger, at knowing what was important.

It strikes me, of course, that what has been so wonderful and awful about this whole experience is the fierce energy of idolatry that permeates it. Idolatry is a frightening thing, but now that I have named it, and seen that it leads to idolatry of the dead, I feel better. To idolize our poet ancestors, to gather ourselves into tribes–all of this feels normal to me. Perhaps, as Emily Dickinson said, “Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man,” but she also goes on to change her tune a bit, later in the poem. It is this icky, gritty human business that allows us to get through to each other, during our lives and after death. It isn't so easy for us to talk to each other intimately, given our crazy nerves and over sized inner lives.

But a few final, stray thoughts:

1) Women I met wanted to coach me to present myself confidently and stridently as a force to be reckoned with. I failed at this totally, managing only to lose my name tag and be genial. I feel bad about this when I see things like the numbers published at VIDA that suggest an astonishing gender bias in the literary world. The curse of the “good girl” who is a likable, docile student and never makes waves or demands (or strong opinions) seems to be a part of the problem, though hardly the source of it.The literary world I saw was also rather overwhelmingly white and straight, and the business of auctioning our minds gets quite a bit grittier when we consider what one is up against on that auction block: for some of us, I realized, publishing may take more gumption than I'd previously assumed.

2) Money, as always, matters here. We might take a moment to feel a tremendous surge of sympathy for some of the students I teach at NYU. It is very hard to learn when you are worrying about whether you've made a good investment; when every thought is accompanied by the question: “what exactly am I learning?” and “is it worth it?” Practically speaking, what was really at stake for me in this trip was two workdays and a couple hundred dollars. But the investment, of time in particular, made me nervous, and the small experiment suggests to me that education cannot thrive in a culture of financial anxiety and cutthroat competition.

3) Finally, it might behoove any writer who goes to AWP to memorize this part of the desiderata first:

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Or, if you get grumpy, this one from Sartre: “L'enfer c'est les autres.” Particularly when” les autres” are too much like you.