The cathedral of Notre Dame burned yesterday, which was also the day that I learned that Gene Wolfe had died. Juliette and I talked about both in the evening, and she asked me if I felt sad. I said that "sad" wasn't quite the right word for what I felt—both felt profound and tragic, both felt like losses. But I wasn't sad, exactly. Perhaps it all felt too big to be contained in an emotion as simple as sadness.
In Wolfe's most famous series, The Book of the New Sun, we see an Earth millions of years in the future, an Earth in which most of the details have evolved to the point of being almost unrecognizable. But it's that almost that gets me. In these books you see deserts where the glittering sand is made of the eroded glass from the windows of a long-dead city, you see continents having shifted, coastlines changed. Even the sun has started to fade. But a close reader can see the echoes of our own time in Wolfe's distant future, and in any case the basic forms of human connection remain.
Still, reading those books, I can't help but think about what remains and what doesn't. How permanence is ultimately an illusion. Or maybe even a lie. Yesterday I saw someone tweet something to the effect that watching something ancient and beautiful burn felt like an encapsulation of our time. Yesterday I watched the cathedral spire fall. I watched and watched again, like so many people did. Construction on the cathedral began in 1160, and wasn't finished for a hundred years. I imagine what it must have felt like to start building something, knowing that you'd never live to see its completion. What it means to have faith that the work would be taken up by someone else. Though, I suppose in some way I do know something of that faith, because what else sustains anyone who works toward social justice? People have been working on that project for longer than a century already, and I still don't expect to see it achieved. But what a cathedral that would be.
It feels like right now, all of our cathedrals are burning, that we are all watching helplessly while our edifices burn. If we didn't set the fires ourselves. And I'm thinking about how hopeless it so often feels, how powerless I feel to stop anything. But also how fires, unopposed, spread. It feels too pat to end an email like this with a call to arms. It feels perhaps even disrespectful. But I guess what I'm thinking is that everything ends, that I and you will end, but that we still spend our lives building anyway. In my worse moments, this seems futile; in my best, it's beautiful. I don't know exactly where I am today, but I'm thinking about what the world has lost, about the impossibility of replacing anyone or anything once it's gone, about the need to keep moving into an unknown future.
Scattered, Vol. 3 — Post-AWP Edition
Last week I spent four days in Portland, Oregon, at the annual AWP Conference. If you don't know what AWP is, it's the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and the conference is the largest writers conference in the US. This was my first time attending and I'm still sort of mulling the experience over, two days after arriving home.
At the "Literary Podcasting: The Good, the Bad, and the Books" panel, David Naimon talked about how he prepares for an interview, and how when he's reading with the expectation that he will be talking with the author, he's never completely "immersed in the fictive spell," but rather always keeps an eye toward how the book is constructed. Even after having had more than 30 conversations with writers on my own show, I still find that I tend to get drawn fully into many books. It's with photographs and podcasts that I'm able to maintain that critical distance, and I wonder what that says about me.
I got to see Danez Smith, Franny Choi, and Rachel Zucker—three of my favorite podcasters—in conversation for the "Art of the Interview" panel. I think the thing that most stayed with me was during the conversation about the use of silence in an interview. Rachel Zucker talked about the cadences of a person's voice, how every pause is part of that person's personal rhythm, how editing those silences out is like changing the meter of a poem. I've always attempted to strike a balance between maintaining the integrity of my guests' voices and making sure that my listeners get clean audio, but this is something I have to think about more.
José Olivarez was one of the co-hosts of the podcast The Poetry Gods, an old favorite of mine that was influential in how I conceived of my own show. I got to hear him speak at the "Digital Denzines: Five Approaches to Poetry Podcasts" panel, where he talked about starting his show because there weren't any shows beforehand that sounded like the conversations he was having about poetry with his friends. I think that's something a lot of artists do: make the thing they want to see in the world. Activists do it, too. And I'm wondering what the things are that I want to see that nobody has made yet.
I learned that Garth Greenwell has perhaps the most magnificent reading voice that I've ever heard. His reading in the "Sexuality of Textuality" panel was amazing.
Between Twitter and my podcast, I've gotten to know and even become friends with a lot of writers and editors. But for the most part I hadn't met any of them in person. I finally got the opportunity to meet many of them at the conference last week, which was lovely but also had an amusing rhythm to it. In almost every case, when I first introduced myself—saying "Hi, I'm Mike,"—there would be this moment of hesitation or confusion. But then as soon as they saw the last name on my badge, their whole demeanor would change and their faces would break into a big smile.
I was thinking, later, that it might be a good idea to change my profile pic to something less obscure but, on the other hand, then I might not get to see that moment of recognition.
I'm not really used to the experience of people being happy or excited to meet me. I find, so far, that it's quite pleasant but also induces in me an anxiety about not living up to expectations.
Something that became somewhat clear to me at this conference is that the literary community has a certain stratification to it. Critically acclaimed or bestselling writers and important editors and publishing people seem to have a completely different experience of conferences from people who might be published but are more obscure. They, in turn, have a different experience from emerging writers.
For me, this produced rather a lot of discomfort, but not because of the differences themselves. In my experience, most writers are not prima donnas and are just as interested in having normal human interactions as anyone else. But the demands on literary stars are just different—I could sit in an audience or have a conversation with a friend without drawing a crowd, but that's not true when tens or hundreds of thousands of people have read and loved your books. I think it's actually both reasonable and necessary for people at that level to have healthy boundaries.
Rather, my discomfort is mainly a product of not knowing where I fit in. As a writer I'm about as emerging as you can get—I only have one real published piece so far, and next to no one knows who I am. As a podcaster I've had intimate and length conversations with a number of writers I admire, but my show is small enough that I'm not well-known there either. I have friends with whom I've talked extensively online, but it's not the sort of friendship where anyone is asking me to help them move or babysit their kids. So when I meet someone and they say they'd like to hang out, I believe them, but I just don't know how to follow up on it. I don't feel comfortable imposing, and when your time is already spoken for then it is an imposition for someone to ask for any of it, even with good intentions.
Time, time, it's always a matter of time. I got to meet so many people, and I'm legitimately grateful for that opportunity. But I got to actually spend time with very few. What time I did get to hang out and actually talk with people felt like a gift, but I also spent most of the conference on my own. Perhaps that might have been different if I hadn't gotten sick, or if I'd had my own events or panels to keep me occupied. I'm not sure. But it's on my mind as I consider how to approach the conference in the future.
If you were at AWP this year, I hope that you enjoyed yourself. I'd love to hear about it, either way.