Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bookstores, Happy Accidents, and a Motel Likely to Stay on my Bucket List

The second time I went to Chichen Itza, in 2002, was also the second—and likely the last—time I climbed the central pyramid. On my nervous way back down the enormous steps, a guide mentioned that it was the last year that tourists would be permitted to go up: Too much foot traffic was wearing away the stones, and the pyramid would be roped off from now on. I felt lucky to have been among the last to climb.

I get a similar feeling these days when I go into bookstores, as though I’m wandering through some amazing monument where, soon, no one will get to go anymore. Except, of course, with bookstores, it’s lack of use rather than overuse that has caused the problem. But what a great thing it is to still be able to go into a good bookstore, run your hands over the covers, to encounter the book you weren’t specifically looking for but really needed to read.

Today, on the way back from lunch, I thought we might stop at Politics and Prose, but an unsettled stomach made me think we should just go home. Then, as that passed and we came down Military Road, I thought, well, perhaps just five minutes.

For a writer, being remaindered is likely never a happy thing, but for a reader, Politics and Prose’s downstairs remainder section is a thing of wonder. After five minutes, I was already toting around Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife, Lionel Shriver’s A Perfectly Good Family (based on the strength of We Need to Talk About Kevin, I’m willing to read anything she writes), and a copy of Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (a gift for a friend that I’m hoping to borrow when she’s done; we both recently finished Mudbound and this sounds like a radical and fascinating departure).

Then I hit the stairs, noting on my way up that it sounded like there must be a reading going on, noting as I hit the top of the stairs that the speaker was saying something about the next poem he would read, noting as I turned to scan the displays of coming events that the reader was none other than Campbell McGrath. Campbell MceffingGrath!

OK, this is maybe not quite like spotting Elvis, but for me, it was at least as good as spotting Elvis Costello. McGrath is one of my favorite working poets, a writer who brings humor and pathos and all the trappings of his culture into his poems in a way that I simultaneously admire and feel uneasy about. I had actually been thinking about his work only yesterday as I was working on a new poem (the draft of which appears below) about the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada, because it seemed like the kind of "weird Americana" place that might turn up in a McGrath poem.

Had I known he was reading, I would have scheduled my weekend around attending. I experienced a series of emotions that ran quickly from shock (WHAT?!?), to cultural shame (I watched the beyond-stupid 300 last night, but didn’t know Campbell MceffingGrath was going to be in the neighborhood?), to horror at the thought that some mild indigestion had almost sent us home, to delight that here he was, and he had barely started reading yet, and I could sit down and enjoy as he shared some terrific poems from In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys, along with a few that haven't even been published yet.

And then I got to babble fan-girl-isms at him as he signed my copy (thanks to sweet husband Tim for sneaking a photo as this happened).

These are the kind of experiences we will not have when bookstores become extinct. I don’t look forward to that day. I cannot share today’s reading, but here’s a link to one McGrath gave at Emory University in 2009 that has the great advantage of beginning with a truly wonderful McGrath poem called “The Human Heart” (linked here for those who prefer to read).

Stay away from clowns. Go to bookstores instead.


This draft was kidnapped by clowns.


Paul Ward said...

All a clown wants to do is to make you laugh or cry
The greasepaint pushed into the face commits them to try
The costume and overlarge shows demonstrate our
Universal Ugliness.

Is it strange that a strange made-up being
pantomiming absurd sadnesses would
make us afraid?

No, for the clown is we. Frightening pretense,
invented, with an urgency to tell a story that will
make these strangers around us laugh, or cry.

M. C. Allan said...

I am now even more afraid of clowns. And strangers.