Report: Atlanta Queer Literary Festival

Over the weekend I made a jaunt down to Atlanta for the AQLF. It was super fun!

I got in Friday night and had a nice dinner with friends, then went back to my hotel and hit the hay. Saturday I had breakfast with Jim Elledge, which is one of the nicest ways to start a day, and then spent the rest of the afternoon reading my poems to people, listening to other people’s works, and chatting with other writers.

The festival was small, but it was nice. There was a very collegial and intimate feel to the day. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a literary event that I didn’t plan myself. LOL.

Other highlights were running into Michael Montlack, who edited My Diva, hearing Andrew Bierle read the opening of First Person Plural, hearing Collin Kelley, Dustin Brookshire, and Megan Volpert read their work, then spending various amounts of time hanging out. Jim’s new chapbook is amazing, by the way. H, the full length version, is going to be fantastic when it comes out.

Odd story: I rode MARTA (their metro) to and from the airport and around town. On my way in, suitcase in tow, a woman struck up a conversation on the platform with me. (Mostly, she wanted to talk.) It turned out she was born in Milwaukee and had lived in Tempe for some time, and also loved DC. Then she went on and on about all the awful things that have happened to her–losing jobs, losing savings, etc, and I was totally sure I was in for the long-form panhandle like I got last time I was in Atlanta (guy talked to me for 15 minutes about how he was a Katrina refugee…then, did I have $5?). But when we got off in Decatur, she very kindly asked me where I was staying, then gave me clear directions to get there. And she said, “Enjoy your visit.” And was gone. I have a theory on stuff like this that I’ll share another time.

Even weirder, as I walked out the MARTA exit, another woman asked me if I understood the directions or needed more help. I looked around and was like, “Um, me?” And she was like, “Yeah, you.” I thanked her but said I knew where I was going. I couldn’t believe people were so friendly. It was a nice change of pace. In DC, when strangers talk to you, they just want to know what kind of shaving cream to buy, or if they can skip you in the line at Target because they’re so much busier than you are.

Anyway, I had a lot of fun, and I needed the mini break from DC!

SundaySundaySunday!

This Sunday teh awsomenezz of Merrill Feitell reads with me at The Writer’s Center at 2 pm.

In celebration, I share this, my vaguely stalkerish tale of discovering Merrill’s work:

How I came to love Merrill Feitell—and her work.

In one of my undergraduate writing workshops, my instructor told our class we should read new literary magazines to get a sense of what was being written “right now,” so that we’d have a better sense of what was being published if that was something we ever wanted to do.

I hardly ever had two nickels to rub together while I was in college, but one morning I walked to Dinkytown, the funky neighborhood situated alongside the University of Minnesota’s campus, to see what there was to read. The Dinkytown News was a tiny shop squeezed between the Purple Onion coffeeshop, which was rarely fully visible through the haze of smoke inside, and a narrow used bookstore presided over by a very fat cat who sat in the front window. Most of Dinkytown News’s business was in StarTribunes and packs of smokes, so it must have been curious that day when I walked in, crouched down to examine the miniscule lit mag selection, painstakingly fretted over which to choose and then, perhaps reluctantly, chose Sonora Review because it promised new poems by Mark Doty.

I took it home and flipped through it, my eyes catching on a short story in the issue. I began reading slowly, interested in the present tense second-person narration (“You do this, you do that,” etc). The story concerned a college-aged woman who, despite her better judgment, falls for a charismatic and charming college guy who is, of course, the wrong guy. Not just “wrong” in the sense that he wasn’t right for her, but maybe for someone else—this was a guy in a spiral of rock music and heroin and booze. And despite her better judgment, she thought she would be the one to pull him up.

The story had a line that I couldn’t shake: For all your questions, you are someone’s answer. I wanted to know why I liked this story so much, so I read the story again, and then again, marking passages I’d wished I’d written, highlighting “significant lines” that I liked because they stepped outside of the story, seemed to be saying something to me, the reader, about the world within and outside of the world of the story. For a while, I carried it around in my backpack. I thought of that line often: for all your questions, you are someone’s answer. At 20, full of my own questions, I simply hoped that it was true.

I’d hazard to say that most literary magazines don’t have a long shelf life. They are, by definition, periodicals, meaning they’re designed to be consumed “periodically.” Each issue is designed to be replaced by the next, newer version. But that issue of Sonora Review never went anywhere. Over the next 12 years, I would move annually. I would carefully divide what was essential from what was trash and pack them both up and take with me only the essential things. That Sonora Review always went into the essential pile.

Of course, I wondered about the author of this story. Who was she? What was her life like? How did she write such an amazing story? Eventually, I found her name listed among some AWP panel participants and attended her session to find out. But, too shy to say anything, I snuck out without introducing myself, afraid that my enthusiasm for the story might make me seem like, you know, a stalker.

After the conference, I blogged about loving her story and my failed attempt to meet her. One of my blog readers knew her and conveyed my message, sending back Merrill’s reply: “Oh my god, that is the coolest craziest thing ever. I can’t even believe it. Thanks so much for sending that to me. That was the story that made me feel like an actual writer–though I never thought anyone ACTUALLY read it. Thanks for that. You made my day.”

Merrill and I did connect some time later, and I got my chance to act awkward and crazy around her until I realized she was a human being after all, and that my awkward craziness was doing nothing but make me appear both very awkward and very crazy. When she and I ended up living and working relatively close to each other, it felt like to ask her to read with me at The Writer’s Center. I know you’ll love her work when you hear it, and you’ll definitely want to pick up her Iowa Prize-winning collection of stories Here Beneath Low Flying Planes. Although the story I love isn’t in there, Merrill has assured me it will be in a future collection with work that is similar to it. I can only hope she finishes it soon.

The real James Ellroy

James Ellroy appeared at The Writer’s Center on Saturday night, in conjunction with George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival.

It was probably one of the most fun literary events I’ve been to in a long time.

Ellroy is certainly bigger than life, a factor made even more prominent by the fact that he is actually a big tall person. His presence literally fills the room. And when he talks, he has a loud, booming voice that modulates and riffs through the words like singing, like a sermon.

He believes, at his core, that he is doing God’s work. And who are we to argue? It’s that level of conviction that makes him such a compelling literary figure. If you know his backstory–his mother was murdered when he was a child and the murder has never been (“will never be,” in his own words) solved–it’s easy to understand his fascination both with the macabre underbelly of shiny Americana and with an unflinching ability to expose it to the harsh light of day.

And he has a charisma about him that is really difficult to ignore. The audience who came to see him were huge fans, voracious readers of his work, and knew his books inside and out. During the Q&A session that followed, Ellroy expounded on everything from the innerworkings and motivations of characters in LA Confidential to which Anne Sexton quotes are his favorite (confidential to DB: he started his talk out with “I was born doing reference work in sin;” could not help but think of you).

Although he has a big personality and a big sense of his legacy, he is also utterly approachable and a man of the people. He enjoyed “bullshitting” with the folks who came to get their books signed and, I felt, sincerely wanted to know what they thought of the event, of his new book, etc.

He also shared a fifteen minute diatribe on his loathing for the “internet invaders” who are threatening the supremacy of the printed word.

I wonder if America’s growing fascination with all things tabloid and scandalous is connected to Ellroy’s growing fame–did one feed the other? Or is this symptomatic of something else changing in American culture?

Ellroy claims that the murder of his mother exposed him to the reality that there are “two Americas.” The surface one, the one we live in, and a second, shadow America, where powerbrokers, politicians, and money circulate and determine the long-term path we’re on.

Brian Teare Talks

Also, I’ve got an interview up with Brian Teare up at The Writer’s Center’s blog First Person Plural! The other day, Sandra Beasley interviewed Paula Bohince.

Brian is reading with Paula at Fall for the Book today, and Deb Ager and I are reading together there also.

After that, I think we’re all stalking Reb Livingston. Or maybe just I am.

Brian’s thoughts:

“My day-to-day relationship to writing is based on the pleasure I take in its materials, both its graphic and sonic aspects. I like the look of letters arranged into words, lines and stanzas as much as I like the actual sonorities created by phonemes and syllables hooked together to make words hooked together to make lines, ad infinitum. And though the visual aspect of a poem eventually becomes as important to me as its soundscape, I tend to draft poems by following an aural rhythm—both alliterative and prosodic—and it’s my hope that an essential quality of what I’m writing about adheres in the actual feel of the language.”

Yes Sir, That’s My Diva

On Sunday we were visited by many fabulous contributors to the My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them anthology, as well as their invoked muses. It was a great reading–R. J. Gibson shared his thoughts on Annie Lennox, John Dimes wrote about what’s compelling about Björk, Allen Smith reminisced about Jessica Lange, Bill Fogle riffed on Julia Child, and editor Michael Montlack explained his fascination with Stevie Nicks.

I was reminded of the story told to me by a guy I’d dated in college. In high school, he snuck into the stacks of his library where he wouldn’t be disturbed and then, one by one, tore out every picture of Madonna in every magazine in the rack.

Afterward, Beau and I went grocery shopping (the mundane reality of my life: literature! followed by groceries/laundry) but stopped off for a diet-busting juicy cheeseburger at Five Guys. We tried to figure out who our divas would be.

“Well, now, mine would be Gwen,” he said. Naturally, he means Stefani, she of the L.A.M.B. label and genre-blurring dance cuts. We both love No Doubt. I nodded. One of our earliest dates was going to see Gwen on her Sweet Escape tour. My favorite part: in the car, jiggling through the pot-holed parking lot, listening to Gwen, I said something off-handedly (and probably unintentionally) funny. He laughed generously and then burst, “Oh my God, I love you.” He meant it like, “I love you like you’re my cousin,” but he was horrified at having let the l-word slip, covered his mouth, and turned red.

I thought back. “Mine would be Sharon Stone,” I said, remembering my obsession with Basic Instinct in the 90s. And then I remembered what had papered my locker in high school:


Brenda Walsh, aka Shannen Doherty

I was so known for my obsession with Shannen Doherty, in fact, that one day a girl in my school who had flipped through a recent copy of YM and torn out a full-bleed portrait of her and given it to me. “For your collection,” she said, peering at me through her inch-thick glasses. She pressed it onto my chest and then turned and walked away. I added it to the growing collage of Brendas.

I don’t remember particularly enjoying Beverly Hills, 90210, so I’m not even sure where it came from. But I remember rooting for Brenda when I watched. She was whiny and a little frumpy, frequently irrational and often full of gunpowder looking for a fuse.

That she was also a trainwreck in real life only fueled my love for her. She was impulsive! She married a Hamilton! She behaved poorly at work! I longed and longed to be bad like Brenda. One day I skipped choir and went to Burger King in the next town over. It felt good to be bad, I thought. Back at school, the Vice Principal confusedly called me to her office. “You were unexcused from choir today,” she said. “Yeah, I skipped,” I said, almost proudly. She reluctantly handed me a detention notice. “Mr. Fraaza will see you after school.”

I took the notice home and pinned it on my bulletin board. Wow! I was bad. I’d broken a rule. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be when I was supposed to be there! Brenda would have understood. Then my mom grounded me for getting a detention. She held the slip in face. “This is not a trophy!” she said, her voice shrill. I shifted my weight awkwardly from one foot to another. Brenda never got grounded.

Shannen probably permanently secured my love when she told the producers of Charmed, “Why don’t we lose the tit shots of Alyssa Milano, or else I’ll walk?” And they were like, “No thanks,” and then her character died a sudden death that really ruined the entire arc of the series, and plus created a casting circumstance that resulted in a secret fourth sister (???) in the guise of Rose McGowan. A poor substitute!