categories: Cocktail Hour
I like to get to a distant writing conference a day early to get my bearings and have a look around, adjust to time and place before things turn social and everything I say and do is basically in front of an audience. Friday morning at the Kachemak Bay conference I had no duties. First a big breakfast at Land’s End, including reindeer sausage, which was pretty good with eggs and etc., nine bucks, way too much food but with a view—kids fishing for fluke or maybe baby halibut—I don’t know my Pacific fishes, and of course the mountains and the hundred boats passing in a parade on their way out to the salmon, stiff landward breeze, Donner and Blitzen.
After breakfast I strapped myself into my binoculars and tromped up the pebbly beach, the word Alaska repeating over and over in my head, pebbles rattling and clacking underfoot, sea in steel gray, mountains circling everything in black and white, snow and rockslide. The birds were kittiwakes and glaucous-winged gulls, also bald eagles, a pair of common loons simply bobbing, dramatic cloud sets. Also cormorants of a type I’d need to look up later, more Pacific birds, wonderful. I took long looks between their dives, focused on a new pair, realized it was neither a pair nor birds but a sea otter, paddling along on its back, daily violence all swaddled in cuteness.
Fresh and peaceful and new!
All merely workaday, too, but I don’t live there. The tide was falling a long way, falling out leaving pools to peer into and wet sand to walk on more quietly and more easily, footprints filling in as I passed the backsides of the businesses of the spit—these wooden shacks and sheds and occasionally more elaborate buildings up on stilts, the back doors and back decks of restaurants and fishing outfits and galleries and souvenir shops, all a little scruffy from the rear, fancy woolens and fish shippers and native art and ice cream undifferentiated, a young woman having coffee out on her second-story sundeck, glassed-in and high above the ruckus, and then a young man appearing from the door behind her in sweatpants and bare chest, big stretch and yawn and both of them looking out over the endless ocean, everything having been said behind blackout curtains in the night. Starfish in the pools and sea urchin shells cracked by otters and clenched mussels and barnacled rocks and lengths of blue rope and the smooth endless pebbles.
I proceeded that way—a kind of hobble—for about two miles, passing under multitudes of tents and Winnebagos, more and less permanent housing for tourists and deckhands and minimum-wage workers and conference goers till the spit was a causeway and taken up pretty thoroughly with the road. Walking back on the other side I noted the town salmon hole—a dredged pond where, years earlier, foresight and tourism savvy had released salmon fry to imprint on the place and now the old men had imprinted, too, waiting rather grimly on lawn chairs for the return of the king, occasional desultory casts.
And a huge marina full of fishing boats and floating stairways to manage the tall tides (as in Down East Maine and up into the Bay of Fundy, where records are set) and sea people carrying fishing gear and wheeling coolers in carts and hanging out laundry and the smell of fish everywhere and bacon cooking and gulls wheeling and laughter somewhere and a whole motley college class lying on the boards and examining wrack as their professor murmured knowledge, diesel fumes, boats named Happy Days and Death Watch tied up side by side, a family in traditional maybe Cossack dress shouting back and forth in Russian, a father and daughter in jeans and rubber gloves, a group of tough young women loading gear for it looked would be a long outing, young men shirtless in rubber overalls, chests covered in blood from butt-whacking, which is what you call the slaughter and filleting of halibut, apparently.
Writers conferences come in various sizes and shapes, with different purposes and different internal cultures, weaker and stronger institutional personalities, more and then less breathable atmospheres, as different as boats in their slips: stable and wobbly, thrilling and dull, pleasant and deadly, calmly efficient, entirely dysfunctional. I’ve taught at them all. Physical setting plays a crucial role, of course, and remote is nice—a sense of sequestration helps, and nature always a soothing influence. Conferences on college campuses tend to make things feel a little more like work, those at convention centers more career-y, thus depressing. Best are the ones in the woods or on the shore, and where the work is king.
Great conferences give a faculty member time to meet people, time to take a walk. Management knows who you are and what you’ve done, puts you in good company. They take care of you, keep tabs on you, pay you immediately, have you over to their house. Not-so-good ones cram your schedule, forget you at the airport, forget you at your hotel, leave you to eat alone, hand you over to disgruntled participants, schedule your reading opposite the “American Idol” finale, lose track of your check, put you in charge of poetry. Me. Poetry. Twice. Without warning. I did my best.
I met Nina DaGramont and her husband, the ravishing David Gessner, at an autumn weekend conference put on by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at Camp Kieve on Damariscotta Lake out by the coast of Maine, and then partied, I mean worked, with them again the next year at Haystack, halfway Down East on the rocky shores of Deer Isle—I mean a rugged ocean setting, rocks over lobster pots and crashing surf, islands in the distance.
And I loved Bread Loaf, back up in the hills above Middlebury, VT, where eighteen years ago I was a fellow—very congenial and collegial and boozy and also very intense, workshops and readings and meals and bonfires and even barn dances, four hours sleep nearly every night, terrific writers, big names and small, people I’ve been friends with ever since, also kids waiting tables with manuscripts under their arms, kids we’d all be reading before long, nights of storytelling on porches, walks back up on the mountain, pilgrimages to Robert Frost’s house, tennis, heart-to-hearts, clandestine trips downtown, all packed into ten blistering days.
And I had a great time at the now-defunct University of Vermont Summer Writing Program summer after summer in the 90s, several loose weeks set up around workshop classes and individual conferences, the faculty put up in a leased-back sorority house, me and my boom box and Van Morrison in our attic room on single beds recently abandoned by Sarah, Whitney, and Merle: Burlington, Vermont, a great town for walking, swimming, late-night meals.
Southern Illinois University hosted me for a brilliant week back there somewhere—Devil’s Kitchen Writers’ Conference—big readings and deep-fried turkeys, large numbers of grad students, also Mike Magnuson, who wrote the great memoir Lummox, among other work.
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia is the furthest I’ve gone–a literary festival attended by some 20,000 readers over a long weekend! (I was already there on book tour.) One of my panels was in an old theater seating 2000 and sold out. Subject? Pick the best Australian novelist of all time. My job was to play dumb American opposite all these important Australian literary figures, and I did it rather well. A fellow from the audience approached me after and rather than killing me said, “I hear you loik birds.” He’d heard that on the radio, heard me saying it on the radio, and he’d driven down six hours just in order to invite me to his bird camp above Port Douglas on the Great Barrier Reef. I accepted. Found him a week later. 140 species in one long day, every single one new to me! Black swans! Bee eaters! Bower birds, three kinds!
Here in Maine there was Stonecoast before it was an MFA program, its salad days in Downtown Portland in an indigent hotel, later the whole thing moved up to Brunswick, workshops again, but two leaders to a classroom, sometimes testy collaborations, my favorite with David Bradley, like dueling with light sabers labeled nonfiction. We cut each other’s balls off, in a nice way, and came to like one another very much.
Just this last fall I was in Wyoming for the Laramie County Community College Writers Connection. I loved the milieu, the egalitarian setting, the very sweet hosts, the efficient everything, the gift-basket in my hotel room. The college is affectionately and constantly called El-Triple-C, which I misheard—those Wyoming accents—as, um, Ultrapussy, apologies. There were just three of us “presenting” (isn’t that what female bonobos do?), Laura Pritchett, Pam Houston, and yours truly, and we spoke in turn to the same large room over two long days, long lectures. I shared my El-Triple-C misunderstanding with both Laura and Pam, and all we needed to do to make one another dissolve at solemn moments was to say it: Ultrapussy. Pam I’d met at Bread Loaf all those years ago just after Cowboys are my Weakness came out, and it was like old home weekend. She and her boyfriend are mega sports fans. The Colorado Rockies were in the baseball playoffs. Hotel bar, TV. That’s all I’ve got to say—great stuff.
Such is what it takes for a writer to make a living these days.
Ten-fifteen or so on the Homer Spit and I’m starting to think about renting a Kayak, though the day’s cold and the water rough. The very attractive Dinty Moore (whom I met at the Goucher Creative Nonfiction Conference) had put the thought in my head, emailing before the conference to say he’d be there a day early. Would have been nice…. Love that Dinty. And I really wanted to get out on the water, though the day would have been dangerous for kayaking. I poked my head into a native-arts gallery, followed myself in there, found a little beluga whale carved from walrus ivory, by an Inupiaq artist, found a little polar bear, same guy, began the process of pre-spending my conference pay, beluga to nestle among all the other beautiful little things on my desk at home, polar bear for my daughter’s collection of glass figurines.
Now all I needed was a bird book, to make up for the Sibley I’d had to jettison at Portland Airport. In the souvenir shop, no book, but Dinty Moore. He was buying a watch cap. He was buying a watch cap because he was about to go out on a boat charter. He handed me the brochure. You got lunch with the deal, somewhere across the bay. I pictured a sandwich on white bread.
Shortly we were circling Gull Island, 20,000 nesting birds (including two kinds of puffins, two kind of arctic cormorants, two kinds of gulls, oystercatchers, murres, pigeon guillemots), the two of us catching up at the rail, old conference friends in watch caps, chilly afternoon. Shortly again we were across the bay in Halibut Cove eating lunch in front of a roaring fire at the Saltry, a great restaurant where mediocre would have done: captive audience. But this was native fish freshly caught, delicate presentation, greens from their own coldframes.
Later that evening the conference would begin. But for that moment there was lunch in front of Dinty and me, harbor seals playing in the cove. Stellar’s jay on the roof. Friendly waiters and cooks, all part of some sort of commune, it looked like to me. Northwest crows on the railings. Blue-green swallows darting. Fire crackling. Fish on our plates. Plenty to talk about.
Dinty has a way of cocking his head when he’s about to say something funny. He cocked his head, fixed my eye. He said, “When I got the email. Come to Alaska? I just asked how much I had to pay.”
Nice wine. Very nice.