This past Sunday, I read to about 70 people at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. I couldn't have asked for a better audience: friends, poetry lovers, old high school English teachers, former bosses, and my grandmother (in the pink suit). I told them to "smile for the Best American Poetry blog," so here they are:
Afterwards, there were books to sign. A lot of books. I took far too long with each one--as always, I find myself slipping back into the mode of signing high school yearbooks--and while there are certain phrases that come easily to me, I always approach each title page from scratch. The ritual of this had me wondering: as people tout the future of the book in electronic form, what happens to the tradition of author signings?
Back when books were published in small-batch letterpress, authors accredited each copy by hand. When books became mass-produced, the author's name became typeset. So if you've ever had an author cross out that name, the notion is that it's being replaced with the "real" signature of historical tradition.
With these signatures came opportunity for individualized notes. Maybe a mash note to a personal mentor, or a glib note to an unfamiliar fan ("The best way to decorate a blank wall is with another bookshelf!"). Sometimes notes have a certain edge. When Evelyn Waugh signed Men at Arms for literary critic Cyril Connolly, he knew full well that while many men had joined up with the military, Connolly, a pacifist, had stayed at home in London and served as a fireman.
"To Cyril, who kept the home fires burning," he wrote.
I know one author who writes "Please don't sell this on eBay." Indeed, many poets fear the day when they find their book in a used bookstore and, from the inscription, find out who their real friends are. Years after an original signing, George Bernard Shaw found a copy of one of his books, inscribed: "To [X], with esteem," for sale in a used bookstore. He bought it and sent it back to his friend, signing over the original: "To [X], with renewed esteem."
(Worth noting that among collectors, the most rare copy is considered one in which the subject of the formal dedication is the same as the addressee in the handwritten note; since these copies largely belong to husbands and mothers, they rarely go on the open market.)
Some would say that nowadays, signed books are far too easily obtained to have any real value. Like stale crackers and cheap chardonnay, they are just another way of guilt-tripping people into buying the book after a reading. In 2006, Margaret Atwood unveiled her "Long-Distance Pen," an e-stylus that allowed her to sign books from even a continent away. In an AP interview, she stated her inspiration came from signing off on the electronic clipboards provided by delivery companies such as FedEx and UPS. "I thought my signature was whizzing through the air and landing somewhere else, and I thought--as I was crawling through the night on another maniacal book tour--wouldn't it be great if I could sign a book like that?"
Well, no. Call me a purist, but the "maniacal book tour" is a lucky kind of madness. As numbing as it is to sign book after book...as embarrassed as I am to say, to a vaguely familiar face, "Remind me how your name is spelled?" only to be told "D-A-V-I-D"...as tragic as it is to have my hand get ahead of my brain, resulting in some awkwardly constructed attempt to salvage "Thank you for shaving these poems with me..."
Well, them there's the breaks. I love the act of signing books. I love receiving books that have been signed. How does that translate to the language of Kindle? Can e-texts be touched by the author's own hand?
"For Sandra, thanks," Nick Flynn wrote in my copy of his first collection, Some Ether, in 2002. I was one of dozens of student he met that year, during a visiting writer stint at American University. It's a generic signature; the exact kind one would consider dispensable.
Two years later I stood in a crowd at the (now defunct) Olsson's in downtown DC, listening to Flynn read from his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Maybe I wasn't one of dozens, but I was still one of at least ten. He had probably not had dinner yet. He could probably barely remember my name. But still, he listened patiently as I prattled on about how one of his poems had inspired one of my own.
"For Sandra, whose words I anticipate," he wrote.
Six years later I would meet Nick once more, book in hand, this time at the AWP booth for W. W. Norton--now his publisher, now mine. We chatted briefly, with that odd but sweet familiarity of people who have had too-short conversations too-many times. Only after I flew home from Denver did I have the guts to peek at the flyleaf.
"For Sandra," he had written, "whose boat has been launched--"
These books will sit side by side on my shelf for as long as I write: an evolution of signatures, a chronology of one writer's support for another. Will this tradition be alive, forty years from now? Where do these serendipitous moments fit on the screen of an iPad?