Along with approximately 10,999 other registrants, I attended the recent AWP Conference in Chicago earlier this month. I also attended the first Woodstock, in August, 1969. They were similar events, minus the rock bands and the loudspeaker announcements about bad acid. On the other hand, Chicago had poetry in the elevators; a tape loop of poets reading their own poems played continuously in the elevators throughout the conference. This was obviously a social-networking device on the Hilton's part to help people break the ice, in lieu of mud, good vibes, and the aforementioned bad acid. As I understand it, a few years ago the Poetry Foundation made a number of tape loops of poets collaborating with visual artists; the one that played in the elevators at this year's AWP was also available in its entirety on the in-house channel 44, on our room TVs. I remember poems by Mark Strand, Todd Boss, our own DL, a number of others. I thought the tape loop was wonderful, sort of the equivalent of the rock groups at Woodstock--the background sounds of human contact, interaction. In the morning I'd get on an elevator crammed with poets, and Mark Strand would say, "I don't want to be an American poet anymore," or something like that. "The black flies are after me." People would shift from foot to foot, except there was no room, so we'd all bump shoulders and hips, and get to know each other. At 2 or 3 in the morning, I'd stumble into an empty elevator, and there would be Mark and those flies again, or somebody telling me about how un-hip she was in New York City. I loved those poems, those voices. Most other people didn't; instead of being grateful for the ice-breaking gift, they complained about how un-hip the whole process was. Poems in the elevators! How, I don't know, pathetic! I began to ride the elevators instead of going to the panel presentations, just so I could hear how people responded to the tape loop. I began to volunteer information about the poems, which I'd listened to about a hundred times each by then. I told them about Channel 44. I began to carry a clipboard on which I could note down personal information, such as whether they were poets, or fiction writers, non-fictioners or children's book people, that sort of thing. Several people told me this made them a little uneasy. Occasionally, I'd follow them out of the elevator to their rooms; sometimes the conversations got a little heated. "I'm a poet, too!" I'd say, as the door would close in my face. "Those are my brethren!" I began to pick out women in the lobby, follow them into the elevators. I wanted to see what they thought about the poems. One morning there was a knock on my door. I opened it and two beefy men in suits came in; they very politely asked me to stop following women into the elevators. I assured them I would, but I saw this was a rare opportunity, too. I asked them what they thought of the poems being broadcast in the elevators; they said they didn't have an opinion. By Saturday night, I was exhausted. Downstairs was a madhouse, as usual: eleven thousand people milling around with ID badges on lanyards that twisted them around so you couldn't see the names. I found a place at the bar next to a very attractive young woman; to break the ice, I said,
"So what do you think of those poems?" "Excuse me?" she said. I said, "You know, the poems--in the elevators." My voice might have had a bit of an edge. She said, "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean." I asked her straight out, "Are you a fiction writer?" "I work for Delta Airlines." "Oh--you a stewardess?" "A 'flight attendant'?" she asked. "No, I'm a pilot." She picked her purse up from the bar and began to slide off her stool. "Hey," I said, "you haven't finished your drink!" There was almost a full glass of wine left. "I have an appointment," she said, "you can have it." "I was at Woodstock," I called after her, "the real one!" She didn't turn around. I looked at her wine; there was a lipstick smudge on the rim. What the heck, I thought, and turned the glass around to the clean side and drank it down. Next day I flew back to Cincinnati. I love the AWP conferences, but it was good to get home.