Friday, October 12, 2007

A Brief Foray at The New Yorker Festival Headquarters

Last weekend was The New Yorker Festival in Manhattan (hereafter "NYF"). It had been several years since I attended any festival events.

I did not know what to expect, really. The last NYF signing was at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, and basically featured a signing table and some sponsors milling about.

This year was a complete upgrade from 2 years ago. It was in a separate space, on West 18th Street. There were greeters and gift bags with swag in them (a book, a cd, a t-shirt, chocolate, and other promo items).

I came into the city on Sunday, dragging Jolee and Shayna with me. We stopped at my office to load up with books. I had skipped seeing Salman Rushdie on Saturday, in lieu of Shayna's soccer game, but her Sunday game did not start until 3:30, so we had time to hit the 12 Noon signing and make it back to Brooklyn before the game.

It just so happened that both poets signing were ones I had never seen before. Both Katha Pollitt and Robert Hass are well-travelled and renowned poets, but I had not had the chance to catch them in person.

Correction, by chance I had stumbled into a Berkeley bookstore on a trip to the Bay Area in June 1999. Hass was reading but I was unprepared (book-wise) and he literally finished within five minutes of my walking in.

So here I was, no reading, just pure signing, and I was dragging my bag full of books and two kids.

It was a hot day, and though the a/c was on in the space, it wasn't on high enough. It was tolerable if you were sitting still, but the slightest movement produced perspiration.

The poets were seated at two different tables, next to one another, with a winding queue leading away in a maze of nylon and plastic posts. Hass' line was full. Pollitt's was half-full, or half-empty, depending on your perspective.

In another section of the space, cartoonist Jack Ziegler was set up with chairs around him and people got to watch him draw. Jolee was hanging with Ziegler, watching him draw for people. Shayna clung to me. I got in Pollitt's line. There were 6 or 7 people ahead of me. They all appeared to have her new book, Learning to Drive. I self-consciously stood with a quartet of anthologies. My stomach turned.

In all honesty, I did not go straight into the line. I hesitated. Looked at the makeshift store selling all the books, t-shirts, and New Yorker covers, enlarged and framed and weighed down with hefty price tags. The line for purchases was long. I was not in a position to buy Pollitt's book. It was a book of essays, not even a tome of poems to tempt me.

So I hit the line feeling guilty, watching everyone get their hardcover book signed. They were all one-shot deals. Then the guy ahead of the woman ahead of me was up. He was bookless, he had four or five New Yorker issues bookmarked for Pollitt to sign. She did. No copy of her new book appeared.

Next, the person ahead of me came and went, and then it was my turn.

Immediately she must have noticed I was bookless. Or at least Pollit-less. I had in my possession four poetry anthologies: The Best American Poetry (BAP) 1991, The KGB Bar Book of Poems,

Two Decades of New Poets, and The Future Dictionary of America (this is actually not a poetry anthology, but as the title suggests, an imagined and humorous volume of words, phrases, and expressions in a U.S. Around the corner).

The BAP came first and she signed her poem, "Night Subway".

Next was the Two Decades book, a small, scarce publication by the 92nd
Street Y, featuring winners of the '"Discovery" / Poets poetry contest from 1964 to 1983. Her poems "Ballet Blanc" and "A Turkish Story" were anthologized within. Pollitt looked at this inquisitively and asked "What's this? I've never even seen this before!" I always get a huge kick of presenting a writer a book that he or she is unfamiliar with. I told her this, yet she didn't seem to share my enthusiasm.

The other two books were presented as well. There was some small chit-chat when I thanked her for taking the time to sign these books. She looked at me and asked, "Why do you do this?"

I assumed she meant collect poetry anthologies and get poets to sign them. I gave her my standard response: "I don't realy know. I enjoy it. J.D. McClatchy referred to it as the 'mania of the collector' once when he signed a whole stack of my books. I'm not doing it to profit financially, as signed poetry books aren't really hot commodities unless your name is
Robert Lowell or Charles Bukowski."

"Well," Pollitt stated coolly, "if you don't want to wait five years, you can buy my book here." Oh, okay. I wasn't quite sure what she meant exactly, but one thing was clear to me: she wasn't happy that I didn't have a copy of her book. Fair enough, I guess, but I hardly seemed in a position to profit from her signatures.

I checked in on the girls. Well, girl, really, as Shayna had been hanging back while I had been annoying Pollitt. Jolee was still sitting watching Jack Ziegler. She told me he was asking for themes. I gave her some ideas. She raised her hand. She and Shayna were among the only kids in the whole place. Ziegler approached her and Jolee asked, "How about a singing cat?" He groaned but he went to the easel and started to draw.

I went over to the Hass line, with only five items. I had another 5 volumes of BAP and an additional anthology in my bag, but I left them there. I didn't feel that he would have been open to a huge stack like that. Not without my purchasing his new book.

I had never experienced Hass before but I remember a fellow book collector bemoaning him a few years back because the poet had been signing with a ball-point pen and autographed so forcefully that he had torn through the title page, and showed no remorse.

Digression, from my friend Brian: the Lannan reading series in LA, in 97, I believe. H. & I both had anthologies for Hass and I had only one of his solo books (a later pbk ptg from/for the store). I don't clearly recall his role but I think Hass was there interviewing someone. Anyway, afterwards we went up to him in the aisle of the auditorium (he was not at the signing table) and he agreed to sign some books but was kind of gruff (no idea why, maybe the interviewee had said something?). He signed my Milosz anthology so hard that his pen went thru the paper partly; I thought this deliberate and a puzzling small act of hostility but didn't say anything to him. Later H. said that Hass had done the same thing with his books & that he too, felt it had been deliberate.

I was in line for ten or fifteen minutes when Jolee and Shayna walked over, Jolee had a giant sheet of paper upon which Ziegler had drawn the following cartoon:

I was exceptionally happy. A New Yorker cartoonist had drawn Jolee a cartoon! In fact, he had drawn a lot of people cartoons! Incredible! What generosity!

And it was funny too! "How about 'How Much is that Doggie in the Window?' again - and this time sing it like you mean it!" Very clever. But more on this later...

I turned my attentions back to the line ahead of me. I had 4 books and this Poetry in Motion poster.

Mr. Hass was not seated behind the table, but was standing in front of it, in what is known as the open, receptive signing pose. It's great for the one-book request, but a little awkward when you have a stack.

Fortunately, I was less nervous about Hass than I had been with Pollitt. Because, even though I didn't have his just-published, just-nominated-for-a-National-Book-Award book Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005,

I also had the volume of the BAP '01, for which Hass was the Guest Editor,

A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czesław Miłosz

and The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers.

Hass kindly inscribed the copy of Now and Then. He was very gracious and even complimented both Shayna and Jolee, who were hanging about, telling me I was fortunate to have such lovely daughters.

I thanked him and we packed up and got ready to depart. Jolee and Shayna were arguing about who got what in the gift bags, so I asked the gift bag folks if we could get a second one to avoid a crisis in our family. They gave me 2 more, so all three of us had our own bag o' swag, which included The New Yorker Book of Art Cartoons.

I still marveled at Jolee's acquisition of the giant Ziegler cartoon. But I started to wonder. If it was funny, why give it away? Couldn't he sell it? To The New Yorker??

And still I pondered....then it all clicked together. Jolee googled Ziegler and got to the Cartoon Bank website, which has every cartoon ever published in the New Yorker, or close to it at least. "Look," she exclaimed, "he did one just like that for some lady at the festival." I knew it was too good to be true. "Jolee," I instructed, "in the search field type 'doggie' and 'window'." She did and here is the result. He recycled old cartoons. This one appeared in a different form in the January 16, 1989 issue of the New Yorker. It makes sense, and I'm not complaining. Jolee got a cool cartoon signed by the artist. It just was presented as an original idea.

In all, my brush with this year's NYF was brief, but still noteworthy. Thanks for slogging through this account.

1 comment:

Micah Kelber said...

wonderful post! I really think you should make these into a book. They are gripping (at least for me). I was nervous for you. You really should. I would be happy to be an early reader.