Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vallejo Tribute - The Signing, part 3

Continued from this post.

I approached Anne Waldman and asked her if she wouldn't mind signing a couple of things. "Not at all," she replied, "I just want to get a drink first." She gestured to the door at the back of the sanctuary, which led to the Parish Hall, the large space where the reception was. She had been chatting with folks and grabbed her things, when she saw someone she needed to speak with, and switched directions. Another conversation ensued. I waited.

I'd say I waited patiently for a good five minutes for her to finish talking and walk into the next room, with me tagging behind.

We settled into the new room, she got a drink, and then signed, very coolly, a photo of her in Christopher Felver's Angels, Anarchists & Gods.

She also signed her contribution in a critical survey of Gary Snyder, a book edited by Jon Halper called Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life.

I thanked her and explained that I had last seen her at the Ted Berrigan Sonnets reading there in 2000 and that she had signed several of her books for me. She suggested I look up a hard to find Berrigan tribute book she had edited called Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan.

I headed back to the sanctuary where I had last seen Forrest Gander. He was there speaking to a woman about a book they couldn't quite figure out the title for. When he turned his attention to me, I introduced myself and asked him to sign three books. The first was his poem "Carried Across" in The Best American Poetry 2002. He remarked that he hadn't seen any of these volumes in hardcover. I told him that I collected them and had the whole series going back to '88. He seemed impressed.

I then presented him with an anthology called Home: A Collection of Poetry and Art. He cooed over it and said (yet another example) he had never seen this anthology. As he signed his page with an excerpt from his poem "The Ark on His Shoulders," he remarked at what a beautiful collection it was. At which point, I told him I had an extra copy at home and I would send it to him if he wanted it. He told me he'd pay for it, but I insisted that wasn't necessary, that it would be a gift. He said okay, but he would send me back one of his books. "Deal," I said.

And lastly he signed his editorial page on Laura (Riding) Jackson (1901-1991) in the amazing audio anthology Poetry Speaks. "If there was one poet I would have loved to meet," he sighed, "it would have been her." I thanked him after he signed the third book and he reached into his pocket and handed me a business card. I promised to send him the book in the next few days.

Remember that, dear reader. I offered up a book when I had no obligation to do so. But I believe in karma, and I didn't need that extra copy, and I have been on the receiving end of poets' generosity in the past. Mr. Gander was a true gentleman, and a pleasure to meet.

So my sights were set, finally, on the man of the hour, Clayton Eshleman. I prepped in the sanctuary, stacking five books on my arm. Two Best American Poetry volumes (2002 above and 2005), a 1971 copy of the literary magazine Sumac, the Snyder book that Waldman had signed, and an anthology called Thus Spake the Corpse : An Exquisite Corpse Reader 1988-1998 : Volume 1, Poetry & Essays.

I considered ditching one of the books, but the Sumac was small, and I've had writers sign more for me, and the worst he could do, I thought, was refuse to sign all and just pick one or two.

Vallejo's Complete Poetry..., by the way, lists new at $49.95. And even though they discounted it for the reading at $35.00, that's still a hefty chunk 'o change. So I decided consciously that I would approach Eshleman without it.

I recognize, incidentally, that, in general, it's always good form to have the author's book at a signing. But I've been down that road and have bookcases full of poetry to prove it. This has influenced the amount of readings I attend, and also the type I attend (another reason I gravitate toward multiple-author readings, the focus is on the many, as opposed to the individual).

So I stood, devoid of anything resembling an Eshleman title, five volumes cradled in my right arm. He was standing near the wine table, dapper and smiling, talking to two people, a man and a woman. The gentleman had a notepad and a name tag identifying him as press, as part of the PEN World Voices festival (which co-sponsored this event).

I heard the interviewer apologize for arriving late. He asked a question and Eshleman sounded frustrated, "Well I spoke about it in the introduction..." They discussed whether the book would increase Vallejo's popularity in the States. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but Eshleman looked annoyed, "Well my translation of Cesar Vallejo's The Complete Posthumous Poetry won the National Book Award in 1979...." It was then that I saw him quickly glance over at me, standing by patiently. His eyes dropped to the books in my arms, back at my face, and then back at the interviewer. It was then that I heard him quoting how well the new Vallejo book was selling (alluded to in an earlier post).

The interviewer thanked him and walked away. Eshleman turned to me, looked at the books and I spoke, "Mr. Eshleman, these aren't your books, but . . ."

Mr. Eshleman cut me off, snapping, "If they're not my books, I'm not signing them."

"But," I protested, "they're anthologies with your poems . . ."

He didn't hear me, or he did but chose to ignore me, as he had turned his back and was striding away.

I was dumbfounded. I tried to recall if I had ever been so flatly rebuffed by a writer before. The answer: no.

I have had writers tell me they'll only sign one or two things. The writer T. Coraghessen Boyle will sign a box of books if you put them in front of him, but he will not sign proofs ("I'll sign all commercial editions, but decline only to sign advance readers' copies because those are given away free and then become objects of greed for certain sellers and collectors."), but he is totally cool about it. It is in extremely bad taste to go to a bookstore signing and not buy the book that is being promoted. But most writers will be polite in their denials, or just sign. It's easier often to scrawl one's name than deal with a pushy fan/dealer/collector who persists in their requests for signatures.

Someone told me that they tried to get Seamus Heaney to sign a journal once and he refused, as well. But, with all due respect to Mr. Eshleman, Heaney won a Nobel, and has earned the right of refusal, in my mind.

My initial reaction (not one signed item! Wah!) was that of a spoiled brat. The demonic inner voice said, "Ooh, wait 'til I blog about what a jerk Clayton Eshleman was...". But cooler heads prevail.

It's any writer's right to decline to sign books. John Irving is famous for it. Ironically, in so doing, he has inflated the value of signed copies of his books, and made collectors pursue him even more doggedly.

Perhaps the interviewer rubbed him the wrong way and he was grumpy.

And I'll fess, it is bold and arguably uncouth for me to expect a writer to sign a bunch of books that they are only a small part of, and not have the courtesy to offer up one of the writer's own books. Maybe it's a sore spot.

Maybe something else was bothering him. Maybe he's had bad experiences with book dealers/collectors before. Maybe that night. There were other collectors and dealers there, and I had devoted my time to pursuing the other writers. I may have missed an interaction in which Eshleman had words with one of my predecessors. I've seen a book collector or dealer or fan be overly aggressive with a writer, spoiling it for those people behind him in line.

There are many explanations. All viable. All excusable. I wish no ill will toward Mr. Eshleman. But I would counter the profiteering argument with the following tidbit from one of the best poetry book dealers in the country, Jett Whitehead. If you check out Whitehead's online catalog, especially the page with Eshleman's items here, one thing you'll notice is that Eshleman's titles are not running at a premium. If you were going to profit off of a poet's autograph, Eshleman is not on the "A" list of highly-collected writers.

So there you have it. I picked up and left. It was a good night, despite being rebuffed by Clayton Eshleman. I'm sure I was a blip on a rather wonderful night for the man. A cloud that passed over the full moon on a windy night. I was an afterthought before he could take two strides. Or maybe not.

But I did promise myself one thing. Next time Mr. Eshleman comes to town, I'll be there, with at least two anthologies. And maybe, just maybe, a copy of one of his own books. Just to see what happens.

1 comment:

Micah Kelber said...


I loved reading about the signing. The chase is fantastic and I love the different personalities that come up. I can't wait for the book you write about this. I plan to get