Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Michael Chabon: Secret Poet

Michael Chabon is a poet. He revealed all last night at his presentation/talk/discussion/lecture at Northwestern U, when introducing his audience to his personal obsession with Edgar Allen Poe.

E.P., he pointed out, was one letter away (“t”) from having a very meta last name.

M.C. knows that when asked straight out “Do you write poetry?” to kindly—against instinct—answer “well…I used to dabble in high school and college.” What he really wants to scream is “Yes, yes I do! I do it every time I write a sentence.” It turns out he can’t resist E.P. for just that reason. He's obsessed with language. I love it.

M.C. spoke at length about and quoted E.P.’s poem “Ulalume” (you can enjoy Jeff Buckley’s reading here) to frame his discussion about the use of "horror" in his work. What instills horror in an adult reader is not the talking hearts, the cannibalism or the messy tombs but the ambiguity of a narrator’s feelings (and I’m freely paraphrasing here)

  1. against and simultaneously for a beloved (revulsion/adoration)
  2. of disdain for someone else who exhibits the same qualities the narrator dislikes about him/herself
  3. about whiling away time without completing or being scared of accomplishing the remarkable or conquering a fear to avoid disappointment and/or regret and/or more fear.

In addition to the content of his discussion, there were ample environmental conditions to remark on.

Sitting in the last row in an auditorium filled with at least 1000 people affords you either a welcome break from scrutiny aimed at your neck or heightens the attention paid to all the fidgety students ahead of you. There was hair twirling. There was the person who played with the bottom of their boots—that is, fingers picked at the tread of the boot. Yes, that part that touches the ground when one walks… There was the student obsessed over a blackberry, using facebook, google and I’m pretty sure some kind of stock tracker all while making eye contact as M.C. spoke AND, it turned out, waiting “patiently” for Significant Other to get there to take the saved seat, a seat saved with not just one paperback of M.C.’s but two (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). This person was clearly a big fan, so I'll let it slide.

I digress: When I chose nearly the backmost seat (row three or four, in this case) for the Myopic bookstore poetry reading earlier this month, Donna Stonecipher entreated us lackeys (generally and without eye contact—in the most nonoffensive way, really) to move on up front to close the gaps in the seating area. She said she felt too much like a teacher in that case. Well…that made me the student prone to text messages and reading the school newspaper in class. No such accommodations were possible last night. M.C. packed the house.

Maybe this makes me a bit rude. Nevertheless, I think it illustrates a common occurrence in large groups. You’re largely anonymous and you sure can get distracted by all the cuticle chewing and hair twirling. For any given 30 min. period, I’d say 7 minutes are zoning out minutes. Sorry. It's true.

While M.C.—as ANY reader might have—would lose a few listeners here and there to the suddenly captivating little nick in the plastic of the seat back directly in front of the lost listener, this large audience was with M.C. all the way. He had rehearsed the subtle laugh lines and the audience responded immediately. This speaks, too, to M.C.’s enviable reading voice. He made “Ulalume” sound exactly what it is—lush and beautifully metered verse. He spoke at length about E.P.’s prose, the successes and failures as an awkward adolescent (M.C.’s and E.P.’s alike), and publishing when publishing meant survival. And how that's a wee bit scary.

Speaking of which: Edgar P.'s first novel only sold 100 copies its first run.


Richard said...

saw your post referenced in another recap -

i honestly got a little lost at his discussion about ambiguity and the adult reader; thanks for clarifying.

Laurie W. said...


Thanks for reading! I liked your post about Chabon and can tell by your audience picture that you had an excellent spot in the audience.

It's great to know you found my post helpful. I enjoyed seeing M.C., but sometime feel at a loss for words when something that was as intricate as his lecture comes along. Thanks for the feedback. Also, I'd love to know where you saw this post linked originally.


Kelly Kathleen Ferguson said...

Thanks for the link to Buckley's reading. Went perfect with the morning coffee/rain.

Will take to heart thoughts on the horror.

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