The first reading I did from Spokes of an Uneven Wheel, the printed book, was in Austin, Texas. It was raining hard when I arrived on an early flight from New York after a bad night’s sleep.
What am I doing here? I thought, fifteen hundred miles from home. I’d already started to miss my wife and daughter. The view of the city from inside the Holiday Inn shuttle was a melting gray blur.
I’m a poet in my forties. Writing is one of the few things to survive the wrenching personal changes of the last few years, which included a handful of job changes, a move and starting a family. The last few years also saw a handful of very close friends leave New York.
Two of them were one reason for the trip – old stalwarts, former collaborators, guys I’ve known for around half my life. They’d moved for new opportunities, and just because New York dropped one too many unfriendly hints. I hadn’t seen one in four months, the other in two years. We were all older, slower, heavier, knowing more sad stories, offering more mild well wishes.
What am I doing here? The thought caught me off guard. I’d been setting up the reading for months, coordinating with friends, emailing bookstores, promoting it wherever I could. Unlike so many situations I found myself in, I couldn’t say I was there by accident.
What am I doing here? The idea that I’d break even on airfare and hotel on book sales was, I think, mathematically impossible. To be honest, I didn’t do the math. But I did pack about thirty pounds worth of copies of Spokes of an Uneven Wheel in my bag, just to make it close in the unlikely event of runaway sales. The book pile baffled the x-ray technician at JFK, who had my bag searched.
Malvern Books in Austin hosted the reading. It’s a lovely place – spacious and idiosyncratic, staffed by people who know and love the books they stock. In a way, it’s the antithesis of the usual bookstore: Full of books that someone might offer if they had an inflated opinion of who you are and what you care about. They posted my name on the illuminated sign in the window.
While we waited for a crowd to filter in, I browsed the shelves and folded down the pages I thought might be nice to read. Once we got to the magic fifteen minutes past the posted start time, we began. My buddy read first, a bunch of new poems that started with a really funny one in the form of a guided meditation.
Then it was my turn. Reading poems in front of people is nothing new to me, but something was different. My what-am-I-doing-here? doubts were new. And the afternoon with old friends, grown visibly older, put a different tint on things. Still, it felt good to read the poems. I’d last given the poems in Spokes an edit six months before, so they held just enough surprise as I went. At the same time, they were the words that I’d consciously committed to, over the course of 32 months of writing and rewriting.
Poems are supposed to be revelatory, but I was surprised of what seemed to sneak out as I read. The word fugitive kept popping up. Maybe it was only two or three times that night. But it’s an uncommon enough word for it to seem to tip my hand in a way I generally try to avoid. I’m not eager to be seen as a person who flees or tries to escape. That would, obviously, make escape that much harder. The poems in Spokes talk of “fugitive eroticism” and “fugitive nations,” all half-hiding or surviving in a state of shifting legitimacy or comprehensibility. Those submerged threads finally emerge in a statement of quasi-criminal tactics, if not intent: “The fugitive will take an opportunity where an invitation would be suspicious.”
In the world, making a living, I generally pass for a reasonable guy. But here I was, saying what I supposedly really mean, and I heard it all: The megalomania, the hostility, the (perhaps purposefully) obscurity, and the sound of not winning. It was strange to hear it in my usually genial voice.
“Maybe the poems in Spokes of an Uneven Wheel are doomed by the indelicacy and contradictions of its author, and his failure to be wholly honest or dishonest. The poems consistently promise what they can’t deliver, or deliver something people simply don’t want,” ran some of the doubts that assailed me while I announced them. The kind folks at Malvern Books filmed it so you should be able to see what it looked like from the outside at some point.
When it was over, I thanked and was thanked. I signed a few copies and loaded a big pile of unsold copies back into my bag, then thanked everyone again. The thanks felt like they were getting to be excessive by the time we left for dinner.
I sold maybe a dozen copies of Spokes, probably fewer. I had another half-dozen stolen when some skell bashed in the back window of my buddy’s Subaru while we were having a late dinner the following night. They took my bag, and probably expected a laptop. They got poetry books, and some small gifts I’d purchased for my wife and daughter.
I think of those guys, fugitives in their own way, brushing the broken glass off their prize to find it full of un-pawnable poems, and their bitter consternation on a cold sidewalk. And I smile, even laugh a little, the way you laugh at a joke you don’t completely understand.
The two part video of the reading is here: