I know this guy.
I attended the poetry reading of someone he published. I didn’t plan to. Someone rushed in begging us all to come down because there was a poetry reading and no one had come. So we went. And this guy was there. He looked like Jonathan Franzen, I doubt by accident. I had heard him speak last week, the angry publisher in question and answer sessions following discussions of the future of publishing. He knew his ship was going down.
I felt sorry for him immediately today, but not because of his career choice. (Which was, I gathered from his introduction, in fact a choice. One he made rather recently, even.) It was because he clearly had such a connection to this poet. He’d fought, it was clear, boards of people to be able to publish this guy’s work. He was nervous and excited to introduce him. He savored these feelings—he didn’t seem like someone who gets to feel them much anymore. This was emphasized by the quick slip into slow-kindled rage as he said he’d beat his friends who said they’d come but didn’t, within an inch of their lives. Then he laughed sheepishly and handed the microphone to the poet.
Oh, angry publisher.
Half the poet’s words were directed straight to the publisher, eye contact and all, occasionally breaking off mid-poem to provide context he knew the publisher knew, but which we didn’t and he’d suddenly realized there were other people in the room besides the two of them. My heart broke for the publisher. The poet, hell, he had seen rooms like this before, I’m sure. Mostly empty. Expensive food and drinks purchased to fill out the rows still leftover on a side-table. He was in his eighties or nineties, I’m sure he’s no stranger to disappointment. I assume to keep travelling and reading like this you have to develop something of a thick skin. He’d be fine.
Not so the publisher. He’d scrub his hand through his hair then turn it into a fist, bits of hair poking out between his fingers, pulling the skin on his skull back. (He made us all move forward to fill the gaps; he was sitting right in front of me so it was difficult not to notice.) When a cellphone started to ring…and kept ringing…I thought he was going to scalp himself. It rang and rang and rang…nine times…and you could FEEL the rage seeping through the room, with the publisher as its locus. On the last ring he spun around with a wordless snarl and someone next to the ringing phone—which had been abandoned on a seat, it seemed—grabbed it and shut it off. And the publisher’s shoulders relaxed under his too-tight sport jacket.
I was more interested in the interaction between poet and publisher than the poems themselves. I had no context for them. I didn’t know who this man was—though the publisher snapped that he shouldn’t even have had to give an introduction, we should have all known, damn us!—and didn’t know from where he spoke. After a couple contextual interjections I warmed to them more, but they were still either largely despairing in a 1970s way, or reflective on the Holocaust. The last class I took that didn’t mention the Holocaust in some way would’ve been, oh, high school calculus. Both my undergraduate degrees and my graduate degree managed to lean on it heavily, as if by screaming death at us from the mountaintops they could all make the humanities relevant to the powers that be.
But oh, the poor angry publisher. I saw him try to withhold a glare at our row; I know he thought we were students there for the free food. And I know that even if we’d told him who we really were he’d still resent us as heralds of a post-print future. And thus we would be the enemy. But I didn’t even have the heart to resent his assumptions. He was just so angry. And he wanted so much to roll out the red carpet for this poet and it wasn’t working. And I thought of my inbox, of an advertisement for yet another Corrections wannabe—this time The Interestings, once more following the divergence of teenage friends into their variously underwhelming and depressing adulthoods—and wondered if this guy who styled himself physically so much like Franzen had ever considered reading something a little more cheerful. Maybe Franzen-esque books sell, but at what cost to your well-being? I thought of Franzen’s visit and how much I’d loathed him; of the time someone caught me reading On Being Alone and said ha, well, I guess you’d better bone up on that, huh?
The poet sang, and the audience tried not to giggle, and the publisher twisted his fist in his hair. And for the millionth time this year I was grateful for the job I’d managed to land.
Which wasn’t his.