What I Learned at AWP: I am Not the Star of Anyone’s Life but my Own

March 5, 2014 § 6 Comments


AWP 2014 011

Suzanne Roberts and Richard Blanco

Those who read Suzanne Roberts’ hilarious account of mistaking the poet Richard Blanco for writer Nick Flynn will surely enjoy this follow-up to Suzanne’s embarrassing encounter:

Last year at the Boston AWP, I mistook one writer for another. And since I outed myself on Brevity’s blog, I have learned that this happens at AWP with even more frequency than the name drop. I also learned that if you happen to mistake two writers of the same race, people will call you a racist on Facebook. Lucky for me, I mistook Richard Blanco for Nick Flynn—a Latino for a white guy.

Like we all do, I fretted for a year over my foolish behavior because I didn’t just mistake one poet for another, it was that I wouldn’t let it go, even when the facts before me continued to contradict my error. I was sure that Richard Blanco thought I was a psycho with Turrets who blurted out “Suck City” every chance she got. Maybe he would prepare for this year’s AWP by filing a restraining order against me with President Obama himself?

I was more than a little scared to run into Richard Blanco and even Nick Flynn, who I had never actually met, though for a good 30 minutes, I believed that I had.

I saw Nick Flynn first, and he was with the woman who I had told Richard Blanco was our mutual friend. I felt a weird sort of vindication—See, I thought, Nick Flynn really does know her! We really do have a friend in common, but then I had to remind myself that Richard Blanco was not Nick Flynn.

“I read your story,” the real Nick Flynn said after I introduced myself. “Very inventive.”

“Thanks. But what do you mean by inventive?”

“You must have made that up,” he said. “Didn’t you?”

I shook my head and said, “I’m afraid not.”

The real Nick Flynn laughed and said, “I’m certainly flattered. Richard Blanco is a good-looking guy.”

“So are you,” I said. Our mutual friend, who already knew the story had been true, looked more than a little worried that I might say something else crazy, as I’ve been known to do. So I left it at that and didn’t say a single thing about how I loved City of a Hundred Fires.

The next night, friends of mine offered me an invitation to the VIP party, but it seemed too easy to have an actual invitation, sort of like cheating; plus I don’t feel like much of a VIP, unless of course, VIP stands for Very Inebriated Poets, which at AWP, it does.

So I snuck in. But I had a plan: if I got caught, I would tell the guards I was the poet Camille Dungy, who I happened to know had a bona fide invitation and was on “the list.” If you know Camille, then you already know how very much alike we look. Sort of like Nick Flynn and Richard Blanco.

But faking my identity was unnecessary: I walked past the guards like I owned the place.

And I was in. I could devour as many broccoli florets as I wanted, and at AWP, you never know where your next vegetable is coming from. Most attendees survive on book fair chocolate kisses and off-site party free beer.

I wasn’t even through with my first glass of chardonnay before I spotted him. Would he see me, and alert the guards, maybe have them report me to Obama, thus landing me back on the no-fly list?

I finished my glass of wine and took my chances.

“Aren’t you Nick Flynn?” I asked, trying to be clever. I knew Richard had read my essay because he liked it on Facebook. And I hoped that it had offered some explanation for my otherwise irrational behavior. And didn’t liking it mean he was no longer afraid of me? I couldn’t be sure, but I had to find out.

Richard laughed and gave me a hug. “That was a good one,” he said. I felt a surge of relief at his generosity—I wasn’t going to be manhandled by the guards, at least not this time, which is a very unpleasant experience: one, as you might imagine, I am familiar with.

At that point, Alison Granucci, who represents both Richard and Nick at Blue Flower Arts, introduced herself and said, “Maybe we can have them read together at the next AWP?”

“And I’ll introduce them,” I said. “But I won’t say who’s who. We’ll make people guess.”

“But they never will,” she said. “Because they look so much alike!” She was being ironic here, though I still think there’s a certain two-or-more drinks, too-vain-to-wear-your-glasses, dark bar resemblance between the two.

“You know,” I said to Richard, “I saw Nick Flynn, and he thought I made the whole story up.”

This is where Richard looked at me blankly and said, “Didn’t you?”

“What?”

“Make it up?” Richard asked.

“Make up what?”

“The story. It didn’t really happen,” Richard said and when I just stared at him, he added, “Did it?”

“You don’t remember?”

Richard shook his head. “I thought you made it up.”

“I’ve been worried for a year about what a fool I made of myself, and you don’t even remember?”

“You said Nick didn’t remember either,” Richard tried.

“But Nick wasn’t there.” I started to think that maybe there was a third writer that I was not yet aware of, one that I mistook first for Nick Flynn and then Richard Blanco. But then Richard rubbed his forehead, as if trying to coax a genie out of his mind and said, “It’s starting to come back. At the last AWP, I was in post-inauguration PTSD. Everything from that time is a total blur.”

“I was beginning to think I had really mistook Elizabeth Alexander for Nick Flynn,” I said. We laughed and parted.

I have always been one of those people who calls or texts everyone the next day after a party, apologizing for something offensive I might have said or done. Just in case. But now I realized how unimportant my foibles are to other people.

My sister recently played an extra in the movie Blue Jasmine. My mother looked for her when she saw the film, but says she never saw her. My other sister says she caught a tiny glimpse of her. Because I’m boycotting Woody Allen, I have not seen the film. But it has gotten me thinking that life is like that—we are all just extras in other people’s lives. Sometimes we flash by; other times, we’re not remembered nor even seen. We fret about the foolish things we have said and done, yet we are the stars only of our very own drama.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

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