Jared Alan Smith
My visit to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in DC started with a dogfight, and ended with my program director wiring me a substantial amount of cash across state lines. I am relatively certain that nothing illegal happened in between, but first thing’s first:
I was brewing a strong cup of black coffee around 4AM. My flight was scheduled for liftoff at 6:55. I had opened all the windows to my bungalow, and could hear the equally intermittent and incessant barking of my neighbor’s dog a block north. There was a sharp wooden crack, and another dog began growling in response.
“HELP!” It was a male voice, strong and deep through the pattering rain. I ran out to my front porch.
“HELP! Somebody!” The voice was beginning to falter.
I ran down the street and found an older man knocked to the ground, holding a massive pitbull around the neck. The dog’s head was even larger than mine, which is saying something. It growled low and slow, making to lunge at the black lab on a leash a few feet away every couple of seconds.
“Hey, man, are you alright?” It was one of the dumber questions I’ve asked recently. He was obviously dazed, bleeding from both his knees and both of his ears.
“Yeah, hi,” the man said. His voice hitched when the pitbull lunged again. “Who are you?”
“I live down the street. What the fuck happened?”
“This one—” The pit lunged again. “—this one came through the fence after my dog.” He nodded his head toward a gaping hole in the privacy fence to his left. “This is the owner’s house. Go knock on the door,” he said. He told me he walked this way every morning, and he’d never had a problem before. I told him I was calling the cops and counted myself lucky that the pit wanted the other dog and not one of us.
I sat next to him with both my hands in the pitbull’s collar and waited in the rain for almost an hour before the first police cruiser showed up. The station was less than a mile away. When they finally arrived, they radioed animal control and EMS. The man said he wasn’t going to the hospital, and as soon as the police officer woke the pitbull’s owner and handed the animal off, I beat a hasty retreat to finish packing and call an Uber to the airport, hoping that I wouldn’t miss my flight.
“Where are you going?” the driver asked.
“To protest?” his voice was thickly accented.
“Sort of,” I said. I asked him where he was from.
“Poland,” he said. “You Americans don’t know what a protest is.”
“I know,” I said. “We could really use a Lech Walesa right now.” The driver guffawed as he pulled into the departing flights loop, telling me Mr. Walesa would’ve been rotting in jail by now if he’d tried his brand of resistance in the United States. I can only hope that everyone elects to keep their Molotovs in their pockets, regardless of their motives. Keeping assault-grade firearms out of the equation is another matter entirely.
“What you need is young people,” the driver said. “Young people like you!” He pointed a crooked finger at me in the rearview mirror, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling comically behind a set of glasses thicker than the walls of an old German stein. I smiled and thanked him, and he told me to have safe trip.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he said, smiling as I swung my door shut. At that point, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, other than try not to get lost wandering the streets of the nation’s capital. I also committed myself once again to not getting arrested, something that seemed realistic considering that I am white, straight, and male.
I got lost almost immediately, and continued to get lost for the duration of my stay in the capital. It’s just a thing I do: I got lost on the Metro, on the sidewalk, inside the convention center, and on the campus of Georgetown University. For some reason, I had thought that Azar Nafisi’s keynote was actually at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice, which means my brain, at some point, lost its ability to correctly interpret text on a screen. I had been told to expect such things from my first AWP. I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and the biting wind ate away at my fingers while I ordered another Uber. There were no UberX’s available, so I tapped UberPool and shivered my skinny ass off in front of the Georgetown bell tower. The driver pulled up in a black Chevy SUV and motioned for me to jump in the backseat.
“Okay so, I have a spiel, just give me like thirty seconds,” he said. He went on to tell me that he had an assortment of snacks, drinks, and all different kinds of electronic charging devices.
“I think this might be the nicest cab I’ve ever been in,” I said
“Well, the world’s ending, so, get it while it’s good.”
“Yeah, it’s like Deltron said, ‘grab your canned goods.’” I left out the part about looting the stores, pawing at my phone screen nervously in an atempt to make time move slower and the cab move faster. The driver tapped the brakes sharply at a stoplight and turned to look at me.
“Fuck yeah. It’s the future, dude.”
“Bro, you the first white boy I’ve ever seen drop Deltron,” he said.
I told him again that it was the future, and we are all funky Homo Sapiens. He said that his day job was as an investment banker, and that his richest clients were investing in things like bomb shelters, deep freezers, and solar panels. He said they were preparing for World War 3. My lack of surprise must have registered clearly on my face.
“Yo, that shit doesn’t scare you?!”
“Not really,” I said. “War stops the flow of capital between multinational corporations. They won’t risk it, business is too good right now,” I said. “Why are we stopping?”
“This is an UberPool,” he said. “You in a hurry?”
“Uh, yeah,” I responded. “There’s a big speech at the convention center.” The biggest speech I would ever see, as far as I was concerned. I had already missed Angela Davis at the Women’s March last month.
“Well don’t do pool next time, it can take forever,” he said.
We picked up a couple on their way to dinner and switched to the front seat. The driver asked what they were in town for. They told us they were defense contractors attending a STEM conference, and then they sat in silence in the back seat while the driver and I discussed how a single smart bomb (one of over 30,000 dropped abroad last year) cost more than the salary of about a hundred public school teachers. I remember saying that at the rate we were going, soon our bombs would be smarter than our students.
“So you’re a teacher?” one of the contractors asked.
“Yeah, high school.”
“You teach math?”
“No, English,” I replied. At the point the contractors decided they had nothing to speak with me about.
Once they had debarked, I exposed Marco Rubio’s acceptance of a large donation from Betsy Devos in return for confirming her nomination. The driver was more surprised by that than anything else we talked about until he dropped me off.
“You try to get over, you’re gonna go under, literally,” I said.
“Yo, what that fool say?” The driver laughed and rolled off. It was nice to know that someone else in the world knew Memory Loss as well as I did.
I walked into a packed house at the ballroom convention center, a smattering of applause following my entrance. They were not clapping for me, obviously, but for the nasty woman on stage sporting a bruise on her face, a deep maroon patch that highlighted the intense height and definition of her left cheekbone and looked to me to be in the shape of her homeland, Iran. I had just missed the story of the fall that had led to such a mark.
“. . .The whole idea of literature and imagination, is not that it resists the tyranny of man, but that it also resists the tyranny of time,” Mrs. Nafisi said. I exhaled slowly, relieved to be able to bask in the wizened glow of her hard-earned truisms. “Every moment of the day, we are dying, that moment passes,” she continued. “and the only conclusive evidence we have that we have been here, is through art, and through literature.”
This statement was greeted with raucous (if abbreviated) applause. Nafisi went on to speak for more than an hour, apologizing over and over again for her digressions and off-topic assays that were very clearly borne out of a tremendous passion. The stillness and heat in the room built until the doors were flung open and over a thousand writers were breathed back into the world, filled anew with a righteous purpose and the nervous excitement that comes with even the smallest amount of inspiration. I trudged slowly down the stairs to the landing of the convention center, hoping with every fiber in my body that it might last, and some good might come of it. I walked outside to smoke a cigarette, and two hoodied white dudes were already picking the address apart.
The rest of the conference was, as they say, “icing on the cake.” Derrick Austin dropped some LGBTQ folk knowledge around a Freudian slip on his time in “Drag School (his panel idea for AWP in Tampa next year: Dance Party!),” Grove Atlantic hosted a fantastic discussion on distant lands and intimate voices, and I went to a panel of Canadian poets reacting to international violence where a woman named Sonnet turned some of Shakespeare’s best work into her own through a process she called “erasure via assimilation.” One of the other poets, Moez Surani, had compiled a list of every UN operation since the organization’s inception in the forties, a research document that I plan to spend the rest of my days poring over.
Packing for my flight the day after the conference ended, I flipped through the pages of حملة Operación Opération Operation 行动 Oперация one more time before stuffing it in my laptop bag with forty or so other books and magazines, reserving Guernica’s Necessary Politics for in-flight reading on the way home. I ordered yet another Uber once I was satisfied that the concierge at the front desk hadn’t fucked up my reservation and charged my card for the room. I wouldn’t find out until later that he had, and that’s when my program director stepped in and made sure I could pay my bills on time. I was blissfully unaware of the hotel’s misfeasance as I waited on the curb with my suitcase.
“Are you Jared?”
“Yeah, you Uber?” He said no and gave me his real name. “You’re going to the airport?” he asked.
I said yes, and he popped the trunk of his Prius so that I could stash my suitcase. Like every other driver I had during the trip, he asked me what I was doing in DC. I must just look Floridian, or something.
“I was here for a conference. Kind of a protest, I guess.”
“The women’s march really fucked my day up last month. I couldn’t get anywhere!” he said.
“So, what’d you do?”
“I got out and started marching, man. I know where all the good parking spots in town are.”
He went on to explain how he couldn’t believe all the different groups of people that were out in protest. He said that where he was from, that would have been impossible.
“Where are you from?”
“Ethiopia,” he said. I told him at our current rate, it would be hard to tell if the American government was any less corrupt that the one that he’d run from.
“It’s really hard for me to believe that. All the government people I meet are so nice,” he replied.
“Yeah, it’s all at the top,” I said. “I’m sure in Ethiopia, if you want a government official to help you out, you need to have some cash in your pocket, right?”
“Right. American dollars work best.”
“So, here, instead of paying the guy at the desk a hundred bucks, you’ve gotta pay the guy at the top a hundred thousand bucks. Government employees at the low levels here actually believe in public service.”
“Yeah, dude. My senator just took a hundred grand from Betsy Devos like, a week before he voted to confirm her. What does he care? I’ll bet his kids have never set foot in a public school.”
“So, what are we supposed to do about that?” The driver asked. “Americans are so smart, everywhere I go I learn something, but no one knows what to do.”
“We are lazy,” I said. “And we’re broke, too. Betsy Devos is a shell game to keep people from paying attention to Sessions and Tillerson. We know what to do, we just can’t be motivated to do it. Too much other stuff going on, stuff that’s more important because it’s right in front of our faces.”
“So no one sees the stuff that’s happening behind them,” the driver said. He may as well have finished my sentence for me.
“Exactly,” I said. “Exactly. It’s crazy to me that an Exxon exec is in charge of the state department, and a guy who was too racist in the eighties is the top lawyer in the country.”
“The security now is crazy,” the driver said. “I came back last month, and customs checked everything.”
“Didn’t they do that before?” I asked.
“Yes, but now it different. they took my phone because it would not turn on,” he said.
“They said they were going to mail it. I don’t care, I just get a new one,” he said, waving his new device in the air between his face and the rear-view mirror. “At least they didn’t take my books. I brought home a lot of books.”
“That’s nuts,” I said. “I can’t believe they took your phone.”
“Like I said, I don’t care,” he repeated. “But my books? they checked every page before they let me have them back. I was afraid I wouldn’t get them.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said, patting the side of my laptop bag filled with my own new tomes. “Where they in English?”
“Swahili,” the driver said. “I think that is why they did not like them.”
“There’s an old saying here that people fear what they don’t understand.”
“They say that everywhere,” the driver said. He clicked on his emergency flashers and slowed to a stop at the terminal curb.
I fumbled for the door latch and he asked me if I needed help with my suitcase. I said no and told him to Google “Midterm elections 2018” if he really wanted to make a difference.
“That’ll get you started, and then you can make your own decision,” I said. He wished me safe travels before smiling and pulling away.
I am not surprised in the least that the most productive political conversations I had in Washington, D.C. came not from the intensely educated writers around me, but from the laborers who worked to put them in those places. Social conversations, however, are another story: from breaking my QZAP cherry with Tom Cho and Sassafras Lowery, to David Mura and Paula Whyman’s incredible discussion of creative artists in public schools, to Cortney Lamar Charleston’s inimitable new book Telepathologies, I returned from AWP with a wealth of fresh resources to share with my students as we move into the home stretch of the school year. It’ll at least help my credibility a little bit when I show them the wonderful inscriptions so many writers were kind of enough to sign into my copies of their newest works.
I went to DC wanting admission into Nafisi’s Republic of Imagination, and I cannot even begin to imagine the diverse systems of expression throbbing through next year’s AWP in my adopted hometown of Tampa. I’m not sure George Saunders can hope to match Nafisi’s courage and tenacity with his own keynote address next year, but I know we can rest assured that the dogfight we find ourselves in will still be going full force, and the labor of writing will remain essential in mending fences throughout our American communities.
[To hear the album that inspired this post, click here]