Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nicholson Baker at Portland's Wordstock

Nicholson Baker at 2013 Wordstock in Portland.
Portland is kind to us writers who have their heads stuck in the sand. When I attended Wordstock on Saturday and waded past the numerous book vendors and writing service hawkers, I came upon a panel discussion with one of my favorite authors. I rubbed my eyes a few times to make certain that, yes, Nicholson Baker was on the stage, chatting it up with several other interesting characters -- a slam poet, a musician, a memoirist. But I knew him. He wrote a book I list in my top 5, The Anthologist, about a fellow trying to write an introduction to an athology of rhymed verse. His main character, Paul Chowder, is also a poet suffering writer's block. The character ruminates on poetry the way a folk artist plucks at a banjo. His work is a combination of wit and stream of conscious and digression.

Come to find out, Baker was also giving a reading later, which I attended, but only after I ran to the Broadway Books booth and purchased his new book, Traveling Sprinkler, the sequel to The Anthologist. I didn't know any of this would be going on until I aimlessly arrived late at Wordstock, saw him onstage and nearly had a heart murmur. I briefly spoke with him after the panel. Baker signed my copy of his new book and answered my uninformed, star-struck question, "What's the new book about?" He was in no way put out that I didn't know my fav book now had a companion; he stated during his reading that he wished all famous writers were also kind people.

Before he read, rather engagingly with the mic popped out of its stand and hunched enthusiastically over his book, he talked about writing Traveling Sprinkler. He says he wrote most of it sitting in "the most comfortable chair I own" in the most quiet place at his home in the Northeast -- inside his green KIA Rio. To finish it, he had to buy the most powerful cigar he could find, several of them, something that "smacks me on the side of the head and mops the floor with me."

Baker's work covers a broad genre palate because he writes non-fiction, and he writes what I would call literary erotica but the New York times dubs "smut." Good, funny smut, nonetheless full of sexual acrobats. I asked him how he could jump from one genre to the next, and he says he just likes to write about different things. He also likes to write his books using different techniques. For The Anthologist, he videotaped himself explaining poetic meter, iambic pentameter, etc., "until I understood it myself" -- all this, before he actually wrote a single sentence. His recording session involved a roaming lawn chair. He told the crowd he'd written a book while wearing earplugs.

At 55, he's written some 15 books and still has more to say, though he can't imagine why anyone would want to read anything more he has to write. "I always have more to say than I wish that I had to say." That's okay, Nicholson, keep it up. And thanks for the fan photo.
N and I


  1. Wordstock is good. Glad you got to meet a writer you're a fan of. :)

  2. Wish you could have gone with me. As conferences go, it's really affordable and lots to do!


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