April 3: “The Poet’s Head Is In My Lap” by Elizabeth Ellen

It’s Sunday, the seventh and final day of AWP/Short Short Week her at Story366! It’s been a fun week, and in some ways, I wish AWP could never end, that I could always just live in a nice hotel, eat out at strange restaurants, and spend my time talking about what I do for a living with a gluttony of friends, people who actually understand what I do (the only week a year that happens). On a plane to Denver, the first of two flights home today, I don’t feel like that at all, as I just want to be home, see my family (!), get back to normality. I’m pretty sure all of the fifteen thousand or so people at AWP feel the same, many of them—smart enough to take earlier flights—already home and basking in post-AWP.

The last day of the conference was relatively uneventful, as I had no blue-collar spa days, nor did I trek across the city for a B+ burger. By the time I posted yesterday’s entry on Christopher Shipman, it was already eight p.m. in LA (the latest I’ve ever posted for Story366), but I was still heading out to a reading on the opposite side of town. I Ubered to that reading and caught a couple of the readers, including Matt Bell, with whom I went back to the conference hotel and had a couple of drinks. Then I went back to my hotel, fuddled around, and went to bed. This morning, I got up early, ate at the same diner I ate at a few days before—pastrami eggs benedict!—and went to the airport. Sherrie Flick is on my plane to Denver, and we talked for a couple of hours as we waited for our delayed flight. A pretty tame end to AWP, but since I had to find a way to get about a hundred books with me on this airplane—I had two very heavy checked bags and have two very heavy carry-ons—I am glad to not be hung over. Or in jail.

This also allows me to write this entry on Elizabeth Ellen’s massive collection of shorts (with some regularly lengthed stories thrown in), Fast Machine. I’ve know Ellen’s work for a while and have always admired it. When I lived in Bowling Green, I ran into her once in a while, as she lives not too far away in Michigan; I’ve even been to a few events at her house, as she is a generous member of the writing community, and that includes hosting things like release and post-reading parties. It was a joy to get into her book and a pleasure to feature her as a part of this project.

Like the other six books of shorts I’ve done this week, it would have been easy to write about any of the pieces, as they all take so little time to read, meaning I could read a lot more of them (in the time I allot to the project every day) than I could with normal stories. Still, I always want to pick the right one. Coming home from AWP, cramped on a plane, “The Poet’s Head Is In My Lap” seems like an apt choice.

“The Poet’s Head Is In My Lap” could have been a sexy, even dirty story, as a lot of the pieces in Fast Machine have sexual themes, the kind of sex people have, why they have it, what it means, and how it affects them after. At times, the book is blunt, and often, characters are depicted mid-act; at times, things border on eroticism, but I don’t think Ellen ever crosses that line. “The Poet’s Head Is In My Lap,” however, isn’t the story the title implies—especially after reading so many of the more erotic stories—some sort of oral sex event. That’s implied, to be sure, but this story is innocent, tender, the physicality more about connection than pleasure, expression, or even depravity. I’m not sure if Ellen, when she wrote and titled this story, thought, “Oh, people are going to think the poet is going down on the narrator.” or not. When I read the story and it wasn’t that, I did wonder if I’m just a perv, inferring oral sex from everything. Probably? Probably.

As a matter of fact, the poet is merely sleeping with his head resting in the narrator’s lap, their bodies entwined on a patch of grass in a park, other couples in similar positions around them. The two have just met, they have been drinking, and apparently, the narrator is a fan of the poet’s work—as he sleeps, she holds his book in her hand and reads. This is where the actual main theme of the story comes in, Ellen exploring, via her character, the difference between the writer’s persona in his work and his actual self, there in person, so vulnerable, much more so than on the page. His picture and his poems reveal one thing about him, but this human, wrapped around her like an old, tired lover, is someone else. Which is she more attracted to? It’s the same person, but it’s also not. I think that’s what stands out about this story for me, another reason I chose it, because of this idea Ellen explores. Is this physical arrangement that much different from AWP, from the experience we all just had, meeting our writing idols and friends in the flesh, juxtaposed against their work? Not at all. And plus, the characters are drinking/drunk the whole time, and what’s more AWP than that?

I’ve had a nice journey, a nice week, both at AWP and blogging about shorts. Tomorrow begins another regular week, teaching, eating at home, reading regularly sized stories. Really, I can’t wait.

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