I’ve been a virtual sf author since Aqueduct published The Receptionist and Other Tales last summer: you can conjure me by textual transportation device. At WisCon this weekend, though, avatar and body will undergo fusion.
I’ve given readings from the book all year, but on all those occasions my primary identity seemed to be poet. At the “World’s Leading Feminist Science Fiction Convention,” though, my primary identity will be person invested in speculative fiction. Which I truly am. But I still feel jittery as I pull on the boots.
If you’ve gone to grad school—especially if you’ve been a woman in a fancy program—you probably remember episodes of feeling like a complete impostor. I often thought my admission was an accident or grudging concession: I was offered a fellowship by a state agency so Princeton said oh, all right, dammit, we can let in ONE New Jerseyan. I was the youngest person in my year and one of only two who had attended a public university, so I felt constantly outclassed, outread, and intellectually outmaneuvered.
O miracle: I scored a decent job as I was finishing my dissertation. I worked really, really hard, for years. I caught up. There are still huge holes in my education but I know a lot of stuff about twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetry. I’m confident enough that I don’t worry much anymore about the gaps—very few are as well-read as they let on, really, and I plan to keep educating myself for at least three more decades.
I wonder how much of my confidence is rooted in the actual work I’ve done and how much comes from authority being mirrored back at me by other people, especially in classrooms, at conferences, and at the various other places we strut our professordom. I noticed this year, as I read course evaluations and exit surveys, a number of remarks such as great teacher but doesn’t have an enormous ego. This made me laugh, wondering which of my colleagues were being implicitly accused of egomaniacal behavior. Even if I don’t project a sense of overweening self-importance, though, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the ego-boosts of teaching. I do. I just cited praise from my course evaluations, for heaven’s sake. And I love it when people ask me for advice or an opinion and then listen to the answer as if they expect it to be smart. As my daughter says about herself: being bossy is, like, my favorite thing.
And yet I keep throwing myself into situations in which I really am a green, untutored creature. I guess I like being a student. I’m attending WisCon in part to make the book visible to people and in part just to listen, learn, take it all in. I’m hoping that because it’s a feminist conference—fiercely egalitarian in all its communications with attendees—the whole ego parade thing will be less in evidence than, say, at the AWP. It’s an adventure, in any case, a portal into an alternate universe.
The protagonist of my poetic campus novella, “The Receptionist,” is also a half-reluctant, timid sort of quester. The alternate reality Edna inhabits remains vivid to me. People who know my real colleagues keep asking me who’s who in the poem’s imaginary English department and it really doesn’t work that way. I visualized the elfin Victorianist as someone I met elsewhere years ago. The dragon resembles several distinguished older women professors I’ve known, but physically I was projecting Helen Vendler, whom I’ve never met. Many have said, “oh, the hermit woodsman is totally Jim Warren,” and I get why, but I actually saw him very clearly as a small, dapper, wiry, silver-haired man, a little more formal and courtly than our real Americanist. The problem dean is definitely an amalgam of administrators I’ve known or heard stories about from friends, but mentally I dressed him up like the perfectly-nice-to-me postmodernism expert Andrew Ross as he was photographed for the New York Times in the nineties: longish black hair, bright mustard-yellow jacket (I think this is the article but the picture I remember isn’t attached). See?
Oddly, as far as seeing goes, the only character I can’t visualize is Edna. I would have said that I identified with several characters in my story, but drawing a blank on her features, build, coloring, and clothes makes me realize I was really looking over Edna’s shoulder the whole time, focused on how she saw others rather than as others saw her. She’s probably a good person to think about as I beam out to Madison, Wisconsin. A good watcher and listener, definitely jittery, but when she hears that voice in her ear, she’s willing to leap through a painting into the Narnian ocean.
And off I go to Madison, as soon as we get this batch of too-flattering students graduated. I’ll be moderating a panel Friday, May 24th, 9 p.m., called “Women’s Speculative Poetry Now” with Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar, and Sheree Renée Thomas (Conference Room 4). And I’ll be reading in an event called “Overflowing the Aqueduct” on Monday, May 27th, at 10 a.m. with Eleanor Arnason, Nancy Jane Moore, and Deb Taber (Michelangelo’s in the Best Western Inn on the Park). If you’re also visiting this particular dimension, please say hello.