Fame is not only elusive, it’s mean. It’s mean to everyone, famous or not. The famed complain about it, and the fameless lust after fame with a passion that makes a panting drop-kick dog humping your ankle seem coy. The itch for recognition is one you often can’t quite reach, and it’ll teach you to be humble. Just like Emily Dickinson, I’m nobody. Although with respect to Easy D, I, at least, just completed my first book tour. Whoop-de-doo. Let me set the scene.
Lahaina Noon, my fifth book of poetry, was published in 2005. The poems were all written on Maui, so the publication celebration party was at Borders, and 78 people came. My publisher loved the big crowd. I joked we should tour Northern California. He surprised me. If I could schedule three poetry readings there, he would use his frequent flyer miles for my trip. Born that night was “The One-Week Three-City Northern California Book Tour,” a grand sweep through all the major N CA metropoli—San Jose, Sacramento and Davis.
Lesson One: Our first reading, on a Sunday afternoon in Sacramento, drew five people. Richard, the bookstore owner, a guy the size of a grizzly, apologized for the diminutive crowd, but we were delighted. Our books were in a store! He felt so bad he bought two books, and another went to a woman who wandered in when she caught the word “Lahaina.” We rejoiced. Richard was not only a large man, but a man of great largesse: there were three kinds of wine and four kinds of cheese. Score! We ate every last Triscuit.
Lesson Two: On Tuesday morning, we joined Ann Arbor on her radio show Dancin’ In The Fast Lane on KFJC at 7:20 a.m. We read poems to people on their various highways to work, choosing only lines that were eye opening. A radio audience is quite attractive—you just cannot see how many people there are, or are not, when your words are waves in the crisp California morning air. Ah, but when you’re talking to yourself, you ain’t talking to nobody.
Lesson Three: Tuesday night in San Jose, we read at Barnes & Noble Booksellers. We had 17 audience members, and when we left, 15 books were missing. Don’t ask me how that happened. Anyway, this reading included what we in Po-Biz like to call “audience participation.” They asked me about my favorite writer, what is absolutely and fundamentally the most essential element of poetry, where poets should send their thick manuscripts of sonnets and ballads and odes (oh, my!), and why my first two books are out of print. Fortunately, all of these questions required the same answer, “Billy Collins.”
Lesson Four: At The Avid Reader in Davis, as local UC alumni, we had the home-court advantage and an audience of 25 or 27. We rocked the stacks. Books flew off the shelves, a few of them ours. Confetti showered the aisles, but that was mostly because I knocked over a rack of postcards. My old professor fondly recounted for 15 minutes an excellent graduate paper on Elizabeth Bishop that I never wrote. I smiled and nodded. I was standing right there, and nobody knew who I was. It was perfect. It was liberating.
A book tour can really benefit a career, except that careers require that money be made. Still, my lack of fame is widespread and growing. When I returned to Maui, I found an invitation to Cedarville University in Ohio in April. They promise to fly me in, put me up and pay me for class visits and poetry readings. The University of Wisconsin asked me to drop by on the same trip. April is, like, the coolest month.
In my newly humbled opinion, I’d be crazy not to go, right? Soon, I could be unknown all over the world, and if I break even on this next book tour, I’ll be way ahead. Wish me luck.
Eric Paul Shaffer is author of five books, including Portable Planet and Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen. He received the 2002 Elliot Cades Award for Literature, a local literary prize, and his latest book of poetry is Lahaina Noon. MTW