Spring 1990, Volume 7.1
Gordan Weaver is Director of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University and Editor of Cimarron Review. A fiction writer since 1962, Weaver's novels include Circling Byzantium (1975), Give Him a Stone (1975), Count a Lonely Cadence (1968), and The Eight Corners of the World (1989). His short stories, originally published in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Short Story International, Best American Short Stories, and other periodicals, are collected in A World Quite Round (1986), Getting Serious (1980), and Such Waltzing Was Not Easy (1975).
"Once you put it in writing . . .
everything looks normal." Günter Grass, The Flounder
I am the best one to tell this story. Disregard what you have heard until now; the truth about a schism will not come from schismatics. Forget all the fragmented, narrow accounts: television interviews, the panel discussions on National Public Radio, magazine articles, three–the last time I counted–books. All polemics and pontification, cold analysis and spiteful anecdotes. Only I can tell the truth about NUALA's destruction.
Documents can support lies. Facts can be twisted. The Department of Labor held weeks of hearings, and what was the result of that? Our government washed its hands, cursed all our houses with equal fervor. History is always revised. It is like a novel the author still gropes to shape, an imagined mass whose center has yet to emerge, a vision without focus.
I will not fictionalize. I was there, at the beginning of the end, with Weinberg in Las Vegas, Caesar's Palace, and I promise to tell exactly what I saw and did, no more, nothing less. It is an important story–and so sad!–and I am the one to best tell it.
NUALA. The National Union of American Literati, Amalgamated. NUALA. We were NUALA, all of us, me, Weinberg, D.W. Weathergood, Academics and the Poets Claque, Roaring Boys, Minimalists and Symbolists and Meta-Fictionists, Gays, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Smallpressmen and Smallpresswomen, Regionalists and Local Colorists, the Electronics and the Mixed Medias, Feminists and Feminist-Lesbians and Feminist-Lesbian-Radicals, the Iowa Gang, Commercials and Slickies and Hacks–all of us, factions, caucuses, single-issue advocates, but all pledged to the Broad Consensus Declaration of Boston, all together in NUALA.
It bound us in a unity as profound as the cement of our common language, welded us like the very discipline of our crafts, made us all something as tangible and glorious as the tradition of our shared art, made us all greater than ourselves, transcended the rich chaos of our individual sensibilities!
The National Union of American Literati, Amalgamated! NUALA. And it is gone, a wreck of sterile splinters and effete rumps and self-appointed ad hoc voices clamoring in the unceasing cacaphony of their quarrels over turf and funding and influence and franchise, charge and counter-charge! I was there.
I was there when we forged our magnificent charter, at the founding in Boston, took my union card at the birth. And I was there, in Las Vegas, at Caesar's Palace with Weinberg, when he launched his take-over, shattered us into a hundred powerless pieces, broke our solidarity the way you break a pencil by bearing down too hard on the page.
Why tell of it? Because it is true! And because there are generations to come, just learning the alphabet, or how to write cursive, or sitting down for the first time at a word processor. Maybe, just maybe they–the generations of literati to come–can rebuild what we lost, resurrect NUALA from its cooling ashes the way a writer can sometimes find a new and better story in the scraps of a draft gone so bad the author is ready to chuck it for good.
Las Vegas was going to be the biggest and best ever. I flew in, took the shuttle to my motel just off The Strip, found Weinberg's message waiting for me at the check-in desk: come instanter my suite Caesar's Palace utmost urgent future of NUALA also American letters strictest confidential! Weinberg.
I did not hurry to meet with Weinberg. I unpacked, showered away the taint of the long flight, walked to Caesar's Palace instead of grabbing a cab; it was still late morning, the heat only beginning to accumulate like a heavy blanket in the dry desert air. Even in daylight, I thought The Strip was beautiful.
I stood outside Caesar's Palace, stood for a moment in the middle of the passing stream of tourists, gamblers and celebrity gawkers, looked at the marquee billboard. There was the headliner's name, and the times of the floorshow, but it also said Welcome NUALA! and Scribble, Scribble! I cannot swear to the memory, but like to think I stood there and sang opening verses of Scribble, Scribble! to myself, because I could hear a band playing NUALA's anthem just inside the big glass, brass-trimmed doors.
I took my time getting to Weinberg's upstairs suite.
I dallied in the foyer, listened to the Random House Band play Scribble, Scribble!, almost too loud, drowning out the Simon & Schuster Chorale singing the words, mixed with the buzz of noise from the casino: the roulette wheels rattle, clack of the chuck-a-luck cages, shouts of encouragement and despair from the crap tables, the grind of slot machine levers. I registered for the convention at the reception booth sponsored by Farrar, Straus, picked up my badge and delegate's credentials.
I was about to find the elevators when I ran into Suzi Dodsworth, wearing her neon-pink bikini and heavy plastic clogs, on her way in from catching the morning rays at poolside. We hugged and I congratulated her on the publication of The Fey Heart, told her I loved it, thought it the best thing she had ever done; though I lied, I did promise myself to get a review copy and read it first thing when I got back home. "I'm on my way to see Weinberg," I told her, "he's got himself a suite upstairs here."
Suzi Dodsworth said, "He's cooking something up. He left me a note to get together for the Vegetarian Fruit Brunch Scribner's is laying on tomorrow."
"You know Weinberg," I said.
"Do I ever," Suzi Dodsworth said. Before I could ask her what she thought Weinberg had up his sleeve this time, a bunch of the Iowa Gang came in, Suzi's friends, and there were the hugs and mock-kisses, congratulations for The Fey Heart, and for one of the Iowa Gang whose name I missed; he had just published a chapbook. So I drifted away.
I took my time. I looked in on the convention floor, scatterings of delegates straggling in to take their seats for the opening ceremonies, admired the bunting and balloons and the forest of poles carrying caucus placards. I stopped on my way to the elevators to check out the New & Recent Display, pleased to find my The Big Irony, surprised and delighted because it had been out six months already, scheduled for remand soon because of weak sales. I scanned the rows and rows of designer bookjackets, felt that meld of bittersweet envy and chill disdain a writer feels confronting his peers' successes.
I suppose I experienced a moment of depression, the deadness at the center of me, a little like the effect of a monumental block stopping a narrative dead in place. But I reminded myself of where I was, who, what I was–NUALA! I listened to the Random House Band and Simon & Schuster's chorus, and I patted the credentials in my pocket, pinned on the badge with my name on it in gold, went to the elevators.
When I reached Weinberg's door, I thought: even though he was on the Executive Council, NUALA would not spring for a private suite; either Weinberg was flush with another of his grants or fellowships, or else he had something in mind worth dipping so deep in his own pocket. Then I knocked on the door, waited while Weinberg checked me out through the peephole, unhooked the security chain, threw back the bolt, and let me into his Caesar's Palace suite.
Weinberg leaned forward from his seat on the sofa cushion he plopped on the floor of the conversation pit, spoke low, almost a whisper, as if we were closeted alone. "I'm going for it," he said, "I'm going for the presidency of NUALA. It's all set up to nominate me from the convention floor, and I've about got the seconding speeches lined up."
"You haven't got a chance," I told him. "The Commercials and Slickies will all be behind the Nomination Committee slate. It's pro forma, it always is."
"We calculated the numbers. It can be done, "Weinberg said, "even with all their automatic proxies."
"Weinberg can count for starters on the Poets Claque as a core vote," David Gordon said. I did not much like David Gordon; he was–still is–America's best known Smallpressman, editor of Tabula Rasa, where I had long since stopped submitting my manuscripts. When I sent him The Big Irony, which I was calling Life's Ironics then, he rejected it with a little note that said, nice, but doesn't quite bestow the literary "hit" I always seek. He had published reams of Weinberg's New England poem-cycles, had a stack of the new issue of Tabula Rasa with him in Weinberg's suite, the one featuring the in-depth interview. "I can deliver the small presses for him," David Gordon said, and handed me a copy of his new issue.
I glance through it. It was the one featuring Weinberg, his white paper, Weinberg's comprehensive platform, bracketed and punctuated with a generous sampling of his new poems, the ones collected recently in The Regional Suicide's Manual.
"I'm forging a coalition," Weinberg said.
"And with you helping me we'll deliver the Academics," Professor Meyer Jackson said; he had grown a beard since the last convention to hide his small chin; it made him look like a reincarnation of Lenin. His sonnets, Professor Jackson's Tenure Jeremiad, had just gone into a fifth printing as a result of its adoption as a workshop text by his friends in the Iowa Gang.
I said, "I'm out of touch. My book's scheduled for remand any minute, I couldn't deliver my blood relatives."
"See those?" Weinberg said, lifted a leg, pointed with his bare foot at the half-dozen telephones sitting on the period escritoire. "WATS lines," he said. "We'll put you in touch. I've got phone numbers, home and office, for every Academic with a NUALA card, you can take their proxies orally."
"So who do you deliver?" I asked D.W. Weathergood. The author of the prize-winning Troutstream America lay flat on his back in the bottom of the conversation pit, like a turtle sleeping through winter in the mud, eyes closed, as if the gloom of Weinberg's Caesar's Palace suite–the drapes were closed against the desert sun–hurt him. He lay with his hands behind his head, logger's boots crossed at the ankles.
"Me, myself, and I," D.W. Weathergood said without opening his eyes, as if he spoke in his sleep. "I hate politics. I really wonder sometimes why I pay my NUALA dues, it doesn't help me with my prose that I ever noticed."
"He's prestige, a figurehead," Weinberg said. "There's more Guerilla Independents out there writing away in total isolation than you think. They'll come in with Dwayne Willie, and there's hundreds of novices with union cards out there who wish they had it in them to go off in the woods or the mountains or the desert or some shack somewhere and just write the way people like Dwayne Willie or Marengo up in the wilds of Wyoming do it."
"I prefer D.W. if you don't mind, " Weathergood said. "And I promised you my vote and you can use my name because I'm sick of the damn Commercials and Slickies with their bad New Yorker stories. I never promised you I'd do you any good, Weinberg," he said without opening his eyes or uncrossing his logger's boots.
"Which," I asked Weinberg, "is also the rationale for our Roaring Boy here?" I looked at Sean Ignatius Kennedy, who got up, walked–a sway already in his gait–to the fully stocked hospitality bar for a refill.
"You got it," Weinberg said. "Think," he said, "how many novices holding NUALA cards out there see themselves as Roaring Boys. Most of them don't have the digestion to play the role, but they'll go for the image."
"Scotch?" Sean Ignatius Kennedy said to me from the bar. "Irish? Vodka? Gin perhaps? Bourbon? Potato Schnapps? A cordial? Red and white wine or a shade betwixt the two? Ale? Stout? Beer, imported and domestic, of course–my Christ!" Sean Ignatius Kennedy said, "I've died and gone to heaven!" He tossed back his drink, poured another.
"Paddy Casey can't be here, he's trying to dry out before he starts another novel, but he's on board too, and so's Dizzy Denny Bormann down in Florida," Weinberg said.
"You've got Paddy and Dizzy Denny?" I said. "Okay, you've got the Roaring Boys, real and would-be," I said.
"Here's to dear Patrick!" Kennedy toasted from the bar. "A good man with a glass in his hand, but I daresay he's never passed out at the lecturn whilst reading to an audience the way I have countless times!"
"Nadjia's already spoken for me to all the feminist caucus leaders," Weinberg said. I had never met Nadjia Bogosian before, but recognized her at once from her bookjacket pictures, the mop of dirty hair twisted into one long braid long enough to sit on, steel-rimmed granny glasses, bag lady's dress, a canvas shoulder bag adorned with sleigh bells, jammed with the paperbacks she hawked at her readings, along with what looked like granola bars. She talked and chewed at the same time.
"I think I can bring in a lot of the Ethnics, too," she said. America's only publishing Palestinian, her ties with the State Department's Cultural Bureau, which sponsored her frequent Third World reading tours, were solid.
"I can believe it," I said.
"Rod here's going to solicit the Minorities for me. Have you ever tallied," Weinberg asked me, "the combined Black, Hispanic, Native Americans, not to mention Chinese and Japanese on the west coast, plus clots of Vietnamese here and there starting to get into print these days?"
"Red, Black, Brown, Yellow, we're all in the same pickle, we need a voice on our side running NUALA," Rod Echohawk said. He was not wearing the full eaglefeather bonnet, but he did have a beaded headband, fringed vest, moccasin leggings.
"You've been active," I said to Weinberg, and laughed, pointed to his mastiff, Juggernaut–he took him everywhere; the dog stank horribly, but people always indulged Weinberg's love for the fat beast. "Juggernaut's going to catch the sympathies of NUALA's animal lovers, I suppose?" Nobody laughed with me.
"Are you for us or against us?" Weinberg asked.
"You and me, we can wrap up the Academics," Professor Meyer Jackson said, setting his jaw, looking like Lenin addressing a mob of workers and peasants. Sean Ignatius Kennedy drank deep, looked up at the ceiling of Weinberg's Caesar's Palace suite, began mumbling one of the Roaring Boys ditties.
"Female Commercials and Slickies don't appreciate feminist concerns," Nadjia Bogosian said, spewing flakes of granola from her mouth.
"Red, Black, Yellow, Brown, we're fed up with being down!" Rod Echohawk intoned; I recognized the meter, the lines from one of the poems in his Who Killed Our Buffalo?
"Would you mind taking a few copies of TR and seeing if you can sell them down on the convention floor?" David Gordon asked me.
"You've got my name and my vote, don't ask me to politic," D.W. Weathergood said from the bottom of the conversation pit. "I go politicking," he said, " what happens to my credibility with Guerilla Independents?" Weinberg's mastiff, Juggernaut, looked up at me, brow furrowed, from between his paws, and whined.
It was a Caesar's Palace suite, but Weinberg had already put his mark on it. There was the hospitality bar and the conversation pit, two bedrooms, a bath and sauna, a kitchen, a balcony overlooking Vegas and the desert horizon, the patio doors behind the heavy draperies. But, as always, Weinberg had unpacked wherever he happened to drop his luggage, suitcases split open, shirts and socks and underwear, toilet articles, books and magazines and poetry manuscripts–typed and holograph–strewn about the sitting room. Weinberg was a notorious health nut, carried sacks of fresh fruit with him on his reading tours, a sworn foe of tobacco and spirits except for an occasional toke, but the bar was fully stocked, the air conditioned suite's atmosphere rank with the smoke of Sean Ignatius Kennedy's cheroots–concessions to the exigencies of union politics.
Weinberg, shirtless, barefoot, wearing only striped shorts, dressed for the opening ceremonies while we talked, rummaged in his bags, tossing things behind him, over his shoulder, like Juggernaut digging up a favorite bone, finding his trademark denims, cape, and red beret.
I told them, "It comes down to clout. Sympathies and affinities don't matter. The New York publishing houses won't back away from their own people. What have you got to offer them?"
"Wise the man up, Professor," Weinberg said, trying on his floppy beret in front of a mirror with a gilded frame, fine-tuning the angle.
Meyer Jackson scratched at his beard, said, "If we put a lock on Academics, we can control textbook adoption for curricula. We'll make the kind of sales figures the Iowa Gang brags about look like peanuts. I'm talking a centralized book ordering bureau run through NUALA's Executive Council," he said.
"How many copies of Big Irony did you flog?" Weinberg asked me, buttoning his bleached denim jacket with the Poets Are, They Don't Mean! logo on the back. He said, "How many of those bricks would you move if it was on a required reading list for every Master of Fine Arts writing program in America?"
"Thousands," I said.
"We're going," Nadjia Bogosian said, swallowing loudly, "to go through some of my friends at State and the Labor Department to put the squeeze on the National Endowment to process grants and fellowships directly through NUALA."
"What's the last grant you received?" Weinberg said, smoothing his patched jeans over his behind, turning to check the effect in the mirror.
"And readings!" Sean Ignatius Kennedy said, drained his glass, smacked his lips. "We'll by the love of Jesus call it the NUALA Visiting Writers Consortium or such, you'll not get a reading or a lecture or a workshop at so much as a community college without the sayso of the Roaring Boys! Oh," Sean Kennedy said, "the reading-workshop-writers conference circuit will thrive in my benevolently despotic clutches, me and Paddy Casey and a few select others, Mad Mike Murphy and Dizzy Denny from down Florida way if he asks nice, old son!" he said to me.
"How many reading invitations do you get in a year?" Weinberg asked me, donning his cape, stepping back to the edge of the conversation pit to consider the whole man in the mirror; he struck the pose I knew from his readings, the one where he raises one hand, looks up as if seeking the Muse's presence and blessing before declaiming the first line of the first poem, Juggernaut squatting at his side.
"We're envisioning a Smallpresspersons Editorial Board to regulate all the crap being published by amateurs now," David Gordon said.
"Guerilla Independents will find their books kept in print long enough to find an audience for a change," D.W. Weathergood opened his eyes to say, rose from the floor of the conversation pit, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his plaid flannel shirt, the way he wore it in the jacket photo for Troutstream America.
"Are you in?" Weinberg asked, twirling to make his cape flare, observing himself in the mirror. I looked at him; I looked at David Gordon, Professor Meyer Jackson, Nadjia Bogosian, at Rod Echohawk, who took Sean Kennedy's arm to prevent his falling as he stepped out of the conversation pit. Juggernaut barked and began to cavort in anticipation of our leaving.
"I'm in," I said, and we left Weinberg's Caesar's Palace suite, went down in the elevators to NUALA's opening ceremonies.
We were just in time. As we walked on the floor, made our way to our respective caucuses, the delegates were already singing Scribble, Scribble! along with the Simon & Schuster Chorale, the Random House Band accompaniment drowning out the adjacent casino's gambling noise. I found my chair among the Academics, put the bundle of Tabula Rasa David Gordon stuck me with under it, stood to sing the final verse of NUALA's anthem with my brother and sister literati.
I remember, in everything that followed, the nomination from the floor, the flap over the seconding speech, I left the magazines there, forgot them; David Gordon billed me for them, but I've never paid, not even when he threatened, just recently, a civil suit.
NUALA's entrenched leadership knew what Weinberg was up to; his pre-convention manuevers warned them, and the solid block of Commercials and Slickies were ready for him, for us. They drew their wagons in a circle, pulled up the drawbridge, dug in their heels–they were shoulder to shoulder, armed with proxies, the ear of sympathetic media, financed by magazine syndicates and New York publishers. Their stooges presided at the podium, sat on all the standing committees governing parliamentary procedure, circulated on the floor to erode our ranks, spreading rumors, casting aspersions, invited uncommitted delegates to their suites upstairs in Caesar's Palace where they plied them with hospitality and brokered to retain their power.
We never really had a chance; I must have been blind not to have seen the writing on the wall!
D.W. Weathergood was our first defector. After Meyer Jackson nominated Weinberg for the presidency from the floor, the author of Troutstream America went to the podium to give a seconding speech, found his path blocked by a half-dozen Sergeants-at-Arms, big men who wrote commissioned aricles for trade publications and house organs, men with few scruples.
Weinberg's Poets Claque rose in protest; Meyer Jackson and I stood on our chairs, led the Academics in a chorus of outrage, waved our signboard. Free speech! Free speech! we cried. Poetic License! Poetic License! chanted Weinberg's claque. We marched down the aisles, hoarse with shouting to be heard above the Random House Band, which, cued by the leadership, struck up Scribble, Scribble! again to drown us out.
The Convention Chair, Max Godwin, author of a sleazy novel abour divorce and wife-swapping and esoteric perversions that had been on the best-seller list for fifty-six consecutive weeks, pounding his gavel. D.W. Weathergood struggled with the house organ goons, cursed them as journalistic prostitutes, invited the largest of them to step outside with him.
When order was restored–our demonstration gradually ran out of energy, like a narrative with insufficient conflict to animate it–Chairman Godwin recognized the chair of the Membership Committee, Loretta DeJong, author of two dozen Romance paperback originals on sale in every supermarket; she reported Delegate Weathergood was ineligible to address the convention, having failed to pay his NUALA dues, though repeatedly dunned. D.W. was summarily jostled out the door by a trio of the trade publication sluggers, shouting he was not to blame, it was a point of integrity with him not to open unsolicited junk mail.
Because Sean Ignatius Kennedy was already at the point of slurring his words, I made Weinberg's seconding speech.
After we adjourned that first session, I tried to talk Weathergood into staying in Las Vegas, to at least give us moral support, set an example for all the real and would-be Guerilla Independents out there in the sticks who looked up to him. "No way," D.W. said. "They can have my NUALA card. I never joined anything before, not even the Izaak Walton League, and I never will again."
"What will you do if you leave NUALA?" I asked him.
"Write!" he said. "And go fishing." And he strapped on his knapsack, picked up his poles and tackle-box, and left Las Vegas, hitchhiking back east.
I often wonder, now, whatever became of D.W. Weathergood. I once tried to call Marengo, up in Wyoming's wilds, to see if he has heard from him, but his phone was disconnected. I like to think he–Dwayne Willie, Marengo, all the genuine Guerilla Independents–that all of them are still out there writing, even though nobody publishes their work.
"That hurt," I told Weinberg when we gathered in his suite to assess strategy just before the first evening session.
"Who needs him?" Weinberg said. "I thought Troutstream America sucked anyhow. I couldn't get through it."
"His stuff," Rod Echohawk said, "shows no real spirit of reverence for our sacred natural enviroment."
"Is it really that bad?" Nadjia Bogosian asked. "I never got around to it. I was giving readings in Bangladesh for the U.N. when it came out, I think."
"Bottoms up, muck in your eyes!" Sean Ignatius Kennedy said, waking up. "Say, where's my boy Dwayne Willie got to?"
"Gone fishing." I told the Roaring Boy, who shrugged and tipped back his glass. Something started Juggernaut barking, and Weinberg had to lock the mastiff in the sauna before we could get on with our discussion of tactics.
"We can do it without the Guerilla Independents," Professor Meyer Jackson said, stroking his beard, "if we just pull together."
After Weathergood's ejection, the convention, on its surface, was routine, business as usual. We opened and closed each session with the singing of Scribble, Scribble!, we heard the presentations of ad hoc and standing committee resolutions, made and seconded motions, debated the questions, voted voice and by secret ballot if the issue was at all sensitive.
NUALA closed ranks to accept the Membership Committee's recommendation that the petition to join our union filed by the WASP Heterosexual Monogamists, purged as reactionary troublemakers at the first convention held after the Boston Consensus, be denied; at least, I think now, we stood together in NUALA against those neo-fascists!
And we stood together behind the ad hoc Committee on the Closed Shop recommendation to censure the states of Mississippi and Oklahoma for their continued enforcement of the antiquated Literary Right-to-Work statutes. A large majority voted to establish the NUALA Hall of Fame, recommended by the Awards & Honors Committee, empowering the Executive Council to seek government funds to build a suitable edifice in which to display effigies, manuscripts, publications, and other memorabilia of deceased members distinguished for their literary achievement; site selection from among competing bids from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Montpelier, Vermont, and, of course, Iowa City, was tabled for further study.
The last day, at the morning session, when Weinberg moved from the floor that NUALA budget funds for the purchase of a fleet of motor-homes, said vehicles to be provided gratis to poets engaged in cross-country reading tours, we watched the voting for an indication of how the membership might lean when we got to the crunch of the presidential election. But when the chair of the Finance Committee, a Slickie who published a nationally syndicated book review column under the nom de plume of De Gustibus, reported NUALA's treasury, while sound, could not absorb the impact of the initial expenditure in addition to maintenance and liability insurance complications, the convention voted to table; we naturally suspected he lied, cooked the accounts. But I suspected it was all moot by then, the last day, anyhow. I do not claim to have foreseen exactly what happened, but I knew disaster lay in wait for us, for all of us, for NUALA, the way you feel a story's conclusion coming as you read–you fear the author will not be able to pull off his intentions.
It was early in the morning of the second day, in Weinberg's suite, that Nadjia Bogosian and Rod Echohawk left us.
I was there alone when they came to break the news. Weinberg was out, giving Juggernaut a run somewhere on the edge of the Nevada desert, where the mastiff could roam free of his leash and choke-chain. I didn't know where Meyer Jackson and David Gordon were–we all found that out later!–Sean Igantius Kennedy was there with me, but still sleeping it off, didn't get up to seek his hangover remedy until it was over.
"We need to talk to Weinberg," Nadjia said when I let them in; I sensed something because Echohawk–dressed in full regalia, eaglefeather bonnet, spear and shield with tassles and dangling artificial scalps, face painted for war–stood silent, bare arms folded across his chest, as if guarding a tobacco shop, while the Palestinian poetess told me what they had done.
"He's out taking Juggernaut to crap somewhere besides in the conversation pit for a change," I said.
"Then give him a message for us," she said. "Rod and I are leaving Las Vegas."
"You can't do that," I said. "Why?" I said. "What did they offer you?" I asked. She told me, Rod Echohawk standing by her side, as unmoving as if he were made of wood.
They had conferenced until the wee hours with a group of publishers' reps flown in from New York by the union leadership, a cultural affairs specialist from the Foreign Service Officers Corps, a middle-level bureaucrat from B.I.A. Nadjia Bogosian told me they resisted as long as they could, held out, but the ante kept rising, and they sold out, us, NUALA, just as dawn broke over the desert; she said Rod found the moment prophetic, a favorable sign from the Spirit World.
"It's not just Weinberg," she said, "who by the way I happen to feel isn't really truly sensitive to minority racial and ethnicity concerns. We're resigning from NUALA, and we think a lot of the Blacks, Browns, and Yellows feel the same way. It's time we asserted our respective identities in dramatic fashion." Rod Echohawk grunted agreement; Sean Ignatius Kennedy stirred and groaned in his sleep on the chaise lounge where he lay in fetal position.
I asked her, "How many pieces of silver did you settle on?"
What they got, of course, turned out to be the Racial-Ethnic Artistic Congress; they got Heritage Imprints, the book series funded by the New York cabal; they got the Global Village Reading Safaris; they got a large majority of the Minorities to abandon NUALA in the middle of the convention. They got what we, those of us still here, now like to call the Minorities Rump Parliament, which is what Weinberg first called them when I passed on the news.
And he called them scabs. "Literary scabs!" he said to me, to Meyer Jackson, and David Gordon when we finally all got together before the morning session opened downstairs with Scribble, Scribble! " Where were you when we needed you?" Weinberg said to Jackson and Gordon. "If you'd been here you could at least have tried to talk her out of it!"
"I was having breakfast with some Academics I'm doing my best to line up behind you," Professor Jackson said.
"I had to stop by a Smallpresswomen's caucus," Gordon said.
Of course, as we all learned soon enough, they lied.
Sean Ignatius Kennedy woke, moaned, sat up, clutched his throbbing head with both hands. "I need," he said, "a hair off that hound that fanged me. I think I need his whole damn hide!" Juggernaut, frisky from his desert exercise, barked.
It wasn't all convention floor business and back-room politics. My memory of it is distorted by the hours I sat in Weinberg's suite, using his WATS lines to call English department writing programs, flattering and pleading for proxies, but there was also socializing, entertainment, play. Suzie Dodsworth and the Iowa Gang camped by the swimming pool, oiled themselves, donned sunglasses, stretched out to darken their tans. There were the non-stop poetry and fiction readings, marathon book-signings, literary agents roaming the halls of Caesar's Palace, on the prowl to contract new clients. The New York publishers rented suites, laid on catered buffets and open bars. NUALA delegates took time out to watch the floorshows, tried their luck at blackjack and poker and roulette, fed coins to the one-armed bandits; Sean Ignatius Kennedy won ten thousand dollars for guessing the exact number of jellybeans in a huge jar, using the number of words in his last memoir, Dipso's Diary, then lost it in less than an hour shooting craps. I had a long, ultimately unproductive talk with an editor about a possible paperback edition of The Big Irony.
It did not matter; we might as well have given ourselves over to enjoying Las Vegas. We were doomed. NUALA was doomed.
Late in the evening of the day the Minorities walked out, David Gordon went, taking almost all of the small presses with him; he made his deal early that same morning, while Nadjia and Echohawk were with me in Weinberg's suite–he was with the American Booksellers Association, in a private party room at Circus Circus, selling us out.
"Distribution!" Weinberg screamed. "The fat little Judas threw us over for distribution!"
"It's hard to blame him," Meyer Jackson said.
It was difficult to blame Gordon only if you put aside the damage to NUALA. David Gordon got his own network, United Smallpresspersons, Inc., a contract linking his U.S. to the booksellers; you see their chapbooks and broadsides and prose-poem postcards now in every Waldenbooks and B.F. Dalton's in every shopping mall in America.
"I blame him," I said, and asked, "Can we still swing it without him and the Minorities?"
Professor Jackson said, "It'll be tight as the prosody of a closed Heroic Couplet."
"We can do it!" Weinberg shouted. "What are there more of than anything else in NUALA? What are there more of than anything else in the whole damn country?"
"Poets," Meyer Jackson said.
"Academic writers," I said.
"And don't forget," Sean Ignatius Kennedy said, popping the cap on a bottle of warm Guiness, "you've got the Roaring Boys of America with you still, faithful to the bitter end, pals o' mine! Let's drink on it!"
"Gordon's going to move a lot of merchandise," Meyer Jackson said.
NUALA was doomed. As I think of it now, it was like a very bad story, one in which suspense is important, but the reader sees the end before the narrator or any of the characters. Presque vu.
We doubled our efforts, did not concede. Weinberg had his vegetarian fruit brunch with Suzie Dodsworth, made a good pitch to the Iowa Gang, worked at holding his demoralized Poets Claque together–I can still see Weinberg as he looked then, running from hotel to hotel to caucus, his trademark floppy beret and flowing cape, Juggernaut on a short leash at his side. Meyer Jackson–or so we thought–was constantly on the go, running down stray Academic delegates, negotiating with the university presses. I stuck with Weinberg's WATS lines, hustling proxies, trying to quash the rumors that we were on the verge of collapse after the loss of David Gordon, the Minorities, the Guerilla Independents. Sean Ignatius Kennedy scoured the convention floor, the casinos, the cocktail lounges, our roving ambassador of inebriated good will and confidence, flourishing his portfolio, telegrams of unqualified support from Paddy Casey, Mad Mike Murphy, Dizzy Denny Bormann.
"Where's Jackson?" Weinberg asked when we met to evaluate the situation during the third day's recess.
"I left him the message we were caucusing here," I said.
"Ain't seen him in an age," Sean Ignatius said, drank, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, said, "Perhaps the Muse jumped him unawares and he's gone off in the desert to compose one of those long rhyming things of his I'm forever seeing in the stuffier quarterlies? Ah!" Sean Ignatius Kennedy said, "he's no true poet, you know! Tastes a toddy at bedtime, nurses the odd beer now and again, likes sweet cordials, for the love of me! Professor Jackson," he said, "is no tippler, more what I'd call a sipper, a pure puddle-jumper, but a good man for all that!"
We all knew Professor Meyer Jackson was not a good man. Professor Meyer Jackson was an opportunist, a rat who jumped off NUALA's ship when he discerned her listing, taking on water. And he lacked even the decency to tell us to our faces what he had done for himself in the bargain.
The university pressses were Meyer Jackson's undoing. I still think the consultancy they combined to give him has no real responsibilities–I don't think he functions as the czar of scholarly and critical publishing, the popular misconception–but the stipend is rumored to be substantial, and the promise of it was enough to erode the ranks of the Academics I had labored to bring to Weinberg's cause. Professor Meyer Jackson disappeared from Las Vegas, did not surface until the press conference in Cambridge announcing his new position. It is no coincidence the news of his contract to edit the multi-volume Poet's Complete Dictionary broke a month later. Professor Jackson was our Trotsky.
"Is it over then?" Sean Ignatius asked when we understood what Meyer Jackson had done to us.
"They're gutting NUALA to spite me," Weinberg said. He did not take Jackson's treachery well, huddled with Juggernaut in the conversation pit, did not bother to shave or dress–he stared for long minutes into his mastiff's large, fluid eyes, stroked and patted the big dog's flank, all the fight gone out of him.
"We can't give up," I said. "We've got your Poets Claque, the Iowa Gang might still throw in with us, I've got a lot of Academic proxies, there's more than a few didn't go out with those traitors!"
"And the Roaring Boys!" Sean Ignatius cried, "The Roaring Boys will be true blue all the way so long as there's a drop left in the bottom of the jug," and he waved his telegrams from Paddy Casey, taking the cure in California, Mad Mike Murphy out in Boston, too broke to make the trip, Dizzy Denny Bormann paralyzed with classic writer's block down in a Florida swamp.
"If we hold," I told Weinberg, "NUALA will fall into our laps tomorrow night!"
How could I have known, as the convention went down to the wire, the presidential balloting, how it was going to end? Now, in retrospect, it was self-evident; all it would have required was a simple tabulation of the numbers, a check of the Convention Rules appended to the Boston Consensus. But I was too busy calling long-distance for every last possible Academic proxy vote, dashing downstairs to the convention floor to rally the faithful who refused to walk out with the betrayers of NUALA. I might have set Sean Ignatius Kennedy the task of assessing total numbers, put him to reading the Rules for fine print, but he was hardly in condition for work that needed a clear head. Or Weinberg . . . but I thought every available minute of Weinberg's time was devoted to his dwindling Poets Claque, to prolonged negotiations with the Iowa Gang.
My memory of that last day is a kind of exile I felt, alone in Weinberg's Caesar's Palace suite--Weinberg gone to politic, Sean Ignatius downstairs on a barstool, introducing himself to showgirls and cocktail waitresses–he still does that, walks right up to women, tells them his name, presents them with an autographed copy of one of his books, asks them if they have ever seen a real writer with all his clothes off.
I was alone in Weinberg's suite, calling on the WATS, Juggernaut asleep in the conversation pit.
The final evening's session began, the delegates on the floor standing to sing Scribble, Scribble!, when I rode up the elevator to get Weinberg, bring him down for the election. "Come on," I said to him,"they're about to call for the balloting. Where have you been? Sean Ignatius said he looked all over Vegas for you, your dog's been going stir crazy in here all day!"
"I won't be going," Weinberg said. Then I saw he was packing, throwing the mess of his dirty clothes, books, loose manuscripts in his bags, forcing the lids shut, snapping latches, buckling straps. He buttoned his cape at his throat, put his beret on, stood at the mirror to adjust its flop rakishly over one eye as he spoke. "I'm not humiliating myself," Weinberg said.
"Don't do this!" I said. And I said, "We're close! Your Poets Claque will stick with you, I've got a bag of proxies, there's a lot of literati on the floor down there mad as hell at the leadership for the way they've tried to buy this election, don't fold on me now!" I urged Weinberg.
He assembled his luggage, looked around the suite for anything forgotten, whistled Juggernaut to his side, clipped the short leash to his choke-chain collar, faced me in his trademark denims, cape, beret. "Give it up," Weinberg said. Weinberg said, "NUALA's dead meat. The leadership's splitting off, there's going to be a new organization for the Commercials and Slickies, you'll have to qualify for membership by proving your income from writing with your tax returns every year."
"Then it's ours!" I said. "Poets and Academics, the Roaring Boys, whoever else wants to hang with us, we'll be NUALA!" I cried, and for just a moment I really believed it could happen that way.
"No," Weinberg said, "the Poets Claque's going with me." Then I understood what he had done.
"What did you get for yourself?" I asked Weinberg there in his suite.
"I don't have time for this," he said, "they're coming up for my bags, I've got a cab coming."
That was how Weinberg got Poets Union, Inc.–P.U. Stink, Sean Ignatius christened it. From the start, the leadership determined to ruin rather than risk losing their rule. They nibbled us to death: bullied Dwayne Willie Weathergood and his Guerilla Independents out of Las Vegas, cut up the pie, pieces for the Minorities and Smallpresspersons, Professor Meyer Jackson's Academic followers and the university presses . . . Weinberg's Poets Union, Inc. was just the last and biggest slice. That was how Weinberg got P.U. Stink and the enormous motorhome he calls Poemobile Calliope, that he lives in on the road, his cross-country reading tours.
"It makes more sense this way," Weinberg told me before I left him there with his mastiff, went down and did what I did. "Our respective interests are too divergent," he said. "NUALA was a flawed idea from the start back in Boston," he said. "Poets," Weinberg said, "just naturally by virtue of their special and peculiar sensibilities feel more affinity with their fellow poets. If you're smart you'll find someplace for yourself before it's too late. Sauve qui peut," Weinberg said.
It was already too late for me; I had no place to go except back downstairs, to what was left of NUALA.
I was not responsible for what happened, did not orchestrate or manipulate events there on the floor that night, what was supposed to have been the final session of the Las Vegas convention. Rumor to the contrary, it happened quickly, spontaneously.
When the call for the vote was made, the vice-chairman of the Membership Committee, an Academic named Heller, author of a series of anecdotal histories of the state of Hawaii, reported the resignation of all standing candidates from NUALA's rolls. There was momentary chaos until Sean Ignatius Kennedy rose, stood on his chair, inspired by whatever he had been drinking, shouted until he was recognized, and entered my name in nomination as candidate. The nomination was seconded by one of the Iowa Gang, perhaps confused as to who I was, and I was elected by acclamation. When I reached the rostrum to make my acceptance speech, Heller took me aside, whispered in my ear that NUALA, membership decimated by mass resignations, lacked the quorum necessary to adjourn.
"Then," I told him, "we won't adjourn."
"What'll we do, extend the convention until Caesar's Palace throws us out the door?" he asked.
"If need be," I said, and went up the steps to the podium microphone, gaveled the floor back to order. "If need be," I said to NUALA Delegate Heller of Hawaii, "we'll stay in session forever, as long as it takes to make NUALA what it should be!"
And then I returned the floor to order, made my acceptance speech, and then I led them–the remnants of NUALA gathered below and before me, in the Resolution of Censure; I did orchestrate and manipulate the condemnation of all who had abandoned us: Commercials, Slickies, Minorities, Guerilla Independents, Smallpresspersons, the Poets Claque.
That was what drove the Iowa Gang away, out of Las Vegas, back to the midwest, where they chartered their own organization, membership restricted to graduates of the Writers Workshop.
And so the convention at Caesar's Palace continues. I suppose it is inevitable; when we exhaust NUALA's treasury, we will be evicted, tossed out by the management to wander in the Nevada desert. But NUALA will never die; Weinberg was wrong–it is too grand an idea, too wondrous a creation of our collective imagination to just disappear!
Meanwhile, we continue at Caesar's Palace. We open each day with our a cappella singing of Scribble, Scribble!, we hear ad hoc committee reports on the status of efforts to reconcile with disaffected elements, on the new membership recruiting drive, on the treasury funds that support us. We try to remain hopeful. We hear of renegade splinter groups considering rejoining NUALA, disgruntled Minorities, Poets, Academics, a few of the less successful Commercials and Slickies, and we welcome their return to NUALA's bosom–we have hope of attaining a quorum to adjourn someday. We seek constantly to find those literati, spread all across our mighty nation, who might see the value of petitioning for readmission to membership. We are hopeful.
We have not forgotten, will not forget those who destroyed us. Each night, before we close the evening session with Scribble, Scribble!, we renew the Resolution of Censure, and we name them: D.W. Weathergood, Nadjia Bogosian, Rod Echohawk, David Gordon, Meyer Jackson, Weinberg . . . Weinberg most of all! Anathema, all of them, to the card-carrying brothers and sisters of NUALA. We do not forget, cannot forgive!
There are so few of us left here in Las Vegas: a scattering of the faithful, myself and the Roaring Boys–Sean Ignatius persuaded Paddy and Mad Mike and Dizzy Denny to join us. We gather in the casino bar each night, pay for our drinks with funds from NUALA's diminishing treasury, and, I confess, we all get quite drunk, sentimental about the old days, Boston. It is very sad.
What is most sad of all is that none of us, not me, not the Roaring Boys, none of NUALA's faithful, has written a thing since it happened. That, that we are America's only true literati, and we write nothing, have written nothing, that is the saddest thing of all in the story I have to tell.
But we do not talk of this here in the casino bar at Caesar's Palace. We get drunk and talk of the old days, Boston, and we sing Scribble, Scribble! to the amusement of the gamblers and revelers. We link arms and sing, trying to forget we are not writing anything these days.