“This is a very friendly conference.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote Speaker NonfictioNOW 2017
“Life is now.”—Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland
Before NonfictioNOW 2017, I’d met only one of its four hundred delegates face to face: my mentor and childhood friend, Dzvinia Orlowsky; and emailed with just two others: Wayne Koestenbaum, about our interview; and Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, the Conference Project Manager, to help convert her schedule to PDF. Every day, I consulted my own copy of the timetable (its color-coding rendered useless by a monochrome laser printer) to choose which events I’d attend and, later—due to fatigue and overstimulation—to decide which ones I’d skip.
After registration, during the drinks reception at the University of Iceland, I was still as fresh as Icelandic bottled water—the melted glacier ice, filtered through inert layers of lava rock, which I’d been drinking since my arrival two days earlier. Quaffing white wine now, I scanned the room for nonfiction heavyweights. Recognizing a trim figure in a bold shirt and heavy-rimmed glasses, I plowed through the crowd, and assailed Wayne Koestenbaum. He greeted me with warmth, grace, and a firm handshake. I’d already bumped into a friend of a friend, Bradley Wester and, through Orlowsky, met Kathleen Aguero, Richard Hoffman, Michael and Carole Steinberg, and Mimi Schwarz. I now introduced these new acquaintances to Koestenbaum, buoyant in a sea of writers from twenty different countries, in an atmosphere of friendliness and effortless communication that would prove typical for the entire conference.
Next day, I strode down a curved walkway in the Háskólatorg building to Room 102, where a panel, “My Roland Barthes,” with Wayne Koestenbaum, Rachel May, and Xenia Hanusiak was scheduled. Nervous about the impending interview with Koestenbaum, my handwriting was worse than usual, and my jottings about the session made little sense afterward. Yet, the images conveyed by the panelists lingered. May’s portrayal of quilts as stories, “textile as text,” were vivid, as were the elements Koestenbaum connected to “his” Barthes: precision in language, the mode of “recitative not aria,” kinship between words, mystification, glaze and patina, and the chestnut he’d found on Gertrude Stein’s headstone in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. There was much to process. In the end, I forgot to ask Hanusiak about her career as an opera singer and, with my brain in buffering mode, retreated to the cafeteria to stare through floor-to-ceiling windows at fast-moving Icelandic clouds.
* * *
After my videotaped exchange with Wayne Koestenbaum, I felt elated, inspired, and entirely incapable of absorbing anything but food and beer. Optimistically, I assured Koestenbaum I’d see him later in the Nordic House, and he divulged his plans for the Authors’ Evening:
“I think I’m going to read one of the notebooks from my recent book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, which is a series of diary poems, all taken from notebooks I kept in various states of trance … states somewhere between automatic writing and dreaming.”
I missed that reading, and those by Ariel Gore, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Tim Tomlinson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, and Gerður Kristný; also Heather Taylor Johnson, Fiona Wright, and Quinn Eades’ book launches; because, after dinner, while the sun didn’t set, I crawled beneath a large feather comforter and went out like a light.
The following morning, Hoffman, Steinberg, Schwartz, Hope Edelman, and Desirae Matherly participated in a panel, “When Writers Repeat,” while I stayed in bed with sinuses that demanded rest, and aspirin washed down with glacier water. By afternoon, I’d recovered sufficiently to attend “Memoir Time,” a panel with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, and where I discovered Donna Talarico live-tweeting behind me. She’d arrived on Icelandair’s inaugural flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavík, with mayors of both cities on board (including the “hot” one), which had been diverted to Boston and delayed because of a “bad smell.” After the discussion, I forced a hug on her, threw myself at all five panelists, took photos with Lisicky and Sukrungruang, declared, “I’m a huge fan!” and “I want to submit to Sweet!” and, powered by adrenalin, ran upstairs to catch a ride to Ragnar Kjartansson’s vernissage. The affair was concurrent with Karl Ove Knausgård’s keynote address, and—shoot me—I chose Ragnar over Karl, art over memoir, and music over literature.
On the last day of NonfictioNOW 2017, after a wind-chilled walk along Reykjavík’s harbor, I arrived at Harpa Concert and Conference Center just after Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s keynote address. People were milling about in the foyer, drinking coffee from lidded cups, and it was clear from their comments that I’d missed a memorable speech. I chatted for a while with Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, who was as bright and communicative as on the first day of the conference, and, entering the auditorium, was greeted by an equally cheerful and relaxed Koestenbaum.
I took a seat in the front row just as a small delegation entered and, in a moment of reciprocal recognition, both President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and I uttered, “Oh, hello!” He beamed winningly, as he’d done at Kjartansson’s opening. His spouse, Eliza Reid, wearing an all-over-print of white tulips or, perhaps, magnolias, filled the chair next to me. As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she’d held the opening address at the other Authors’ Evening I’d not attended. Enthusiastically, I introduced myself as a fellow Canadian, but she seemed unimpressed by this riveting fact, and showed absolutely no interest in my amusing story of how I’d met her husband.
Onstage, Elena Passarello began her introduction: she connected Harpa, or harpa, to “harp,” “harp” to Harpo, and continued with a tribute to Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, crediting the book for her motivation to return to literature after a decade in drama.
Wayne Koestenbaum took the podium and began with a tribute to Aisha Sabatini Sloan. He compared the essence of her keynote to what philosopher and conceptual artist, Adrian Piper, has communicated through her performances:
“Articulate the unspoken frame to politely, or impolitely, refuse the frame and step outside it.”
Koestenbaum then enticed the audience to follow him beyond the frame, into four dazzling parables or allegories, the short essays he wrote for Reykjavík, which disregard borders and classification. The first, “Annette Funicello,” contains this seductive sentence:
“There is no logical connection between Annette Funicello, a beach rose, an inquisitive bee, a beach’s cubicles, and the men who long ago stripped, under my inquisitive gaze, in the vicinity of weakly sputtering public showers.”
The second piece, “Allegories for Iceland,” describes enigmatic encounters with a leather-bracelet-wearing foreigner and a densely bearded stranger, spiraling into implied states of desire and uncertainty, which Koestenbaum guides into an anticipated present:
“A full century after Cubism, why am I trying to reproduce this afternoon’s reality in faithful sentences rather than present to you an askew distillation of the events, filtered through a presiding consciousness? Why is the consciousness overseeing the narration of this fable so lacking in discernment and discrimination? Why is this episode not announcing its relation to the professional gathering during which the tale will be recited?”
Before reading his third parable, Koestenbaum cautioned, provocatively:
“And now, we fall into the abyss. We leave the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.”
Koestenbaum’s “Gaufrage and the Erotic Limitations of Capability Klein” is a collage of contrary components: Japanese woodblock prints, dildos, a mattress store, Lyme disease, a character who calls his sexual limitations “talking points,” and this captivating image of carmine clouds and skunks:
“Last night, in Cap’s backyard, we could see, wandering across the grass, three skunks, each accompanied by a carmine cloud. Carmine is not usually fluorescent. These clouds disobeyed the laws of carmine, and acquired an unnatural day-glow brilliance that wounded the eye lucky enough to gaze at their felicities.”
Before reading the last allegory, “The Sexual Translator,” Koestenbaum explained he’d “issued a call to myself, before sleep, for a dream that would respond to the emergency call of this conference. The dream arrived.” This piece features a figure named Abel Mars, a translator whose labors “sometimes took the form of naps,” and includes a riff on the word “frack” that is as enchanting as it is hardcore:
“‘Frack, frack, frack,’ went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of ‘frack, frack, frack,’ Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word ‘fuck’ into ‘frack’? Perhaps ‘frack’ was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand?”
After a brief question and answer session, Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, NonfictioNOW co-chair (with Robin Hemley, its founder), introduced President Jóhannesson, who read his witty and poignant speech directly from an iPhone, sometimes going off script, yet always following a red thread. A writer and historian, his thoughts were highly relatable not only to the genre of nonfiction, but also to the conference:
“We cannot only rely on sources that remain from the past, or what we can find in the present. We need to add our own interpretations, our own descriptions, and we must allow ourselves to imagine what might have been, when the sources do not exist or are hard to find. Those who control the sources, they will also control history as well, and that cannot be.”
He quoted from David Lodge’s novel, Small World: An Academic Romance, to emphasize that the real goal of literary conferences is not academic discourse, but human interaction:
“It’s this kind of informal contact, of course, that’s the real raison d’être of a conference.”
Guðni Th. Jóhannesson’s speech flowed into my still-fresh memory of Wayne Koestenbaum’s address, and infiltrated a specific sentence in his answer to a question from the audience:
“I always tell my students that if you wake up in the middle of the night feeling horrified about what you’ve written, it’s a very good sign.”
After the conference, my sentiments needed time to merge and emulsify, and only when this process was complete, did the following paragraph write itself:
I leaned toward Eliza Reid, not gesticulating, as I usually do, and complimented her on her husband’s speech: “That was very moving.” There was no verbal response, only fabric flapping, sleeves waving, two palms striking. I clapped too, but in a different rhythm.
NonfictioNOW 2017 ended, and Karl Ove Knausgård and Lidia Yuknavitch remained as elusive as Björk. Farewells looming, Dzvinia Orlowsky and I unwound at the Blue Lagoon, afloat in geothermal bliss, extending time beneath silica mud masks. After two more white nights, I flew home, with a single regret: that I hadn’t interacted with even more amiable writers.
I’d met Amy Gigi Alexander, but sailed past Quinn Eades and Sam van Zweden; didn’t see or didn’t recognize: Bob Cowser, Joanna Eleftheriou, Ariel Gore, Leslie Hsu Oh, Anna Leahy, Patrick Madden, Desirae Matherly, Lance Olsen, Laurie Stone, Julija Šukys, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright, Arianne Zwartjes—and a few others with whom I’d already bonded on social media, or would do so later. We now foster our virtual friendships, and wait for another conference to bring us together and, until then, connect through a book, or a page, or a few well-chosen words.
Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum