Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Case of the Purloined Langston of DC

A poet (I have known for half my adult life, and not least for his prestidigitory skills) decided to engage in his own form of protest during the Associated Writing Programs conference.

At Busboys and Poets, a popular DC-area bookstore, there once stood a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes as a busboy, his occupation when he was a young poet and working at the Wardman Park Hotel, the main venue of the AWP conference.

And then, one night, while the conference was underway, the cardboard cutout disappeared in the company of a certain poet, a native of DC, a former resident of Boston, Providence and Cleveland, and now a denizen of New York City and its environs (cf. below right, photo: Graywolf Press): Thomas Sayers Ellis.

(I was in Busboys and Poets on Thursday evening, after the Encyclopedia reading, and must confess that I neither noticed the cardboard Langston nor his absence this time. I should add that when in DC I have seldom spent time at the store, which has a great selection of work and delicious, affordable food, and have never read or been invited to read there. I was there during the last Split This Rock conference, in 2010.)

Another poet, of considerable note, noted to the bookstore and performance space's owner that he had seen said Hughes, at the Wardman Park Hotel no less, arm in arm with the purloiner-protester. Neither, it's fair to say, was bussing.

The poet says he transported the cardboard Hughes because the spot, which does sponsor poets in residence and pays readers a $50 fee could and should pay these artists better. "You would think that an establishment that makes as much money as Busboys would have set in place a reading series with a respectful pay scale for writers."

A cellphone photo of stand-in Hughes has reached Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal (below left), but his whereabouts remain known only to the poet, and stand-in Hughes.

According to the Washington Post, Shallal says he is going to get another Hughes to stand in his window. Perhaps the purloiner-protester will host or at least participate in a reading at Busboys and Poets in the future at which the original cardboard Hughes also makes a reappearance. And will, like any poets or writers reading at the spot, get a bit more cash for his efforts. I think the real Hughes would strongly approve.

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