Woo hoo, back on the Powell's blog! Last time I did this, I was still in New York, in Yonkers for the cheap rent and cheap shots it so easily afforded me. Since then I've moved back to Madison, Wisconsin. Part of the reason I'm fond of this city, aside from the farmers markets and the sheer ease and beauty of being here, is that Madison likes a festival: early each spring the Wisconsin Film Festival gets us out of the house just at the moment when we can all actually see our sanity, shrunk into something like a tiny mouse curled into a ball, bouncing heedlessly off a cliff. And in the fall, we get the book festival, just as we are trying to distract ourselves from the oncoming winter — this year, this distraction has focused on a lot of predictions of dicey provenance that this winter will be mild. Something to do with a farmer's almanac, which to my knowledge no one has ever actually read but each fall we all insist that someone has read and is telling us we will be just fine.
But back to the book fest. Chickens, for some reason, were in heavy rotation in the events I visited or took part in. (I realize that many people may already assume that people in Madison spend all their time discussing poultry, but I assure you it is atypical.) I went to a panel that included Lynda Barry, who told us that whenever people ask what she does for a living, she draws them a chicken to prove she is a cartoonist. (Kids take her chicken rendering skills as sound proof; adults, she said, feel sorry for her, and say things like, "Everybody has a dream, honey, and this is yours.") I also heard Novella Carpenter read from Farm City, and because the sections she read touched only lightly on the actual slaughter involved in animal husbandry, I began to think I too might have a little urban farming potential.
This led me to do a tiny bit of research, and it turns out the city of Madison is on my side on this dream: it is legal for single-family homes to raise up to 4 chickens (no roosters) at least 25 feet from the nearest house. So I began mentioning this ordinance casually in conversation, and people began telling me who near me is raising chickens on the semi-down-low, right here on my street. Apparently they are all around me.
But until I pursue my dream of converting our storage shed to a chicken coop, back to the book fest. For me the highlights of the comics panel were of course Lynda Barry, talking about anything, and when Harvey Pekar snuck in late and climbed over some chairs a row in front of me. I have loved Lynda Barry's work ever since Cruddy tore my heart out of my chest, bashed it against the wall a few times, and handed it back to me soaked in stale gin and my own tears. But I had never heard her on a panel or presentation, and I see now that this has been to my detriment. She is one of these people to whom you say, "I like cookies," and it touches off a monologue that ranges from childhood and alcoholism to chickens to whatever, and it's amazingly funny and off the cuff and every word is welcome. I love people like this. I like to approach them, say, "Hey, did you see that, um, car?" and then just pour myself a drink and listen. She was so good at this that it seemed to inspire the audience: people began to take longer and longer to ask their questions, until, in my favorite example, one woman began by telling a story about how her kids were reluctant readers until she gave them comic books and now they were great readers, not genius but really very good, and she herself had entered a raffle for a kitchen makeover, and on her ballot she had drawn a cartoon to show why she wanted to win, and how she didn't win, but nevertheless, to make a long story short, her question was about books written in prisons. And the thing is, we have all gone to readings when someone asks a question that seems to take forever and the audience becomes pathologically, predatorily still until they are all staring wrathfully in the talker's direction, but this was not the case this time. There was such a goofy goodwill in the audience by this point that when it turned out the whole story was in service of a question about prisons, there was just laughter — not pissy, disbelieving laughter, either. So it just goes to show you, if Lynda Barry comes anywhere near you, seek her out, ask her to draw you a chicken, and let her talk.
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long