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February 29th, 2014 - Ryan Collins

My Uncle David, who was a children’s author, was born on a leap year: February 29, 1940. I grew up hearing my father complain about how, three out of every four years, my uncle would bellyache about “not having a birthday” that year, guilting their family and friends into a week of birthday happenings and extra gifts. And then, on that fourth year, he’d milk the occasion as his only chance to really celebrate for another four years. My uncle died unexpectedly when he was 61 (or 15 ¼, if you count his “actual” birthdays).


Ten years ago was not a leap year, and so there was no February 29, 2014. So: how to remember a day that didn’t exist? What was I doing at that time, when it would have been February 29, 2014? Would the closest day be February 28? March 1? Neither date seems correct or feels right. How does one account for such a liminal space in the calendar—the line between 2/28 and 3/1 becomes more a crevasse into which possible days might fall. Who would notice they’re missing if no one is looking for them?


At or around the time that would have been February 29, 2014, I was in Seattle for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP). I had received a small grant to help offset travel expenses, and attended some panels relevant to my work as the Executive Director of the Midwest Writing Center (MWC), a small literary arts nonprofit that my Uncle David helped found in 1980.


Prior to attending, I was invited to participate in the seventh installment of the Dusie Kollektiv, a series of self-produced chapbooks collected and hosted by the journal/press Dusie. All the participating authors got together for a reading during the conference, and it was great to be in community with many other poets. I attended a strange brunch reading with some of my favorite writers, as well as several other readings and events with friends and writers I admired. I was also invited to read at another off-site reading, one with a lineup so packed with notable and award-winning names on the bill, my being included seemed like a lucky mistake. This proved to be a highlight of the trip, and of my writing life to date.

When I arrived at the venue (a large bar/restaurant in Pike’s Place Market, packed Friday night patrons and poets lining the aisles, creating havoc for the front-of-house staff), I noticed two things: 1. Most if not all of the patrons appeared to have no idea there was going to be poetry reading during their dinner, and 2. I couldn’t really hear the readers over the din of conversation and noise of a full Friday night dining room.

I was also told by one of the hosts that I was “on stage” in two minutes. I had just enough time to get a couple poems ready while the host read my bio. I stood up next to a table of six people, perplexed and trying to enjoy their meals, when the organizer gave me the mic and a single instruction: “be fucking loud.” I took this to heart.


I could tell I was loud enough when most every head I could see in the room turned as soon as I belted out the title of my first poem, “What You Need.” My near-shouting felt like it focused the attention, and it seemed like the patrons turned down a bit when I turned up, so to speak. It stayed that way for my three poems, and for the rest of the reading.


Afterwards, I was sitting at the bar with a friend when a well-known poet approached me, said he really dug my poems, especially the first one, and asked if I would send it to him for the magazine he was editing. I expressed my gratitude, being a tremendous fan of his, and not being accustomed to such acknowledgements or invitations. When I returned home, I sent the poem to him, as requested, and he published it—the poem became the opening poem in my first book, which was picked up for publication later in the summer of 2014.



Now, ten years later, I’m finishing writing this having just returned home from AWP in Kansas City. While this year was an entirely different experience (I worked a table at the book fair for work—no readings, no chance encounters pointing toward publication) I was still fortunate to learn and be inspired by a wealth of terrific writers. I was able to see many friends I’d not seen since before the start of the pandemic.


I admit to feeling worried about attending this year before I went, reflecting on ten years ago and feeling like my writing has slipped down a crevasse, through a slot in time. Shouldn’t I have more happening around my work? It feels like ten years ago was a bracketed space, a leap into a time that existed outside of the calendar. Though unlike birthdays (for most of us, at least), not every year is ours to celebrate, and bellyaching doesn’t manifest any joy or occasion—it pushes them away.


Time is a puzzle box we’ve trapped ourselves in, and ten years removed from my magical days in the Emerald City, I’m struggling to find certainty or instruction about what happened then, and how it matters, or doesn’t, to me now. But it’s okay. I am grateful to be here writing, thinking about this in-between day, and my Uncle David, the liminal spaces where he might be, where we find ourselves in time. These spaces are where poems are born.


Ryan Collins is the author of A New American Field Guide & Song Book, and several chapbooks. His poems have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Asymptote, Diagram, Handsome, Ninth Letter, PEN Poetry Series, Apartment, Crazyhorse, Sink Review, and Two Peach. He’s the Executive Director of the Midwest Writing Center and hosts the SPECTRA Reading Series in Rock Island, Illinois, where he lives.


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