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Conversation Camp

June 8, 2011

by Peter Wortsman

They sent him to a conversation camp because he would not speak. Still he kept quiet. The guards, or interlocutors, as they were called, tried to worm the words out of him. Come now, they coaxed, why not speak of the weather. But he said nothing. His bunkmate, a quiet man like himself, who may or may not have been a covert interlocutor planted to make him speak, proved a comfort and a concern. In response to the man’s enquiring looks he shut his eyes tight and pressed his fists hard against them. He had no way of knowing if the man sympathized, as he was in any case replaced the next day by another. And every day the pressure mounted. It acted like a frame or a traffic light, something to bump up against to reaffirm what he had been given to believe, that there were invisible limits, barriers he could not even dream of getting beyond. Even so he had his doubt, and this doubt which he kept to himself, though they knew he had it, became a kind of currency for which he traded certain favors. Doubt fulfilled an unspoken need. A question mark to cling to as the last trace of that outmoded cache of envy and longing called self.

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Peter Wortsman (PEN member profile) is the author of work in multiple modes, including a book of short fiction, A Modern Way to Die; two stage plays, The Tattooed Man Tells All and Burning Words; prose poetry in the artists’ book it-t=i, produced in collaboration with his brother, artist Harold Wortsman, and in several anthologies; travel writing in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites, and in four consecutive volumes of The Best Travel Writing; and numerous translations from the German, most recently, Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist. He’s a recipient of the Beard’s Fund Short Story Award, as well as Fulbright and Thomas J. Watson Foundation Fellowships, and he was the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010.

Categories: Imprisonment Tags:
  1. Tony Press
    June 8, 2011 at 2:21 pm


  2. Carol Berg
    June 8, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    This is an amazing poem!

  3. Jason Trask
    June 8, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    What I love about this piece is that it manages to be funny and frightening at the same time. Very well done.

  4. June 9, 2011 at 9:39 am

    ditto as per the comments before mine.

  5. Barbara LaMorticella
    June 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Delightfully spooky and Kafkaesque!

  6. Aurelie
    June 22, 2011 at 10:44 am

    Wonderfully written!

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