The Conference

It was almost 12.20pm by the time I realised my mistake. A steady rise in volume returned my attention to the present moment. A white noise of voices, milk steamers and chairs being shuffled under tables filled the corners of the atrium. My fellow conference attendees were returning from their workshops, ready for coffee, lunch and polite conversation. I had missed my first two workshops. What were my colleagues going to think of me? Although there was no one around to shame me I felt a red heat rise up my neck and into my cheeks. Guilty and embarrassed I headed to the nearest coffee cart and ordered a latte and a pre-packaged sandwich. Still fathoming the lost morning, I looked out into the atrium. A series of identical metal framed stalls snaked around the outer walls of the space and continued as two back-to-back rows in the middle area. The name of each stall holder was pinned to a piece of vinyl stretched between the two upper metal frames of the stall. Some of the stall holders had double units—these were generally larger or more popular paratextual groups1, with larger budgets and greater influence—which were spacious enough to house two tables and a little seating area for more intimate conversations. Regardless of unit size, each stall was filled with an array of promotional leaflets, report documents and branded freebies.

It was not until the barista’s second ‘excuse me’ that I clocked my order was ready. I reached into my jacket pocket for my wallet but as I retrieved it two pens and a stress ball fell out of the pocket and onto the carpet tiles. In that moment—too flustered to make any logical choices regarding the recovery of the escaped freebies—I found myself in an awkward angled T-like squat: my left hand, holding my card, reached for the contactless reader on the edge of the counter, as my right hand strained to pick up the two pens and stress ball which had now rolled under the cart. Once the items were retrieved and payment confirmed I shoved my wallet and the freebies back into their pockets, readjusted the totebag2 which had slipped off my right shoulder and into my forearm joint, grabbed my latte and slinked away out of sight of the coffee cart. I found a small table among the seating area positioned towards the back corner of the atrium and sat down with a gurthump, exhaling the weight of my wasted morning.

I could see from the steam rising from the sip lid that the latte was still far too hot to drink. Habitually I reached inside my pocket for my phone, ready to fill the time absently scrolling, when my fingertips brushed against the freebies. I laid the goods on the table in front of me. I had a blue stress ball from the ‘Foreword’ stall, a pen cased in bright pink plastic from ‘About the Author’ and the second pen, this time cased in yellow plastic and twinned with a stylus pen3 on the opposite end, was from ‘Illustrations’. I had no use for the stylus pen but I liked the look of it. I made a mental note to give it to my colleague, Minutes at our next team meeting. Minutes could make use of it and they might be interested to hear about the project Illustrations are working on too4. Feeling slightly less guilty for missing the workshops I reached for my latte and took a long swig. It was the perfect temperature.


  1. ‘Reviews’, ‘About the Author’ and ‘Other Titles by the Author’ pages all had double units, whereas pages like ‘Dedications’, ‘Contents’ and ‘Acknowledgements’ just had one.
  2. If you were to look in the totebag you would find a plethora of leaflets, documents and other branded freebies: 6 more pens, 1 more stress ball (this one however was shaped like a little brain rather than the standard ball shape), 3 sticky note pads, 1 triangular multi-highlighter pen, 1 trolley keyring, 2 pin badges and 1 A5 notebook (and the tote bag itself was also a freebie). And this was only what I had collected from the stalls on the perimeter, I was yet to explore the stalls in the centre of the atrium.
  3. I was initially surprised by the debut of the stylus pen into the freebie repertoire. Although seeing a new iteration always (secretly) excites me, I cynically assumed that such an upgrade of the classic clicker pen was a way for the larger paratextual groups to show off their extensive budgets. And while an element of this may be true I remembered that a lot of people now use tablets and touch screens to take notes. Digital note-taking is certainly up-and-coming, both in terms of waste reduction and accessibility, so why shouldn’t these paratextual groups respond to a gap in the freebie market? I myself am still a paper notetaker. Piles of my past filled notepads grew into a trip hazard in the office so I had to request a whole storage room, just for me, to house them all. On some of the notepads the spiral spines are skewed and bent with age/use, others sit as pristine as the first day they joined the collection, and the others located towards the back of the room gather layers of dust. My colleague, Endnotes said they could show me a more structured system of cataloguing and archiving all my notes and references but I don’t have time for a complete system overhaul. Plus I don’t want anyone else sifting through my notes, even it was just temporary. I guess that is why I feel such an affinity with Dionne Brand’s Blue Clerk. The Blue Clerk marshals the poet’s ever-growing stacks of paper in fear of the left-hand pages finding their way onto the right-hand page—their content either too ‘dangerous’ or ‘delicate and beautiful’ for this world. Possibly more of my notes could find their way onto the right-hand pages, but this is not always what a text calls for. Still, I preserve them just in case. Within these reams of excess, as well as references, lie so many experiences, so many observations, so many (mis)understandings, so many learnings. I cannot risk being called upon to recall a citation or an experience and come up short. My role as Footnotes requires me to be precise and thorough—there is no room for error. Hence my filled notepad collection continues to grow.
    3.1 Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), p.4
  4. On the train ride home from the conference I examined the other freebies more closely. I may have missed the workshops but my day was by no means fruitless. There I was, sat on the train surrounded by dozens of objects, each with a conversation attached to it. Networking, professional dialogue, call it what you will—I had enjoyed chatting with my fellow paratext colleagues and learning about their projects. I suppose that is the freebie economic model after all; an item in exchange for an interaction. Was it genius? Or just sad? I remain undecided.