Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

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This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

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Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

AWP ahead

I have been looking at my bookshelves with a certain apprehensive dismay.

They are…overfull. Here’s part of the shelving where I keep poetry collections. I can’t fit any more in without some “weeding.”

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And then there are the other bookshelves, five or six of them, that are also becoming piled high with wonderful and interesting texts.

Now, this would not necessarily constitute a problem. I love books. I refer to many of them often, and I re-read some of them, and I lend some out to friends. A few of the books are even slightly valuable, as the majority of them are out of print.

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The reason I am thinking about the bookshelf issue is that in a month, I am heading to Washington, D.C. for the annual AWP Conference & Bookfair. I have missed the past few conferences because they were held in Los Angeles, Vancouver, and the like; I cannot take that much time off work nor easily pay for the airfare. But D.C. is not far away! I am not presenting this year, but I will be attending.

The Bookfair, though–it is a haven for book lovers who are fond of hard-to-find literature, small-press poetry and fiction, little journals and big anthologies, teaching texts, new authors. I know I will return home laden with books.

Where will I put them? Is it time to prepare for additions by donating a few of the current volumes? Should I just purchase more bookshelves? Well, I guess I will solve that problem later. For now, I eagerly await the conference.

Revisiting

Read more poems, I advised myself. At first, I thought I might scout around for some writers whose work I am unfamiliar with–writers new (say, Ocean Vuong) and less new (say, Alberta Turner). I have the week off from university work, however, and am lazing about at home…no trips to the library.

I do have my own library, though, much of which consists of poetry collections and much of which I have not read in some time. I chose Audre Lorde off the shelf–her 1986 book Our Dead behind Us. Lorde’s work was pivotal to my early interest in writing poems; I encountered her in a Women’s Literature Studies class in 1978 and was deeply moved by her poems of rage and political awareness, the sensuousness of her imagery.

I chose to re-read some late Plath and one of Adam Zagajewski‘s books, Canvas. What I’m hoping is that some of these re-reads will connect me to areas in poetry I have not explored much recently. Also, I will expand into the works of writers whose poetry I’m less familiar with.

Not to mention the recent work of friends-in-poetry, whom I have let down by not buying their books (yet…I will get to it). So many excellent and thought-provoking writers out there, many of whom I know personally or have at very least met in person and connected via social media platforms. I hope to purchase some of those books at this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., and thus to keep to my commitment to read more poetry.

Meanwhile, I turn the pages and rediscover “old friends” and their voices, stories, moods. That is a pleasant task, and a fruitful and useful one.

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brad-hammonds-flikr-books

AWP follow-up

photo Ann E. Michael

winterhazel

Snow fell on Boston. Not a big snow, however, and rather typical for a late-winter storm: damp, swirling but not biting, swift-melting once the sun appeared two days later. Early Friday morning, I trudged with a friend over the as-yet unshoveled sidewalks to breakfast on Newbury Street at Steve’s. We met with conference buddies who are all members of the WOM-PO [women’s poetry] listserv. It is lovely to meet face-to-face people who have been virtual colleagues and splendid to discuss poetry over a good breakfast.

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It is also a relief to realize that I have finally learned how to manage conference-going. It is all a matter of pacing and, I suppose, of taking poet William Stafford’s advice and lowering one’s expectations. The hardest challenge is making the choice between blowing the budget on terrific food (in a big city, wonderful restaurants abound) or on books, because the bookfair at the Associated Writing Programs’ annual conference is enough to inspire swooning among literary bibliophiles.

In three huge exhibit rooms, small presses and literary and university presses displayed chapbooks, literary journals, and books that range from minuscule to tabloid-sized, books that are handmade, letter-pressed, offset, print-on-demand, stapled, ribbon-sewn, die-cut, fancy-boxed, reprinted, spare, florid, illustrated, edgy, deckle-edged, marbled, second-hand, one-of-a-kind, limited-edition, mass produced, commercial, educational…in all genres including mixed-genre, collaborative, collage, anthology, with an emphasis more on the literary than the commercial text. These books can be devilishly hard to locate, even with the existence of Amazon and online sellers; and holding them in your hands is a far more convincing sell than seeing a picture file on your computer screen.

Heaven for poetry-readers, there are also wonderful creative non-fiction books, collections of short stories, novels, books on prosody and poetics, the craft of writing, on creativity and inspiration and toil and revision and on the complex and controversial topic of teaching writing. Oh, and there are people, too. Most of the attendees are writers of one stripe or another who are congenial and curious or else walking about with the glazed expression of the overwhelmed.

Or some combination of the two.

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I exercised considerable restraint and managed not to load my bedside table with two months or more of reading material (see a related post here). And I got some terrific ideas for teaching writing to college students and found some wonderful poets whose work I want to study. The last night of the conference, I listened to the mesmerizing Anne Carson read an indescribable take-down of the fifth book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, the section titled The Captive (Albertine). It’s been years since I read Proust, which I did almost out of stubbornness in my junior year of college, but the book came back vividly enhanced by Carson’s peculiar approach to pacing, language, scholarship, whimsy and satire. I like what the Poetry Foundation’s biography says about her after the release of her text The Autobiography of Red:

According to John D’Agata in the Boston Review, the book “first stunned the classics community as a work of Greek scholarship; then it stunned the nonfiction community as an inspired return to the lyrically based essays once produced by Seneca, Montaigne, and Emerson; and then, and only then, deep into the 1990s, reissued as “literature”and redesigned for an entirely new audience, it finally stunned the poets.” D’Agata sees Carson’s earlier work as an essayist everywhere in her poetry, along with her deep absorption in Classical languages. Carson’s work, D’Agata alleges, asks one to consider “how prosaic, rhetorical, or argumentative can a poem be before it becomes something else altogether, before it reverts to prose, to essay?”

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Altogether, Boston provided nourishment of many kinds: gustatory, intellectual, emotional, poetical…food for thought.

AWP conference 2013

I am heading up to Boston next week with about nine thousand other writers, writer-educators, writer-publishers, academics, and business people. The annual Associated Writing Programs conference will be in session March 6-10. I posted about the conference briefly last year...and last year’s conference introduced me to Brian Boyd’s work on cognition and storytelling. So I am hopeful that this year’s programs and panels will prove equally enlightening.

The conference offers a chance to meet or at least hear some of my favorite writers and to talk with interesting colleagues. Best of all, there are thousands upon thousands of books and literary magazines to browse. If I feel shy, I can interact with books at the Bookfair and “meet” my fellow writers through their polished texts instead of face-to-face (or body-to-body in the packed bar). The main problem with any event of this kind is the lack of places for introverts to regain equilibrium. At AWP, there are quite a few introverts; and people tend to claim a spot by a window, balcony, or corner somewhere in the conference area and send out “don’t disturb me, I’m recharging” body-language signals. Or they eat alone in the restaurant without looking too uncomfortable about the status of solo diner.

Writers understand.

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Lori A. May offers her insights on the conference here, with a focus on people who are considering graduate school programs. I will be participating in a panel on that topic: the Low-Residency MFA. My main interests, however, remain bibliophile-oriented: discovering poets whose work I haven’t encountered before, finding new books by favorite poets, learning who is editing which long-running journals, and finding new journals to peruse.

By contrast, here’s a lovely, very funny article by Kay Ryan that appeared in Poetry magazine in 2005. The second paragraph sets the tone:

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine. It turns out I have an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts. I couldn’t imagine making a play or movie, for instance; so many people involved. I don’t like orchestral music. I don’t like team sports. I love the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught. Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side. It took her years to do a pocketful. You just know she doesn’t go to art conferences. Certainly not zillion-strong international ones, giant wheeling circuses of panel discussions.

How, then, one wonders, can it be that I have just come back from AWP’s annual conference in Vancouver, treading upon a lifetime of preferring not to?

I fear I am rather in her camp. I do like orchestral music, but I prefer chamber ensembles. I don’t care for team sports. I love the solitaries, the St. Simeon Stylites of the world; there’s a bit of the hermit in me. Crowds–shudder! Yet a conference of writers at least offers the promise that I will be among others who understand how I feel and who feel that way themselves now and then.

St. Simeon Stylites

St. Simeon Stylites

Another advantageous aspect to this event is that I get a chance to talk about poetry and creative writing with people who are as passionate about it as I am. I can discuss the logic and music behind free verse line breaks and learn contemporary writers’ opinions about the sonnet. Is the metaphor dead? Does symbolism have any place in modern writing? Is hypertext the new L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Does anyone understand the significance of the tattoo that says “December 10, 1830” on that young woman’s arm? (It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday). I can talk about my book Water-Rites with people who are working on getting their own poems published and discuss current projects with folks who are sure to have ideas and advice to share.

So the event is worth a bit of discomfort on my part. If I get too overwhelmed, I can go back to my room or walk the chilly Boston streets or have a chat over coffee with just one person at a time.

Or maybe find a pillar in a park somewhere. I think I recall one at Bunker Hill….

bunker-hill-monument

AWP conference

I got back from Chicago on Monday and have been trying to catch up ever since. Chicago hosted the 2012 Associated Writing Programs conference, where nearly 10,000 writers, aspiring writers, teachers, publishers, and students (often these categories overlap) converge to interact, interface, synthesize, network, inform themselves, and idol-worship.

For an introverted, reflective, crowd-shy person, the event can be overwhelming. I speak from experience.

Nevertheless, the conference generally provides me with tremendous food for thought in the form of books to read, authors to discover, concepts to familiarize myself with, pedagogies to explore, and considerable re-assessment of why I do what I do. Also, I meet people.

At a wonderful presentation called “Literature and Evil,” for example, I was seated next to poet James McKean. We had an amiable discussion about teaching composition prep to freshmen before I figured out who he was. Here is one of his poems: “Bindweed” up at The Poetry Foundation site. For poetry people, that’s big-time. The thing is, I hadn’t read any of his books; it would have been really weird to say, “Oh, I recognize your name. I don’t know your work at all, though. Sorry.” So we chatted about an area of common ground: teaching.

I tracked down McKean’s books via Iowa’s Writing Program and did a bit of internet sleuthing for samples of his poetry. Turns out I really like his work. So I’m going to be reading James McKean’s poems and meanwhile be thinking, what a nice man he is! Such a devoted teacher, down-to-earth. He shared some of his classroom approaches and I shared my teaching experiences with similar students. We talked about the differences between community college adult students and 18-year-old freshmen. We didn’t talk about teaching creative writing, but we did talk about the low-residency MFA and his current crop of students. He is much younger than my dad, but he reminded me of my father, a midwesterner and professor interested in what Marilynne Robinson, Ha Jin, and Paul Harding had to say about evil and literature.

They had lovely and compassionate and interesting things to say, in my opinion. I suggest you read their books. And, while you are at it, pick up a collection of James McKean’s poems. He’s a terrific poet–and a very nice man.