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.