I’m still recovering from this year’s AWP Conference – too many people/books/bright lights. This year AWP was in Portland, Oregon (a/k/a land of my ancestors or at least great & grandparents) which meant I got to see some REAL trees, some lovely rain, and drink the world’s finest coffee. I tried Alaska Airlines again (why??) and discovered that even with the fancy seats (like Delta Comfort only w/out the comfort part), there were no back of the seat TVs (they do rent “devices” for $10). And so, I spent my flight doing what I used to do on airplanes – reading. It was a lovely way to spend all those hours in the sky and I got a lot of work done. A Portland-based friend picked me up at the airport (apparently something people do outside of NYC) and we spent the day drinking coffee and doing other Portland-type things. I then checked in to the BLP house and waited for the rest of the BLP team to arrive. I sat on a couch larger than my apartment & watched Ricky Gervais play a compassionate human in “Afterlife.” It was very good but not as good as the book I read on the plane. I spent most of my AWP at the BLP table at the Book Fair. I don’t much like crowds & staying behind a table selling books works for me at AWP. I met lots of nice people – teachers/writers/editors/fans of words – and sold some books. At some point I had a short walk & nice lunch with some ArtSmith people & learned that a writer whose manuscript I consulted on (I do this type of editorial work in my “spare” time) just landed a big time agent – well-deserved! It’s a powerful book. Overall the AWP experience was worth it despite the too-many people, the jet lag, the ridiculous flights, etc. etc. There were many good conversations about writing & living & reading & how we all struggle to find time/space/energy to be writers in a world that often doesn’t seem to notice or care or agree that what we do is important. As I start off this spring’s piles of work, I feel equally energized to write and frustrated that I don’t have more time to write the things I want to write instead of the things I have to write. #dissertationVSnovel…
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
I just got back to NYC from AWP 2015 in lovely Minneapolis, MN. It was a great experience aside from the total lack of drinking water (the only options – the yellow water coming out of the drinking fountains or $3.50 small plastic bottles of water available if you had time to stand in a LONG line), the lack of decent food options (I ate a LOT of bananas and Cliff bars), the lack of reliable wireless either in the Book Fair or in the panel presentation rooms, and then of course, there were the immense lines for mediocre coffee. But all of these negatives are the fault of AWP and the Convention Center and not the attendees. The hundreds of small journals and big magazines, small presses and big University presses, the many, many poets, writers, and editors all made it worthwhile. I attended both as an editor for Black Lawrence Press and Sapling and as a panelist. My panel was Echoes of Displacement: Sound in Poetries of Diaspora. My fellow panelists presented on a diverse range of topics and most read their own work. Chris Santiago was the moderator and spoke about his own dissertation work on sound and the poetics of diaspora (it’s much more complex than that of course!); Shane McCrae (one of my favorite BLP poets) spoke about his own work and its evolution; Abdi Phenomenal Farah gave a gut-wrenching spoken word performance focused on his journey from the violence of Somalia to the U.S. And I talked about the Irish Diaspora, the “government of the tongue” and the sound of Irish poetry (both in Irish and English). I ended with an uncharacteristically (?) political poem about language loss and issues of identity.
BLP had a great off-site reading and party at Kieran’s Irish Pub where I was introduced to Two Gingers (yum!). Highlights for me were B.C. (Carter) Edwards, Bettina Judd, Shane McCrae, and Mark McKee. Of course, so many of the BLP writers and poets are wonderful that every one of the readings was stunningly good.
Overall, it was a great AWP and although I did miss seeing the sky and breathing outside air, Minneapolis has lots of intriguing skyways and some great Irish pubs.