Note to future self:/ skip panels on publishing/ and self-promotion.
I used to wonder/ how to break in. Now I want/ to write good. Backwards?
Rita Dove talking/ about anything is worth/ ten hummus buffets.
That’s as far as I got with seventeen-syllable crystallizations of my experience at this year’s annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. You can tell I’m still delirious.
I missed a lot, having suffered some airport disasters en route and arriving twelve hours later that expected, but the thing is, you ALWAYS miss a lot at AWP. Attractive panels and readings are nearly always running simultaneously, and besides, there’s the bookfair, and the fact that human neural tissue rapidly becomes saturated–outdoor walks and episodes of hotel room decompression are crucial if you want to absorb even a fraction of the events running from early morning until midnight. Even if you pace yourself you at some point end up staggering through the exhibition room, arms full of books stored up for solitude, like a “drunken squirrel,” my friend Ellen aptly observed. Ellen was exuberant, though, her red hair lighting up the bookfair, and she even knew just where to go for lunch (Lotus for fabulous and cheap Vietnamese food).
I found myself thinking a lot about this during all those fragmentary conversations with friends in noisy rooms: who was thrilled to be at the AWP and who was thrown into existential crisis by the weird parade of it. One rhapsodized about getting her book signed by Ann Carson (to which I say: damn you, Chicago storms!). Another smiling, successful poet said, “Inside I’m…” She put her hands up next to her head like a specter from Munch and screamed, discreetly.
Iris bought me an absinthe cocktail at Ling and Louie’s called a Forbidden Dragon and beamed out positive energy: sitting next to her I was suddenly talking about how being here was a privilege and fizzing over with panel ideas. Another friend asked me how to handle people constantly overlooking or dismissing your achievements, and while I talked about making sure people know about your publications, and laughing merrily and referencing her eight peer-reviewed articles when they suggest that maybe publishing something would help her get a job, I know I answered her inadequately. After all, later that day I was in a post-teaching-panel Q&A and received an answer that I found a little condescending. I repressed my urge to stand up and shout: I’m a full professor at a teaching-based institution whose full classes receive rave reviews! Let me show you my state teaching award!!–This is one of my many reactions to AWP, every year. Seeing so many good writers striving to be seen, heard, and read fills me with cosmic despair. Any one of us is very unlikely to ever be the It-Girl.
The only thing that brings me back from the edge is refocusing my ambitions. Write as urgently and craftily as you can, I tell myself, so what’s on the page will hold up if the spotlight falls on you. Of course, NaPoWriMo is highlighting for me how poetry-writing is not really happening right now. The projects I feel most drawn to require archival legwork, that long slow hit-and-miss process of reading around for understanding and inspiration, and I’ve had little time for it.
So, what’s left? Service to poetry: buying, reading, listening, reviewing, celebrating, teaching, writing criticism. Cultivating receptivity.
Moments of clear, grateful reception: a fantastic panel on occasional poetry with Rita Dove, Richard Blanco, and others, who discussed how the challenge of the occasion redefines the how and why of poetry, tunes you to the intimate moments in public occasions, reminds you that people really do want poems, sometimes. A panel on black masculinities in which Tim Seibles read a new poem comparing a baby’s feet in utero to little crickets. A childbirth poem by Kevin Young in which he used “crocused” as a verb–he was really stunning. Carolyn Forche’s right hand fluttering over the podium to hypnotize us. Friends leaping from behind book tables to hug me, as if they were actually happy to see cranky me, swollen from travel and pho and poetry-bibbing.