On a flight crowded with sleepy creative writing professors—the kind with teaching-intensive jobs who can’t escape to the AWP convention until late on Wednesday—I probe for existential dread the way you tongue a loose tooth. No, not sore, not yet.
This surprises me, given how my children’s current transitions have predisposed us all to panic. My daughter is applying for jobs plus finishing her senior honors thesis at Wesleyan; her adviser is moody and keeps missing meetings. My son will hear about the rest of his college applications while we’re at the conference, and he’s anxious, too. I’m not actually worried about either of them, not in the long run, but suspense is keen.
This is my first AWP since stepping off the Board of Trustees and even though I have a few residual duties, I feel giddy. Or is that jetlag? On Thursday morning before heading to the convention center, I pull out a small sewing kit I’d packed, intending to reattach a button on my favorite velvet jacket. The needle has rusted from disuse and I can’t thread it. I’m having issues with orderliness and containment.
“What’s with you?” Chris asks as I keep dropping stockings, medications, and granola bars then being unable to locate them again in a small hotel room. Of course, he forgets to buy the lunch he’d promised to bring while I signed chapbooks at the Terrain.org table. Between missed meals and time changes, I only remember I’m due for ibuprofen when my bum right knee and angry right elbow start aching. At the Shenandoah offsite event I barely reach in time, readings by contributors Alicia Mountain, Isaac Yuen, and Shamala Gallagher event move me intensely, but I can’t stay to thank them because I’m starving to death.
Listening to a terrific panel about poetic influence, borrowing, and appropriation, I learn the word “cryptamnesia”: references that are unconscious because the writer has forgotten the source, mistaking the memory for something original. I can’t remember which panelist used the term.
We run into a poet-friend late afternoon Thursday and head to a brewpub together for an hour. We follow signs through doors and down stairs–ow, ow, ow–to stainless steel vats and barstools located in a basement, and I drink a Black Walnut Celebration Lager, chewing two magic ginger lozenges from my friend’s pouch and talking about literary sexual harassers. She tells me she recently read an excellent review of Rita Dove’s Mother Love in the course of her teaching prep and only belatedly noticed my name at the bottom. I laugh, sort of remembering the review but not where I’d published it. The beer and the lozenges do not improve my mental acuity, but it’s lovely to see her and other friends. Over dinner, part of a powerful reading by deaf and disabled writers, and Colson Whitehead’s hilarious plenary, the buzz wears off, and at 10:30 I am terrifically grateful to be reunited with my hotel bed.
Chris notes how many people at the conference greet me happily and thank me for something. I cock my head when he remarks this, again surprised. I had assumed those were just social niceties, but maybe some AWP attendees actually are pleased to see me? There’s a performance of authenticity you do at events like this, but I genuinely like the people I greet warmly. Well, most of them.
“Voice is a textual rendering of the body,” Adrian Matejka says in another outstanding panel, “Beyond Voice”–I remember the title for this one!–then gives a writing prompt I intend to follow soon. I WILL start drafting poems again, somehow, starting April 1. He told us, “Write down three favorite phrases, five favorite works, and the three most important things outside yourself, then use them in a poem.” I have to leave this panel early because my son receives a rejection from a fancy college in the middle of it and I need to call and check his existential angst levels. He’s okay, but my husband wants to punch Yale in the face. (“Who the fuck wants to go to Yale anyway?” my poet-friend with the lozenges remarks. I love her so much.)
In the bookfair, I say thank you to a lot of journal editors and meet the editor of my new poetry press, Molly Sutton Kiefer, for the first time. Next year I’ll be trying to sell my new book from Tinderbox. This year I’m loopy with tiredness, but also from the relaxation of not having to hawk anything, ask for favors, or run an event. How uncanny. But the hours I’d scheduled there fly by, time spilling from my tote bags.
I finish Friday with a panel on Teaching Spec, another big sf event in too-small room (a mistake this conference keeps making). The rows are packed and many listeners sit on the floor. Kelly Link quotes Holly Black: the first page of any story asks a question and makes a promise, and the latter is often a promise about genre. Karen Joy Fowler counters that just because you make a promise to the reader doesn’t mean that you have to keep it. Also, that one of the things genre offers is rules to be broken. Also, that when she mixes genres in her teaching, the sf writers and poets bond quickly, while realist fiction writers mainly complain. Basically, I write down everything Fowler says in a little turquoise notebook Jeannine Hall Gailey gave me.
We’re supposed to have dinner with Jeannine and Glenn, but she’s exhausted between obligations. Chris and I go to the fancy tapas restaurant on our own and it is utterly amazing. I want to go to several simultaneous evening readings, but instead we’re asleep by 8:30. Saturday involves three flights, during which I alternately read and draft this blog. I start to crash mood-wise, although this time it’s not that competitive angsty thing I’ve had to fight against before–there are so many good writers out there, most of whom could give a rat’s ass about my poems. I’ve got joint pain plus a to-do list as long as the walk to the Portland Ballroom, so I can’t get too bothered about my own obscurity. It’s more sadness about how many friends I didn’t see, brilliant readings I missed, even bookfair tables I never found–I wanted one of those Ecotone pencils!
“Time is not linear, not circular. All time is simultaneous,” Rick Campbell said at the Kestrel table. Apropos of what, I have no idea. If he’s right, how do I extend each non-moment to connect with all the people and books I love in AWP’s overwhelming simultaneity? While also spending as much time at home with my son as I can, because I’ll miss him very much next year? When you’re half-knotted, half-unraveled, time feels short.