Occult AWP

  1. On the first morning of AWP 2023 in Seattle, I led a panel about teaching and writing risk with four amazing women who tell you the truth even when it scalds you: Jan Beatty, Destiny O. Birdsong, Erika Meitner, and Asali Solomon. Before the event began, Jan slipped me a present wrapped in purple tissue paper: a labrodorite stone to open my third eye. At the end of the panel, which had ranged over many topics and approaches, she whispered, “But we didn’t talk about It.” Then I got pulled away.
  2. Later I saw Jan in the book fair and asked her what “It” was, and she gave me a good answer, but I was already spinning other possible meanings and kept doing so all weekend. What are we not talking about?
  3. AWP always gets existential for me. Who am I to these people, the loudly famous and the incognito, the overhyped and the underrated, the shy initiates and gregarious elders?
  4. I don’t know how others see me, never will, but I kept being surprised by niceness. “That was the best panel I’ve been to in my life,” after the risk event–whoa! And someone found me in a hallway and lavishly praised a panel I’d run in 2019 at another conference. Strangers said kind things about my writing and friends pumped up my books to other strangers. In short, while my work is under most people’s radar–occulted by the sheer number of good writers out there–at this AWP I often felt seen and welcomed.
  5. Meanwhile, a super-strange energy infused a panel on Divinatory Writing. The room was smallish and people, many of them women, kept pouring in, overfilling seats, leaning against walls, lounging on the floor. While the presenters gave short talks about different divination traditions, men in uniforms kept marching up the aisles and whispering to them. Clearly the room was over capacity. One speaker, a woman with intense presence, made a crack after a uniformed guy marched out again, daring the fire marshal to come back and break up a room full of witches. Oh no, I thought, she’s summoned the fire marshal! He did show up shortly, asking various individuals to leave; some apparently did, although I was sitting up front without sightlines. The panelists then announced they wouldn’t continue speaking, in solidarity with those who had been ousted. That didn’t feel quite right to me–I’ve been shut out of a LOT of events for capacity reasons, sometimes that’s how it goes–but who am I to second-guess the powers? I wonder what the panelists would have said next.
  6. The next day, sitting by the Book Fair event stage, I asked a friend whose mother died recently if she felt her mother around. Funny you should say that, she said. My mother talked to dead people all her life and told me at 13 that I had the gift but was refusing it; she also said that when she died, she’d come back to me.–My eyes widened, but then the reading started.
  7. This was the 30th anniversary reading for Kestrel, which the editors kindly asked me to participate in. I loved hearing stories of the magazine’s founding; it was an especially warm, interesting event that manifested a community generations deep. I had just come from a chat with the editor of another storied journal that’s coping with university budget-slashing. He couldn’t get administrators to even listen to his arguments. Invisible, inaudible.
  8. On Friday night I met another friend at her hotel. The bar was full, so she asked me to hang out in her room with her for a bit. She’d turned it into a cozy lair with a vaporizer, tasty homemade snacks, and a portable pink light-up makeup table. I rested my sprained ankle on an ottoman and her husband fixed it up with kinesio tape.
  9. A year after my own mother’s death, I dreamed about encouraging her ghost to rest. We were in an unpleasant house fronted by a muddy river in spate, but in a lucid dreaming way, I conjured a quiet garden in bloom out back. She lay down on a padded lounge chair, and I covered her with a blanket, worrying aloud that she’d be cold when night fell. It’s okay, she said, there’s a dog, and a golden retriever wandered over and spread his warm length out next to hers. Good, I said, you sleep, you deserve it. I haven’t felt her around since.
  10. I bumped into another friend in the bookfair who had been feeling overwhelmed. She hugged me and said I had a calming presence. People tell me that a LOT, which amazes me–I wouldn’t survive my own anxiety without modern pharmaceuticals. Am I hiding my real mental state, then? It might just be that I truly believe that my friends are great and they shouldn’t worry so much. I’m the only person who should be worried.
  11. If you didn’t go to AWP and want to hear trends, I’m the wrong person. I avoided events I suspected would be buzzy. But I did notice that the mystical and occult are having a moment, in the bookfair as well as that ill-starred panel. I think it’s becoming a free-lance career path: some folks teach creative writing AND divination, tarot, etc. The subjects crisscross just as creative writing and literary studies do. Interesting.
  12. I just published a haunted poem in an MER Folio called “Mothers Respond”: called “Permit for Demolition,” it links the razing of a nearby house to parenting, dentistry, and small-town life in a place with a violent history. I owe the word “Confederatelandia” to former W&L History professor T.J. Tallie, who ditched the joint in favor of California.
  13. Here on the earthly plane, I have NOT recovered from Seattle and the time change. AWP is a rewarding, rich conference, but flying cross-country in the middle of the term is hard on a body. Current work: teaching, reading Shenandoah subs, a flurry of utterly mundane chairing tasks. Next up: NEMLA in Niagara Falls on the weekend of the 24th. This time my spouse and I are traveling together and I’m presenting on “teaching resilience” by opening up the task of undergraduate research writing to the memoiristic mode I pursue in Poetry’s Possible Worlds. This weekend, let’s hope I can rest a bit–AND divine just what I need to say.

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