March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Stephanie Hunt
“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.
This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.
Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.
And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.
During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”
This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.
Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites.
March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
The AWP Conference is virtual this year, and most current and former members are rather curious what that will look like and how that will go. No hotel bar? No hotel lobby stress-attacks? No book fair chocolates? Nonetheless, U of Nebraska Press has arranged for an author “meet and greet” to mark the release this week of my hellish new memoir To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno, and I hope someone, anyone, shows up.
You have to be registered for the conference already, so if not, you have an easy out here. But those of you who are registered, the event is Friday, from 11 am to noon EST, at this link: Dinty Meet & Greet Hell Book AWP 2021. We can chat. I can sign the air. You only need to stay for a moment or two.
It is a tough year to launch a book, as many of you know. The marketing folks are working from home, pandemic bookselling is a mess, and January itself had a hellish quality. But here we are:
To Hell With It is part memoir/part spiritual essay, asking what would our world be like if eternal damnation was not hanging constantly over our sheepish heads, stoking our self-loathing and making so many of us vaguely miserable? To Hell with It pokes fun at Dante’s ambitious poem, Divine Comedy, and explores the ways in which the poet’s gruesome imagination, helped along by shady theologians, shaped western culture and made us all a little more miserable than we need to be.
The more I read about early religion, the more I came to understand how much of Catholic and Christian theology was clearly man-made, and designed to manipulate rather than to inspire spiritual awakening. Plus, I love poking fun at silliness, and Dante’s long poem is a rather bizarre and ridiculous mix of horror-movie imagery and revenge fantasy.
Beth Ann Fennelly, author of Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, generously says of the book: “I don’t dare say that Dinty’s Inferno is better than Dante’s. But it is a hell of a lot funnier. It’s so funny that you don’t realize how smart it is until it’s too late: you’ve suffered Deep Thoughts. You realize you’ve been not only entertained but enlightened.”
If you are registered for the AWP, please join me on Friday, for five minutes or so, and we’ll chat. If not, maybe have a moment, check out the book, or ask your local library to order a copy.
Thanks so much, and stay healthy!
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity.
April 1, 2020 § 7 Comments
By Kim MacQueen
I’m home because we’re all home. I’m sitting on my couch, looking out the window, because we’re all sitting on our couches, looking out our windows. We’re all watching our neighbors walk their dogs, or take out their trash, then go back inside and shut the door. It feels like we’ve been here forever.
But it was only two weeks ago that I was lugging two heavy bags 2,000 miles through five different airports to the writer’s conference, trying not to freak out. When I made my rushed and distracted travel arrangements, I’d bought two different flights at two different times from two different airlines. I sort of decided, in this annoying way I sometimes have, that both flights would connect at JFK. They did not.
There was nothing to do but admit my mistake and fork over another $300 for a new trip involving three trains and five airports, that would start 18 hours earlier than planned and end 7 hours later. My trip lasted 16 hours and felt like it had been planned by a monkey.
At first I wasn’t even going to tell my husband about the travel snafu. Then I gave in because I needed to let him know that, even as he planned to drop me off at the airport at 8 am, I wasn’t going to be able to send him a “Landed safely!” text until after midnight, as my trip to Texas was now set to last longer than a recent trip that took him from New York to South Korea. He just shook his head as I fled the bedroom with my head down so I wouldn’t have to continue the conversation. If I was my own personal assistant, I would totally fire me.
So I set off on this ridiculous trip. I brought a magazine and two audiobooks and six hours of editing work and one online mindfulness course I signed up for on a whim. I didn’t do any of those things. Instead I jumped full-on into pretending this had been my idea the whole time. If you’d stopped me in any of the above-mentioned airports and asked me why I looked so tired, which luckily nobody did, I would have told you I’d actually wanted to fly this circuitous route from Vermont to New York to Chicago to San Antonio in the same day. I would have claimed I was excited to see whether I could get from JFK to Newark Airport (route: Airtrain to Long Island Railroad to Penn Station to New Jersey Transit) before passing out for lack of food.
And it kind of worked. After a couple of hours of pretending I was enjoying running through five different airports, I found I did kind of dig it. I started talking to myself in that way you do when you’re traveling alone. I watched a show on the plane where a young blonde woman who really needed a haircut, or a blowout, or something, talked about all the different wines you can pair with tater tots.
I should write something clever about this given the amount of time I’ve spent consuming tater tots and the money I’ve spent learning about wine, I told myself. You’re the one who needs a haircut, my self said back.
I did not pass out from lack of food. I had an egg salad sandwich in Newark that was more than serviceable after I pulled off the disgusting wilted lettuce, and a martini and sushi in Chicago that was perfectly fine if I ignored the glare of the awful Gate C lighting and the fact there were a few specks of somebody else’s food on my menu. The more I pretended to be interested in experiencing the people and food of five different airports, the more fun it was.
And I learned some things. I learned that most of the transit apps on my phone don’t work to actually get me anywhere. “Those apps are a pain in my you-know-what,” said a friendly Long Island Railroad guy, who then told me the train I’d been trying to get on for the last 20 minutes would take me not to Penn Station but to the site of the movie The Amityville Horror on the other end of Long Island.
I eventually got to Texas, where I did what I’m doing now in Vermont: sit on the couch and look out the window. Then my friend Anne got there from Massachusetts. She sat in the chair, because I had commandeered the couch. The next day we went to Association of Writing and Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for the few sessions we were interested in that hadn’t been cancelled by COVID19. Most of the programming we’d traveled 2,000 miles for was moved online. So.
So we had nachos and margaritas by the river at a restaurant that had been there since 1946 that is — unthinkably, horribly — closed now. We had cocktails at the longest wooden bar in Texas, watched over by a bison head the size of a Volkswagen, and the egg-and-potato tacos we had for breakfast the next morning at Patti’s Taco House II helped me deal with my hangover. We sat under a tree with fragrant purple-pink flowers in the front yard of our Airbnb and ate grocery store pizza I’d thought would be good (it wasn’t). But Anne was nice about it.
At the time I thought, this trip is totally worthwhile, just for this. Maybe not the pizza, but all the good things around the pizza. A chance to connect with people I love and admire, some for the first time in person. Time with Anne to sit in the sun; time to hang out if just for a minute with all the people who served me at those airports and restaurants. I got to see them and talk with them and eat their food. I so hope they’re okay.
Now I’m back on the couch in Vermont. Enough time has passed that I now feel lucky I didn’t become infected or infect anyone else. A trip like the one I just took is unthinkable now. And good, because the way I set it up was super dumb. And not good at all, because without that trip I would have missed all that life-sustaining connection through writing and food and just knocking around Texas together, buying bad pizza and trying to figure out where to park the rental car. In the end, I still have my window and my couch. And I can talk to my friends online. I’m grateful for them.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University and has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
Kim MacQueen teaches writing and publishing at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. She has published two impossible-to-find novels. Come and visit on kimmacqueen.com.
March 10, 2020 § 3 Comments
Since so many writers and readers had to change their plans to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last week (#AWP2020), and miss the bookfair, Rose Metal Press is offering a we-couldn’t-go-to-AWP online sale, with all books nicely discounted and free shipping too (use the code AWPFREESHIP).
Actually a lot of presses that had to miss the conference are offering post-AWP discounts, and please support them all if you can, but Rose Metal is home to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book, frankly, toward which we feel a great fondness.
But, hey, listen to Phillip Lopate: “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction … is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”
Great for teaching, and perfect for the the individual writer in need of prompts and inspiration!
The sale only lasts through March 12th, so jump on it today!
February 24, 2020 § 10 Comments
By Suzanne Roberts
- Pace Yourself. Put together a schedule of things you want to attend, but don’t try to go to a panel in every time slot. Shoot for no more than two panels a day, and try to hit the keynote readings. I can’t tell you how happy I am that I got to see people like W.S. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Grace Paley, and Dereck Walcott read now that they are gone. Seeing these luminaries was more memorable than those times I went to a 26-person marathon reading in a crowded bar with bad free beer.
- Break up your visits to the book fair. If you spend too much time in the din of the flickering lights in the windowless book fair, you will, more than likely, lose your mind. I recommend visits to the book fair on the first day when everyone is fresh and giddy with jetlag, and they all want to talk to you and foist their free things on you (like candy and pencils). And go on the last day, when everyone has been glued to her table for three days and has turned into a zombie. These people will be staring into their phones to keep themselves from eating your brains. But it’s Saturday, and your voice is gone, and you won’t have to talk to them. And the cheap books and journals that no one wants to cart home will make up for braving the zombie apocalypse.
- Hydrate and bring your own food. Bring a bottle to fill with water and have it with you at all times. Also pack some energy bars, nuts, and other healthy snacks. Otherwise, you will live off book fair chocolate, hotel coffee, and cheap well drinks, and by Saturday, you will be a shaking sallow version of yourself, and won’t be able to remember your own name. You might have even joined the zombie apocalypse. Three days doesn’t seem like a long time, but in AWP-time, it might as well be forever, plus a few years. And if you can, schedule a recovery day. I am writing this the Monday after the Portland AWP. I slept 12 hours last night. It is now 4:30 PM, and I am still in my pajamas. I might take a shower and put on clean pajamas. Then again, I might not.
- Be like Cinderella. This one took me about 15 years of AWP to learn. If you go to the lobby bar after midnight, you are likely to say or do something you will later regret, although arguably, the person you say this in front of will be too busy worrying about her own post-midnight transgressions the next day to think about you. When you get home from dinner or that off-site event, repeat this mantra as you walk to the elevators: Nothing good comes of going to the lobby bar after midnight. I repeat this mantra to myself (it mostly doesn’t work for me, but it might work for you). And if you do end up at the lobby bar after midnight (or the VIP Party, which you would have to sneak into), here’s some advice: How to Make a Fool of Yourself at AWP. (Though be forewarned, in Portland, the VIP party was switched to a one-time event, so by the time you find out when and where it is, it will be over. It’s a secret now. Like Fight Club. This might be because of me.)
- A word about FOMO. You are going to miss about 99% of what is going on at AWP. That’s okay. Be present where you are. Enjoy the people you are with. Look at the people you are talking to in the eye, rather than scanning the room for someone else to talk to. If you keep looking around for someone more important to talk to, the people you are in conversation with will correctly assume you are an asshole, and never want to talk to you ever again. This is not the way to make new friends.
- Think twice before taking on an AWP boyfriend or girlfriend. I am too old and too married to know if hooking up is still a thing at AWP, but I’m going to assume it’s still very much A THING. But remember, you and that funny way you scream during orgasm may very well end up in a poem or essay, or worse yet, a best-selling memoir. And this can prove to be problematic if you are married or otherwise committed. Remember where you are. And with whom. These are people who believe, like you probably do, that the story is more important than you are. And just so you know, sleeping with a famous poet will not magically help your verse, nor will it help you become a famous poet. You have never heard of me? See. It didn’t work.
- Think of network as a noun and not a verb. There are people who always complain about AWP. They say they hate AWP. This might be because they use the word network as a verb. Instead, think of network as a noun. You are part of a huge 15,000-person network of writers. AWP is a place where you can connect with your friends and hopefully make new ones. It’s not a place to meet someone who will want to publish your book. I have seen too many graduate students wandering around the book fair, desperately gripping onto their master’s thesis, hoping that the editor of Penguin/Random House will see them, rip said manuscript from their hands, and declare it a masterpiece. This is not how things work (you know that already, right?). The people at the book fair tables are likely graduate students themselves, and in the 15 years I have been to AWP, I have never seen a bona fide representative from Penguin/Random House there looking for the next great American novel. Yet, I have met many of my dearest friends at AWP, for which I will be forever grateful. These friendships have sustained me and have made my writerly life less lonely and way more fun; these connections have enriched my life in ways a book deal never would. So, if you see me at AWP, please say hello.
Suzanne Roberts’ books include the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) and the travel essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (Forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press, 2020). Her work has appeared recently in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She teaches for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada University, serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate, and lives in South Lake Tahoe. For more information, check out her website: www.suzanneroberts.net or follow her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.
April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments
By Lorri McDole
When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:
Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.
But second thoughts:
It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?
As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.
On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.
Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!
Dammit all to hell.
If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.
Beth Ann Fennelly
I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.
Yi Shun Lai
Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”
“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.
On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”
“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”
I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.
There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.
But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.
I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.
Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The Writer, Cleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.
April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments
By Alexa Weinstein
I TRIED TO WRITE DOWN SOME OF THE GREAT THINGS WRITERS SAID
James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.
Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.
Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.
I GOT TIRED AND STARTED WRITING DOWN PHRASES I LIKED WITHOUT WORRYING ABOUT WHO SAID THEM*
(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)
who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges
how it made me feel • how many pages
a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air
in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit
not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft
the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away
no long speeches
as the plane crashes • as I learned to write
so weird and unique • so enchanting
for the picture • for the end • for taking it
like a sentence • like lying down
to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over
more silence • more attention
wants to arise
I PERIODICALLY LEFT THE CONVENTION CENTER TO ROAM MY OWN CITY
At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.
At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.
On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.
At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.
At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.
Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at alexaweinstein.com. Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.
April 2, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Bonnie Martin
“Okay, I will have the chicken option please,” I say to the woman at Marukin Ramen, a ten minute walk from the Oregon Convention Center. I add, “And can I—or I mean, may I—”
The woman laughs, and looks at the AWP conference badge hanging by a blue lanyard around my neck. One that thousands of others are sporting in Portland this weekend.
“You must be from that writer’s conference,” she conjectures. “You’re the sixth person today who has corrected themselves in this line for saying ‘can’ instead of ‘may.’”
Now we both laugh. However, in my head, the other conference goers are saying something far more sophisticated, like “Can I—or I mean, may I—add fried leeks to my ramen order?” versus what I ended up saying… “And can I—or I mean, may I—please have a fork?” I peered around the small shop on Ankeny Street with my eyes widening at the chopsticks in view, imagining the scene of noodles flopping from bowl to table, me unable to use the sticks.
And that’s a pretty accurate summary of how I felt at my first AWP conference. I was a fork in the midst of a bunch of chopsticks, taking a stab at what it means to be a writer, a reader, and a good literary citizen.
It took me a few hours of being asked by vendors in the book fair what I do before admitting “I guess I am a creative nonfiction writer.” (I realized a three minute description of my path to AWP was too laborious and stale for anyone–including myself–to endure anymore.) It took sitting in on three author panels before I realizing these writers’ advice might truly apply to me, that it was more than hypothetical, nebulous learning in which I was partaking.
This conference was truly a dizzying experience for me, and I have been processing it since, trying to figure it all out.
But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A recurring theme in many of the panels I attended hinged on meaning. We write to create meaning and order in our lives. For ourselves. For others. And that’s why I started down the path in English literature years ago in my undergraduate career. A floundering student at a Big 10 university, I was desperate to create meaning in my college career. And through a series of choices which might be called planned happenstance, I landed in the English department, where meaning is made, is written, is explained.
It’s through this same planned happenstance I made it to the AWP conference. A professor suggested I join a graduate certificate. She mentioned in passing there was a travel grant for a writing conference at our university. I followed down this path out of curiosity and ended up in Portland.
And I ask myself “now what?” I went to AWP and what will I do next? Well, my tools may be different than others, using my metaphorical fork instead chopsticks, my nontraditional career trajectory instead of the traditional creative writing MFA, but I will do what I know how to do best: attempt to create meaning. And acknowledging such, and writing this down thus far, is just the beginning.
Bonnie Martin is a graduate student and writer in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Orion’s The Place Where You Live column. Outside the classroom, Bonnie enjoys refinishing furniture and a good cup of coffee.
March 26, 2019 § 17 Comments
By Jennifer Niesslein
I’m not a hater of AWP, but if you say “Montaigne” three times in the mirror, I’ll appear and scratch you.
- “AWP” stands for “Association of Writers and Writing Programs,” although the vibe the conference feels, to me, more geared toward writers in writing programs. I’ve never been enrolled in a writing program and I don’t teach in a writing program. The AWP schedule is pretty packed with sessions titled with “re-” prefix (“rewriting,” “reclaiming,” “reimagining”) and other academic speak. There is probably a ton of value for some people in these talks. I’m not one of them.
- It’s expensive. I’ve been a presenter a few times, and they’re the only times in my life I’ve had to pay for the privilege of giving my time for preparation and speaking—and more. Last year, I flew to Tampa where AWP hosted a conference. I spent over a thousand dollars between airfare, registration fees, taxis, meals, and the hotel. I didn’t have anyone to comp me for this; people involved in writing programs do, from what I understand. I ran into a good friend at the airport who’s a Big Deal. Someone was paying her to fly first class. On the plane, I passed her with my clunky carry-on luggage I bought at TJ Maxx. “I’ll be back in steerage,” I joked. Kind of. I wrote the expense off on my taxes (and we’ll see if that’s legal anymore, given the tax overhaul), but even that’s a luxury—I have the money to front.
- SO MANY GENRES! I edit and write creative nonfiction. It’s a genre relatively new to the MFA world; my own alma mater has an acclaimed MFA program and they still don’t offer CNF. So if you’re thinking you’ll sit at an AWP-sanctioned hotel bar and strike up a conversation with a stranger about craft, you might be speaking different languages; it’s not that poets and writers of creative nonfiction can’t have a nice conversation—it’s just that if you’re looking for a tribe, it doesn’t just happen organically. For that, you might want to check out conferences specifically for your genre.
- Home is awesome! When AWP-goers are taking off their shoes and shoving laptops into bins, I’ll be chilling in my slippers. When they’re waiting for an elevator that, when it finally arrives, they eye and wonder if it’s straining the weight limit, all the while contemplating their own deaths, I’ll be quietly making a cup of tea that’s not the temperature of lava. When they’re waiting forty-five minutes to be seated for lunch in what may or may not be a good restaurant chosen only because it’s within walking distance, I’ll be zapping last night’s leftovers and watching trash TV on my couch. And when they post pictures of a fabulous party filled with writers whose work I admire? There will be a twinge, a flicker of I should have gone. But then I’ll wonder who I think I’m kidding—after a certain point in the evening, the bra comes off and the robe comes out, no matter where I am in the world. I’ll go to my very own bed draped with a soft blanket that smells like my own detergent and realize that no one invoked Montaigne to me in some time, and I’ll dream the dreams of a homebody: all the places I don’t have to go.
Jennifer Niesslein is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She also co-founded Brain, Child magazine. She’s the author of one memoir, Practically Perfect in Every Way, the editor of two Full Grown People anthologies, and an essayist. She’s on leave from Full Grown People to write another book.