Random Thoughts on AWP 2011

Posted on February 11, 2011


The best thing about the AWP Conference is the chance to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in months or years. It’s about the friendships, finding a familiar face and everything else vanishes for a few minutes while you exchange pertinent data on jobs, families, climates — whatever. It’s nice to hear their voices rising and falling in your ears, to be reminded of a mannerism or quirk of speech. Finding that single thread helps you when you’re lost in the overload of faces and voices — each one jockeying for position in the writing world. When I came home to finish reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids (I purposefully left it behind because I knew I did not want to be left with its ending sadness on the road), one passage summarizes my basic feeling toward AWP. She’s in NYC, starting to give readings in the poetry scene there in the early 70s. She remarks, “I sat through much of it [marathon reading at St. Mark’s] sizing up the poets. I wanted to be a poet but I knew I would never fit into their incestuous community. The last thing I wanted was to negotiate the social politics of another scene.” Negotiating social politics has never been a strength for me. Awkward. Shy. Frequently saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. If there’s anything that’d make me want to give up wanting to be a poet, it’s negotiating the social politics of poetry. It’s the friends who I love despite being poets who are the lifesavers…

Other than sitting on one panel, paying tribute to Mort Marcus, who for one brilliant afternoon in the early 90s was the best friend I ever had, I did not wander much from the Quale table (except to buy books). I’ll grouse now that sales were terrible, but an improvement (of 1) over AWP in NYC. (Just so you have some idea: a table costs $450, airfare/train was $175, hotel $400, meals $150 and parking $60 — for roughly $1,235 total expenses. I would have to sell 190 books at $10 apiece to break even [counting in an average of $2 per book for printing and $1.50 for author royalties]. Didn’t even come close. And we’re not even taking into account shipping costs and design/editing/overhead for producing these books.)

I did my best to talk up Quale, and the Literary Publishing Certificate program from Emerson that I was also representing. I thought my table position by a doorway would have been great for traffic. It was, in one sense: I found myself being asked by dozens of people where to find Press X or Y, or where the Index of Exhibitors was in the Conference Program. I had to check my table’s sign more than once to make sure someone didn’t place an “AWP Information” sign on it.

I’d make my usual suggestion on the CLMP Listserv about organizing the Bookfair some now. There are so many tables across so many rooms, everyone looks dazed and overwhelmed as they pass by. Exhaustion seems to reign on faces in the Bookfair. I don’t think it’d hurt to have separate rooms or sections — one for writing programs, one for book publishers, one for literary mags, etc. It would be a great help to attendees, incur less burnout. It might require more work on the behalf of AWP organizers, but it’d be well worth it. One of the best things I saw in the Bookfair was the Table X section. Great idea to gather presses that have a common ground.

Another suggestion would be for the organizers to think about specific tracks for panels and sessions. I’m definitely an old-timer, but way back there seemed to be more sessions geared towards practitioners (creative writing teachers and writers with a fair amount of experience). CLMP handles the “publishing” tracks, but maybe have a pedagogy track? Why not gather all the readings into one room, marathon style?

Last, I wasn’t around for the conference’s grand moment of controversy — Claudia Rankine’s response to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” Wish I did make it. Sara Jaffe (who once worked for Quale quite nobly) did attend and her take on the session is here. The issues speak for themselves. But it’s kind of rankling that Hoagland stated his poem was meant for white people. If a poem is published, it’s out there for any or all people to see it. I might write a poem for my wife but if I publish it, it’s for more people than her and I’d have to be aware that others would “receive” it, most probably in ways that would drastically differ from its intended audience (my wife). As a writer, I’d have to be cognizant of these differing reactions — after all, once the poem is out in the world, the poet has no control over who reads it and how they read it. For Hoagland not to be aware that, on face value, his poem could be hurtful, nay offensive, to some is naive. I would not view someone of his stature to be so naive, which then begs diving into the question of intent.

For me, racism, or sexism, or any type of bigotry or prejudice, reflects the inability to see individuals. I would love to get know every person on earth — all nigh 7 billion. But that’s a total impossibility. It’s a noble goal, but unattainable, especially if you start waxing philosophical and say, “Well, do we really truly ever know anyone?” So we start taking shortcuts, start making assumptions like “I’ve seen lots of people do this and they are similar in this way and now I see X do that so s/he must be similar to those lots of people.” Laziness. Intellectual laziness. Aesthetic laziness. Many people affected by “isms” in themselves say they already know what they need to know: they don’t need to know more. They already know the answers; they’ve had enough. (Sound familiar?) One antidote to the “isms”: curiosity.

And, yes, I know I’ve made some assumptions herein. Mea culpa: we are all imperfect.


Posted in: AWP, bookfairs, poetry