66º ~ light showers come and go, gray skies, no wind
Dear Readers, I began to despair of ever making it back to the desk of the Kangaroo. Arriving home from AWP on Sunday, I was immediately swept up with school work and had two major events this week. One was our Big Rock Reading Series event with Chris James (aka Scorpio), a performance poet, on Tuesday night. That event was knock-down, no holds barred FANTASTIC! There's a video up on our Facebook page if anyone is interested in checking out a sample of what we enjoyed. Then, last night I was on campus late again, but this time for meetings regarding a new building for our division. Plans are underway and there is much excitement in the air; however, yesterday was all about confronting the cold, hard truth about the budget. We all had to downsize our dreams a bit, but in the end, this building is going to let the humanities and arts shine on our campus in a way they've never been allowed to shine before. Wahooo!
This morning, I spent a considerable time shoveling papers off my desk, checking in on online classes, and taking care of urgent tasks (i.e. personal accounting). Now, I'm ready to give an account of my time in Chicago at the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.
I arrived Wednesday afternoon and did some networking over drinks and dinner with some of my fellow writer-professors. One of the best parts of this conference is learning new tricks to filling these dual roles. How do we balance our writing lives with our teaching lives? One comment I heard over and over again was that writers who teach creative writing often give their students writing prompts (as do I) and multitask by doing those prompts alongside their students. In this way they model the assignments and get a bit of writing done during the teaching day. Wahoo.
Thursday began the conference proper and I attended two panels before doing an off-site "shotgun" reading (more on that in a minute). The first panel I attended was on sentimentality in undergraduate creative writing and how to teach students to avoid it. Much of this I already do: encouraging specific images over vague language/abstractions, but some of it was new to me. In particular, I enjoyed Adrian Gibbons Koesters' presentation which called into question how writing professors use their authority in the classroom. Her point was that when an instructor allows his/her "sentimentality issues" to override the work of the student, it shuts down the student. Rather, we need to be aware of how we present ourselves as authorities and guide our students through the murky waters of sentimentality and illustrate why we want them to avoid it. As Koesters stated, it is easier for us to be the unquestioned authority at the front of the classroom and simply say "NO" to a poem that isn't working, but that doesn't necessarily encourage the student to move forward and make progress.
Later that day, I attended the panel on the anthology A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Frequent readers will know that I have a poem in the anthology, along with 203 other poets. It's an awesome resource and I was happy to attend the panel in support of editors Stacey Lynn Brown and Oliver de la Paz. However, the panel went way beyond any expectation I had as contributors Patricia Smith, Jake Adam York, Eduardo C. Corral, and Cornelius Eady spoke candidly (sometimes painfully) about race and the persona poem. Smith, an African American, spoke about the awkwardness of writing in the voice of a white skinhead until she opened the door and allowed that person into her head and her heart. She made the point that to write about another person is a distant kind of writing, but to write as another person is all about letting that person inside your self. Wow! York spoke about his subject matter (the Civil Rights Martyrs) chose him and how he tries to allow those silenced voices an space to be heard in order to shed himself of the "George Wallace representation of Southern white males." Uhm...Wow! Then, Corral got up and made me cry. He talked about how persona poetry, for him, attempts to give voice to the voices that have been erased through the oppression of both legal and illegal immigrants in the Hispanic communities in the U.S. He went on to point out that as the poet he had to erase his own personal experiences to focus on the voices of others and noted that the more autobiographical one of his poems appears to be, the more fiction it contains. Finally, Eady touched on African American male poets over the last hundred years and the question they have all had to answer: Am I a black poet or a poet? As he talked about the incredible influence of white teaching on black writers, I couldn't help but correlate this to the incredible influence of male teaching on my writing as a female. So much to think about here. So many ideas I can bring into the classroom regarding persona poems in both creative writing and lit classes. Wow!
Finally, I moved on to contribute my five minutes to the amazing and wonderful off-site reading hosted by Connotation Press. Ken Robidoux is one of the most energetic people I've ever met and a gracious host/supporter of writers. I was so sad not to meet Kaite Hillenbrand but delighted to get to say hello to Nicelle Davis in person, along with the many writers in the room! I heard someone call these "shotgun readings" because each person jumps up to the mic and has about five minutes to woo the audience. It's a completely different experience from the more formal readings that allow the audience to sink into one specific person's work for a longer time, but I think both formats have a lot to offer.
On Friday morning, I read on the panel "Redefining Lyricism" led by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, who runs the Poem of the Week website. I was honored to read with Tim Seibles, Daniel Khalastchi, Nicole Cooley, and Robert Wrigley. It was a diverse panel and each reader offered his or her take on incorporating lyric elements in narrative work by reading from poems rather than presenting lectures. It was lesson by immersion, and it was stunning to be included.
I spent some good part of Friday in the basement of the Hilton exploring the four corners of the bookfair. I was thankful that I attended AWP Chicago in 2009 so I was prepared for how broken up the travel pattern would be down there. Over the three days of the conference, I was able to meet and speak with many editors and writer-friends, but still there were those I missed. It's a bit overwhelming to be navigating those tables alongside the other 9,300 registered participants. One of the repeated questions when meeting new folks or connecting with editors was "where are you at?" meaning where do you live/teach. My response of Little Rock, AR and Pulaski Technical College was said with pride as I consider myself an ambassador for the literary arts in Central Arkansas and for teaching at the community college level. I hope I opened a few eyes along the way.
Later, on Friday, I was able to attend the panel that featured the winners of the 2010 AWP Award Series in four genres: Quan Barry, Danielle Cadena Deulen, Mandy Keifetz, and Douglas Light. Frequent readers will know that I was there to hear Quan Barry. She read three poems from Water Puppets and then one new poem, the ending of which had me crying again. While the crush of people was too deep to get to meet Barry in person, I know carry her voice inside my head, so when I read her poems, I'll have that musical sound to guide me.
Friday night, I did another shotgun reading, this time with folks from Barn Owl Review/diode. The lineup for this was stellar: Jason Bredle, Traci Brimhall, John Gallaher, Brent Goodman, Matthew Guenette, Rebecca Hazelton, me, Erika Meitner, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Alison Pelegrin, and Emily Rosko. Many of the writers deal with contemporary culture and often include humor in their work. I came home with some new ideas for future poems just from listening to their amazing work and with a renewed pride in my more quiet/contemplative/pastoral poems. Huge hats off to the editors of both journals for all of the work they put into this event.
By Saturday, I was running out of voice and energy. I spent more time in the bookfair gathering up free copies of lit mags (hint, most journals give away copies on Saturday or sell them for $5 b/c they don't want to have to ship the extras home). I had to ship my armfuls home as there was no way they would fit into my luggage. I do this scavenging because I teach at a community college. Most of my students have never seen a national lit mag. They may have had one at their high school, or they may have been out of school for a decade or more and have no exposure to published work. I love being able to give them copies of journals and set them off on their journey. Often, they come back and show me some poem or story and say, "I didn't know you could do that in a poem/story." This is what it's all about. I also do this because a certain segment of the students can't afford to go to Barnes & Noble and buy the lit mags they offer there. I do try to read as many of the copies as I can before passing them on, and I'm not above tearing out a page here and there if I feel like I absolutely HAVE to have the poem.
I also had several conversations that gave me new ideas for expanding the Big Rock Reading Series and for getting poetry into the community; however, those are big issues and I'm running out of steam for this post. I'll give you one hint: Broadsides!
The conference wrapped up for me with the reception for the inaugural issue of Adanna, a journal for and about women. I was happy to read my poems from the issue alongside the other women who were able to attend. With all of the talk about the disparity of women's voices in literature, it was moving to look out at the audience and see all women in the audience (not the men were excluded from attending...two did walk in at the conclusion but just to eat up the remaining chips and dip).
No, I did not make it to the keynote. I've learned over the years that I must pace myself and I can't do everything. In the past, when I have tried, I've ended up not eating well and not sleeping much over the course of the conference. This insures both a mental and physical breakdown by Saturday. So, this year, I was much better about making hard choices and prioritizing the events I attended.
One of my friends mentioned cutting it close to arriving for an event because she had tried to get a bite to eat and the food had arrived at her table 10 minutes before the event. She had to scarf down the food and handle the check and still sprint for an elevator in that 10 minutes. That pretty much sums up AWP. Constant movement; near exhaustion; pressing on.
Call me crazy but I can't wait for AWP 2013 in Boston!