Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Made High and Laid Low at AWP

Anyone might start with the question of whether it’s worth it to spend your money and your time attending this thing. From an SPD perspective (see my entry on the SPD blog) it is entirely worth it. So, in a way, so far as I am concerned, case closed. Thinking about it that way is good for me and the others who essentially have no choice but to attend -- it’s simply the job and it’s not my dime. It should be pointed out, however, that when it is your dime you have a lot more say about what you actually say and about whether to sleep in, stay out late, carouse with endless poets and/or attend panels as opposed to personing the booth from dawn until dusk and literally never going out of the hotel accept at night to read. (See earlier post about poets and autonomy.) No complaint here, though. I was delighted to be there at all and to have readings to read at and this leads me to my first piece of advice. It’s nice to have a piece of the action, of whatever size, so that you feel that you have a role. That way if you happen to encounter an over-determined self-important individual, say in the elevator, you have a fallback position from which to sneer inwardly, rather than merely asserting the free-floating negativity that might get you through if this kind of encounter weren’t happening every five minutes. Most encounters are excellent and I do wish to attend an AWP some day entirely as a civilian so I can fraternize at will and at length with such folks as want to do that. I have to admit, I kept imagining having an A Tonalist table.

In the event, my AWP started as soon as I got in the van to the airport and found Gloria Frym laughing at me. I glimpsed Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff, along with Olivia Sears, at the airport. Again, that’s the nice thing about the conference, you run into people incessantly, especially if you are me and have been around for awhile and have been attending this and MLA for a decade or so. There is a certain amount of crossover with MLA at AWP, but AWP is a very different environment. Much more causal in terms of dress – don’t get me started about eccentric poet outfits and the wisdom of dressing like a 16 year old when you are not one. There are job interviews but not as many. And let’s face it the scholarship is just not at the MLA level. Many say this but, though I was not able to attend any panels, I heard a few bursts of enthusiasm about several of them. No reason why the panel you propose for a future AWP won’t get through and won’t be great.

There are four or five off-site readings every night and readings during the day. I read in the Litmus, Saturnalia, NightBoat reading on Thursday. Let me herewith officially announce that A Tonalist (the long essay-poem not the blog) will be published by NightBoat in 2010. That reading was very enjoyable and I felt lucky to be among the readers reading to an overflow crowd at Myopic Bookstore. The after party was just getting started when I bailed to get back to the hotel and prepare for the abovementioned dawn to dusk routine. I liked reading with people I had read but hadn’t met (John Keene, Cal Bedient, Nathalie Stephens). It was great to meet my fellow NightBoaters especially Stephen Motika who for some reason I thought was an old guy (really not) and it was great to be introduced by Kazim Ali who I had just heard read from his forthcoming (Oct 09) Wesleyan book, Bright Felon, and I was struck by how good it is to be an old guy oneself and have one’s young readers grow up and become teachers and publishers. One of my favorite moments of the whole conference occurred when I had a very serious conversation with Julian Brolaski who seemed to be genuinely askance that poet contemporaries are so much on the academic job market. When I pointed out that this was probably because of the messy necessity to make a living Julian cheered up and informed me of what I feel is a really excellent plan to manage vaudeville acts.

Which brings me to another point. It’s not all MFA teachers and while many of the wild ass experimentals I know might sneer at such a conference with its marketing and glad-handing careerist happy talk, these are the very people who I, for one, would be quite happy to see at such a place at such a time. I mean you could hang with Jen Hofer and her new sweetie. What could be wrong with that? I think this might come under the heading of taking over the means of production. Have our own conference you say and yes, why not? The only two disadvantages are that you might be preaching to the choir and reinventing the wheel, just to assert one mixed metaphor for that possible poetic enterprise. I mean if what you want to do is see Kasey Mohammad in an incredible suit purchased from a thrift store, you can do that at AWP.

But back to the safe haven of the SPD booth where Clay Banes and myself were helped by Paul Ebenkamp, who is currently interning at SPD and yes to the question I intuit now comes to you, there were a lot of young poets there from Chi and from both coasts and elsewhere who don’t currently teach anywhere but were just checking out everyone’s deal. Patrick Durgin helped out for an afternoon and to get to chat and enact amusing booth routines with Patrick, who had a brief career as a lone marketer and booth slave back in the day, was another conference high point for me. I was catching short readings of Renee Gladman’s Toaf between buttonholing passers-by (Where are you from? Have you heard of SPD? Wanna enter the Bad Poem contest?) which I haven’t had a chance to read back in the world (it is really good) until Julian came and bought the last copy. As ‘Worst Flarf poem’ was one of our Bad Poem categories I ended up explaining Flarf to dozens of people and no the irony is not lost on me, not least because I brought it on myself.

Then on Friday night there was the reading for the Norton Hybrid Anthology edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John. It was hugely attended, hosted by the excellent folks at the EP Theater, an alternative dream space of band practice, play performing, ancient ceiling tiles, endless dark corners, generously donated snacks and, alas, one bathroom. Poets seemed happy as clams there. I certainly was. The reading was a pleasure (I like big readings) and I enjoyed fraternizing with my fellow readers including Forrest Gander who has a new novel out (As A Friend), Rae Armantrout who has, yes, another excellent new Wesleyan book (Versed) and the redoubtable Peter Gizzi who, like many and more than most, is eternally discontented with how much of whose work is getting out there and how much of his life he is spending doing it. I sat next to Elizabeth Robinson who was at the conference with Colleen Lockingbill for their Ether Dome, speaking of which I was delighted to see many chapbook presses at AWP and even more delighted to get Rob Halpern’s new book from Bill and Lisa Howe of Slack Buddha.

And then to Saturday when I spent an hour away from the booth at the multiple Omnidawn tables signing my selected which, thank god, a couple of people bought. Was that when Bin Ramke gave me this cold? Am laid low by a giant chest cold gotten either from Bin, from opening my hotel windows to the icy wind or from the eighty degree hotel weather which surely sucked all the moisture out of my body and replaced it with recycled poet germs. But wait, could that be a metaphor for what happens otherwise at AWP? And if so why avoid it? Build up your defenses, strengthen your genotype. Take your fondly held beliefs and best laid plans and gang aft a-gley. What the hell. Go everywhere -- air your ideas, spin your grievances and vend your wares. See you next year in Denver!

7 Comments:

Blogger Francisco Aragón said...

Hi Laura:

We've never met, but I admire the work SPD does, especially as a native San Francisco who spent formative the mid-80s in Berkeley. Thank you for this lively reasonable account of your particular AWP experience. It underscores for me that I think there is no one AWP experience. There are many.

In the meantime, if you might be free on Thursday, I'm hosting, with Poetry Flash, a reading at Moe's on Telegraph: "The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry ON TOUR", featuring 4 anthology contributors
from a volume that's currently in its second printing from U of A Press.

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