Monday, April 12, 2010

AWP & Me (& You)

Dearest A Tonalist readers,

I know I have abandoned you for a while and I am sorry. Let’s just put it behind us.

While it is fresh in my mind and I am pretty much recovered, I thought I’d share a bit about my recent experience at AWP. For us neurasthenics traveling itself is always a challenge. Irrational trip stress, bad air on the plane, moisture sucked out of your body and, in this case, crazy Denver altitude and bone dryness all take their toll. But at least we sensitive ones are used to not feeling exactly okay (what would that be like?) and going on anyway. I will also say that while I usually like turbulence on planes -- I know this is weird and think it might have to do with growing up in the air force and my father’s stories – the rocky ride into the Denver airport was a bit intense. ‘I guess those are the Rocky Mountains down there,’ I think I heard Clay say. But then the Hyatt was fine and the view out the window of the city and snowy mountains was grand. The joy of immediately running into a poet – Kazim Ali appeared right while we were checking in – was mitigated by the migraine that prevented me from joining him for dinner. As per usual on trips, I was bedeviled by several of these evil paroxysms of the brain because of the altitude and the work and possibly a bit of fear-of-poets that can grip you in such a place at such a time, even while you really are happy and even grateful to be among them.

So then it’s the next day and Clay and I get our badges and there is a problem about them and then we solve it at the Help Desk and while at the Help Desk I hear someone say,‘I am not freaked out but it freaks me out to hear you are telling people I am freaked out. It’s just that I have never been in a situation where every single moment of my day is filled with duties for several days in a row’ and I think ‘Welcome to the NFL’ but also that this person was really going to be completely fine because of course you are freaking out and everyone is and it’s mostly okay.

Clay and I get onto the floor and then it’s air kisses to familiar exhibitors who are also putting their stuff together and it’s particularly nice here because it’s our publishers and there is Bin Ramke who seems like the Colorado Welcoming Committee because he is setting up with University of Denver in our aisle which we notice happily is in like the best location ever. Putting together the SPD booth is always a bit intimidating when you first start with endless boxes (well maybe five or six) and the big SPD sarcophagus, as we call it, filled with book shelves to assemble.

Clay Banes in SPD booth

I have already dealt with the signage at the business center and had some tucked away in my suitcase and Clay has the list of books, produced by Brent Cunningham, who is holding down the SPD fort back in Berkeley, and there’s a lot to do but it’s fine and we put out the books and each one gets a good spot though we worried about having too many but we didn’t and then there are a few hours for a break and the only substantial meal of the day at 4ish, wisely gotten by me in a foray out to a deli on the 16th Street Mall before setting up, and then it’s time for the SPD/CLMP meeting which goes well. I rush out after it to the Magnolia Hotel ballroom which is three blocks away and very easy to find. It turns out to be magnificent in a modern gray & black way but with old pillars and the perfect place for a giant reading. I am hugging everyone (I am unashamedly California in my hugging practice) and praising Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan of Omnidawn and Janet Holmes of Ahsata for how great it is and a giant number of people come in. I think there were over a hundred or more there to hear a dozen or so readers including Christopher Arigo, Susan Briante, Dan Beachy-Quick, Maxine Chernoff & Paul Hoover, Gillian Conoley, Ben Doller, Lisa Fishman, Noah Eli Gordon, Richard Greenfield, Janet Holmes, Hank Lazer, Rusty Morrison, Craig Santos Perez, Bin Ramke, Don Revell, Elizabeth Robinson, Heather Sellers, Heidi Lynn Staples and Michelle Taransky. It kicked ass to read with them and everyone was good and didn’t read too long. True, a number of poet readers and poet audience members were wildly drinking at the back and not paying meticulous attention to every line but I felt listened to enough when I read (old days of reading at that bar in NY where the Segue Series used to be helped. What was that place called?) Later on in the conference, people I had no idea were there came up to me to say they’d heard me and maybe that they liked the reading and I felt acknowledged which, really, once you’ve got that feeling, everything else is gravy. When Craig Parez read he noted that people criticize AWP for various reasons but that he doesn’t really see a downside to it and took a picture of the audience in his rock star way and promised to blog about it and I will link to it if I find it. (Here it is!) I really enjoyed that set of readings but the headache alarm bells began to go off (called the ‘aura,’ apparently in my honor) and I had to rush off just before the end.

It is a little scary to have such a full day before the conference (and the trade show job part) even started, but on the other hand it is nice to feel achieved going in. Still, 8:30am came early and Clay and I are at the booth slightly before and ready for it and then poets poured in (well some are fiction and non-fiction writers) and we realize again that yes our booth is right in the funnel part of the entrance to the tables and thanked the gods of random placement, the AWP and whoever else did it and proceed to say SPD to everyone who would listen and answer questions and generally talk up the books with an eagerness that doesn’t become manic any more, for me, because this is not my first rodeo and I actually like the part of the job where you talk to strangers and friends and frenemies. Weirdly it is my birthday but that is okay because I am busy and hardly ever think about it. And then Suzanne Stein appears and says ‘Happy Birthday!’ and ‘Oh my god!’ looking out at the ten-ring circus of poets before us and it is interesting to see the reaction of a newbie to the AWP who is not in any way a newbie to the scene. I must say her eyes were quite wide. We make a few comments about the outfits which she says seem better than expected and that people do doll themselves up for this and of course most of us in the booths are sort of dressed up and that it was interesting and maybe she should upgrade the outfit (but of course she looks gorgeous). I am sorry to miss the hybrid panel that day, not to mention my boss Jeffrey Lependorf playing the flute with Anne Waldman, which I heard was excellent but it is so busy I feel I should work the booth because that’s what they pay me for. Clay and I talk up the SPD Bad Poem contest which is currently filling my email box with bad poetry, not for the first time, and it’s good to have something to say to start. Everyone is giving away candy and struggling for a few moments of the time of the poets wandering stunned among the booths and tables.

Action at Table X

We hand out catalogs and hand sell books and respond to queries and take a few last minute books from poets and sell many books and copy the bad poem instructions a few times and listen to ourselves repeat phrases and listen to our next door booth repeat phrases and keep track of the money and suggest career strategies for people with their books and basically act like we are in an 8 hour-a-day, 3-days-running play. We spell ourselves and go around the booths and talk to many folks and lose track of time and get back and then the other one goes to the bathroom and to get coffee (meeting a poet or two or ten on the way) and then thankfully SPD (and SPT) volunteer extraordinaire Justine Kessler El-Khazen arrives to spell us for lunch and a brief respite and then back at it and it is the complete and utter mixing of poet and job life for me but luckily I am used to it. Suzanne and I have lunch that day and talk about what she will say at the ‘Poet As Arts Administrator’ panel and we talk about everything in the way that Norma Cole and I often do at MLA when we get to see each other more than when we are in the Bay Area because now we are conventioneers thrown together on the same lurching ship and it’s fun but exhausting.

The Nightboat, Litmus, Action Books reading at the Thin Man Bar is that night and I get there in a cab and it is in a small basement which is quite warm even at the beginning and a migraine kicks in almost as soon as I enter the room. I plop down and then get right back up to get a nice cold one(fizzy water)and get back down the steep steps and lose my fan and try not to panic and look for Suzanne who is coming from elsewhere to here and figure out she is actually sitting next to me and she introduces me to Paul Foster Johnson but we already know each other because we read together in NY and more people pour in and Tracy Grinnell and Stephen Motika and Johannes Göransson are handling it well and putting out more chairs and a woman with long hair sits in front of me and it is Amy Catanzano of Naropa and there is hugging and then the reading starts and I am getting a bit dizzy by this time and trying to remember what I should read from the new book and OMG I haven’t yet mentioned that A Tonalist the book is out (!!) and I love the design with the collage by Norma Cole, thank you Norma and Nightboat, and thanks to Kazim Ali for his enthusiasm for the book. Nightboat publisher, Stephen Motika, has been a dream to work with and I am very appreciative of all Nightboaters. I try to be a bit explanatory as I read because I have noticed, giving my copies of the book away and selling the SPD copies, that the book is perplexing to some people. This seems mostly excellent because a taste for complexity is practically the defining characteristic of A Tonalist as a concept or as an imagined writer. The other readings that night are a bit of a blur because the migraine became incredibly intense. I remember Brenda Ijima reading from her book, If Not Metamorphic or was it from her other book Revv. you'll--ution and from )((Eco(Lang)(Uage(Reader)) which she edited, stunning in a striped shirt and striped pants and vest. The Action Book people wowed the crowd with performative readings of great work that was usually kind of speechy and you know it can be hard to be follow that kind of work with your experimental complexity but we did and I was very glad to hear their poems because I wasn’t as familiar with them and glad also to hear my fellow Nightboaters and Litmusians (there is an A Tonalist Set in the current Aufgabe) but then before it was over I had to go. The readers were me and Paula Cisewski, Brenda Ijima, Sandy Florian, Lara Glenum, Johannes Göransson, Dawn Lundy Martin, Abe Smith, Stacy Szymaszek, and Edwin Torres but I didn’t get to hear everyone. Unbeknownst to me I still had a bad half hour (with several pleading calls to the cab company) to wait outside for a cab to pick me up whose driver literally did not know the way to the convention center because one must not have to pass an entry exam to be able to drive hack in the Mile-High City. But once such little moments of travel-induced desperation are over you just forget them. I took the meds for the migraine and was sad to hear myself order a 6 o’clock wake-up call but was happily headache free the next morning and then it was 8:30 and there was much more of the same all over again.

I was glad to have completed my two readings at this point because all day working and then reading and then working is a little much even though I did not go to the after party at the Mercury Club that night but practically everyone else did, as Clay revealed, having been among them. That’s the incredible thing that even though there are 5 or 6 competing events each night they all seem to be maximally attended and it’s like carnival time for poets, including the masks and the monsters, which makes me glad I don’t drink but even those who do and did were back at it next day, though true they wandered in a bit later than the rest of us and maybe looked a bit more dazed. Suzanne came by at various times on Friday and we finally planned to go to the Coach House reading at The Dikeou Collection space because we wanted to see the space and the reading, though I was sorry to miss the Counterpath/Letter Machine Editions reading because a lot of the Counterpathians (and Machinists?) are my people but I found myself in a gaggle of Conceptualists and Canadians and just went with it. The art space, converted offices, was close to the hotel and the event was sponsored by the Denver Quarterly. Kasey Mohammad opened the set with a funny and expertly belted out bunch of sonnets. Then it was kevin mcpherson eckhoff and Jen Currin who were excellent. (I may have the order wrong here but you get the idea.) I was beatifically happy not to be among the readers at that moment, though I love to read, but it was great just to listen. For some reason, I hadn’t heard Christian Bök before and he was incredibly good at it, as one might have expected. I thought there was a lot of testosterone in the air with the friendly rivalry between Flarf and Conceptialist or maybe just between Kasey and Christian. They seemed like good friends trying to crush each other on the basketball court which was fine but then it was great to be enveloped in powerful estrogenic waves of Rachek Levitsky whose prosodized tales of sex and language I very much enjoyed.

Rachel Levitsky, Kasey Mohammad and Alana Wilcox

Alana Wilcox, Editor-in-Chief of Coach House, gets one of my awards for best outfit with a loden green trompe l'oeil skirt she said was from a Toronto designer. And then I chatted in the hall with Catherine Taylor of Essay Press and Suzanne and Anna Moschovakis of Ugly Duckling and Kristin Prevallet of various presses and wanted to go off with them but had a previous plan so went to meet up with Tracy Grinnell, Brenda Iijima, Paul Foster Johnson, Dan Machlin, Alice Whitwham, and Stacey Szymaszek at Cafe Berlin whose food looked good but whose who staff just smiled with frantic sadness at our expectation of their seating a party of 7 on a Friday night without a reservation and I realized that we were being caught in the syndrome of New Yorkers not remembering that you have to have a res to go to a restaurant in a small city, but after some mostly enjoyable careening and the experience of one of our party being carded, though being 43, we ended up waiting an hour at a Thai restaurant (watching near-by poets munch away at their leisure) and then finally having some excellent Pod Thai and I was knocking back the fizzy waters and it was late for me when I got to the hotel (the rest of our gaggle went on to a bar) and then the 6 o’clock wake-up call again and getting ready to get up, pack and get on the floor by 8:30 for the final day. Of course I woke with another migraine (how many is that?) This was a lot even for me – the altitude is probably the culprit – but not the first or second time I have dressed, packed, checked out of the hotel and gotten to the trade show floor under the influence of migraine meds.

Saturday was the day of the one panel I allowed myself to attend -- 'Poet As Arts Administrator' -- and I got to it at 9 before most of the other folks. Charles Alexander of Chax was on the panel and was there and we compared parental notes of his daughters being in high school and college and my step-daughter being in Korea on a business trip. A scattering of people arrived and I was sorry not to be at the Flarf Conceptual smack down going on at the same time but Suzanne was on the panel and I know a thing or two about the subject, so I wanted to be where I was.

Charles Alexander and Suzanne Stein

The other panelists were Michael Kelleher from Just Buffalo, who organized it, Stacy Szymaszek of the Poetry Project, Suzanne Stein who works at SF MOMA and Stephen Motika from Poets House. The things they said were very interesting to me for being so positive. Truth be told, we are not always so positive when we chat among ourselves. There was a general enthusiasm for continuing the discussion on a blog or in other events, for which ‘watch the skies.’ It was hard for me to tear myself away from the talk after the talk to get back to the booth but I did and there was a moderate feeding frenzy in the last hours of the show as people made their purchases and threw their final air kisses, while others were still preparing for events which went on all day and into the night. I encountered D.A Powell for the manyith time and he gave me a copy of his new mag Lo Ball which was lovely. I communed with other directors, I schmoozed with more poets and book industry folks. Finally, I left Clay to break down the booth and pack up with a sense of guilt but secret gladness. The packing up is hard but goes quickly with fevered determination and then you get a great feeling when you walk away from it and are free again. I got to the airport without seeing any more known entities though I was still surrounded by poets. I heard a woman thank her father on the phone for underwriting the trip and describe how she met poets and got to read and thought how sweet that was of him. I got back to reading Karen Tei Yamashita’s new book I Hotel from Coffee House, an absolute must read which comes out in May.

I reflected as I floated through the sky in one of those scarily small planes toward Salt Lake City, where I unfortunately had to change, about what had just happened. SPD did a lot of great business of connecting with our readers on all levels which is why we go and I enjoyed that, I got to interact with the CLMPers who are our cousins and be encouraged by Jeffrey Lependorf, our mutual boss. (Remind me to tell you the story of his Denver cab rides if we meet.) I interacted with a lot of poets, many whom knew of me and many of whom didn’t, I was able to show my new book around and feel very glad to have a new book, signed my old book at Omnidawn and was glad to have an old book, received praises and doled them out at a high rate of speed, was impressed by poet outfits and stamina (I take exception to that one tutu though it’s true that that woman really rocked it, but it breaks my rule of not scaring people.) This time I wasn’t a bit bothered by the careerism that has annoyed me in the past, not because it wasn’t there, but because it mostly just seems or, at least, you can look at it, as the work of getting the work out there, which is the least you can do for your publisher, even if you have yet to meet him or her. Of course I don’t hold with a lot of things but nothing new there. I regretted not taking more pictures though I am singularly bad at it and blessed the expensive flats I bought the last time I was in New York. I would say a good time was had by all but that would not be true -- but it was a time, that’s for sure.

See you at post moot in 10 days!