For me, poetry is as much about community as it is about words & images. Whenever I read, it’s a conversation between myself and the author. (I’ve been known to talk back, curse, shout, and nod my head while reading poetry that really speaks to me.) Perhaps it’s because poetry is part of an oral tradition. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I fell in love while sitting in a poetry slam in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Whatever the reason, I love opportunities to be surrounded by people who love poetry as much as I do. All of this is to say – for better or worse – I love going to the AWP conference every year.
Quite a few people, poets included, feel quite the contrary and that’s fine but that’s them, not me. The first time I attended an AWP conference, I was a junior in college and had to be cajoled into going by my professor Tom Hunley. He said that I would love it and learn a lot. I dragged my feet, but eventually gave it. I’m so glad he persisted.
This year was my third AWP and aside from a brief spell of altitude sickness, it was the best one yet (in my incredibly biased opinion). Here are some highlights, memories, fragments that I’m sharing so that I can remember:
– Sitting in Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s hotel room, listening to Erykah Badu’s new album, while I worked on one of my 30/30 poems. I rarely write in the presence of the other people, but there was something incredibly affirming about having a dear friend next to me as I worked on a poem that – frankly – still needs a lot of work. It’s easy to feel like an island while writing but M-E was my water that day (and given the altitude, water was crucial).
– The first reading I attended was also the most powerful. Cave Canem & Kundiman brought together an amazing line up with African-American and Asian poets that included Kazim Ali, Toi Derricotte, and Cornelius Eady among others. In particular, Kazim Ali took me to a place I’d never been before when he insisted on reading several poems by the late (and dearly missed) Lucille Clifton. It was like he brought her back into the room with us, like she had never left us, like she couldn’t get wait to get back to her desk and write some more poems. Cornelius Eady read “Gratitude” – a poem that almost everyone in the audience was able to quote line for line – and reminded the audience of what poets are capable of: “I am a brick in a house that is being built around your house.”
– Side Note: Poet Oliver de le Paz has the best reading voice ever. He should moonlight as a DJ for a Smooth Jazz Radio Station…”This is Oliver “Quiet Storm” de le Paz and you’re listening to WJAZZ..”
– Side Note: Poet Randall Mann is as handsome and friendly as you could ever hope for. At one point, we sat down and had a great conversation about poetics and identity politics and he explained why powerade is the solution to every altitude sickness-related ailment.
– David Groff & Eli Shipley, in particular, gave brilliant presentations on a panel about “Queering Desire” in which they both challenged us to think of “queer” as a verb.. as an action… I had never thought of “queer” this way before but now when I sit down to write, I try to think about how my poems are queering experience which is to say: questioning, challenging, upsetting, deconstructing norms & assumptions.
– Side Note: You haven’t lived until you’ve been on the dance floor with Susan Somers-Willett, Patricia Smith, and Marie-Elizabeth Mali. These women know how to MOVE. On the last night of the conference, Patricia and I snuck away and went to a gay club and… well, you had to be there.
– I will be writing in more detail about the books I purchased at the AWP Bookfair later but here are just a few of the titles: Harm’s Way by Eric Leigh, Phantom Noise by Brian Turner, How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capo Crucet, Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Dismantling the Hills by Michael McGrief, A Martian Muse by Reginald Shepherd, The Dirt Riddles by Michael Walsh, The Black Interior by Elizabeth Alexander, Garbage by A.R. Ammons, Kyrie by Ellen Bryant Voigt, Here Be Monsters by Colin Cheney, and Temper by Beth Bachmann.. and more.
– Being on the Persistent Voices panel (put together by David Groff) was very exciting but also very emotional. Reading poetry by writers lost to AIDS was a lesson (in learning to write fearlessly) and beckon (to allow the voices of these poets to be remembered).
I could go on for at least three more posts – at least – but I just wanted to take a moment & remember that time up there in the mountains.