"So," my friend wrote. "How WAS your panel?"
My panel (on the poetry of wartime), was by and large a success--though it would have felt even better in a smaller room. I'd say we had the same size crowd as Carly's panel on the rape & sexual assault anthology, but in a partial ballroom it felt much more sparse. I was thinking of Carly's panel already because I thought, oddly enough, there are a lot of resonant issues between "sexual assualt" poetry and "battlefield" poetry:
-The ethics of having--or giving yourself--"permission" to describe second-hand stories or to assume a first-person perpective;
-The need to articulate/define an "enemy" or aggressor, and whether there is then a place for empathy toward that enemy/aggressor;
-The potential politicization of direct experience (the difference between "war" poetry and "anti-war" poetry);
-The ghettoization of writers in terms of a "cause" or core source of material for a first book (if your first book is about rape--or soldiering--you might always be labeled in terms of that experience);
-The difficulties (as teachers or writers) of addressing these poems in workshop (particularly a younger workshop) in a sensitive, responsible manner.
These were the kind of meta-issues that convinced me to propose a panel in the first place.
My favorite presentations came from Susan Tichy and Brian Turner. Susan had scared me by showing up with a dozen typed pages in hand--this is usually the sign of someone who will use more than their fair share of time. But she presented an elegant set of comments that really got into craft issues: how one can use collage and fragmentation to place both first-hand and second-hand voices on the same "level," neutralizing the issue of permission. Her husband, a Delta Force veteran who died few years ago, was the one who first told her she needed to tell his stories as well as her own.
Brian Turner was his ever-frank, disarming self. He talked about struggling to write about battlefield experience in a way that punctuates the relative stability of American (border-bound) culture--the simple fact that we don't "feel" the presence of war here in a daily way, and how to overcome that desensitization. He read a really interesting poem set in Home Depot(!), that used surreal intrusions of military motifs (the whirling of a ceiling fan = helicopter blades) to drive the point home. He confessed that the periodic interrupting patter of applause from the panel next door reminded him of the small bursts of automatic fire one might hear on the field.
Thanks to friends who came--Carly, Bernie, Steve, Brian and Kiley--and to my wonderful panelists. I doubt I'll hop back into proposing anything for next year; I'm happy to focus on supporting the book at the New Issues table. But if you've said to yourself "gosh, when is there going to be a decent panel on ___" ...well,sometimes, you just have to make it happen yourself. I'm glad I did.