March 05, 2012

Thoughts from Chicago ~ AWP 2012

I was catching up with a friend about March travel plans. She stopped me and said, "Something's weird when you're thinking about AWP as your downtime." But it's true; AWP was the only week this month when I didn't have a single formal reading or speaking commitment. I was free to float and, thanks to the Hilton's draconian fees, forced onto an email diet. My roommate was the fabulous poet and indomitable AWP veteran Erika Meitner. She's the friend with whom you know you can always share a sidelong look or three--a necessity when hanging out in the hotel bar.

A major shift for me was paying attention to the creative nonfiction offerings in this year's conference schedule. A couple of tips: anytime you see the names of Cheryl Strayed, Stephen Elliott, Robin Hemley, or Daniel Nester in the line-up, GO. It will be a good one. I came away with real insights on the question of whether it is possible to "sell out" the ones you love in writing memoir; using immersion or travel to enrich storytelling; and thinking outside the box of promoting one's work, even if that means getting over yourself as a capital-A Author. Stephanie Elizondo Griest perfectly articulated my hesitation about memoirs that intersect with contemporary experience: "This style of writing has ethical landmines all over the it fair [to new friends/subjects/loved ones] that by virtue of hanging out with you, they have become part of your literary petri dish?"

Todd Zuniga had a basic but brilliant point on why you should always, always keep your readings short: "What people want to know is whether or not they like you."

In Chicago, I have realized that I need to stop thinking about using my identity as a writer to promote/support any one book. I need to stop introducing myself as a poet when among poets, as a memoirist when among creative nonfictioneers, as a sometimes Washington Post contributor when when among journalists. I need to introduce myself as a writer. Period. I have to start looking at every book as one in a series of (I hope) many, one that evolves but does not define my success. There will be growing pains in changing mindsets, but they are necessary, and embracing those pains was worth the cost of the hotel in & of itself. 

The panel that did the best job of mixing commentary with brief but stunning readings was "A Face to Meet the Faces: Five Poets on Persona, Empathy, and Race" with Stacey Lynn Brown, Eduardo C. Corral, Cornelius Eady, Patricia Smith, Jake Adam York. Everyone walked out buzzing about the anthology. I used Oliver's camera to get a snapshot of the crew; seriously, these folks could take this show on the road to paying audiences. 

My last panel of the conference was "Men from Venus, Women from Mars: Writing from the Perspective of the Opposite Sex" with Reese Okyong Kwon, Jennine Capó Crucet, Alan Heathcock, Kyle Minor and Kevin Wilson. It may have been one of the most platonically perfect panels I have ever attended. And that's as a poet and memoirist--meaning this wasn't even particularly relevant to my writing practice. Much as when I read fiction, I could just sit back...and enjoy. Every author was articulate, keeping their remarks short up front, building on each other's comments rather than repeating each other, answering a moderated Q&A with additional insights. 

I knew Jennine would be great; we read together for The Potomac Review's anniversary last year. She made really nice craft-centric points about differentiating between using gender to shape a character's internal self (what someone would think or pay attention to) and using gender-appropriate dialogue (what someone would say out loud to reflect those things). Those concerns are overlapping but not congruent. 

Alan Heathcock was a revelation, and I am going to go out and buy VOLT just from having heard his intelligence and dry humor as a speaker. Besides, who could resist that cover? Heathcock resists being daunted by writing across gender lines, pointing out that the main goal must be authenticity of a unique character's emotions and motives. Noting that in his first story collection gender is never a core issue ("None of my female characters menstruate on the page"), he admitted the challenge emerged with his next project. "My current book has a 17 year-old pregnant girl, so I'm having to ask my wife a lot of questions. Which is fine. Just like when I wrote about a chicken farmer, I had to ask a lot of questions to a chicken farmer. [Pause.] Not to equate chicken farming with pregnancy."

Kevin was his typically modest self. "The terrifying thing about going last is that all of the best stuff has already been said," he observed. "The awful thing is looking at what you planned to say and realizing that it contains none of that stuff. So let's just get through this." He then went on to give a beautiful, vulnerable account of some of the editorial insecurities he grappled with in both Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (confiding that the gender of one story narrator has been switched from the original draft) and in taking on the POVs of both a brother and a sister in The Family Fang. He dared emphasize not where he had succeeded, but where he feels he may have failed, may continue to fail, and thus is compelled to explore. 

Headliner readings by Audrey Niffenegger, Lyn Hejinian, and Irvine Welsh were the best kind--changing my understanding of styles that border on the iconic (perhaps causing us to not read the text as closely as we should). These readings made me laugh. These readings complicated my understanding of the authors, challenged me. Plus, Welsh spat into the microphone to simulate the sound of a nail gun going off. He squatted onstage during a bathroom scene. The man has no filter. 

My tradition of minimizing meals out continues. When it works, it works. I loved the afternoon simplicity of 20 minutes in my room, spooning smoked oysters onto Triscuits, eating fresh blueberries by the handful for dessert, all in blissful utter silence. That said, I have yet to perfect the amount of hot water that should be fed through the coffee machine to make instant oatmeal--resulting on more than one occasion into a strange sugary, raisined gruel that was not the cheeriest way to start the morning.

The flask continues to come in handy, and every year I notice a few more folks carrying. It's not necessarily that I'm a cheapskate. Even at receptions where the alcohol is free, I feel silly waiting in line for 25 minutes to receive it. Not to mention that the scotch available tends to be Johnnie Walker Black, my least favorite. If you were looking for my at Kitty O'Shea's, I apologize; I took to hanging out in the other bar (which I spent four days calling "non-Kitty") when I realized that space was more flask-friendly. 

The downside of non-Kitty was that they closed down early. At one point Stephen Burt reached behind the bar to steal glasses and fish out ice from the bin himself, annoyed that it wasn't even 1 AM and they were refusing us even water. I worried a waiter would yell at him, which would have been the oddest kind of trouble-making to befall someone on the NBCC Board. I was so flattered by his chivalry that I couldn't bear to tell him the glass he used for me was clearly waiting to be washed. 

Me, Melissa Stein, and Marie-Elizabeth Mali
On Saturday as they turned up the lights and pushed us out, I bumped into Sewanee friend Frank Giampietro. Each recognizing the other was still conversation-hungry, we impulsively hopped in the elevator and got off on one of those mysterious renovated floors (11? 13?). We sat on the white leather lobby couch, trespassers. We clinked flasks. We talked, confided, and commiserated for one last stolen hour of AWP. Those were the best kinds of conversations--the real one-on-ones--and I was grateful for similar moments with Heather Hartley, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Jehanne Dubrow, Douglas Ray, Daniel Nester, Steve Schroeder, and Martha Silano. In the case of Nick Flynn I had to settle for a long elevator ride from the 21st Floor to the Lobby...but what can you do? The man is busy. I'd have been happy with just 6 or 7 floors. I was also content to know that Dear Sugar's room was on my hall, even though we never actually spoke. I suppose syntactically she's just "Sugar," but she is Dear to me. 

With Mary Biddinger at the fancypants party
Ah. Add to that list of one-on-one chats my time with AWP Board member and Orchises editor Roger Lathbury, who I got to talk to in the Conrad Hilton suite, also known as the top-floor duplex where Liz Taylor took a lot of jacuzzi baths and Obama found out he won the presidency. This was the site of the lovely fancypants party--fresh cut jicama!--where VIPs could watch Taylor Mali play pool and, incidentally, watch Taylor murder the palm tree that periodically interfered with his shots. Whenever I see Roger, I remind him that the first time we met was at a past fancypants party when he composed a poem for me on the spot. He always reminds me that was after I asked him to stop staring at my crotch or, rather, the long-corded name tag hanging immediately above my crotch. This was as Martin Amis stood nearby, smoking indoors and apologizing for offending my female sensibility. You gotta love AWP, and with that you gotta love Roger Lathbury. This time we talked about Henry Taylor, a topic that always makes me happy, and my sister, a topic that always makes me even happier, and the surviving lover of a famous reclusive writer, a topic that elicited a hilarious facial expression that will not be further described here.

Next year the conference goes to Boston. Have you reserved a room yet? Kidding! Kidding. Kinda. It'll be good to return to Boston after this fall's Book Festival. I'd love to be asked to do a reading (is that too pathetic a hint?), and if not I'll throw my hat in the ring to coordinate a panel or two--Michael Martone is on board for a discussion of Lewis Hyde's THE GIFT that could be amazing, and Tara Betts and I are considering a panel on how Sylvia Plath is received by today's rising poets. I hope to help Dan move an anthology forward into the world, so maybe I'll be bookfairing with intent. And I'll be in the middle of a semester-long visiting writer stint, details soon be public.... other words, even the free-est of free radicals likes to feel a little pull now & again.


Jessie Carty said...

What a wonderful recapture! I am hoping to make Boston and I have a panel I want to propose. I cant decide if I.should have a table for my lit mag or not. Ah the decisions!

Annette Gendler said...

Loved your insights! Especially the one about introducing yourself as a writer. Sorry our paths didn't cross, for some reason I thought your recent I-95 post meant you were far away from Chicago.

Sandra said...

Thanks so much for the feedback! Jessie, you should definitely go to Boston, but I have mixed feelings about tabling; only do it if you have others willing to staff and wouldn't feel tied to the table.

Annette, I WAS south on 95...Charleston to Savannah...and then, after a weekend's rest, I was in Chicago. = ) That's life these days!

Hélène Cardona said...

Hi Sandra!
Very insightful.
Sorry to have missed you this year.
Looking forward to meeting you in Boston!

Martha Silano said...

Always worth it to stop by your blog and have a gander. So glad I ran into you for some "real" talk at AWP. And you were rooming with Erika Meitner, one of my fav poets in the galaxy. It sounds like you have quite a lot to keep you busy between now and AWP Boston--have fun and hope there's more Samanthas.