February 28, 2011

Story/Stereo - Friday, March 4

So I am back in DC, after a spate of wandering that began--oof--all the way back before Christmas. Although I have missed the comforts of my little apartment, it's a little tough to come home to a mountain of unopened mail and a to-do list a mile along, including the drudgery of taxes. What makes it all bearable are the pleasures of returning to my literary community, including the Writer's Center. This Tuesday, my spring workshop meets for the first time. This Friday, I look forward to hosting Story/Stereo.

The evening will feature readings from two of our winners of the Spring 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowships, Matthew Pitt (Attention Please Now) and James Allen Hannaham (God Says No). Our musicians are the Caribbean, celebrating the release of Discontinued Perfume--and you can check out Pitchfork's review of the album here, which includes this take:

They are bound to confound your expectations several times on any given album, and if you're into that, they're good enough at putting these weird songs together that they can pull you in with surprising ease. Discontinued Perfume is the band's fifth album, and on this record they've struck a nice balance between building moody, memorable songs and keeping listeners off balance.

Those with good memories might recall that the Caribbean played the very first Story/Stereo back in 2008, before the series was even called Story/Stereo. The reading was actually a celebration of 32 Poems, featuring my work and that of another fantastic local poet, Bernadette Geyer. The evening was so fun that a series was born. On Friday, come find out what all the fuss is about. Their music is vibrant, literary, and amazing.

Also, can I just note that James Allen Hannaham's book was blurbed by no less than Steve Martin? How cool is that?

This is a free event, requiring no advance RSVP; the program begins at 8:00 PM. The Writer’s Center is located on the Red Line at 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD, with metered parking available in a lot across the street. I hope to see you there!

February 24, 2011


Artists are contrarians at heart. We don't let ourselves feel at home until it is just about time to leave.

Thanks to all those who in the last 48 hours...

...cooked an amazing squid-ink/bacon/scallop pasta;
...sailed me past the seaside mansions of the stars;
...trusted me to help word a statement of their artwork;
...orchestrated a fun reading inspired by the game of Clue;
...remembered to offer me almond milk (not soy) for my coffee;
...talked real poetry over real beer;
...split an entire box of peanut brittle;
...traced our favorite words in the grime of late-night windows;
...was so proud to show off his Smart Car's newly tinted windows;
...forgave and gave me a book of inspiring graffiti;

I will miss this place. I am proud to be a part of this community & to have met so many in such a short time. LegalArt, you are making things happen in Miami!

February 23, 2011


In recent years, I have been able to frame my food allergies in an advantageous light. How else could I have gotten a nonfiction book deal that let me make the jump to full-time writing? (As my grandmother said..."Finally, a silver lining!")

Some of my allergies are quirky and mild enough to become fodder for humor. I can wax poetic on the prevalence of tofu, knowing that I can still sip miso broth safely--as long as I don't chew on it. I can bitch about the regional mysteries of BBQ sauce recipes (some states = mustard; some states = no mustard).

But then there are the other allergies. The one that will probably kill me one day: dairy. The ones that have intensified in the past few years, waking me in the night with a swollen throat: shrimp, cashew, mango. And though I love to be a touring poet, though I love to be the Strong Independent Woman, this is my Achilles heel. This is why I can never be a travel writer.

The agony was not in the slow boil of my stomach last Sunday night, after a single half-bite of the first accidentally cashew-buttered entree, trying to make my way through the replacement entree knowing that the damage was already done. The agony was not in downing those first two Benadryl before I'd even felt a hint of reaction, knowing the danger I was in. The agony was not in trying to drive back to the residency bleary-eyed, only to have to pull over at a random intersection of South Beach to vomit out the car door. (First words to the neighboring hotel manager: "I'm not drunk, I swear.") The agony was not in having to summon my fellow LegalArt residents--though poor folks, they barely know me--from all corners of Miami so that someone could get my car home, and someone could get me to the ER.

No. The agony was in forcing myself to check my phone messages, just now, 48 hours later, and hearing the words of a father and boyfriend whose voices are tired with fear. Asking if I could give them the contact info for someone who was with me--a first, even after all these years of reactions. Asking if I am OK. By the time these messages were left I was already at Mount Sinai, in a reception-free zone closed off to the outside world. On Prednisone. Sleeping for four hours, curled up on a cot. Fine, right? Fine.

Not fine. Not dying does not equal "fine." It's a tough way to live, and it's tough to love someone who has to live this way. I can rally, and rationalize, and write about it. But I'd trade all the book deals in the world to not have to fear each bite I take.

February 17, 2011

On The Count

Cheers to Amy King and all at VIDA for putting in the hours necessary to publish The Count--and cheers to all the subsequent discussion it has sparked in the publishing industry. I could spend a looong time on this subject, but in the interest of timeliness (I need to be getting ready for tonight's LegalArt Open Studio down here in Miami), there is just one thing I want to respond to here and now. In a reply from Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, this section jumped out at me:
Of solicited writers, I see a distinct gender difference. When I solicit male authors, the only ones who do not submit are those contractually bound by other magazines. For female authors it is closer to 50% submit after being asked. 

I believe this. Though it may seem incredible that writers would ever "waste" the opportunity of being solicited (as one blogger put it), I believe it. There have been some moves to trace the gender disparity in publishing back to a feminine hesitancy to submit--and thus to risk being rejected--but I can't get behind that. It doesn't match my experience, or the attitudes I get from the many fine, confident, accomplished, ballsy women writers I am proud to call friends. 

What then, to make of this statistic? Well, solicitation is a funny thing. Usually it means you have reached a certain stage of prominence in your career. You have one or two books out, some high-profile publication credits, enough time spent at residencies and conferences to have created a professional network. This work is often accomplished during one's 20s, when both genders usually have some flexibility afforded in this era of MFA and PhD programs. 

So, let's say you're lucky enough to be a young 30-something who has earned your first round of solicitations from magazines. In my opinion--and this is a national cultural issue, NOT a complaint toward our literary culture per se--if you're a man who reaches this point, that's when people start to take your self-identification as a writer seriously. People start to treat your writing as a real part of your career. They help you make the time you need in your schedule for it. 

But when you reach that point as a woman...well, usually that's right when a lot of us start families. Real life post-grad takes over. Our productivity hits a lull. Even if you have a supportive partner, something has got to give. And so when we get the solicitations--as thrilling as they are--we don't have the work to send. At least, not the worthy work. And no one is going to send the second-tier stuff that didn't make the last book to Tin House or Granta. 

I'm not afraid of rejection. But I want to know I gave it my best shot and in the absence of that, yeah, I'd rather not send in at all. So in my mind, the question is How do we create a support structure that encourages women to prioritize and privilege their writing during their 30s? Because I think that's where the gap is really opening up. Same as so many other professions--law, business--we're losing a very specific decade of incredible women to the demands of their loved ones. 

The closing of Spillman's post was encouraging, and so I want to share it here:
The bottom line at Tin House is that we are aware of the gender disparity, we are concerned about these numbers, and we are committed to redoubling our efforts to solicit women writers. Personally, I am deeply tuned into the reality of gender inequality: I am married to a short story writer, and my fifteen year-old daughter is a drummer in a feminist punk rock band. Since the start of Tin House twelve years ago, I have been committed to publishing the best work I can find. Agents of female writers, publishers of female writers, and especially female writers, please send us your work. We really want your work. 

If there is one thing I'd like to see emerge from the post-Count discussion, it is the understanding that at the end of the day, the responsibility is in our hands. I could share anecdotes of crushing dismissals by editors that seemed, in some ways, based on gender. I could share stories of realizing too late that I was being held up as a token woman in the mix. I could share inspiring realities of fair, equitable, and generous treatment by magazines who honored my work without gender ever being an issue. 

And all of this just leads me back to: Get to work, Sandra. Get writing. 

February 14, 2011

Call & Response

No sweeter celebration of Valentine's Day than to share this exchange, which fills my heart with hope. Sometimes, when we put our energy together, we can get it done. 


February 14TH, 2011

Dear Mr. Shallal,

Various characterizations of Busboys and Poets, your own and others', suggest that it is a space created and named in honor of the late Langston Hughes, his work and his legacy within and beyond the District of Columbia. It is true that wonderful things happen in the Langston Room. We have all, at one point or another, been present to witness the wittiness, the bravery, the signifying and the song that characterizes Hughes’ work as it emanates from the stage and the various poets who have graced it over the years.

As poets who have sat in those chairs and booths as well as stood upon that stage, we ask you to consider the ways in which placing a cardboard cutout of Hughes within Busboys and Poets—making of him a character, a mascot, more than a presence—unfortunately does not honor his legacy.

Our objections to this display are varied. Some of us feel it is improper that Hughes be physically reduced to a gimmicky object within a space commemorating part of his experience as a young writer in Washington, D.C. Others hope that if you must have a cutout image of Hughes in the space that it be an image that aspires to communicate Hughes’ greater significance rather than the unsophisticated semantic connection to your business’ name. Even with our mélange of concerns about this matter, we all agree that it is a gesture that does not suit Busboys and Poets’ relationship to Hughes’ legacy and its relationship with the poets, local and national, who continue his work and who patronize Busboys and Poets.

The poet Ethelbert Miller this week asked the following on his blog: “POLITICS AND POETRY? What would Langston do?” Fortunately for us, Hughes’ words are still present. Your staff attempted to answer the question of how he would feel about this moment, and respond to the week’s events, by posting the following quote on the Busboys and Poets twitter feed and attributing it to Hughes: "I am glad I went to work at the Wardman Park Hotel (as a busboy), because there I met Vachel Lindsay." Firstly, the parenthetical in the quote is not Hughes’ language but an addition on the part of whoever manages the Busboys and Poets twitter feed (and should therefore be marked with brackets). Secondly, while this quote does suggest Hughes appreciated the opportunity to slip his poems to the critic Vachel Lindsay, the following excerpt from Hughes’ autobiography The Big Sea makes it fairly clear that he did not appreciate being made a spectacle as a “bus boy poet”:

The widespread publicity resulting from the Vachel Lindsay incident was certainly good for my poetic career, but it was not good for my job, because from then on, very often the head waiter would call me to come and stand before some table whose curious guests wished to see what a Negro bus boy poet looked like. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, so when pay day came, I quit.

If Busboys and Poets is in the business of honoring Langston Hughes and, of the utmost importance to a poet, his words, we suggest that you seriously consider his own words about his own life as they pertain to this matter.

Some of us saw the physical cutout. Many of us only heard about it or saw pictures before we, as a group, could come to you and ask that it be removed. As a showing of good faith, we have enclosed with this letter a check for $150.00 (the stated price of the cutout in the 02/08/2011 Washington Post column detailing its disappearance) to compensate you for your lost property. We only ask, respectfully, that this image not be replaced. It is not necessary and, for us, serves as more of a deterrence than a welcome.

In the interest of strengthening the relationship between Busboys and Poets and the local, active poetry community, we extend the offer to help initiate and sustain a dialogue between you, your management, your advisors and the poets whose work and organizations fill Busboys and Poets. To date, it has been a fruitful yet unexamined relationship. We want it to continue, but in a manner that fosters open lines of communication and a mutual mindfulness.


Kyle G. Dargan                        Michael Gushue                Bettina Judd
Sandra Beasley                        Laura Hartmark               Gregory Pardlo
Reginald Dwayne Betts          Melanie Henderson         Joseph Ross
Cornelius Eady                        Randall Horton                Myra Sklarew
Thomas Sayers Ellis               Reuben Jackson               Sonya Renee Taylor
Brian Gilmore                         Fred Joiner                       Dan Vera


[Letter hand-delivered to the Busboys & Poets at 14th & V Streets.]


February 14th, 2011

dear poets and friends...

i want to thank you for your measured response surrounding the issue of the langston cut out.  i sincerely appreciate your thoughtful words and your wisdom which i am humbled to receive.

i want to preface my remarks by saying that it was truly my intention to honor langston hughes as i saw him in all his manifestations.  as someone who has worked in restaurants most of my life, i find no embarrassment to any work in the business however i do understand being respectful to a legacy that is far larger than i and which i feel a greater sense of mission to protect and honor.

i would like you to know i have no intention of replacing the cut out.  i will respectfully return the check to you.

as a follow up i am convening a meeting with our poets in residence this coming week to discuss many of the issues that have been festering for too long.  issues related  to compensation and other concerns that the greater poetry community may have and has had even before busboys and poets came into existence.

my own personal story is also much deeper than busboys and poets.  i will share it with you and others in due time.

respectfully yours,

andy shallal


The heart is a bird. The heart is a swooping eagle. The heart, when motivated, is a really powerful thing. Is there work to be done still? Sure. Lots. But damn, I love my city.

February 13, 2011

Are you in Miami?

If so, please come on out for this! It is free & open to the public. (But bring a tie...)

Join us at the LegalArt Residency
for Open Studios and Reading

Thursday, February 17, 2011 / 6:00 – 9:00 PM
Corner of N Miami Ave and NE 11th Street

6:00 PM - Reading by Sandra Beasley, Visiting Writer in Residence

Local Artists in Residence: Jiae Hwang, Manny Prieres, Pachi Giustinian, TM Sisters (Natasha and Monica Lopez De Victoria), Viking Funeral (Carlos Ascurra and Juan Gonzalez)

Visiting Artists in Residence: Alfio Demestre, Laura Hita (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

***Request for Ties***

Laura Hita, Visiting Artist in Residence, is working on a large wall installation of recycled neckties. In order for this project to be fully realized, your participation is very important. Please bring a tie, for donation in support of Laura’s project, to the Residency Open Studios and Reading. Upon completion of the project, everyone who donates a tie will receive a high resolution digital photo of the piece. Donate a tie and be part of the art!


While you're in the neighborhood...Enjoy CIFO’s Extended Hours: 6-9 PM

Currently on view through March 6, 2011 at CIFO: Inside Out, Photography After Form: Selections from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, curated by Simon Baker and Tanya Barson, curators from the Tate Modern in London. 

Film screening at 7:30 PM: The Woodmans, the life and work of the late photographer Francesca Woodman. Directed by C. Scott Willis, a Lorber Films Release. 

Parking: LegalArt is located on the corner of N Miami Ave and NE 11th Street. CIFO is generously providing parking in their lot located across the street from the building at 1018 N Miami Ave, (the entrance to the lot will be on your right). Metered parking is also available on N Miami Ave and on 11th and 10th Streets.

February 10, 2011

When Busboys Become Poets (& When Poets Walk Off with Busboys)

I appreciate Busboys & Poets on many levels. They provide a lively stage for poetry in this town. They provide partnership and shelter to such groups as Teaching for Change (which is responsible for the bookstore) and Split This Rock. They employ awesome people like Derrick Weston Brown and Holly Bass as poets in residence. They have a menu that is sensitive to vegan and allergy needs. You can order a carrot juice instead of a cocktail and the waiters don't look down on you. 

But they're getting some things wrong as they grow bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think A Certain Poet was right to call them out on it by liberating their incredibly tone-deaf cut-out of Langston Hughes. I think the follow-up comments from Kyle Dargan, Dan Vera, Brian Gilmore, and Fred Joiner (in a separate forum) further underscore the importance of this moment as being an indicator of a larger tension. 

People are labeling the theft as amateurish. I don't think so. Defacing it would have been amateurish. "Liberating" it was ballsy. The loss of the cut-out is of little material damage to the venue (frankly, this kerfluffle will get more people in the door). Let's use this opportunity to articulate ways in which Busboys & Poets could even better serve the artistic community that it wishes to champion. Here is what I would like to see:

-A doubling of the honorarium for featured readers, from $50 to $100. Some have suggested per capita, but I think that is too difficult to calculate--overflow from the main dining room gets seated in the reading rooms, people who are just there to eat. But as any poet will tell you, $100 feels like real money. Revenues attached to poetry events would easily absorb the additional cost to the venue. 

-Meaningful wages for the Poets in Residence. When I was serving as the Literary Chair of the Arts Club of Washington, the number one misconception was that I was getting paid for my work--planning programs, publicizing, hosting. The truth was that I was not being properly compensated, and so I burned out. This is a very sad and common pattern in the arts world. I don't know what folks are being paid, but let me put it this way: unless it is $500 a month, it is not enough. 

Note that the Poets in Residence have not complained about their honoraria. That doesn't mean the amounts aren't paltry; it just means they are gracious and grateful for the opportunity. Still, if we don't advocate for our fellow poets, who will? 

-Adaptation of the BB&P venue spaces to allow ALL writers and performers to access the stage regardless of physical disability. This should be a no-brainer, right? An ADA issue? But ask yourself: has it been done?

The comment stream in today's Reliable Source chat tells me that people are looking on from a distance and dismissing this as a bunch of whiny poets. Apparently we should be grateful we even have "one" venue in town. What the hell? We've got The Writer's Center, among other places. The Center is *scraping* by to pay its Sunday series readers $50 each, even though we are a nonprofit with NO income tied to food or drink sales. But we're making it happen, because that's the very least we should do for artists.

Andy Shallal is not a bad guy. I am not interested in taking down an independent business owner. But I think this is a really valuable chance to gut-check and correct a few things that have been slowly, surely getting off track in the past few years and alienating the community. Please, don't let it all get swept away with yesterday's news.

Oh, and in case you're thinking "Flat Langston" is akin to a cut-out of Obama--or James Dean--here is why the particular image selection is offensive...

I'm all for playful photographic tributes to poets. Dan Vera and Michael Gushue organized an "Ednafication" a few years back that resulted in the following photomontage, based on an iconic shot of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The result is an apt tribute to a woman who loved dogwoods in life, and chose to use them as a recurring motif in her work.

Does Langston Hughes have some affectionate ode to his busboy days that I have missed? The man who in his autobiography, I Wonder and I Wander, spoke of the difficulty and loneliness of those years, the wretched segregation of this town? Who said "I did not want a job," who wanted to support himself with his writing, but was forced to take a gig bussing tables that paid only $55 a month? Hughes did not want to be known as "The Busboy Poet," any more than he wanted to be known by the jobs he worked before that one, in a local laundromat or as a research assistant at the Woodson Institute. Hughes absolutely celebrated the working class (as have other poets, such as in Philip Levine's tributes to his blue collar industry days), but I don't think he celebrated his days as a busboy, per se. 

Langston Hughes posed for the above photo (the one used for the cutout) because it was the only way he could capitalize on the momentum of a newspaper article that had announced "Russian Poet Discovers Negro Bus Boy Poet." It would have been nice if Hughes had been able to enjoy the actual moment of having his work shared with an audience at the Wardman Park Hotel, after slipping his poems under Vachel Lindsay's plate. But he couldn't--because the hotel that employed him kept their auditorium closed to African Americans. So he had to play into the cute story of being "discovered," the exoticizing of an accomplished poet whose first book, The Weary Blues, been already accepted by Knopf a few weeks earlier. 

The name of the restaurant honors the balancing act all working artists are trying to strike: the hustle. But this? If BB&P really needed a life-size image for a birthday celebration, then they could have shown Hughes in one of the countless suits he wore to readings later in life, after his star had rightfully risen. He was a dapper man.

Would you have a cardboard cutout of Tillie Olsen standing there, ironing?

February 08, 2011

AWP in DC: The Aftermath

That'll do, DC, that'll do. 

We managed to not bombard the conference-goers with ice or snow. The connection between the Marriott and Omni was labyrinthine, and some panels in obscure locations, but at least you didn't have the claustrophobia of overcrowded elevators struggling to reach both programs and participant rooms. The totes were good; the guides were helpful. Water was in supply. The Marriott hotel bar's open layout made it a worthy place to meet up. (I can't vouch for the speed of their service, because that's what flasks are for.) The bookfair lacked flow but from this point onward that's going to be an issue every time we don't host in a conference center. 

The Omni was the redheaded stepchild of the two hotels. That's a shame; from the velvet-swagged windows to the opulent foyer, its style is much more distinct (if throwback) to DC than the Marriott, which has scrubbed away identifying elements of the Langston Hughes/Vachel Lindsay days. Did you know that when the Shoreham first opened, it had an ice rink in the lobby? And a furniture factory in the basement, to provide custom pieces? FDR had his first inaugural ball there. Helen Hayes used to bring her kids to their Easter Egg hunts. The Beatles stayed there the first time they came to DC--they were given an entire floor to themselves. I hated hearing people dismiss it as the lesser hotel. Sure, the Omni bar was a ghost town, but therefore ideally suited for discreet AWP hook-ups. There's a fine & honorable tradition of those.  

It's impossible to wrap my head around the conference in a narrative way, so I'll just mention some highlights. Apologies in advance for the gratuitous name dropping...

Most moving moment: Hearing Sonia Sanchez read Langston Hughes' work and reflect on his legacy. I got the shivers. Afterwards she told me that the first time she ever met Hughes, she waited for an hour in line at one of his readings--only to panic when she finally got up there, leaving without saying anything of substance. We've all been there!

Best fiction readings: Alix Ohlin ("Fiction and the American Scholar"), Jennine Capó Crucet ("Potomac Review Celebrates Best of 50"), and Jessica Francis Kane ("Greywolf Press Reading"). These readings weren't particularly edgy or bombastic; they didn't have the buzz attached to readings from Mary Gaitskill or Junot Diaz. But they were captivating pieces with funny, memorable voices--from authors I might otherwise have not known about, but whose work I will now look for. That, in my mind, is the main purpose of an AWP reading. 

Best poetry readings: Brian Teare (Blackbird/Diode Offsite Reading), Nick Flynn ("Greywolf Press Reading") and Eric McHenry (Waywiser/Entasis press Offsite Reception). My motives are different when listening to fellow poets, whose work I already know and love. In these cases I heard new poems that are going to get a LOT of praise in the coming days. Brian's long poem was bracing, brave, sophisticated in its thematic execution; Nick deserves major credit for clambering back from the world of memoir; Eric's poems, based on observations from his "Evan Said It" blog, are going to draw flattering comparisons to Ogden Nash.

Book I was most excited to hold in my hot little hand: Maureen Thorson's Applies to Oranges, a gorgeous new release from Ugly Duckling Presse. Watch out, world! 

Personal pride: Watching Richard McCann being a consistently thoughtful, witty presence on panels. Being able to say, "He was my teacher." 

Personal joy: Having Ed Skoog call me his "Virgil", i.e., his poet-guide to DC in the time spent here as a Jenny McKean Moore resident. Any time, Ed, any time. (I must have missed the part in the Inferno where Virgil divines the location of good beer on draft.) 

Personal mortification: Bumping into a poet-friend and realizing, at last year's conference, I'd had a foot-in-mouth moment--upon learning of an honor she'd received, assuming aloud that it was another, lesser opportunity--and she had carried that moment around as a hurt ever since. You know who you are. I'm really sorry. 

Best conversation of importance: Being counseled by the amazing Jessica Handler on a bad run-in with a big magazine (versus her awesome and well-deserved run-in with Vanity Fair). 

Best conversation of no importance: Helping Brian Turner plan how to better accessorize his black velvet sport coat (we settled on a paisley shirt and some purple-tinted glasses, possibly with an amping up of the facial hair).

Jaw-dropping moment: Having Carolyn Forche come up and start asking a series of intent questions on how my memoir was coming along, with her premising comment of "ever since we met and you told me about it, it's been on my mind." 

Lesson learned: That red heart-shaped lollipop may look like a good idea at the time, but you'll regret it as you're trying to have a serious conversation with Sven Birkerts at the AGNI table and it's still in your hand, half-licked. 

Funniest panel: "The Road Less Traveled: How to be a Writer Without a Full-time Academic Gig," in large part because of Steve Almond's totally unfiltered contributions, which at one point characterized Ru Freeman as "humping on the bare floor" because she and her husband were a few years into marriage before being able to afford a proper bed. As Ru was quick to point out (indignantly), there are plenty of places to have sex that aren't on a bed. This was a packed session, but I'm glad I insisted on hunkering down in the aisle. 

Most rewarding Q&A of a panel: "Women on Wanderlust: Travel Writing," when people gave very honest (and not entirely harmonious) answers and offered the audience editorial connections for the future. At so many panels, the Q&A marks the end of meaningful content. This one was great. Another full house. 

Most awkward politic: Every year AWP has a thriving and visible community of African-American writers paneling, reading, representing. DC has a thriving community of local writers (of all ethnicities) who devote their energies to furthering the literary culture of their city. DC has a thriving community of people who love Busboys & Poets as a venue. These groups, while certainly not being mutually exclusive, don't entirely overlap either. 

Best non-book item in the bookfair: The Rumpus's "Write Like a Motherfucker" mugs. 

Best perk: Realizing my apartment building shares a zone number with the conference, meaning I could park my DC-registered car on the street for unlimited stretches. 

Best getaways: Chicken soup at Nam Viet with Erika Meitner on the eve of the conference (my ONE meal out); a bloody mary in the hotel bar with Jehanne Dubrow instead of the not one, not two, but three panels I'd meant to attend in that same time slot; a pint of Smithwick's with John Griswold when all was nearly said and done. That last one involved, oddly enough, a story about putting Jennifer Egan in WW-II-era diving suit. 

Event I was sorriest to miss: Claudia Rankine's exchange/confrontation with Tony Hoagland as presented at her featured reading, in part following up on an incident involving Hoagland's appearance at last year's AWP. I can't say more because I wasn't there. But I hope someone else does because from what I hear, she was on point. 

Table I was sorriest to miss: New Issues, where wert thou? 

Who I was sorriest to miss: Mary Biddinger. That girl is just walking sunshine to me. 

Most silly fun: The dance floor at the Black Cat, during the party to support 826DC. I was coming off a fantastic Copper Nickel reading in the back room below (thanks to all who made that). I had found some Ole Miss friends to dance with. The DJ was doing some inventive transitions; people were wandering around in costume. That's what I like to see--writers getting down with their creative, shy, arrogant, dorky, seductive selves. Rock on. 

February 02, 2011

AWP in DC: What You Truly Need to Know

You're stressed by travel. You're overwhelmed by the conference schedule. You're wondering how on earth you're going to hit the ground running for AWP. Here's what you truly need to know.


The conference hotels are in what is referred to as Woodley Park, but that term refers primarily to residential areas; there isn't a significant nightlife. Luckily you're right near some great neighborhoods, and there is a metro entrance right by the Marriott. Dupont Circle is one stop south on the red line (head toward "Glenmont"). Cleveland Park is one stop north on the red line (head toward "Shady Grove").

Adams Morgan can be accessed by walking over the Duke Ellington Bridge--from the major intersection of Calvert & Connecticut Avenue, by the Omni, turn onto Calvert and walk a long curve toward the right, and up a hill, following the road as it changes into Adams Mill. Sounds more complicated than it is; drunk college kids do it all the time.Lots of dive bars along this stretch.  The Diner is open 24/7 and a great place for brunch. Madam's Organ has a live music and a really raucous blues bar atmosphere. The Black Squirrel has the best beer selection in the neighborhood (yes, even better than The Reef up the street--I'm sorry but someone has to say it, even though The Reef has been around forever). Oh, and Bourbon has five different types of fried potatoes on their menu: curly fries, waffle fries, sweet potato fries, shoestring fries, and tater tots. Yep, I'll see you there. 

The U Street neighborhood is a $7-10 cab ride. Highly recommended that you check it out (Ben's Chili Bowl! Busboys & Poets! speakeasy cocktails at The Gibson! which is so cool they don't even have a real website, so you can get an actual description here), but anyone that tells you to metro to a nearby stop on the green/yellow line is crazy--that is a horribly inefficient route from Woodley Park. There's theoretically a connecting bus line from Woodley to U Street, but it is unreliable. I say you taxi.

One bus line that IS reliable is the 42, which snakes through Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan (along Columbia Road), and up into Mount Pleasant.

Give yourself about 20 minutes to get to any of these neighborhoods. It looks like it should take less than that, I know. But trust me. That means that you're better off picking a neighborhood for each night's offsite events and sticking to it. I suspect 85% of the action will end up on Dupont Circle, but I'm biased by years of living there. If you're staying in Dupont, I strongly suggest grabbing some time for work/wifi at Soho Coffee, some shopping at Secondi, and some exotic vodkas at Russia House.

If you use the metro, as Charlie says, for the love of god--stand on the right! The left is reserved for those walking quickly. Also, be aware that most metro stops have two major exits, which can significantly change where you emerge street-side. If you are getting off at Dupont Circle, for example, use "Q Street" to get to Kramerbooks (a fabulous indie bookstore and late-night cafe) or Teaism (mmmm, sweet potato salad and bento boxes). Use "Dupont Circle" to get to the Big Hunt (many beers on draft) or Bread & Brew, two locations for offsite events this year. Taking the wrong exit will cost you an extra 10 minutes walking time.


Closest liquor store - Sherry's Wine & Liquor at 2315 Calvert Street NW [Right by the Omni, but not within obvious sightline from Connecticut Avenue--go around the corner. P.S. - 10% off all single-malt scotches on Thursdays.]

Closest copy/mailing center - FedEx Office Print & Ship Center at 1812 Adams Mill Road NW [Walk toward Adams Morgan neighborhood; look for FedEx on your right, just before the major intersection of 18th & Columbia Roads.]

Closest grocery store - Whole Foods at 1440 P Street NW [Dupont Circle metro, Dupont Circle exit; head away from the Circle on P Street, crossing 18th Street as you walk; lot parking also available.] Also useful, in Cleveland Park: Brookville Supermarket & Yes! Organic Foods, in the 34oo block of Connecticut Avenue NW.


There is tons of great food in DC, as attested to by Leslie. If you want tips on the great places in nearby neighborhoods, check out DC's Yelp page, the City Paper's "Young and Hungry" blog, or DCist. What I'm going to focus on here are a few places immediately adjacent to the conference hotels.

Open City - This place is gonna be swamped, but that doesn't mean it's a tourist trap. It's a neighborhood favorite because of its cheerful vibe and reasonable prices. Operated by the forces behind Adams Morgan's Tryst and The Diner (two of the most beloved venues in Northwest), Open City has an extensive menu of all-day breakfast options, generously sized salads, burgers, quirky sides--quinoa, glazed carrots--and consistently good specials and wines by the glass.

Lebanese Taverna - This local chain is great for groups sharing Middle Eastern small plates. Elegant but noisy setting (the tables are close together). Specialties include the shwarma, tartare, and falafel; if you're not crazy about garlic speak up in advance, because otherwise you'll be tasting it all night.

Medaterra - I've never understood why this place isn't more popular. Their $5 happy hour martinis are huge, their servers are sincere and attentive (always something I watch for, given my food allergies), no one hurries you on clearing the table, and their plates are generous. No, it's not hip--they haven't updated their menu or decor since 2005. Maybe 2000. But the lamb shank with green beans, the roasted half-chicken with french fries, and the vegetarian Koshari (green lentils and rice) are all great deals.

Tono Sushi - There's usually an automatic suspicion of a place that has $1 happy hour sushi. Don't be afraid! A good deal, with plenty of pan-asian entrees, and they have pretty fast turnover on orders. Just steer clear of specialty rolls than mention spicy mayo, which tends to be layered on way too thick. Not to be confused with Taro Sushi, a very upscale place in Dupont Circle. Sushi experts should consider going to Taro if money is no object. 

Mama Ayesha's - A hidden gem. I kind of hate to even mention it here. If you're in the mood for couscous, lamb kebab, or other savory comfort foods, this is worth the 7-minute walk across the Ellington Bridge...especially since the AWP crowds may be far less than those on Connecticut Avenue.

Some people love New Heights (contemporary American, pricey, and not to be confused with "The Heights" in Mount Pleasant). Others swear by The Afghan Grill for its authenticity--Sebastian Junger chose to have lunch there when being profiled by a Washington Post reporter for his most recent book, War. I can't vouch for either personally, but worth a look.

And again, just to be clear--if you were coming to DC FOR THE FOOD, these would not be the places I'd send you. I'd love to take you to Ethiopic for injera and spicy vegetables, or Mourayo for the octopus with fava puree, or Jaleo for brussels sprouts roasted with serrano ham, or Sei for sashimi. But you're coming to DC for the books, and the readings, and the community. So I'm not going to recommend a half-hour sojourn to Rasika just because they serve chic Indian food and the Obamas love it.

That said, if you're looking for a culinary night out, back-channel me and I'll see if I can help. All I need to know is the target neighborhood and cuisine.


People will tell you to go to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, or Eastern Market on Capitol Hill, or to play mini golf at the H Street Country Club. All awesome destinations, but...they're not being realistic about what you can get to from Woodley Park, especially if the weather is bad. Here are four places you can go to get away from AWP for an hour and a half, without derailing your day's schedule.

Smithsonian American Art Museum / National Portrait Gallery - These museums dovetail in a grand space formerly occupied by the Old Patent Office building, housing both a stunning modern/American art collection and, for the history buffs, a chance to see many iconic faces and works. Of all the Smithsonian institutions, this is by far the most accessible to the conference; it is also the only one that stays open until 7 PM on weekdays. [Free. Take the red line metro to Gallery Place/Chinatown stop and use the "Arena" exit; SAAM is immediately across the street.]

Washington National Cathedral -  Beautiful, meditative space that is truly unique to our city. The stained glass is worth the trip alone, including a panel that features an embedded moon rock.  Overhear a choir practice, go up to the top level and take in the view, and spy the stone carving of Darth Vader. [Free. Inexpensive parking on site; walking distance, if you're ambitious and the sidewalks are not icy.]

National Zoo - When I used to walk that stretch of Connecticut Avenue for work every day, I would turn off and take a five-minute break to watch the quintet of baby cheetahs. Though the cheetahs are a little bigger now, they're still fun to watch--and we've got lion cubs (!), pandas, and an always-entertaining Ape House. [Free. Inexpensive parking on site; reasonable walk from Woodley Park.]

Phillips Collection - Probably my favorite private art collection in DC. Highlights include the beauty of the original Duncan Phillips house, the Rothko room, and works by Degas, O'Keeffe, and Steiglitz. For those staying in Dupont, note that the cafe is a lovely refuge and accessible without paying. [$10-12 admission, but you're supporting a gallery recovering from a major fire; worth the money! Feasible street parking, or take the red line metro to Dupont Circle and use the Q Street exit.]

Monuments? I love them too. And if you've never been to DC, it would be a damn shame to not visit them. The Lincoln Memorial has the best presidential statue--filled with emotion and mammoth in size. The Jefferson Memorial has the most scenic location, though a bit cluttered up with  preservation efforts right now. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has the strongest dramatic impact. The World War II Memorial is all pomp and circumstance, wreaths and fountains, but it is done well if you like the style. The FDR Memorial has the best curation of texts, and innovative uses of stone and water. (You'll notice I don't mention the Washington Memorial, which can be seen from afar; nothing is gained in getting up close to the base. And a White House visit requires too much advance planning.)

The problem? All these sites are downtown. Far from Woodley Park. The solution? Collar someone with a car, and GO AT NIGHT. These memorials are all operated by the National Park Service, which means they are open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The NPS websites above have the details; most have reserved stretches nearby for parking, and traffic dies down significantly in those areas after 8 PM. Quite frankly, I love memorials best by moonlight anyway; I even wrote about it for the Washington Post Magazine.


I would like for you to have at least a half-decent time in DC, winter storm oblivion notwithstanding. It is my city. These are my neighborhoods, as you might have guessed from the level of detail above. Please, please, think about coming back to visit when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

If you might want to meet in person during the conference, please consider making it out to either one of my readings on Friday, February 4:

9 AM - "Potomac Review Celebrates Best of 50" with Julie Wakeman-Linn, Kirk Nesset, Sandra Beasley, Jacob Appel, Jennine Capó Crucet, and Marilyn Kallet. [Omni Shoreham Hotel, aka "the fancy hotel," Diplomat Ballroom of the West Lobby.]

7 PM - Reading in celebration of Copper Nickel's latest issue with Sandra Beasley, Anna Journey, Kyle Dargan, Merrill Feitell, David Keplinger, Wayne Miller, and Michael Martone at the Black Cat, 1811 14th Street NW. [Metro to Dupont Circle/Q Street exit, and use Q to walk to 14th Street; the numbered streets should be going down.]

Or just look for me at the hotel bars. I'll have my flask. And if you're coming to this blog for the first time--or for the first time in a while--please check out Crown's trailer for my forthcoming book, Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. 

I know, you're anxious. But it's AWP! We'll make the best of it. See you there~

February 01, 2011

Radio Free AWP

At a 2009 AWP panel I met John Griswold--a sweet, smart, funny writer who pens a column for Inside Higher Ed under the byline of Oronte Churm. Not that his writing skills end there. John is also the author of the novel A Democracy of Ghosts, a ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year, and a nonfiction history of the same hellraising town--located in an Illinois county often called “Bloody Williamson."

Our chance meeting led to a November 2009 guest post at "The Education of Oronte Churm" called "Let It Rain," which detailed the quirky circumstances under which I left my full-time job and embarked on the sometimes thrilling, sometimes exhausting, always tenuous path to becoming a full-time writer.

I'm delighted to once again be a part of John's blog, this time in the form of having a podcast on my work included in the line-up for "Radio Free AWP." Hunger Mountain editor Dana Burchfield spent some time with I Was the Jukebox and put together a gorgeous meditation on poetry in the cacophonous space of everyday life. I'm honored to have my comments and readings of poems interspersed with her thoughts.

These podcasts will be available for free downloading all week starting Wednesday, simultaneous to the AWP Conference here in Washington, DC. For those attending the conference in person, there will be some opportunities to win associated raffle prizes. (Thanks to W. W. Norton for donating a copy of my book!) For those unable to make it in, especially given the perilous weather, it'll be a nice distraction from afar. 

A full program is included here, but here is what I'm really looking forward to:
  • National Book Award finalist in poetry Patricia Smith and crime novelist Bruce DeSilva—wife and husband—interview each other on writing, art, public lives, and domesticity.
  • Amy Hassinger (The Priest’s Madonna) and Fred Arroyo (The Region of Lost Names) introduce Lewis Hyde's The Gift and discuss its cult status among writers.
  • Matthew Gavin Frank reads from the beginning of Pot Farm (forthcoming 2012, University of Nebraska Press), his hazy and sometimes inaccurate nonfiction book about his work on a Northern California medical marijuana farm.
  • The staff of Creative Nonfiction offer an inside look at how they read, what they look for, and how they choose themes for issues.
  • Bob Shacochis, National Book Award winner, on adventures on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
  • Etgar Keret, Israeli writer (Missing Kissinger, The Girl on the Fridge) and filmmaker (Jellyfish, winner of the Caméra d’Or at Cannes) reads his short story “Shoes.”
  • The Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, with oral histories of people talking about their food culture.

Again, check here for each day's downloads. As someone who has been crisscrossing the country by car for the last six months, I'm learning to appreciate this type of programming in a way I never did before. Much as I love a little guilty-pleasure Top 100 radio listening, sometimes you need to tune in to something that feeds your brain. Enjoy!