March 29, 2016

AWP 2016 & 2017 & Ad Infinitum

I am about to hop on a plane to Los Angeles, where I will spend 72 hours immersed in the annual AWP Conference, which brings 12-14K writers to one place. I always pack my high heels in plastic bags. Over the years, my plastic bags have acquired an accidental theme, as seen in my pre-packing snapshot. 

If you offer me a button, I will wear it. If you buy me a martini, I will drink it. If you have a poem to read, I will listen. If you have a question, I'll probably screw up the answer, but I'll try.

In terms of simple self-care, I return to what my godmother Laura used to say: Never turn down the offer of water, Kleenex, or a chance to use the bathroom. There's all kinds of additional good advice out there about networking and/or shoes. In future years, I will probably have more to say about networking and/or shoes. 

This is my fourteenth consecutive year attending the AWP Conference. My range of experience includes the euphoria of a book deal, fighting with loved ones, tears, food poisoning, being hit on by famous authors, a random hook-up or two (unrelated to the prior clause), expensive meals, Triscuit-and-tinned-oyster meals, moderating two panels, meaningful conversations with editors, elevator rides spent wondering "Do I say something?," 50+ hours on the Book Fair floor, several marathon offsite readings, dancing at the Black Cat with former students, and one truly raucous hotel room party. I feel pretty at home at the AWP Conference.

That comfort is a luxury. Not a fiscal one--I've paid for fourteen years out-of-pocket. It's easy to take for granted ways that we navigate the AWP conference maelstrom; ways that might feel out of reach for others, even though they are equally-if-not-more talented, equally-if-not-more craving the community of fellow writers.

If you're going to the AWP Conference this year, consider complicating your understanding of what's going on in these ways~

-Ever walked into a panel where the room is filled over capacity and people have hunkered down to sit along every available stretch of wall?

Imagine looking at the front of the room where your reserved seat waits and wondering how you're going to navigate across all those bodies, filling every aisle, using crutches. Or your wheelchair. 

-Ever ignored a moderator's request for texts in advance--the poems you plan to read, or the statistics you plan to cite--because it's easier to plan morning-of? Ever tried to save money or please an aesthetic sensibility by squeezing the handout onto one page?

Consider that printing just 3-5 copies of a handout with a simple, enlarged font could meet the needs of visually-impaired members of our community. 

-Ever waved off the offer of a microphone because "I talk plenty loud"?

Maybe you do talk plenty loud. Maybe the person after you doesn't. Set the standard, for the sake of hearing-impaired members of our community. 

-Ever shot the glare o' death at the person whose infant keeps burbling, laughing, whining, or crying during the Very Important Tribute to the Very Important Poet in the Very Quiet Room?

Rest assured that parent is not bringing along his or her child because of a misdirected theory concerning postnatal aesthetic development. This is not about "Baby's First Villanelle." That parent is trying to preserve a sense of self, possibly in tandem with pressing professional expectations, in a system that offers no standardized options. 

Your matter of convenience might be someone else's critical access point. 

My privilege is profound. I have good sight and hearing; I can sprint from one panel to the next. I don't have to worry about child care. I am often in the so-called majority. But most of us have at least one scenario in which we are marginalized, whether the criteria be physical, emotional, racial, sexual, or fiscal. The nature of my food allergies is a lifetime of walking into rooms where for everyone else, it's time to party--and for me, it's time to strategize. Cake? Pizza? Where should I stand? What, or who, should I avoid touching? How's my breathing? Do my eyelids look funny? Can people tell my lips are swollen?

I like tote bags. I like a good hotel bar. I love seeing a writer I've never heard of before step to the microphone and tear it up. But I am thinking about these bigger matters, too, and I'm not the only one.

"Why Does Awp Writer’s Conference Continue To Refuse To Offer Child Care?" ~ Anna March for HipMama

The Lulu Fund: Supporting Racial, Gender, & Class Justice
"You're Invited to Braless AWP" ~ Karen Craigo

"AWP Tips for Writers" ~ "Tipsy Tullivan" via YouTube

*As Karrie Higgins has pointed out, this article has some factual issues, and the headline premise of "debating" access is problematic at best. 

In 2017, the AWP Conference comes back to Washington, D.C., in celebration of the organization's 50th anniversary. I'm not on the planning subcommittee; I'm not tenured faculty at any local school. But as someone who deeply loves her city--our capitol city--I want this to be a time and place where the conference's doors open wider. And the year after, opened wider still. We can do better.


If you'd like to cross paths in the real world, here are the best ways to do so between now and Saturday. Say hello! I am shyer than I look, but always happy to meet people. The codeword is: capybara. 

Thursday, March 31

9-10:15 AM ~ Poets on Craft: “The Furious and Burning Duende,” with Mahogany L. Browne, Jacqueline Jones LaMon, and Pat Rosal, moderated by Danielle Barnhart ~ Room 404 AB of the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Presenting)

Lorca tells us that the artist is possessed by duende, a malign spirit that burns the blood like powdered glass. This panel asks if poets can or should summon duende at will. Is it fleeting and ephemeral, or can it be harnessed as an instrument of craft? Five poets who have written about and with duende share their experiences invoking the dark, elusive creative force. We promise fiery exchanges on this evocative subject.

11 AM-Noon ~ Signing for Count the Waves, hosted by W.W. Norton & Co. ~ Booth 613 of the Book Fair at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Signing)

6:30-8 PM ~ University of Tampa Low-Residency MFA Cocktail Reception ~ Diamond Salon 9 on the Third Floor of the JW Marriott. (Co-hosting)

Friday, April 1

1:30-2:45 PM ~ Reading with 2014 AWP Award Series winners Charles M. Boyer, Sarah Einstein, Susan Muaddi Darraj, and Iliana Rocha ~ Room 503 of the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Introducing Iliana Rocha)

6-7:15 PM ~ Disability CaucusRoom 411 of the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Attending)

6-7 PM ~ VCCA Fellows Reunion ~ The Mixing Room in the Lobby of the JW Marriott. (Cohosting)

Saturday, April 2

1:30-2:45 PM ~ “Remembering Claudia Emerson” reading with Jill McCorkle, Emilia Phillips, Wyatt Prunty, Kathy Graber ~ Room 403 B of the Los Angeles Convention Center. (Participating)

Claudia Emerson’s death in late 2014 grieved her friends and her readers. This event features panelists remembering her spirit and her work and inviting audience members to participate by also reading her poems so that her single voice resonates through a chorus of witnesses. The panelists focus on her posthumous books, The Opposite House and The Impossible Bottle.

6-8 PM ~ Claudia Emerson Chapbook Award Reading with M.L. BrownFar Bar Little Tokyo (347 E 1st St) in Los Angeles. (Reading)

March 09, 2016


During our MFA residency at the University of Tampa, a student asked about the value about speaking up against perceived inappropriate acts or inequalities in the writing world, versus protecting your particular holding. I pointed out that unless you have the courage to speak up, you aren't creating an opportunity for people to share your perception of a situation or offer their own experiences. You aren't creating a space for allying. Though you might be playing it "smart" by being diplomatic, you'll always feel slightly alone. 

I have mixed feelings about circulating anonymous comments. I'm frustrated by being given a narrative out of context that conflates actions of concern with prejudicial judgments. So that's why I haven't linked to the VIDA "Report from the Field" that has been on many poets' minds this week. There's a possibility that the manner in which testimonies are gathered means that their circulation sparks a really important conversation--but then, ultimately, limits it.

That doesn't mean that I doubt the veracity of these testimonies. 

Thomas Sayers Ellis is a brilliant poet and performer. I think he can be a warm, affable presence--perhaps "when he wants to be" is a necessary disclaimer there, so be it. He can be kind and generous. I appreciate what he has done for DC's artistic culture, particularly its poetics and the documentation of Go-go. I respect that he took Flat Langston and ran with it.

And: I believe these testimonies. 

If my praise of TSE, in any context, ever meant that you felt you couldn't tell me about something that he said or did that made you feel vulnerable, I am so sorry. I wish we could have had that conversation.

Social media such as Facebook is, at the end of the day, an entertainment medium. You can use it; I sure do; but don't mistake anything that happens in this space as lasting consequence or judgment. What matters is what happens in the real world of a passion and profession so many of us share. The optimist in me hopes that the relative quiet on this issue in social media is because people are pursuing conversations in other poetry communities. I refuse to believe it's because people are just hoping this goes away. Don't dishonor these women who spoke up by dismissing them. 

In my real life, here's the thing: I don't get to teach The Maverick Room or Skin, Inc., anymore. Dammit. Those are really good poems. I don't get to suggest him for teaching opportunities anymore. I won't agree to be on panels with him anymore. That makes me sad. But I'd rather be sad than complicit in the psychological abuse of others.

Support these women whose names I do not know yet. I hope, some day, we've created a space where they feel they can introduce themselves. As more than anything having to do with TSE, as more than victims, I want to hear about them as poets. Which is what they came to this community to be. 

Support Jen Fitzgerald and Noemi Press. From Jen's blog post: "They understand, as I do, that when it comes to literature, there is more at stake than book sales." I cannot imagine how difficult that decision to alter the process on a forthcoming book must have been.

Support the Spring 2016 students at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, because when we sign up for a workshop with a visiting writer, we assume we're entering a healthy and neutral space. 

I'm pretty sure that if Thomas Sayers Ellis sees this, he won't be wanting my support. He'll be angry. That's fair. But I don't think anyone's actions can be cast in such a revealing light without the realization--especially within someone as smart and insightful as he can be--that something needs to change. Something is gravely wrong. I want him to get support for that, wherever it needs to come from. 

I am an eminently flawed human. Most poets are. Thomas and many others have managed to witness a few of my lesser moments, I'm sure. But I'm here, I'm listening. I'm here, on and off the screen.  

Reports from the Field: Statements Against Silence - VIDA

My Statement March 7, 2016 - Jen Fitzgerald

For My Daughters - Fred Joiner

On Solidarity: You Cannot Stand with the Group If You Do Not Stand with the Individual - Meghann Plunkett