Rachel Zucker stole my pen, and other AWP adventures

Rachel Zucker's panel on writing poetry in the age of Obama

First, let me say that Rachel Zucker is a rock star, and she can steal my pen whenever she wants. I’ve had her book The Last Clear Narrative for a handful of years now, and every so often I rummage back through it to remind myself of what’s possible. We can write about our personal lives in interesting, innovative ways. We can use the open field to create more real emotional spaces. And now that I’ve gone to her panel at AWP on writing poetry in the age of Obama, I more strongly believe that we can and should write about our political lives, the lives that connect us to our communities and the world. Zucker along with a group of poets wrote a poem a day for the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency and posted them on a blog. Then University of Iowa Press picked it up and turned it into a book called Starting Today: 100 Poems for Obama’s First 100 Days. I bought this book and the lovely Rachel Zucker signed it. Hence the “stolen” pen. Not so much stolen as permanently borrowed. And it’s a good thing, too. It gives me something to talk about, a story to tell, as mundane a story as it is, and I think that may be what AWP is all about. It seems to be a place for collecting stories that make us writers feel connected. As Mary Crow, Poet Laureate of Colorado, said, tearing up, during Colorado State University’s 25th Anniversary Reading on Saturday, “This is like a microcosm of the national literary scene….I feel like I’m among my own kind.” She and poet Bill Tremblay started CSU’s MFA program a quarter of a century ago,

Bill Tremblay at the mic with George Kalamaras, Mary Crow, John Calderazzo, Wendy Rawlings, and Steven Church (left to right)

and writers were in the room who spanned Crow’s and Tremblay’s careers. George Kalamaras, for example, studied under these poets back when the program was just an MA, and I, on the other end of the time line, was lucky enough to be in Bill Tremblay’s very last MFA poetry workshop in 2004. It was my first, and I can honestly say that it changed everything for me and my writing life. Bill Tremblay had a way of challenging me while also subtly informing me that I could be a poet. And seeing these people again after seven or more years was, I’ll say it, inspirational. Mary Crow felt it when she stepped up to the mic and lost her composure, something quite out of character for her, in a moment of emotional honesty. I felt it while I worked at the Willow Springs table and saw writers who I’ve met from around the country, people who are doing what I’m doing, working on what I’m working on. Some people say that this conference, being so big with names and pure mass of people, is just too pretentious. Maybe that’s true, but I didn’t feel it. I suppose that’s a consequence of any forum where people are trying to stand out, get ahead, make a scene (literally). But I’d argue that, based on my experience anyway, AWP is, well, magical. Yeah, I said it, and so did other people I talked to. My writer friends and I left invigorated and ready to charge forth into the world of writing and publishing.

Some other highlights of my AWP experience in no particular order:

  • I met Adam Hammer’s wife! So here’s the story for those of you who don’t know: Adam Hammer was a friend, student, and/or colleague of Bill Tremblay, Christopher Howell, Yusef Komunyakaa, Jim Daniels, and a bunch of other kick ass poets. He wrote the funniest, saddest, darkest surrealist poetry I’ve seen in a contemporary writer. He died in a car wreck in 1984, and we at EWU/Willow Springs Books just published a never before seen collection of his poems. His wife, Iris Rinke-Hammer, had no idea that we’d done this, and when she saw his book, she was quite pleased. She bought twelve copies. But better than that, she talked with me for a while about Adam and what it means to see his work in print again. Talk about serendipitous!
  • After talking to Adam Hammer’s wife, I decided that Yusef Komunyakaa might like a copy of Hammer’s book. (It’s called No Time for Dancing, and if you’re interested in buying a copy, just comment on this post.) Yusef Komunyakaa is, for me, the rock star of all rock star poets. Not only did his book Neon Vernacular win the Pulitzer Prize, but he’s lived an amazing life: grew up a black man in Louisiana in the middle of the civil rights era, fought in Vietnam, worked his way up to being a professor at Princeton…. So I went to the panel where Komunyakaa was about to speak and gave him a copy of the Hammer book. He seemed pleased. I pleased Yusef Komunyakka. That’s right.
  • I went to the keynote speech given by Michael Chabon, who is also a rock star. Not only was he funny and poignant, but his talk was honest and wise. He shared with us, in a most meta/postmodern way, all of the details of his writing life. He interviewed himself, asking all of the asinine questions we audience members usually ask, things like “Where do you get your ideas?” and “What motivates you to write?” The kinds of questions that really have no good answer, he answered brilliantly.

    Michael Chabon signing books after his keynote speech

  • Finally, just wandering around the bookfair was a lot of fun. Seeing just how many journals and presses there are gives me some hope in the state of literature in our country. I know that many of these operations are hanging on for dear life, trying to survive budget cuts and a changing market for book publishing, but at the same time, I found many journals, including our own Willow Springs, publishing exciting new writers that people at the bookfair were really interested in.

So…if you went to AWP, please share your magical moment, or your rock star encounter, or the time when a writer stole your pen and gave you something important to think about.


  • ce. says:

    I judged a book by its cover and stayed away from the Writing in the Age of Obama panel because it just sounded so over-important. Why should the Obama presidency over any other presidency inspire one to write politically? What isn’t political writing, anyway? (Not trying to be a jack here; genuinely posing these questions.) I’ll admit I’m ignorant re: the panel, and I’m glad it seemed to turn out for the worthy based on your post. Was there any talk about understated vs. overt political poetry/art?

    My AWP story: Sprawled out on the floor of the Ramada at 4 a.m. with fellows Blake, Adam, and Justin, complaining about how lame it was that everyone had already called it a night.

    Also, manning the Keyhole table in Molly’s absence and getting to spend a good couple days getting to know Peter Cole and helping him pimp good words. Speaking of, Sam Ligon was bringing all you Barksters by the table to introduce you all, so I believe we met, and I’m sorry my memory is so hazy.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Ah, I was one Barkster who didn’t get the Sam Ligon tour, so your memory might be just fine. As for the Obama panel, the reason I went in the first place is because I’m looking for someone to give me permission to write about “issues,” things that are happening in the world that reach beyond poetry or what some consider to be poetic subject matter, whatever the heck that means. As for why Obama, I have to agree with the panel and say that when he was elected, it felt…different. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did, and in a good way. I spent most of the day after the election in tears for no apparent reason. It was kind of embarrassing. Nonetheless, I was moved by the whole experience. Oh, also, I agree with you about the whole what isn’t political question. I’m one who thinks just about everything is political. Getting out of bed in the morning is political. The panel did talk a little bit about what they meant by political and how the definition is iffy. Basically, they left it pretty open and just asked poets to write a poem on their assigned day and to somehow have it relate to the presidency. It was surprising and nice to see how broadly that got interpreted. Overall, the panelists didn’t come across as overly important, but I can see why the panel description might seem that way.

      • ce. says:

        Ah. Good good, then. I am horrible with names and such already, so add a stretch of days with not much sleep and/or food, and it gets hazier. Ha.

        Yeah, I think it was perhaps calling it the “Age of Obama,” that kept me away. Just seemed way too lofty and melodramatic about the whole issue. I mean, it truly was a historic moment, and I get that, but all I could think of reading that panel title/description was all of the horrible political pop art surrounding the election.

        This is also coming from someone who doesn’t care for overtly political art/writing, too. I love me some well-written, understated political art, but overt political art leaves me feeling preached to and annoyed usually. So, to be fair, there’s an admitted aesthetic bias involved in my reaction, too.

        • JaimeRWood says:

          That makes sense. I’m not a huge fan of preachy political stuff either, but, for example, after the earthquake in Haiti I wrote this poem that certainly wasn’t overtly political, but because it was about Haiti and the earthquake it certainly couldn’t avoid some political implications. I want permission to write that stuff, but for some reason I always feel a little guilty doing so.

          • ce. says:

            Re: an issue like that, do you feel like you’re exploiting it to some degree, and thus guilt about that exploitation? Or a more general guilt?

            I think the reason I personally shy away from issues like that isn’t a guilt or need of permission, but because it’s so.. _current_. I’d be afraid of writing something that’s too flat in comparison to the real event. And, like you said, the immediacy of the event instills such an inherent political angle to it, even if you have no intention of politics in the writing.

            But yeah, it’s interesting to hear speak of a need for permission, from not only yourself but a few people in this thread. Good conversation here.

            • ce. says:

              In summation, I’d be an awful poet laureate. Ha.

            • JaimeRWood says:

              I’m not sure that I feel I’m exploiting it so much as writing about something I feel like I don’t have the right to write about. I’ve never been to Haiti. I really have no idea what’s going on there besides what I see in the news. However, I was moved by the whole thing, and I think we poets should get to write about things that move us. One of the panels I went to was on sentimentality in poetry, and one of the panelists talked about a poet who wrote about 9/11 right after it happened, describing the smell of New York City as being like burnt cheese. He got in big trouble for saying that, but the panelist said it was the most honest description she’s heard. She lived in NYC at the time. I feel like that description is political. It’s saying, hey, I was there and it wasn’t what you think, it was like burnt cheese, as unemotional as that is, it’s the truth. Telling the truth is political, I think. And writing about what moves me–a 30-something, white, American woman–even if that thing happened in a place I have never seen, is a powerful act, I think. It’s a way of saying I’m a citizen of the world. The butterfly flaps its wings and I feel it. (That was a little sentimental, wasn’t it?)

        • Marcus says:

          I’m on that aesthetic bandwagon, too. Talking about politics seems to bring out the worst in people, so I have little interest in reading politically-inspired works based on the fact that they’re politically-inspired. I also have little interest in reading racist-inspired works or misogynistic works, etc. There’s some value to be gained in broadening one’s perspective, certainly, but the whole idea of political art makes me generally lose interest.

          • Sam Edmonds says:

            Agreed. As I said in nonfiction form and theory last night, I hate being told to “Wake Up” when I read, and it’s so hard to write politically without sounding preachy/didactic. I don’t mean to discourage you in any way, Jaime – I think it’s just the word ‘politics’ that stresses me out. It’s like hearing the words ‘gym class’ when you’re nine and terribly uncoordinated. Either way, whenever I see something labeled as political, it feels gimmicky. It’s like when you discover an awesome new band, then find out that they’re straight edge, or something; it just kind of kills the fun to know that there’s some sort of moralistic agenda behind it.

            • JaimeRWood says:

              I totally know what you mean about overtly political writing being a turnoff. I hated gym class when I was nine. But I would argue that everything we write is both political and persuasive. I would argue that it’s inevitable seeing that we’re honoring some subjects and language over others. Now that’s a pretty broad definition of political, and the other definition is the one I think people are more opposed to. I guess what I’m interested in is how we as writers can write about things that “matter” to the general public without being preachy or gimmicky. One of the things Rachel Zucker pointed out about her Obama blog is that average citizens read it and thanked her for it, told her that they were so glad to see a place for poetry that’s about something that matters. We might kind of roll our eyes at that, but I think we should listen to our possible future readership and think about how we can both stay true to our own writing aesthetics and write about things that “matter,” whatever that looks like.

  • tanya debuff says:

    The mommy poets was one of my favorites. I’d just been thinking to myself re my poetry, “you shouldn’t write about your kids again, nobody wants to hear about your kids all the time.” These mommy-poets (Diana Garcia, Beth Ann Fennelly, Alisha Ostriker, and Misha Cahmann-Taylor)discussed the way sentimentality works and doesn’t work, and their poetry really showed me how something like breastfeeding or postpartum depression can be a very political act.

    My other favorite was Truth or Trash: Women Writing Memoir. The premise was this: When men write memoir, it’s often about a certain masculine coming of age, and all that includes, which is often war (literal or otherwise) and sex. When women write their coming of age memoir, including their own personal wars with depression, sexual addiction, poverty, etc., it’s labeled confessional, sentimental, indulgent. One of the panelists was Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, who had written a book about her journey through depression. Her book is called Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression. She hadn’t wanted to put “Black” in the title. When a friend, also African American, wanted to write a memoir about her own journey through depression, the publisher pointed out that they already had one book in a similar vein. She was rejected because it’s already been done?!

    I think every once in a while, as writers, we need someone to tell us it’s OK to write about what we feel drawn to writing about. AWP totally confirmed that for me. Great time. Also, I got to meet bark blogsters Adam and Steve, which I suppose means I schmoozed, too! Sweet.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Awesome, Tanya. I was really interested in both of the panels you talked about. I hope you’ll come to the next Third Thursday meeting. We’re reserving the whole thing for people to talk about their experiences at AWP and to share what they learned with those who didn’t get to go.

  • Asa Maria says:

    I too was with Tanya at the Truth or Trash panel and it was just as fantastic as she describes it. “I think every once in a while, as writers, we need someone to tell us it’s OK to write about what we feel drawn to writing about. AWP totally confirmed that for me.” What a brilliant way to put it Tanya, and I so agree with you.

    My rock star moment was when I met Rebecca Skloot (Author of Henrietta Lack’s Immortal Cells) who is a fantastic science writer and great human being. She was super generous with her time and asked me to walk with her when she ran out of time answering my question at the end of the talk. I wish she would have stolen my pen so that a little part of me was with her. Instead, I have her card.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I always leave AWP feeling invigorated, too. I love the fact that there are so many different writers and publishers and editors out there, carving out space for themselves, writing and editing and publishing so much great work. Nice post, Jaime.

  • MelinaCR says:

    I definitely want a copy of the Adam Hammer book. And that’s amazing that you met his wife. After that one class when Chris told us about his life, and reading Deja Everything, I feel like I knew him or something…
    Thanks for sharing your adventures.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      I can bring you one, Melina. When will I see you next? They’re on sale for $10, which will fund our next chapbook. A good cause, in other words. It’s really a good book, I have to say.

    • Mary says:

      Reading his poetry does not even come close to revealing the person Adam Hammer was. Did Chris tell you about dead squirrel he hung up on a clothes line in his backyard? That’s just one example of his bizarre life and reality.

  • Marcus says:

    There were a couple of times sitting at the WS table when I remarked to whoever happened to be next to me that it was relieving to see so many bookfair tables. Not so much exciting or invigorating (though it was that, too), but relieving. For all we talk about how the industry is suffering and books are dying, etc., seeing so many people interested in writing in one place made me sleep a little easier and put some of the doomsaying in perspective. And on the flight home I read on my kindle and felt less guilty about it.

  • Michael says:

    @Jamie. Look into Kyle Minor. He’s recently taken an interest in Haiti. And, of course, there are Madison Smartt Bell’s books on Haiti, too, which are awesome. And I can’t believe we didn’t catch up!

    Picking a favorite moment is impossible. Broadly, I was just really happy to meet so many different people, put a face to a name with some of our old contributors, and just take it all in. I think I enjoyed it more than most people, though.

    • ce. says:

      Ah yeah. I forgot about Kyle’s work on Haiti. His reflection he wrote (and the exerpt shared of his novel [memoir?]) immediately after the quake was heart-stomping. I can’t wait for his longer work to get picked up so I can read it.

      Also, Roxane from PANK got her collection of Haitian-based stories accepted for publication recently. I can imagine that’s going to be some powerful word-smithery on the subject as well.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, Michael. I’ll definitely check them out.

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