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,
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.
- 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.