Back from AWP: Preliminary Report

My husband and I returned yesterday from three action-packed days at the AWP literary conference in New York City, the largest annual event for poetry publishers, literary journals and university presses. We handed out hundreds – maybe thousands! – of Winning Writers contest flyers, hung around with editors from our favorite magazines, and picked up numerous books that I’ll be blogging about over the next few weeks. (Especially if I give up computer solitaire for Lent.) Some highlights:

Rebecca Wolff from the experimental poetry publisher Fence Books plied us with fortune cookies containing fabulous prizes (I won a free subscription to their journal), but their handsomely designed books needed nothing to sweeten the deal.  After picking up Ariana Reines’ The Cow, winner of their 2006 Alberta Prize, I went back to Rebecca the next day and said, “I just want to stand here and tell everyone to buy this book, it redefines what poetry should do!” I mean, check this out:

from “Knocker”

Acres of wishes inside her. Any liver. To harden the gut. Boys rinse their arms in what falls from my carotid. My body is the opposite of my body when they hang me up by my hind legs. I mean the opposite thing. Not a wall with windows in it and flaglets of laundry waving or being so easy to mouth his so-thick. Sloes and divorcing her miserable eyes from the rumor they stir up in me. Everything on the planet is diverted.

Worse is less bloody pussies to lick. Everything good’s an animal.

Meanwhile, the Ayn Rand Institute had deployed two young, cheerful people in nice suits to advertise their very lucrative essay contests for high school and college students. I commended them for establishing a beachhead in what had to be an unfriendly environment, populated as it was by thousands of liberal academic types who were cranky from long restroom lines and inferior tuna sandwiches. I bought The Art of Fiction, a compilation of Rand’s lectures on writing techniques, which will either clear away my plot problems like Howard Roark blowing up an ugly building, or crush me with guilt because my process is so irrational.

As research for the aforementioned novel, I attended three different panels on gay literature, where I got to hear Reginald Shepherd say “buttfucking” and met the sublime Carl Phillips, who expressed a refreshing impatience with the constraints of identity politics. On a more serious note, Shepherd’s recent autobiographical essay in Poets & Writers resonated so deeply with me that I purchased his latest nonfiction collection, Orpheus in the Bronx.

Other writers whose work I intend to explore as a result of this conference are Brian Teare, Marcia Slatkin, Jeffrey Harrison, and Gregg Shapiro. I picked up the latter’s book Protection at the Gival Press table, where I was also directed to the literary journal Bloom: Queer Fiction, Art, Poetry and More.

The biggest idea I took away from AWP was “permission to speak”. This concept came up several times during a panel honoring feminist poet-theologian Alicia Ostriker. The panelists were talking about how Ostriker recovered women’s voices in the Bible and led the way for women poets to write about our own experience. For me this week, the permission I needed was to write outside my experience, to take on the voices of characters outside my own gender, sexuality, values and personality, without feeling afraid that I was appropriating someone else’s culture or being “inaccurate”. Even on panels defined by that old PC trilogy of race, class and gender, it seemed that the defensive fiefdoms of the 1990s had given way to a celebration of cross-pollination and role-playing.

Paradoxically, another benefit of this experience was a new permission to be myself, as in not comparing my writing to anyone else’s. I came away with a notion of “talent” capacious enough to include Reines’ furious, scatological, disintegrating prose-poems, Phillips’ finely crafted, melancholy lyrics, and Rand’s rationalist polemics and potboiler plots.

Just remember the cautionary words of Ed Ochester: “There are many mansions in the world of poetry, but some of them are McMansions.”

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