AWP17 in Washington DC

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This year was the 50th Anniversary of AWP, in Washington DC! Quite an accomplishment for any organization to have survived and thrived half a century. I apologize for this rare long post, I have made it as brief as possible trying to capture my experience.

My press gave me a ticket to attend so I could promote my upcoming book, truth be bold—Serenading Life & Death in the Age of AIDS. What a gift! A big thank you to Finishing Line Press! Unfortunately, I did not find them at the Book Fair, where they would normally have a table, several presses cancelled at the last minute. This was unfortunate since I was hoping to meet my new editor. But I got to enjoy what is now my fourth AWP and it was my second in DC, since the one I attended in 2011 was also in DC.

I attended many workshops toggling between memoir and poetry topics, here is my schedule starting with DAY 1:

The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir, with Abigail Becket, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Willifore, Tyrese Coleman, & Tara Laskowski. Here flash was defined as a start with its own flickering beauty. Also, a reminder of the question, Where are we in space & time?

Protean Acts: The Art of Reinvention, with Victoria Chang, Dana Levin, Richard Siken, Sarah Vap, & Brian Teare. Poet Dana Lewin uses the speech of the dispossessed. The question to ask oneself: What is it I never do on the page? She suggested considering using questions, repetitions, and fragments. Also, the use of structured assignments. Brian Teare made some great points: you cannot will change or obediance. He thought the term reinvention sounded willful and was not quite random enough, he also discussed change as being horizontal versus vertical. Sarah Vap (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this panel) talked about her book in progress which has grown to a twenty year project. She looks at poems at the word level, the mind level, the  poem level, and the book level and believes the body has other bodies attached to it, there are immuniology changes, species transforming, internet has changed everything, and she feels her own susceptability to the world. She then talked about interruption aphorisms using the fact she has four children to exemplify how she uses their interruptions, every 13 seconds, this has been an important part to the evolution in her work.

We All Have To Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good with Richard Bauch, Nick Flynn, Tayari Jones, & Amy (missed her last name and she wasn’t in catalogue-lots of last minute changes). Richard Bauch reminded us of the Samuel Beckett quote, “Try to fail better.” His good news was that if we wrote 2 pages a day we would have over 700 pages in a year, a good reminder that a little adds up. When starting a poem Nick Flynn writes longhand in notebooks which he says is 90% terrible, he will zerox a page at random. He talked about the importance of adding in connective tissue to make it work. Tayari Jones said, you can’t build a book off what someone doesn’t do, in her book she figured out she had to make the book about the incarcinated man’s problems. Before that the book had on the wrong shoes. She said, she did something right, she just had to fix it. During Q&A Robert Bauch answered a question with this nugget: the writing is yearning to give you all its secrets. And Nick Flynn said: Allow the embarassing, the shameful, take out only to make the book better.

The Elegy Endures: 30 Years of Community Witness to HIV/AIDS with Terry Wolverton, David Groff, Irene Borger, Reginald Harris, & Michael Broder. This was one of my key panels I wanted to attend, and the only panel at the whole conference on HIV/AIDS. Reginald Harris works at the Poets Center in NYC and he read a poem by Melvin Dixon, a black poet who died of AIDS and talked about filling in the gap by remembering and naming the lost.

Night one I had the opportunity to read my poetry at an off-site Dinner Party Reading Jamboree with Menacing Headge, a local Seattle journal that started in 2011; I was published in their inaugural issue. This Jamboree took place at Johnny Pistolas, a Mexican restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood on the first night of the conference. A perfect way to finish day 1.


Celebrating The Golden Shovel Anthology in Honor of Gwendolyn Brooks this wonderful reading included: Major Jackson, Sandra Beasley, & Marilyn Nelson reading work they wrote for this amazing anthology. Each of them used one of her poems as inspiration to write a new poem and Patricia Smith created a form for her named the Golden Shovel, hence the title of the book. Although Patricia could not be in this group someone read her powefully moving poem. I highly recommend this anthology featuring some of the best poets we have with us today.

The Craft of Empathy, with Kate Hopper, Ana Maria Spagna, Adriana Paramo, & Kim Stafford. Kate Hopper said to write with a craft of generoisty and hate spewing makes the recorder unreliable. Another point she made was any character acting badly in our own story will be an unreliable narrator. It is more important to have a balanced character, which means exploring why they did what they did or at least to question their motivation. She quoted Patricia Hampel, “Pain has strong arms.” One needs to write the person in their element. Kim Stafford, who wrote about his brother’s suicide in 100 Tricks Every Boy Could Do, discussed widening the circle of concern and reminded us we became human when we sat around the fire and told stories.

Beyond Sex: The Poetics of Desire with Sarah McCall, L. Lamar Wilson, Tim Seibles, & Remica Bingham-Risher. In this excellent panel we heard testimony to sources of desire from religion and the tragedies of life. Tim Siebles said, “misunderstanding is the dramatic situation between everyone.” And, “All people who are paying attention are on the front lines.” Reminca said, “Thinking deeply is political.” The final word coming out of this panel was, write poems to people who don’t get poems.

Looking Outward: Avoiding the Conventional Memoir with Bell Boggs Paul Lipsky, & Angela Palm. Paul Lipsky talked about writing three narratives stacked: loss of friend, dissolving of relationship, and the environment. He also spoke to telling secrets and expectations of a secret in return. One of his points was that what the narrative wants of us is simply to comfort.

Nope, That Still Ain’t a Story: Developmental Editing in Creative Nonfiction with Susan Perie, William Patrick, Amy Ryan, & Anthony D’Aries. I missed getting the handout in this panel, that supposedly was a story developmental check list. They ran out fast since the crowd was overwhelming. It was too crowded and by this time of the day I was not absorbing.

Later that evening I went to one of the feature readings with Eileen Miles, Alice Notley, & Sonia Sanchez. Very tired but worth hearing the three of them read. I had never heard Alice Noteley read before. Sonia always makes me cry and her reading was strong, using vocals despite having a cold. She quoted Audre Lorde, “Air this pain and alter it.” I am forever impressed by Sonia and Eileen is at the very top of her game in fame and success, she read her famous poem about being a Kennedy that I’ve only read, so it was especially powerful to hear it in her voice.

Day 3

Poetry as Invocation with Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Airea D. Matthews, Ada Limon, & Rachel McKibbens. What a powerful group of women evoking the voice of the Goddess, reading Hex poems, and going beyond the ordinary realm in their work. If you’ve not read these women now is the time to find their books.

Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty with Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, & Jill McCorkle. I went to this drawn by Jayne Anne Phillips one of my favorite writers, she confessed she still writes like a poet, line by line. There was an interesting conversation during Q&A about finding voice and how being truthful is defined as ‘nasty’ in our culture. One editor asked Jill McKorkle if her character would say “my could” her response was, “she might would.” Once you find your voice hang on tight.

I Sing the Body Queer and Crip with Kathi Wolfe, Meg Day, Lydia X Z Brown, Raymond Luczak, & Donna Minkowitz. I have to say at thie point I was floating around not absorbing much and coming down with a cold, but mainly I wanted to meet Donna who is one of my Facebook friends. It was great to hear her read from her memoir, Growing up Golam, and to connect in person.

Whew, what a ride it is to attend any AWP! And inbetween the workshops is the Book Fair to connect with publishers, buy books, & get to know the staff at journals where you submit your work. Unfortunately, I got the cold that was going around, but I survived. Thank you for perusing this long post, I hope you found something useful here.


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