BY BARRIE JEAN BORICH
I’m never ready for the end of AWP. Is there a loudspeaker announcement? A closing bell? A group whoop and ritual extinguishing of the flame? If so, I’ve never heard it. I always want ceremonious closure, like the end of the Catholic mass of my childhood—some holy admonishment to go forth to love and serve the word. But no.
Instead the end is marked by books and flurry. The book fair resounds with the rip of packing tape as exhibitors tear down their tables and booths. The exhibition is busier than ever, as it’s always open to the public on Saturday, but now exhibitors are giving books and journals away, just as the conferees, loaded down with more than they can carry home on planes, turn down the gifts with equal glee.
I start to see journals left spread across abandoned tables. When I meet with my VIDA editorial committee to discuss some coming changes to our Web journal we find ourselves sweeping aside a pile of beautiful abandoned literary magazines just to make room at the table, commenting on that late AWP denial logic allowing us to believe that if we leave our beloved creations here, where surely someone will claim them, then we aren’t actually throwing them away.
Still, despite all this jettisoning and departing, the last panel I attend is packed, the Q + A turning into a minor brawl. The panelists, responding to a current brouhaha in the creative nonfiction world, have led us all into the tender zone where we disagree on whether nonfiction writers are allowed to make things up.
One young woman stands up to speak out with a wavering voice, referencing a famous writer by his first name; the essayist sitting next to me and I surmise she is one of the famous writer’s students.
Another speaks, then another, and response applause becomes competitive, though the panelists are conciliatory, and most of us present know we will not live or die at the hands of this debate– because where but AWP would anyone take trouble to argue about the lyric essay?
As the final panels disperse the lobby bar is again runneth over. The noise is what I notice in these final hours, in the book fair and now in the hotel lobbies and corridors, the undulating roar of the collective human voice, rising and falling waves of indistinct sound. Words no longer carry discernable meaning. Words are merely a force of nature, a wind tunnel of indistinct syllables, stoppering our ears, disheveling our hair. No wonder we all leave AWP feeling as if we’ve survived a tsunami.
My own last conference activity is dinner with the same poet I’ve had dinner with for years now, every Saturday night of every AWP. Brian Teare and I take a cab to an undisclosed non-conference location. We lean into each other, this year over gluten-free pizza, and we break down our careers, our marriages, our friendships, our strategies for keeping the work alive, everyone we know in the literary world.
We see each other just once a year, in the city of the AWP, a mystical metropolis that reappears and dissolves again, this year Chicago, next year Boston. We are both the sorts incapable of casual friendship, with each other or with anyone, and so aren’t afraid to love one another, though we’ve never lived in the same city.
We’ve taken long after-dinner walks in Denver, in Washington DC, in Chicago, down streets on the cusp of settling back to themselves as the conference packs for the coming evacuation. Brian and I finish our conference with a long walk down Michigan Avenue, arm-in-arm, the skyscrapers rising before us, looming sentries of the lives we make within vocation.
Go forth now, is what we’ve been saying to each other for the past five hours. Go forth now to praise and love the word.
Barrie Jean Borich is an assistant professor at Hamline University, an editor at Water-Stone Review, and a board member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
BY KATHRYN KYSAR
By the time I emerged from my room at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, the crowd in the lobby of the Palmer House was thinning out. Booted women wrapped scarves around their necks and rolled their black suitcases toward the hotel door where the smoke from shuttle-waiting writers wafted in. The efficient staff quickly picked up stray coffee cups and newspapers as people gave each other final hugs and said farewell.
Our community now disperses, the magical festival over. We retreat to Facebook, Twitter, and our caucus blogs, disappear from literary view back into our usual lives of laundry and paper grading, grocery shopping and commuting, house cleaning and committee work. The best of us will file and organize the piles of book fair fliers we bring home, submitting poems and manuscripts to advertised contests, writing e-mails to newly-met publishers, following up on possible speaking engagements and jobs, and drafting panel proposals for next year.
The rest of us will pile the papers on our desks where they will sit until summer, deadlines passed, connections forgotten, our good intentions set aside by the demands of our daily lives.
Meanwhile, the small, energetic, and devoted staff in the Carty House at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs get a bit of rest, then turn their attention to Boston, site of the 2013 conference, preparing for us another magical gathering.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of the poetry books Dark Lake and Pretend the World and editor of Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers. She served on the AWP Board of Directors from 2007-2011.
BY KATHRYN KYSAR
The Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University packed its sloping seats to the ceiling with an adoring audience waiting to hear Margaret Atwood.
After a presentation about the historical 1887 building, AWP executive director David Fenza awarded the George Garrett Award for Outstanding Service in Literature to Allison Joseph, creative writing program director at Southern University Illinois Carbondale.
There was a brief introduction and then Atwood, a small woman in her 70s dressed simply and stylishly in black, took the stage.
Atwood peered over the podium with her inquisitive arched eyebrows and halo of hair. Using sharp red reading glasses that matched her lipstick and scarf, she dutifully read her “craft lecture,” but there was one problem: Atwood had not studied craft, as there were no creative writing classes when she was in school.
Instead, she told us about the essays she wrote in high school that were graded on punctuation and penmanship; she remembered the poetry society at her college where earnest writers sat in a circle sharing their poetry and her later excursions in her black turtleneck to the Tuesday night poetry readings at a beatnik coffee shop in Toronto. Atwood’s writing process was simple: she read and wrote and read and ripped and read and wrote again.
Unfortunately for us, she did not talk about her more recent writing endeavors. I hungered to hear about her research methods for books like "Oryx and Crake," or how she decides to take on complex structural challenges in books such as "The Blind Assassin."
Her presentation was short, less than thirty minutes, but thrilling and satisfying. In the lobby, a few lucky folks who had won a lottery got their books inscribed. The audience scattered into the brightly lit streets, returning to hotel rooms or heading to the nightly AWP dance party, local bars, or late night readings.
Jaimy Gordon and Rebecca Skloot read in the ornately decorated Grand Ballroom at the Chicago Hilton.
The room was mostly full. I was there to hear science writer Skloot, the author of brilliant nonfiction best-seller "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", which tells the complex and sad story of a poor black woman whose fast-growing cancer cells were used without her permission to forward medical science.
Skloot’s presentation was expertly put together: two excerpts framed a talk about the book’s ten year-long creation process. Here are some of the more enlightening tidbits: she expects creative nonfiction to read like fiction be verifiably true. (See Katy Read’s previous blog about this creative nonfiction definition debate.)
To attain the structure for her book, she wove three story threads together. She first studied braided novels but later turned to movies like "Fried Green Tomatoes." Ultimately, the movie "Hurricane" provided the structure for the book.
Skloot spent three days detailing the movie’s organization onto index cards then spread the cards over a big bed, placing her story chapters upon them. Skloot’s father is a well-known fiction writer, and when she was a child, he would make dinner reservations in the name of his novel’s characters to build his books. She learned from him to extensively document details of rooms, clothes, and people.
Skloot discussed the difficulties of race and entitlement and perspective when telling Henrietta Lacks’ story, and how the topics she writes about were all things she was obsessed with as a teenager. (She was first interested in HeLa at age sixteen.)
Finally, she outlined her foundation for Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and relatives that provided educational and health care funds. After the presentation, I hurried into the book signing line to invite her to speak to a consortium of community colleges. Though Skloot was delightfully polite, she is sadly booked up until 2014. We may not be seeing her in the Twin Cities anytime soon, which made this event all the more special.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of the poetry books "Dark Lake" and "Pretend the World" and editor of "Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers." She served on the AWP Board of Directors from 2007-2011.
BY HEID ERDRICH
Time to pack and jet on back to my lake-lovely, smaller city. AWP was a heaven of many powerful voices, but the voices of the Indigenous authors in "Sing: Anthology of Indigenous Poetry" resound for me like no others. What a wonder to hear Minnesota Chippewa tribal member Gordon Henry, along with Roberta Hill, Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, Elise Pachen (daughter of ballet legend Maria Tallchief) and Travis Hedge Coke contained in a book that covers the hemisphere. "Sing!" is from the University of Arizona Press and also includes Minnesota authors Marcie Rendon, Louise Erdrich, Jim Northrup, and my humble self. I left that reading determined to host one like it in the Twin Cities, so stay tuned.
The Indigenous Caucus taught me two things:
1) The word caucus may have its roots in an Anishinaabe/Algonquin word
2) We are LIVID about the banning of books by Indigenous writers in Arizona and how the mainstream lacks awareness of this growing trend in legislation
Tri-lingual writer Bojan Louis gave an elegant poem, shot through with an electrician’s metaphors in Navajo, Spanish, and English, to help us engage his passionate resistance to the school district’s removal of books in his hometown, Tucson. I paid close attention, since I am headed there next week for the Tucson Festival of the Book.
Later, I had a conversation with an editor who has a child in the school system in Tucson and learned that the school district stood to lose millions in funds if the curriculum that included the books continued to be taught. Is that not what we call extortion and intimidation?
Yes, Indigenous writing is often political. And I like it that way. But we have as diverse a range as any other half of the globe. Among us, not-to-be-ignored Navajo writer Saanii Adil’ini (Tacey M.) Atsitty. She was a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe when I met her—though I can’t claim to have taught her and she’s got her Cornell MFA now. But it is always a wonderful thing to see our younger colleagues at AWP, whether we were their teachers or not. Tacey has finished a manuscript for her first book and when I asked who her dream publishers might be, Twin Cities’ Graywolf Press was on the short list.
Given how much of AWP is a reunion---after 20 plus years attending, for me it is 50 percent “good to see you again”---it is terrific when we have the chance to meet someone new. As I pack to return, I keep thinking of how I met Mary Bunten, President of The Writer’s Place literary center in Kansas City. We talked about how writers can better value their own work, how we can share our teaching through technology, what it is we really need to survive and thrive.
We were strangers one minute and in the next, deep in the kind of conversation you reflect on a long while. Mary left me saying, “You know I came here hoping to have just one good conversation and now I have.” That’s the thing about AWP that keeps me coming back.
AWP descends on Minneapolis in 2015. Poem up!
Heid Erdrich is a Minneapolis poet.
BY KATY READ
Amid the generally genteel mood of the AWP conference, I hadn’t expected to see tempers flare over, of all things, the topic of essay writing. But the most riveting panel I saw during the entire gathering was “The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?” Presented during the conference’s final time slot, it was fascinating on several levels, not least that it was the most combative discussion I’d witnessed in three days.
Immediately preceding that, I had seen two other enlightening but more mannerly essay-related panels: “The Poetics of the Essay” and “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay” (the latter moderated by Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae). As an essay writer, I enjoy any discussion of the form, and these two panels delivered.
Who knew that the essay-focused panel immediately afterward, held in a chandelier-bedecked hotel ballroom, would become the site of a heated showdown?
My surprise may have resulted from my own ignorance. I went in, to be honest, without fully comprehending what’s meant by the term “lyric essay.” I thought it referred to sort of arty, poetic nonfiction, filled with colorful imagery.
But I soon learned that “lyric essay” sometimes simply means: one in which the writer can make stuff up.
The five panelists held various views about whether, and to what degree, an essayist may be allowed—even encouraged—to invent or alter facts, whether this development is a legitimate or even inevitable advancement of the art. A lively debate ensued. And by “lively debate” I mean that a number of audience members rose to exclaim their opinions in angry, accusatory, occasionally disdainful and profanity-laced speeches, followed by applause from supporting segments of the audience.
I apologize for not having pen and notebook poised during these diatribes—after three days of listening to courteous, even ingratiating, audience comments I wasn’t fully prepared to record, let alone blog about, the vehemence being hurled. I spent most of the time listening in astonishment, mouth agape and head swiveling.
Inevitably, conversation turned to the writer John D’Agata, who has received attention lately over the recent publication of his hugely controversial book, “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (This link is to the Star Tribune review.)
The book details a seven-year (!!) back and forth between D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal over D’Agata’s account of the suicide of a 16-year-old boy, Levi Presley, who jumped from a Las Vegas hotel in 2002. The book reveals—and D’Agata freely admits—that he fiddled with facts for artistic effect, to improve things such as the “rhythm” of sentences.
D’Agata is a talented writer and, it seemed, widely respected in that room. Had there been an applause-o-meter handy, I suspect he would have won thundering support.
And I suppose that everyone sets the “what’s OK to fudge” mark in different places on the sliding scale. One panelist said he’s had students refuse to recreate dialogue in a memoir because they hadn’t carried around a tape recorder and “‘didn’t want to put words in their grandmother’s mouth.” That strikes me as excessive caution. When writing an essay, particularly a memoirish one, I have no problem with reconstructing dialogue—or the color of someone’s shirt, or whether it was raining—to the best of one’s memory.
But deliberately manipulating facts surrounding a teenage boy’s death in order to fit the writer’s quirky aesthetic? Here is where I, personally, would draw the line.
My view, like probably everybody’s, is shaped by my background. As a journalist, I stick to facts to the best of my ability and believe the real world contains all the material needed to create art. We could go back and forth, I guess, about whether tweaking facts is fair to the reader, whether fiddling here or there doesn’t just throw a whole essay into doubt. I believe, aesthetically speaking, that facts are beautiful things, and that when you can obtain them—even messy, awkward, inconvenient ones—they make for better, not less, satisfying writing.
But another part of my background comes into play here. I’m the mother of two teenage boys, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. And as I listened to the arguments in the Chicago Hilton conference room I couldn’t help thinking about Levi’s Presley’s parents. I imagined those devastated, grieving people, a couple who had set up a website celebrating their boy.
Over my years as a reporter, I have occasionally had to call up parents of children who died, and know that while nobody welcomes that sort of conversation, some parents are genuinely eager to have it anyway, because they have something they want to say for the record. They want to set things straight. Now I considered what it might be like for Levi Presley’s parents to pick up a national magazine and find an account of their son’s death in which some writer had played fast and loose with the facts—a writer who had taken the liberty of messing around with the details of their tragedy, not by mistake, not to protect anyone, but to fit an odd and esoteric vision of his own that, frankly, doesn’t even make sense to many of his fellow writers.
Thinking of this, sitting there in the conference hall, I had to fight back tears.
Katy Read is a writer for the Star Tribune. Her essays have appeared in Salon and Brain, Child, among other places.
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