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.
BY HEID ERDRICH
Whatever “in sync” means, I am always out of it at AWP. I always want a drink whenever one else is resting, I want to rest when everyone else wants to party, I skip lunch and everyone else is skipping dinner. So it is that I find myself in the gorgeous Palmer House lobby taking advantage of the three-dollar Happy Hour appetizers.
The air is thin with writers—and by thin I mean 11,000 of them have breathed the oxygen out of the place all day and now have cleared off for other locales. I’m nearly alone, trolling for Minnesotans under fantastic friezes of gryphon and gods and naked ladies who arch forty feet above me. It’s a cavern, richly appointed, the Palmer House lobby. Ornate candelabras, a clock decorated with nudes and fawns in plaster relief, a peacock-feather designed rug, wee balconies off ballrooms where words danced all day. But I enjoy solitude in a crowd, which might explain why a poet would go to a huge gathering like AWP in the first place.
Soon enough one of my teachers from graduate school, Jean McGarry, happens by. She is a shy person so I am surprised and pleased to see her here, but she seems equally surprised to see me. We enjoy a moment catching up before my waiter takes my attention and I say goodbye, and settle into a huge leather chair.
My mind is packed with all I’ve heard in the past 48 hours. Biggest surprise? A panel on Writing the Middle East composed of two indigenous North American writers and two Arab-American writers. Choctaw author LeAnne Howe, who many remember from her days at University of Minnesota not so long ago, just served as a Fulbright Fellow in Amman, Jordan. Her manuscript in progress tells of the Arab Spring from the perspective of an American Indian teaching indigenous Bedouin women next door to revolution.
Allison Hedge Coke, a Coffee House Press author, tells of being welcomed to a writer’s gathering in Lebanon where connections draw people together across the gulf of war. The voices of these women play off the two male Arab American authors, Matthew Shenoda and Heyan Charara, whose own works are wrenching, terrible in their beauty.
That panel/reading alone would have been enough to fuel me for a week, but I sat on two panels after, and signed books, read poems, met with collaborators, and caught up with Chrissy Kolaya who teaches at UMN Morris and Donna Trump who teaches at The Loft, two talented writers from the mentor group I worked with a few years ago at The Loft.
Chrissy was with The Most Fascinating Writer in the World, Adam McOmber, a young man who writes prose so well that he is published by BOA Editions, a press famous for publishing the best American poets. Donna’s students come up to greet her as we speak and for a bit, everything seems in sync.
Heid Erdrich is a Minneapolis poet.
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