Tuesday, September 11, 2007


The Albuquerque conference

The Albuquerque Cultural Conference (Labor Day weekend) was absolutely great. I flew down a day early on Thursday the 30th, which turned out to be a good thing, because it took me about a day and a half to get used to the higher altitude (Albuquerque is somewhere around 5500 feet above sea level, according to a couple of local people I talked with, compared to Minneapolis at around 900 feet). The first couple of days I kept getting out of breath walking just a couple of blocks. But by Friday evening I'd pretty much adjusted.

The conference took place in the Harwood Arts Center, an old building that may have been a school once, and still has various arts classes and studio space for artists to work. Many of the larger conference events took place in the cafeteria, a large room of tables and chairs next to the kitchen. The center also has a smaller building at the other end of the block with two studio rooms, where some of the events took place.

I had a chance on Thursday and Friday to connect with a couple of longtime friends who live in Albuquerque and who were attending the conference, and was very happy about that. The spare time also gave me a chance to get a little bit of a feel for a little of the city, at street level. Walking toward the edge of downtown late Friday afternoon, past small cafes and coffeehouses that were closing at 4:00. The hotel where I stayed was a small place on Central Avenue S.W., which is part of the old legendary Route 66. The colors of the place constantly dazzled me, as I'd expected -- pink or gold or pale tan stucco or adobe with turquoise or bright green or deep red trim. The Sandia Mountains enormous to the east of the city, alive like some kind of vast waiting animal. Everything in slightly sharper focus because of the effect of the light in the thinner higher air. (It was warm during the days, highs in the upper 80's, though not too bad really, especially if you could find some shade to sit in.)

The conference officially began late afternoon Friday. After a couple of hours hanging out in the big room with a little bit to nibble on, we went to the theater in the basement for a poetry reading by a dozen or so poets: Sara Ortiz, Anya Achtenberg, Levi Romero, Cherríe Moraga, Demetria Martínez, Tony Mares (E.A. Mares), Renny Golden, Bryce Milligan (he played guitar and sang), Margaret Randall, a group of slam poets from Albuquerque -- I'm sure I'm forgetting people. It was a great great reading, many people the next day said it was the best poetry reading they'd ever been to, everyone who read was great. Somewhere around 100 people came to hear the Friday night reading. Poet Joy Harjo was in the audience though she didn't read.

Saturday and Sunday the days were filled up with workshops and panel discussions (although "panel discussion" sounds much more formal than it was -- basically groups of us gathered in one room or another, taking turns talking about whatever the topic was).

On Saturday I went to panels on "Southwest Culture and Society," a fascinating discussion hosted by Tony Mares, and featuring Tomás Atencio (New Mexico activist and organizer), Damián Baca (professor of Chicano/a Rhetoric at Michigan State), and Albuquerque poet and journalist Gary Brower; "Small Press Publishing," a quiet thoughtful session hosted by John Crawford (publisher of West End Press and one of the conference organizers), and featuring poet Lorna Dee Cervantes, Bryce Milligan (publisher of Wings Press), and Cirrelda Snider-Bryan of La Alameda Press; and "People's Struggles in Defense of Culture," hosted by Margaret Randall, and with panelists Renny Golden, Cincinnati poet Mike Henson, Demetria Martínez, and Los Angeles poet Julia Stein. This last panel grew into a passionate discussion on the struggle to find and exhibit courage in our writing and our daily lives, and on what it means to stand in the way of progress when "progress" might mean economic and industrial and technological destruction of the earth and its life-nurturing cultures.

Saturday evening another poetry reading, another dozen people. The Saturday reading was conceived in part as a memorial for poet Teresa Anderson, whose book Speaking in Sign West End Press published in the 1970's; West End is preparing to publish a posthumous selection of Teresa Anderson's poems. Readers at the Saturday night reading included Lorna Dee Cervantes, Erika Wurth, Bill Witherup, Bryce Milligan, Mike Henson, myself, and several more slam poets; again I know I'm forgetting people. A terrific thunderstorm started up during the reading, letting up a little then growing heavy again, for a good two or three hours before it seemed to be done for the time being. (My great thanks to Mavel, whose last name I never learned, who kindly offered three of us a ride back to our hotels a mile away on Central Avenue.)

Sunday morning I was a panelist in a panel on "Art, Technology and Politics;" the session leader was Tony Mares, and other panelists included fabric artist Lauren Camp, and video and media artist Stuart Overbey. The session was small (people's energies were flagging a little by Sunday, and the numbers were thinning out a little) but the discussion was good.

Other panels during the weekend included "Teaching and Writing for Survival," "Cultural Memory," "Regional Activism," "Alternative Media and Journalism," "Indo-Hispanic Culture, Language and Architecture," "Building an Albuquerque Almanac," and "Poets and Artists for Peace and Justice." It was often very hard to decide which one to go to, with the panels mostly happening three at a time.

Sunday afternoon were workshops on "Writing for Peace and Justice" (led by Anya Achtenberg), a poetry writing workshop (led by Lorna Dee Cervantes), and "The Write to Remember" (led by Cherríe Moraga). I'd originally planned to go to the poetry writing workshop, but between one thing and another I spent an hour or more in good conversation under a shady tree with Julia Stein, Bill Witherup, and the owner of Acequia Books in Albuquerque (a man whose name I never learned).

Sunday evening was a dinner provided by the conference, in the big room: lime chicken, black beans, mango salsa, corn muffins, raw carrots and cucumber, chocolate cake. Much great talk at all of the tables. At the table where I was, I broke up laughing listening to Kimberly Nightingale (publisher of the St. Paul Almanac) and Erika Wurth tell hysterically funny stories about teaching. After the dinner, another poetry reading, fewer poets this time, a smaller group overall by that point, the hardcore holdouts. I think about half a dozen people read; I specifically remember Marianne Broyles (poet from a town outside Albuquerque), Jennifer Vernon (poet and political activist from Seattle), Elise McHugh; another couple of slam poets; and Dan Tilsen, grandson of the great 20th century writer Meridel LeSueur, who read (from a manuscript page folded many times and nearly falling apart in a couple of places) a poem by Meridel, the last piece of writing she wrote the night she died at the age of 96.

I was full of tears listening to Dan read the poem by Meridel LeSueur; it was the most profoundly moving moment for me in a weekend of great moments.

Monday, Labor Day, I had to fly back to Minneapolis, so wasn't able to stay for the last day's sessions, which included a panel on "Politics, Culture, and the New: New Forms to Meet New Challenges," and a final plenary session to discuss ideas about cultural organizing in the coming years.

I found a bunch of great reading at the book tables, and met and had great talk with strong beautiful creative people. A couple of people I met there, Lorna Dee Cervantes and Julia Stein, I'd talked with previously in our blogs, but hadn't met face to face before. West End Press has been publishing politically relevant poetry and other writing for more than 30 years; I invite you to check them out if you're not familiar with them. Likewise Wings Press, which has published (among other things) Lorna Dee Cervantes' most recent book of poems, Drive: The First Quartet. Also worth a visit is the website of La Alameda Press.

I ate corn tortillas and huevos rancheros for the first time in my life. I woke up Saturday morning to see hot air balloons scattered through the sky in the distance. Everywhere I walked were trees and plants and bushes I'd never seen before. I didn't spot a single squirrel (this even though there was a park across the street from the hotel).

I've been in many places over the years where the room was full of poets and writers. But never where there were so many really really great ones for so many days in a row.

I found that the buses don't run very late in Albuquerque, and there weren't any going where I needed to go, so I walked to and from the conference each day, which was fine in the cool mornings and cool nights. The buses didn't run at all on Labor Day. I would find it difficult to live in Albuquerque. But I hope I can go back again to visit sometime.

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