Sunday, February 15, 2009


After AWP

I went to AWP this year, something I haven't done since 1992 (when it was in Minneapolis, and the local chapter of the National Writers Union -- in which I was somewhat active at the time -- paid the conference fee for two of us to staff a NWU literature table at the conference).

Here are random notes and recollections from the past few days.

The highest priority events for me were a Tom McGrath tribute, and a panel titled "Four Invisible Poets" which treated the lives and work of poets Muriel Rukeyser, Tom McGrath, Bert Meyers and Gene Frumkin. Both drew high concentrations of the small hardened cadre of political radicals that had infiltrated the conference. Both were less ceremonious, more rowdy and joyful, hanging less on decorum, than the other events I attended. (In fairness I should say that I was fairly selective, and attended just a few conference events.) Both events took place in the afternoon of the last day of the conference.

Panelists at the McGrath tribute were Glenn Sheldon, who also acted as moderator, Reginald Gibbons, Robin Behn, and Doren Robbins. All of the panelists spoke lovingly of McGrath, the stunning range of his poetry, his epic grasp and imagination, his galloping humor. (Looking around the conference room, with its massive chandeliers strung with crystals, its gilded mirrors -- the conference took place at the Hilton hotel in Chicago -- I kept imagining that if Tom had walked into the room, he'd ask where the Pharoah was buried.)

By good chance and fortune, a new poetry anthology came out just before the conference, Eating the Pure Light: Homage to Thomas McGrath edited by John Bradley, published by The Backwaters Press. The book is so recently out into the world that as of this writing it doesn't yet show in the publisher's website; however there were copies at the AWP bookfair. Check with the publisher about getting hold of the book (the above link is to the main page of the website; it includes a link to contact info). More about the anthology in the list of books below.

The "Four Invisible Poets" panel featured panelists Glenna Luschei, John Bradley, George Kalamaras, and Mary Ann Cain (who was substituting for scheduled panelist John Crawford, publisher of West End Press, who was unable to attend). This one took place earlier in the day than the McGrath tribute, and was a nice kind of prelude to it. Two of the poets they talked about, Gene Frumkin and Bert Meyers, were part of the "Marsh Street Irregulars" group of poets who gathered around Tom McGrath during his years in Los Angeles in the 1950's and early 1960's. Rukeyser's work was difficult to find for many years, though in the past 20 years or so it's been coming back into print; a couple of years back the University of Pittsburgh Press issued a new edition of her Collected Poems. Several of Thomas McGrath's books of poems are available from Copper Canyon Press.


The above two events were rare islands of humanity in a sea of giggling Babylon. I spent far too much time wandering the bookfair aimlessly and buying books with intent to read. (Is it redundant to say "wander aimlessly"?) I got into Chicago on Wednesday afternoon and stood in line for half a day or so at the hotel front desk waiting to check in. The elevators worked by an unusual system, whereby if you were going up, all elevator cars were going down, and if you were going down, all elevator cars were going up. It soon became common knowledge that if you needed an elevator (a good idea if your room was on the 14th floor), you should press both the "up" and "down" buttons, regardless of which way you wanted to go. This increased the chance that an elevator would arrive within 24 hours.


Friday afternoon during the conference I attended "Poetry of Resilience," listed as a panel though it was actually a reading by three excellent poets, Valzhyna Mort (whom I've blogged about here), Brian Turner (whom I've blogged about here), and Kwame Dawes, with whom I wasn't previously familiar and whom I'll blog about in the near future. The event also featured a short excerpt from a documentary film, "Poetry of Resilience," and the film director Katja Esson talked for a few minutes about making the film before the poets read.

Friday evening I went to the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute in the Grand Ballroom, a room that took gilded fixtures to a new unheard-of extreme. The event itself was absolutely wonderful, one of the most deeply moving things I've ever experienced. The panel featured Quraysh Ali Lansana, Major Jackson, Lucille Clifton, and Haki Madhubuti. (Michael Harper was scheduled to be on the panel but was unable to attend.) A huge gathering of people attended the event. Lucille Clifton spoke passionately about the importance and value of poetry, that one of the things poetry can do is to bring us closer to the place in ourselves that is most human, that this is the most important reason to write poetry. The audience gave her a standing ovation. Haki Madhubuti spoke with quiet intensity about Gwendolyn Brooks coming to the south side of Chicago to teach poetry writing to members of the Blackstone Rangers (a Chicago street gang in the 1960's). Madhubuti said Brooks saved his life. He told about visiting Brooks at home with his wife and daughter, at the end of Brooks's life; he told about standing by her bed, he and his daughter holding her hands, as she breathed her last breath. Stillness in the vast room as the people listened to him tell.

I also attended the panels titled "Diverging Lines: Understanding the Evolution of Contemporary Latino Poetry;" "Poetry's Electronic Communities;" "Making Scenes: Chicago Poetry Communities From 1939-2009;" and "Switching Hats: When Poets Write Memoir."


Roaming the hotel floors, people kept glancing at each other's name tags to try to catch whether this was someone whose name we knew but had never met in person. Or watching faces for any that matched the postage stamp sized photos in blogs and websites. I was pleased to meet face-to-face poets Anne Haines and Gina Franco. At the bookfair I met poet and fiddle player Ken Waldman, whose work I've enjoyed for a number of years. Also saw poet Erika Wurth, first time since Albuquerque two years ago. And got to connect briefly with long-time poet friend Sharon Doubiago. Many two-minute conversations with people. Some good talk with poet Greg Kosmicki, publisher of The Backwaters Press (see the link in the fifth paragraph above).

The room I had was on the 14th floor, at the back of the building (east side, facing away from Lake Michigan). During the day the view was somewhat bleak, lots of gravelly rooftops, however at night it was a spectacular view of the buildings of downtown Chicago lit up. The weather the first couple of days was somewhat mild for this time of year, temps in the 40's during the day. It got a little cooler by the weekend and snowed a little overnight Friday into Saturday. A few times when it got too stuffy inside the hotel I went out in front, and wandered around without a coat, in short sleeves, in the balmy 30 degree weather. On Saturday morning there were ice sculptures people had made in Grant Park across the street.

AWP logos loomed vast in the hotel corridors. There were T.V. channels in the hotel rooms that listed events on the AWP schedule. At some point during the week I heard on CNN that Muzak (the company that brought us elevator music) had filed bankruptcy. The elevators featured audio of poets reading their poems, accompanied by cute cartoons on a pocket-size video screen. An early poetry teacher of mine, John Caddy, said one of the reasons Plato wanted to ban poets from his ideal Republic is that poetry forces people to pay attention and think; you can't read or listen to poetry with only casual attention. It doesn't work as background music.


On Friday when I headed out in the late afternoon to find something to eat, as I was walking back to the hotel I came straight into a small anti-war demonstration going on in front of a military recruiting office. A leaflet handed out by the American Friends Service Committee says, in part: "Today...the Army is conducting a 'stand-down' of all Active Duty and Reserve Recruiting Battalions. The stand-down was ordered as a result of an investigation into four recruiter suicides in the Houston area." The leaflet further says that the Army's suicide rate is at an all-time high, having increased from roughly 12 out of every 100,000 soldiers in 2003 to roughly 18 out of every 100,000 soldiers in 2007. The leaflet concludes that although the Army has taken some steps to try and deal with this issue (such as offering training on suicide prevention, coping skills, etc.), "they will continue to be plagued with such problems because our military is being forced to fight an illegal and immoral war."


Books I Brought Home from AWP

Eating the Pure Light: Homage to Thomas McGrath, poetry anthology edited by John Bradley (The Backwaters Press, 2009); see the link further above in this blogpost. ** Includes work by Estelle Gershgoren Novak, Thomas R. Smith, Naomi Replansky, Glenna Luschei, Mel Weisburd, Mark Vinz, David Martinson, George Kalamaras, Sid Gershgoren, Robert Edwards (who also wrote the great Introduction), Dale Jacobson, Lisa Zimmerman, Lyle Daggett, James Grabill, Philip Metres, Michael Henson, Ray Gonzalez, Thomas McGrath (a previously unpublished poem), Charles Potts, Tom Wayman, Maggie Jaffe, Mark Nowak, Susan Eisenberg, Doren Robbins, Bill Witherup, Gene Frumkin, Scott King, Alvaro Cardona-Hine, Jack Hirschman, Meridel LeSueur, and many others.

As Is, book of poems by Sheryl Noethe (Lost Horse Press, 2009). I've written about Sheryl's poetry previously, here. This is a new one by her, just out. (So recent it's not listed in the publisher's website as of this writing; the link above is to the publisher's main page. Follow the links for publisher contact info to inquire.)

Wisteria, book of poems by Kwame Dawes (Red Hen Press, 2006).

Nome Poems by Ken Waldman (Nomadic Press, 2008); see the link to Waldman's website, above.

Poeta en San Francisco, poems by Barbara Jane Reyes (Tinfish Press, 2006; at the webpage, scroll down until you come to the book).

Breach, book of poems by Anne Haines (Finishing Line Press, 2008).

Majestic Nights: Love Poems of Bengali Women, edited by Carolyne Wright and various co-translators (White Pine Press, 2008).

Blacks by Gwendolyn Brooks (Third World Press, ca. 1987). A large selection of poems, covering several decades of work, by one of the giants of the 20th century.

The Heart to Artemis by Bryher (Paris Press, 2006). A memoir by the writer of her life from early childhood (she was born in 1894) through the late 1930's.

Artists in Times of War, four essays by Howard Zinn (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

This is the first write up of the conference I've seen. Thorough and filled with life and information. Thanks, Lyle. I would've loved to hear Lucille Clifon on a panel. She's super. Your elevator story...oh god, love that strategy. I used to go to American Psychological Conventions and the milling around, mass of people atmosphere made me remember those.
Oh, I wish I'd gone! Maybe next year, Denver? It would be nice to see you again, Lyle.
Had to laugh about waiting for the hotel elevator. Some things never change. Thanks for the post.
Nice write up! I wish I would've bumped into you, darn it. :)
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