Saturday, September 03, 2011
Albuquerque Cultural Conference (2011)
The conference began with a reading/performance by 17 poets and musicians on Friday evening August 26; then panel discussions and presentations took place on Saturday and Sunday August 27 and 28. The Friday reading was at the Outpost Performance Space. The rest of the conference events were at the Harwood Art Center, where the conference has taken place each of the previous years.
The conference is organized not as a standard academic conference; each year of the conference, the content of the events has generally been politically conscious, with a strong emphasis on recovering and encouraging and making working-class people's culture, and on understanding the political and economic conditions of the world that often make such cultural work difficult. Organizers of the conference each year have included John Crawford, publisher of West End Press (and a longtime friend), and Leslie Fishburn Clark, with a cadre of energetic volunteers in the Albuquerque area and elsewhere.
I flew to Albuquerque on Thursday the 25th, to settle in and connect with people, and to have a little time to adjust to the altitude. (Albuquerque is more than 4000 feet higher than Minneapolis where I live.) I stayed at the Hotel Blue on the western edge of downtown Albuquerque, on Central Avenue (part of the famous old Route 66), about a mile from Harwood center. Several other conference participants stayed there too, and we had good conversation in the hotel breakfast room in the mornings before the conference got underway each day.
The poets and musicians who read in the Friday evening event were Bryce Milligan (who read poems and also sang and played guitar), Margaret Randall, Jessica Helen Lopez, Robert Bohm, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Jason Yurcic, Cherríe Moraga, Mary Oishi with musician Zenobia (Oishi sang gospel and blues songs, accompanied by Zenobia who played piano and also sang); and, in the second half of the program, Michael Henson (who read poems and also sang and played guitar), Gerald McCarthy, Sasha Pimentel Chacon, Anya Achtenberg, Lisa Gill, Nasser M. Khan, Hakim Bellamy and Carlos Contreras. Poets Lisa Gill and Nasser Khan also served as emcees for the reading; they read short quotes from a variety of other writers each time they introduced the poets who were reading. Several of the poets (Jessica Helen Lopez, Jason Yurcic, Lisa Gill, Nasser Khan, Hakim Bellamy, and Carlos Contreras) have been active in the poetry slam and spoken word/performance scene in Albuquerque. Bellamy and Contreras finished the event with a joint reading in which they read in tandem, first one, then the other, sometimes reading together in unison.
Altogether I found the Friday reading just stunning. One great poem after another. The Outpost Performance Space is a comfortable and fairly intimate theater room, with good lighting and acoustics. It was a good spot to have the reading.
Most of the Saturday and Sunday events were panel discussions, more or less, though the atmosphere was mostly more relaxed than the words "panel discussion" usually suggest. The panels and other presentations were organized broadly around the themes of dealing with cultural trauma and responding effectively with resilience.
Among the conference events I found particularly compelling were a panel titled Cultures of Violence: The Conflict over the Border, Racism, and Homophobia, with panelists Mary Oishi, Roberto Rodriguez, Celia Herrera Rodriguez, and Kamala Platt, and moderator Margaret Randall, the first event on Saturday morning; a panel titled The Power of Literacy: Reading, Writing and Living as a Community, with panelists Melissa Jameson, Genevieve Garcia de Mueller, Rebecca Sherry, and Kati O'Donnell, with moderator Brian Hendrickson, the first panel on Sunday; and a panel a little later on Sunday titled Prison Writing and Performance, with panelists Carlos Contreras, Amanda Gardner, Michele Welsing, and Gerald McCarthy, with moderador Brent Pulsipher. I also really liked the presentation on Saturday by Cherríe Moraga and Celia Herrera Rodriguez, in which they showed an edited video of a performance of one of Moraga's theater works, dealing with violence against women and the possibilities of response and healing, as individuals and as a culture.
I found a number of the other conference events valuable too. A full llist of the panels and presenters is in the Albuquerque Cultural Conference website, here. In general, with all of the conference events, the discussion from the general gathering was lively and energetic once the panelists had finished their initial presentations.
What I usually find most important in events such as the conference are the chances to get to know the other people there, and to reconnect with friends who live scattered far and wide. Thursday after I got into town, lunch with longtime poet and writer friend Fred Whitehead. (The above link is to an article by Fred, "Beliefs and Ethics Reconsidered," in the website Community of Reason KC.) At the Friday reading, a chance to talk briefly with poet friend Lorna Dee Cervantes, who had to hurry back to San Francisco the next day for the wedding celebration of her younger brother. Longtime friends writer Margaret Randall and artist Barbara Byers. Writer Demetria Martinez. Poets Mike Henson and Robert Bohm. I was pleased to meet face to face with poet Gerald McCarthy, whose book Trouble Light I've written about in this blog, here. And longtime poet friend Anya Achtenberg -- because of our lives and schedules, in recent years Anya and I have tended to run into each other more often at out-of-town events such as the conference, even though we both live in Minneapolis.
Saturday evening after a conference dinner and a keynote talk by Michelle Hall Kells, there was another reading by about a dozen poets, again with a bit of music also. Some of the poets had also read in the Friday evening reading, and some hadn't. I unfortunately don't have a complete list of the people who read Saturday evening: poets and musicians included Bryce Milligan (Bryce is also the publisher of the excellent Wings Press), Fred Whitehead, Mike Henson, Jules Nyquist, Laura Fillmore, Anya Achtenberg, myself, Nasser Khan, Don McIver (who also emceed a panel on Sunday afternoon on spoken word and performance poetry), Robert Bohm, Gerald McCarthy, a woman named Ellen whose last name I unfortunately don't remember (if I can track it down I'll come back and edit this), and one or two other people. The reading went well, even with some palpable fatigue in the room after a day of fairly intense conference discussion.
On Friday morning Fred Whitehead, artist Laura Fillmore and I visited the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum, on Central Avenue in Albuquerque on the west side of downtown. The museum, seen from the street, is a modest-looking place, basically a storefront at street level. Inside, the space is given over to carefully prepared exhibits dealing with many aspects of the Holocaust in Europe in the 20th century; also with the long systematic genocide perpetrated by the U.S. government against Native American people; and slavery in the United States, and the history of horrific medical atrocities and "experiments" conducted on various populations of African-American people in the United States, with various government and institutional support; also an exhibit on the genocides in the early 20th century by the government and military of Turkey against Armenian and Greek populations; and other material and information. Historical timelines. Photographs. Identification documents of people who died in the concentration camps. An exhibit of artwork by a young girl who died in Auschwitz. A map of the United States showing ancestral lands of Native American people and the reservations that are presently marked out across the country. An exhibit on the mass murder done by the U.S. government at Wounded Knee, and on the history of forced removal of Native American people from the land where they lived.
Such a place as the museum, and the information and exhibits it contains, often leaves me silent and numb. I did respond with some silence and numbness, though more than that, I found myself moved to thought. We should feel the horror that such exhibits bring to the forefront of our attention; more than that, we should understand that we may be in a position to act to help prevent such things from continuing or recurring. We talked for a few minutes with a man and woman who were staffing the museum, and the man (who introduced himself with his first name Michael) suggested that if we took away just one thing from the museum, it should be this: that the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, and the other terrible histories the museum's exhibits tell about, were ordinary people, ordinary human beings. They were not inhuman or superhuman monsters. They were affected, in ways that carried unspeakable consequences, by ideas that were present in the times and places in which they lived.
I take this to mean that we have a responsibility to act in any ways we can to oppose the actions and ideas that lead to such history as the museum illuminates. We can't allow ourselves to become silent, in a time and a world in which silence becomes complicity with those who would commit atrocities, and with those who would tolerate such actions, or who would look the other way. We are part of history, and history isn't over yet.
Very much of the discussion during the Cultural Conference, it seems to me, related to questions of how best to take part of the making and movement of history. As writers, artists, musicians, there is much we can do. When an attorney general speaks of "enhanced interrogation," and really means torturing human beings; when a senator speaks of "reforming entitlements," and really means making thousands more people homeless; when a president talks about the need to make "tough choices," and really means another 10,000 workers will lose their jobs in the near future; when a random government or corporate bureaucrat talks about the "terrorist threat," and really means that air force bombers are going to drop bombs on a village because an oil company wants the land for a pipeline; we have a responsibility to expose these words and actions for what they are, in any of the ways we know how, and to offer this exposure and reality to anyone who is willing to listen, even in cases where it may shatter some long-held illusions about the sort of society and culture and world we live in.
Sunday evening after the official conference events had finished, a handful of us gathered at the home of John Crawford in Albuquerque for a relaxed evening of more good talk. Each time I've been to Albuquerque it has rained once; as we sat talking in John's back yard, clouds mulled overhead and lightning ripped spectacularly in the distance in several directions, wind bristled the tree leaves, here and there a few sprinkles of rain; then, just as we were all standing up getting ready to leave, the rain really started coming down, not quite a cloudburst but steady with large drops. After about ten minutes it let up.
The days were warm during the weekend of the conference, the sky mostly clear and bright. The strong sharp light in the high desert, in the mountain altitudes. Each morning the sunrise a pale glow above the Sandias to the east of the city.
I took home a few books from the book tables at the conference:
Ciento: 100 100-Word Love Poems by Lorna Dee Cervantes, published 2011 by Wings Press.
The Stories of Devil-Girl by Anya Achtenberg, a book of short interwoven prose works, part fiction, part autobiography, part memoir; published 2008 by Modern History Press (ordering information is available in Achtenberg's website, here).
Always Messing with them Boys, book of poems by Jessica Helen Lopez, published 2011 by West End Press.
A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness by Cherrie Moraga, a collection of essays, published 2011 by Duke University Press.
I also found, in a small used bookstore in Albuquerque, Freud by Other Means by Gene Frumkin, book of poems published 2002 by La Alameda Press.
Based on discussion at the end of the conference, it appears likely that there will be another Albuquerque Cultural Conference next year. I already want to go.
The main page of the Albuquerque Cultural Conference website is here. The Conference blog is here.