Tuesday, September 02, 2008


The Albuquerque conference (2008)

The Albuquerque Cultural Conference was great again this year. My notes from the past weekend are not as organized as when I wrote about the event last year, so this may be a little scattered in places. The conference took place from Friday Aug. 29 through Monday Sept. 1. It was once again a stunning and deeply memorable experience.

I flew in a day early, on Thursday, and spent the afternoon and evening pretty much laying back and getting acclimated to the altitude. A hot bright desert day, a warm evening. At some point, Thursday night or maybe Friday night, there was a thunderstorm, and the weather cooled quite a bit and was mostly pleasant and breezy the rest of the weekend. (Sixth floor balcony of the hotel, facing west, lightning sparking on the far mountain ridge at sundown. Deep green shadows in the park below. Whisper of traffic on Central Avenue -- the old legendary Route 66 -- and the gradual field of lights going on across the city as night came on.)

Friday evening at South Broadway Cultural Center, a poetry reading by a dozen or more poets: Simon Ortiz, Demetria Martínez, Glenna Luschei, Charles Potts, Hakim Bellamy, Lisa Gill, Maritza Perez, Levi Romero, Jason Yurcic, Margaret Randall, Danny Solis... I'm surely forgetting some. A large auditorium in a modern building. One remarkable poet after another.

Saturday morning walked to Harwood Arts Center, where the rest of the conference took place, an older building, most of the conference took place either in the cafeteria -- a large room with tables and many folding chairs, next to the kitchen -- or in two smaller rooms at the other end of the building. Same as last year, the bulk of the conference was made up of panel discussions, though hardly as stiff and formal as that suggests -- it wasn't in any way an academic conference. The weekend was a gathering of near- and far-flung community.

On Saturday I took part in sessions titled "Creating a Culture: Poets and Artists Face the World," "Culture at Work: Education and Community Service," -- both in the large cafeteria room, passing a hand mike around to each other, which a conference participant (whose name I never caught) kindly brought and set up for us. Calm and reasoned discussions, trading ideas, some people coming in, going out, sampling one event and then another. Much talk about the struggles and successes and frustrations of doing creative work, organizing creative work, in the present political and economic conditions.

Late afternoon, a session on Alternative Media, in one of the smaller rooms (with a large tank of water on a table, in which two turtles incessantly nosed the glass, looking for a way out). Most of the people in this session were journalists, talking about their experiences starting small radical community newspapers, a group of people in Albuquerque who had started up a radio station to offer news and community programming outside of the monotonous orbits of corporate media babble. I found it especially interesting listening to Aaron Glantz, a freelance journalist who had spent time reporting from Iraq during the first couple of years of the current war there.

After a great catered dinner (lime chicken, corn, salad, black beans, corn muffins), another poetry reading by seven or eight poets: Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo, Mary Oishi, Sara Ortiz, Gary Brouwer, myself, and again I'm forgetting people. Another evening of great poetry. Thanks once again to Mavel (whose last name I once again failed to learn) for offering a ride back to my hotel.

At an event of this kind, much of the real value for me is always in the incidental things, the random and vital conversations, fifteen minutes or a half hour, with whoever happens to be sitting at the same table. Hanging out Friday afternoon, having a late lunch, with John Crawford, Fred Whitehead, and Mike Henson. Good quiet conversation Friday evening with Charles Potts before the reading. Talking with journalist Aaron Glantz about his experiences in Iraq on Saturday morning. The constant irrepressible enthusiasm of Jeanetta Mish and Rachel Jackson from Norman, Oklahoma. (Check out Rachel's Red Flag Press, Jeanetta's Mongrel Empire Press, and their joint project the Oklahoma Revelator cultural journal.)

Sunday morning cool and cloudy, slightly more humid than the previous days, it sprinkled very lightly for a few minutes on the walk to Harwood Center. I got there a little early, while waiting for someone to show up and open the door I saw -- first time I've seen one in real life -- a hummingbird, flitting among the branches of a small tree, its tiny green shape almost completely hidden among the pale green leaves.

The Sunday events started a little more slowly than the previous days, people sifting in over the first hour. In the morning I took part in a discussion session titled "Cultural Memory and Survival," which was given over in large part to remembering the lives and work of poets Paula Gunn Allen, Raul Salinas, and Mahmoud Darwish, each of whom died with the past year. Bells rang bright from a church somewhere nearby a couple of times. As the day went on it rained some, for a while.

Lunch was good black bean soup that Pat Smith had stayed up all night preparing, along with leftovers from the Saturday dinner. In the afternoon I attended a session on "The Idea of People's Culture," another of the numerous discussions in the large cafeteria room, passing the hand mike back and forth to whoever was speaking.

Late afternoon were the workshops, classes in Poetry and Social Change (led by poet Mike Henson); The Founding of El Corno Emplumado, led by Margaret Randall, one of the literary magazine's founders and editors; and Resilience: Where the Personal is Political, led by John Crawford (publisher of West End Press, and one of the principal organizers of the conference) and writer Mandy Gardner. I attended this last session, which was small (one other participant besides myself and John and Mandy) though we had good talk, gathered informally at one of the tables in the cafeteria.

And then Sunday, early evening, a riveting (the word hardly says it) talk by Shigeko Sasamori, who described -- with obvious emotion and fearless accurate detail -- her experience of having survived, at the age of 13, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

She talked for an hour. She took questions from the people in the room. It moved me far beyond any thought or words. I'm still beyond thought or words, saying this. A little north of Albuquerque is Los Alamos, where the first atomic bomb was developed. In the desert of New Mexico the first bomb was tested. While she talked, two young children ran back and forth in the room, giggling and laughing, playing together, at first -- it felt to me -- almost bizarrely incongruous with the solemnity and tension of what Shigeko was saying, though at the same time absolutely in keeping with the moment, as she told of how her life was changed beyond all imagining on a random morning of her childhood. Toward the end of her talk she spoke gently to the children, invited them up front to stand with her a moment. As she talked about the unthinkable madness of continuing to make weapons that could bring an end to all life.

We took a short break. I could barely walk.

One more poetry reading then, Sunday evening, more great poets: Marianne Broyles, Mike Henson, Jeanetta Mish, Charles Potts, Fred Whitehead, and again I'm forgetting people, or maybe remembering some people from the wrong night. And some great music, a man and woman whose names I unfortunately didn't catch, playing and singing a corrida and a song set to words by poet Roque Dalton; and music by Dair Obenshain and Mike Henson. Someplace during the reading, fireworks began booming from somewhere in the city.

Walked back to the hotel, ten or twelve blocks, in the cooling night. I flew back on Monday, so missed the closing plenary session Monday morning.

Same as last year, if the festival happens again next year (and I hope so) I already want to go again.

There were also book tables set up at the conference. In another blogpost shortly, I'll talk about a few of the items I found and brought back with me.


During the weekend, news filtered through from Minneapolis and St. Paul about the pre-emptive police raids and arrests of protesters, and potential protesters, and whoever happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, in advance of the Republican convention in St. Paul. Arrests and clashes with police are continuing each day.

Some good sources for news of the most recent events are Twin Cities Indymedia, Twin Cities Daily Planet, and Democracy Now! I urge you to check out the sites, and search further, and find out what's happening here.

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