Monday, April 12, 2010


AWP report

I went to AWP in Denver this year. The conference took place Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 8 through April 10. Here are a few of the highlights and random moments from the past few days there.


The event that sticks out the most sharply for me is the reading/performance by poet Joy Harjo and guitarist Larry Mitchell, on Saturday afternoon during the conference. Harjo gave a stunning reading, often singing her poems, and sometimes playing sax as well, and danced through much of the reading. As she commented near the beginning of the reading, poetry and song and dance began together in the world, and they long for each other.

Harjo's reading was a stunning and transcendant experience. I heard her do a full reading once before, in Minneapolis in the early 1990's with the band Poetic Justice, and it was the same then. Listening to Harjo read, I feel the world reshaping itself around me, moving once again toward its true shape, the world in which we all live and move.

This is a strong statement to make about a poetry reading. If you've ever heard Joy Harjo read, you surely know what I'm talking about. If, by any chance, you're not familiar with Joy Harjo's poetry, you might start with A Map to the Next World (published 2001 by W. W. Norton), or her legendary early book She Had Some Horses (originally published 1983 by Thunder's Mouth Press; now also available from W. W. Norton.)


Also deeply memorable was the Tribute to Mahmoud Darwish, a reading and discussion of Darwish's work featuring panelists Fady Joudah, Yusef Komunyakaa, Michael Collier and Khaled Mattawa. (Poet Marilyn Hacker, also scheduled on the panel, was unable to attend.) Mahmoud Darwish, who lived 1941 to 2008, was and is one of the great defining poets of the 20th century. A lot of his work has been translated into English, by various translators, and I've read whatever of his I've been able to get my hands on.

I've written about Mahmoud Darwish's poetry previously in this blog, here.


Among the panels I attended, I particularly liked "Justice, Community, and the Republic of Poetry," featuring panelists Martín Espada, Tara Betts and David Mura: a moving and inspiring discussion of the potential for poetry to aid us in remaking our world into a place of greater humanity; and "Writing Sex: Implicit Censorship in Contemporary Poetry," which turned out to be essentially a reading (at 9:00 a.m. Friday morning) by poets Jan Beatty, Aaron Smith, Stacey Waite, Sharon Doubiago, and Dorianne Laux: alternately sublimely moving and joyfully hilarious in the intimacy and audacity of the poems and the poets.

A panel first thing Thursday morning, "About My Day Job: The Proliferation of Poetry by Any Available Means," was an enthusiastic discussion of the numerous ways poets make a living; of the people who spoke, both the panelists and audience members, most worked for a living outside of university English departments, and mostly outside of the academic world entirely. Panelists were Lola Haskins, Karen Head, Megan Volpert, and (by cell phone) Collin Kelley.


I attended an off-site reading event, One Poem Festival, hosted by Momotombo Press and PALABRA, a reading by some two dozen poets, one poem each: Oscar Bermeo, Xánath Caraza, John Chávez, Mario Duarte, Juliana Aragón Fatula, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher...

...Diana Garcia, Liz Gonzalez, Tim Z. Hernández, Sheryl Luna, J. Michael Martinez, Michael Luis Medrano...

...Maria Melendez, Carolina Monsivais, Juan J. Morales, Kristin Naca, Emmy Pérez, Manuel Ramos...

...John Michael Rivera (who also MC'd the event), Carmen Gimenez Smith, Gloria Vando, Dan Vera, Rich Villar, Danny Solis, and Richard Blanco.

The poetry was great, from beginning to end.

The reading took place at the Dikeou Collection, an art gallery space on the fifth floor in an office building in downtown Denver, a couple of blocks from the hotel and convention center where the AWP-sponsored events were held; a smallish space (one of several small gallery rooms), folding chairs, art on the walls, a large pink inflated figure that had somewhat deflated and sprawled on the floor (someone said it was a rabbit, I couldn't quite tell). The room was quite warm when I came in, though the room temperature became more comfortable once people got settled and the reading began.

I was struck by how many poetry readings I've been to over the years in spaces such as that one, small, furnished by luck and love, persisting in spite of everything, charged with the creative energies of the poets (and in this also the artists whose work was on display) and by the enthusiasm and community of the people who had come to listen. After a couple of days of hotel ballrooms and convention center meeting rooms, I was again, briefly, in normal familiar surroundings, and I found it energizing and comforting.


I also attended an AWP reading event, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, featuring brief readings by poets Cyrus Cassells, B.H. Fairchild, Kimiko Hahn, Joy Harjo, Jean Valentine, Diane Wakoski, Gary Young, and Matthew Zapruder.

At a Writers in the Schools panel, "What Do Kids Want? Building Community in and around Schools," I had an opportunity to talk briefly with poet Sheryl Noethe (one of the panelists) for the first time in a couple of decades; the session was made up of passionate and thoughtful presentations on a vital topic. I was constantly aware, listening to the panelist talk, of how important the early encouragement of a few teachers was in leading me to begin writing poems so many years ago.

The last event I attended, late afternoon Saturday, was the panel "Memoir Form and Ethics in the Age of the Oprah Book Club," with panelists Glen Retief, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Thomas Larson, and Carolyn Forché; the panel was well-attended and the audience was alert and interested, even with the event taking place near the end of the three days of the conference, with fatigue becoming softly palpable in the room.


I was pleased during the conference to meet, face to face for the first time, poets Ruth Ellen Kocher and Mary Biddinger. And also had a chance to have a good visit with poet friend Erika Wurth, whose book Indian Trains I've written about in this blog, here.

I found the (slightly) cheaper places to eat on 16th Street, a pedestrian mall a block from the hotel. The hotel where some of the conference events took place was a monument to formica fixtures. In the hotel lobby by the groups of stuffed polyester chairs were small tables made to look like sawed-off tree stumps. Several vases of flowers, perched on a table in the lobby, were supplied by a literary agency that is a major sponsor of AWP.

I had a room on the 12th floor with a nice view of mountains beyond downtown Denver. The weather was bright and cool and breezy all through the days of the conference, becoming gradually a little warmer by the weekend.


A couple of times I dived into the bookfair, which took up a vast room on the second floor of the convention center. Here is a list of the books I came home with:

Rock Candy, poems by Jenifer Rae Vernon (published 2009 by West End Press).

Insides She Swallowed, poems by Sasha Pimentel Chacón (2010, West End Press).

Velroy and the Madischie Mafia, poems by Sy Hoahwah (2009, West End Press).

Split This Rock Chapbook, poetry anthology edited by John Rosenwald and Lee Sharkey, published Spring 2008 as Vol. 58, No. 3 of the Beloit Poetry Journal.

The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, poems by Randall Horton (2009, Main Street Rag Publishing Company).

A River Dies of Thirst by Mahmoud Darwish, translated from Arabic by Catherine Cobham (2009, Archipelago Books); subtitled "journals," the work appears on the pages partly as poetry or poem fragments, partly as prose poems or short prose fragments. A note on the cover flap says that this was Darwish's last book to come out in Arabic.

Finding the Way Home: Poems of Awakening and Transformation edited by Dennis Maloney (2010, White Pine Press); an anthology of work by poets of various time periods, from China, Japan, Latin America, Europe, and the present-day United States, drawn mostly from the many books White Pine has published over the course of nearly forty years.

Primera Página: Poetry from the Latino Heartland (2008, Scapegoat Press), an anthology of work by poet members of the Latino Writers Collective of Kansas City, Missouri.

Red Deer, poems by Floyce Alexander (1982, L'Epervier Press). I found this at another publisher's table at the bookfair, and unfortunately neglected to note down who the other publisher was.

And, four books of poems in the Pudding House Publications "Greatest Hits" series (each one titled simply "Greatest Hits"): the ones by Sharon Doubiago, Sheryl Noethe, Joe Napora, and David Chorlton.

My flight back to Minneapolis left in the evening on Sunday, so I had a few hours to spend in Denver after checking out of the hotel. I walked to the Tattered Cover bookstore at the end of the 16th Street mall, and found there a copy of Trouble Light, poems by Gerald McCarthy (2008, West End Press; see the link at the top of the book list above), which I also brought home with me.


The high altitude in Denver (around 4000 feet higher than where I live), combined with the generally high-charged days and evenings of the AWP frenzy, caused me to have odd hours of sleeping and waking during the conference, though I was able to adjust without much problem. I had pretty much no mind left by the time I got back to Minneapolis late last night, was doing much better this morning after good sleep.

Growing late here, so will leave this for now. Much reading and writing ahead.

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