Sunday, April 12, 2015

My AWP 2015

Posing with the Mary Tyler
Moore statue (downtown
(Photo by John Domini)
I've just returned from the year's biggest annual American--and perhaps global?--creative writing gathering, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which concluded yesterday after four days in Minneapolis. Over 10,000 (or was it 11,000?) writers, readers and publishers packed the rooms and auditoriums of the Minneapolis Convention Center, nearby hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, libraries, and a variety of offsite venues, to deliver papers, talks and presentations, and to read their work, buy books, talk about writing, and just hang out with other literary folks.

Inside the Convention Center
As an officially academic conference AWP primarily convenes people in academe or who want to be in it, focuses a sizable portion of its panels on educational issues, and represents one of the major networking opportunities for those seeking jobs within educational institutions. Yet despite this it is above all a writers' and writing conference. To me AWP's real emphasis, unlike that the Modern Language Association's annual conference or the Book Expo America, remains on conversations on and around writing and literary practices and production, and the presentation of literary works; the opportunities to participate in and attend the onsite and offsite readings and book-signings, and the immense book fair are chief among the reasons many writers scare up the funding to attend. Another key benefit is running into new and old friends and acquaintances, and meeting new ones, with the added possibility of hearing them read and talk about their work.

One of the skyways leading
to the Convention Center
A post-snowy morning
outside my hotel

Giving and attending readings and seeing people I otherwise would not get a chance to were mu reasons for attending this year, and my visit didn't disappoint. I should note that during the worst days of my knee troubles earlier this year, I was not sure at first that I would be able to attend, but hope springs eternal and physical therapy works, and since the trip to Missoula, I have grown increasingly more mobile, so I was able to make my daily way from my hotel, the Marriott City Center, to the convention center mostly on foot, and most outdoors, even during one of the sleet/snowfalls that occurred during the conference's run, and I even spent a good several hours every day I was there in the immense hall hosting the book fair, walking as much as 6 miles on Friday alone. I did feel all the walking while there and once I go back, but I was resolute in not wearing any knee braces and in not carrying around a backpack or bookbags full of books, so I avoided straining my knees and utilized UPS's services several times, and now my campus office has heavy, stuff troves waiting for me.

Inside the AWP Book Fair
At the Book Fair
The perambulations around the book fair afforded many serendipities, including running into countless writers I seldom get the opportunity to see and hang out with, as well as happening upon books I had been intending to buy, with the writers nearby to sign them, as well as ones I had no idea about but am incredibly I happened upon. I saw and chatted two of the publishers I have worked with (New Directions and Nightboat Books), and learned that at the former a steady stream people were asking for my book, which will be out on May 21, 2015 (a few weeks later than originally). I took that as a very positive sign. Other highlights were the lunches and dinners with friends and colleagues, including former students, and one amazing book party I attended where I had the opportunity to meet yet more writers. While I prefer the scale of smaller conferences like Thinking Its Presence, AWP definitely has its charms, and rather than feeling overwhelmed as I sometimes have at  the sheer size of the crowds, the surfeit of texts on display, and the undertow of competitiveness, this year felt more manageable and enjoyable. (Was it the 10,000 or 12,000 fewer people than a year or two ago?)

At New Directions table; Tynan Kogane
is seated at table; to the right is Archipelago
Books, where I learned a former student,
Eric Wilson, is now working
Lorenzo Herrera, poet and publisher
of Kórima Press, which shared a table
with Lisa Moore's RedBone Press
For the first time ever I was a featured reader, on a panel sponsored by the Cave Canem Writers Foundation that featured four poets who received the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation's annual writing awards: Thylias Moss, Tyehimba Jess, Atsuro Riley, and I. Before the conference I learned from a colleague that there was tremendous concern over the paucity of openly gay featured readers and LGBTQ-focused panels, and another friend told me that I was the only out featured reader, though I learned that another fellow member of my reading slate, the poet Atsuro, is openly gay, so that doubled the total, and also meant that two men of color were intersectionally representing for LGBTQ communities at AWP. Instead of poetry I read the lyrical opening to my story "Blues," in which Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet up in Depression-era New York. The story is a tribute to both poets, but especially Hughes, as well as Richard-Bruce Nugent, author of "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," whose style and themes provided the template for mine. Supposedly we were visible on a Jumbotron monitor, which I thankfully could not see or I'd never have been able to take the podium! Many thanks to CC, the Whiting Foundation, and to AWP for the event!

Lisa Moore and I
A panel on creative writing as a second career,
headed by Tayari Jones (at right), with Evie
Shockley seated at the table at center
The following evening I read at an offsite event to promote the new Volta Book of Poets, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson and published by Sidebrow Books, between whose covers I have a few poems. The 3-hour reading was at Harriet Brewery in St. Paul, and many of the poets in the anthology were present, including Eric Baus, Susan Briante, Julie Carr, Don Mee Choi, Arda Collins, C. S. Giscombe, Fred Moten, Yona Harvey, Dawn Lundy Martin, J. Michael Martinez, Andrea Rexilius, Evie Shockley (my cab and Uber mate), Matthias Svalina, TC Tolbert, and Lynn Xu. (I probably have left someone off, so my apologies.) The beer hall was loud and packed, and some patrons seemed more eager to hear poetry than others, but the readers in general were on their game and I aimed to have fun and read an Internet-app based poem that elicited a good deal of laughter, in keeping with the venue's tone. I had to head out to another event, so I missed the evening's final readers.
At the Harriet Brewery reading,
Fred Moten seated at center
The Obsidian panel, with (1-r) Kwame Dawes,
Duriel Harris (editor), and Sheila Smith McKoy
I also got to attend several panels, including one devoted to the literary journal Obsidian, which I have read for years and now serve as one of its fiction and hybrid forms editors, and the invigorating words and atmosphere of fellowship in that room underpinned for me, as so many other experiences did, of why I attend AWP.  Next year's conference will take place in Los Angeles, and I'm already looking forward to it. Below, a few more photos!

The Convention Center
Lynn Xu at the Volta reading
Fred Moten at the Volta reading
Don Mee Choi, translating, and Valerie
Mejer, reading in Spanish,
at the Volta reading
Susan Briante at the Volta reading
Yona Harvey at the Volta reading
Cecil Giscombe at the Volta reading

An arrest Tyehimba Jess and I witnessed
one night walking back from dinner

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