Friday, March 29, 2013

Art Expo New York City @ Pier 92

The first week in March brought another annual New York Armory Show, and this year's exhibition marked the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking 1913 show, officially the International Exhibition of Modern Art, I did not make it to this year's Armory Show. It came, it went, I missed it. Several friends did attend and then told me afterwards. about it. Instead, C and I headed over to the Art Expo 2013, on Manhattan's westside Midtown Pier 92. The Art Expo describes itself as presenting "Contemporary Art You Can Afford to Love," and it's probably fair to say that in the larger scheme of the contemporary global and US art world's pricing points, this art was certainly much more affordable than anything you would find in most New York galleries, auctions, museums, fairs, or even artists' studios--the ones getting any sort of attention, that is. Or the Armory Show. Our primary reason for attending was to see the work of a friend, Miriam Pace, one of the lovely people we met when we were invited to Sicily almost four years ago for the International Festival of Poetry in Caltagirone. Miriam, a talented artist who has exhibited in Italy and other European cities, and was making her New York début. We also hoped to see her sister Josephine Pace, a talented, innovative poet, and her fiancé Gaetano Cardiel, also wonderful people, but they were unable to attend this trip. Miriam came with her fiancé Dino and Alessandro Liudici, with whom she was presenting new work.
Pier 92, and the Hudson
Pier 92, from the outside
Sculpture outside the show
A mobile sculpture outside the exhibition, in the delivery area
The story takes an interesting turn, however. Miriam had planned to ship the work to New York via us, in Jersey City; it would arrive at our home, we'd bring it to Manhattan before the show opened, and that would that. Tutti bene. Except that customs officials in Rome held up the package after it had passed through Catania, and it stayed there, delayed until just before the New York show was to open. So on Thursday, dealers' day, which was closed to the public, Miriam telephoned me (she had to stop texting because of the outrageous US carriers' roaming fees) to say that the package would be arriving in Elizabeth, just south of Jersey City, near Newark International Airport. I called the shipping company, found out when it was going to arrive, and then headed over to pick it up. Despite the box's elephantine size it wasn't heavy and did fit--was packed--into our truck, so I was able then to drive it straight to the city, deliver it to Miriam and Dino, and she had work to show. She nevertheless told me as I was heading to get the shipment that in its absence, she had decided to buy some materials in New York and paint on the spot, so as not to have nothing to show. I thought the idea of fresh paintings and performance would be a hit as well as a pleasant temporary stop-gap, especially on dealers' day, but that the most important thing was her having the art shipped from Italy in place.

Miriam's artwork, in the truck
The box of artworks, finally arrived
Lo and behold, when C and I went to the show on Saturday, we realized how resourceful Miriam had been. Not only had she painted new works on the spot (and sold seven as of our visit), but she had decorated her shallow booth as well, creating a bit of a sensation in the process. As we stood there talking with her and Dino, several waves of people thronged around her, and it was clear that the experience of seeing work created on the spot, especially beautiful, semi-figurative and abstract art, thrilled attendees and sparked sales. Miriam's work--which completely sold out--was the high point of the afternoon, but we had so much fun walking around and taking in the other booths, artists and artworks, browsers and connoisseurs, the characters who inevitably appear at such events. While a great deal of the work, from all over the globe, struck me as derivative of some of the many trends in modern and post-modern art since the Armory Show era (there were paintings that vaguely resembled Picasso or De Kooning or Basquiat or Orozco or cartoons, etc.), some of it was decent, a small portion really good, and, as I said, though much of it was outside my price range, there were smaller paintings and prints for as low as $150, with larger works running into the $20,000, which is still below the prices you'd be quoted at most Chelsea galleries. (One recent show I went to had fairly small paintings by an up-and-coming black artist I like, and those were in the $3,000 range.) I'm glad we were able to make this show, and I will be sure not to miss the New-York Historical Society's exhibit, which runs from this upcoming October until February 2014, on the anniversary and legacy of that 1913 Armory Show. I'll be looking for this one, though, next year, and for Miriam's career to keep taking flight.

Miriam, with fans
Miriam discussing her work with fans
Dino, Miriam's fiancé
Dino packing up a painting
Miriam's booth @ ArtExpo New York 2013
The crowd at Miriam's booth
C & Miriam
C and Miriam
@ ArtExpo New York 2013
The entrance to the exhibition
Gebhardt Gallery-Studio @ ArtExpo New York 2013
Gebhardt Gallery & Studio
Viewing the art @ ArtExpo New York 2013
Viewers taking in work
The son of a Mexican artist (amazing work!) @ ArtExpo New York 2013
Artist Ercila Cepeda's son, sitting at her exhibit
A Russian woman artist w/ her artworks @ ArtExpo New York 2013
Anna Art Publishing (that is Anna, in the white cape)
Warren & C
Warren, talking to C
At the graffiti artist's booth
At George Sen One Morillo's booth
Nigerian artists @ ArtExpo New York 2013
Nigerian artists, displaying their wares
@ ArtExpo New York 2013
The World of Ed Heck
A painting/sculpture @ ArtExpo New York 2013
A crucifix (appropriate a painting for a somewhat S/M Easter)
One of the booths @ ArtExpo New York 2013
The acrobat(s)  [Clear as it is, I can't make
out the artist's name in back: Jottra? Jotka? Jotbra?]

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Next Big Thing


What is the working title of the book?
There are several, but I'll mention two. One is a book I just finished translating, entitled Letters from a Seducer, by the Brazilian author Hilda Hilst (1930-2004). Another, which still has a bit to go, is a novel entitled Palimpsests. And there are other projects (fiction, poetry, etc.), as always, in the crockpot.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The translation was suggested by the Brazilian publisher, as I'd written the introduction to a translation by her and an author, and greatly admired their work. (This is the second book I have translated from Portuguese; the first, by the out gay Brazilian legislator and reality TV star, Jean Wyllys, remains unpublished, except for a few individual stories here and there.) For my own novel, the idea came from attending an OutWrite conference in Boston many moons and skies ago, and seeing a tiny historical note. It took me years to figure out what I wanted to do with the idea, and then it has taken a while to write it.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction and fiction.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I would say no one is going to make a film of Hilst's novel anytime soon, except that if 1) Lars von Trier, 2) Bruce La Bruce, or 3) Rosa von Praunheim could find a screenwriter to do it, it might at least have a chance. The text is beyond the American cinematic imagination, for the most part. As for the novel I'm writing, Idris Elba would be my first choice for the main male character, and Kimberly Elise would be great as his sister, who is a significant figure in the work. Anthony Mackie would probably be very good as the third major character. I could fill entire blog post with actors for the other parts, but will just ask you to imagine any number of talented actors and actresses, ranging from Mahershala Ali to Angela Bassett.

In terms of the major white characters, I have no idea whatsoever, save for the 20-something daughter of the main character's nominal boss. That should be played by someone with a somewhat grave, fragile face, and an ability to show tremendous acting restraint.

There are a range of characters, so it would give an array of actors, especially black and brown ones, some jobs.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A man has a stranger appear on his doorstep one night, and he has to help him create a new life.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Almost forever, minus a kaput computer and a half.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
With the translation, my inspiration is always Langston Hughes, who was a true person of letters, with translation as one aspect his prolific practice. It's an aspect of his career that people often leave out, but it is one I have taken to heart. Melvin Dixon was also a great translator, writer, and scholar, and someone I deeply admire still, and I would add my former colleague Reginald Gibbons, as well as Marilyn Hacker and Nathanaël, among many, as inspiring writer-translators that come immediately to mind.

With my novel the historical note I came across was the major inspiration. Also years ago my partner's late aunt gave him a book about early African American literature, and it turns out that the real-life person on whom my character is based was a figure notable enough to appear in that book, and even appears in this book. So that was inspiration too. Then there are so many writers and artists and thinkers I have read, followed, admired, known, many of them no longer with us, many lost to AIDS or psychological troubles, and I often think that either with this book or another, I will eventually follow Clarice Lispector's strange little introductory method in The Hour of the Star and list all these "imaginary artist friends,"as Sheila labeled them in her response, either at the beginning or the end of the book. Also, see Delany, Samuel R., Jr.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Hilst book is the very definition of genre-breaking, and required me to learn more words for sexual terms in Portuguese than I know in English. English is vocabulary-rich, but comparatively sex-vocabulary poor.

My novel is set in 1804. How often do you read a book set in that year in America? And there are no electric lights, no cars, no airplanes, no TVs, nothing of the sort. They wear smallclothes and Empire-style dresses and ill-fitting shoes. Everything carries a thin veneer of candle smoke, and the fragrance of urine. There were coaches and the beginnings of plumbing and a museum exhibiting little wax statuettes of Othello and Harvard College and free black people, some queer, too. It was quite a time!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Hilst book is to be published this fall by Nightboat Books, based in NYC, in conjunction with Abolha Editora in Rio de Janeiro (I believe). They published the first translation into English of Hilst, and I highly recommend it. I do have an agent, so with my novel we shall see.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:
Reginald Harris
Lee P. Jones

Monday, March 25, 2013

Random Photos

Last week was spring break week, though I was mostly under the weather, so to speak, so it was more recuperation than anything else. The term is nearly halfway through, though, and despite the lingering chill and today's snowfall, I can feel spring waiting to spring. More posts soon, including one in tribute the late, extraordinary Chinua Achebe, on their way!
The polka-dotted man at the supermarket
Man in a spotted outfit, Jersey City
In a restaurant, East Village
Café Mogador, East Village
42nd St. Station, mid-afternoon
Bryant Park ice rink (since disassembled)
Bookseller, in front of the New York Public Library Research Branch
Modern Leather Goods
Modern Leather Goods, Midtown
On 5th Avenue
Punk, 5th Avenue
On the subway
Man watching his iPad, PATH train
Working out, late winter, Astor Place
Late winter workout (it was chilly outside), Astor Place
Working out, late winter, Astor Place
Late winter workout from another angle
East Side Books
East Village Books, St. Mark's Place
Playlist, bathroom door sign, Powerhouse Café, Jersey City

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Poem: Jay Wright

"The Liatris has become Athenian,
a sacred grain, mark of a girl who dreams
perfection, the immutable extremes,
almost a strategy without a text.
What must the ascetic self, Marian
in its depths, understand by such a vexed
disposition of minor stars, canon
bound, all too discursive, all too common?
The infinite must endure unfolding,
or, as some might say, a blessed descent.
Think augury in premises, whirling
bodies ontologically content.
Qué muerte tan must forgive
the way I hold my memory, string
my questions upon an air that seems bent
with an ambition that remains furtive."

-- Copyright © 2.17 "The Liatris has become Athenian," by Jay Wright, from Disorientations: Groundings, Chicago: Flood Editions, 2013. All rights reserved.

Jay Wright, teaching in the
Poetry-in-the-Schools program

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

8th Blogiversary + Iraq War's 10th Anniversary

Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
I didn't start blogging until 2005; last month marked my 8th J's Theater blogiversary (I usually am deep in the vortex of teaching when the date rolls around, so I always end up missing it, but I will post a poem by Jay Wright, the subject of my first post, this week.)  In the run-up to the horrendous Iraq War, however, I expended screens of email, countless posts on various sites I belonged to, and time and energy attending and participating marches against what was, clear enough to me, a looming disaster. It was not just the architects behind it--George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Richard Perle, Ahmad Chalabi,  Colin Powell, everyone involved with the Project for a New American Center and everyone clustered like a nauseating cloud around them--but the timorous and complicit US Congress, including all of the Democrats who cravenly or fearfully fell in line, as well as the still intellectually and ethically bankrupt, compliant, duplicitous US mainstream media and commentariat, all of them who cheerled this neoconservative debacle, from Andrew Sullivan and Peter Beinart to Thomas Friedman and Judy Miller, all of them, who enabled this catastrophe whose immediate effects, 4,000+ US and coalition troops dead, many thousands wounded and suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead or injured, sectarian lines more sharply drawn than when Saddam Hussein was in power and the decimation of Iraq's minority populations, including Christian Iraqis, trillions of US and Iraqi dollars flushed into the pockets of the military industrial complex, and the destabilization of the entire region (and consequent empowerment, of all countries, Iran!). That is to say, they have blood and lives on their hands, their souls.

What was clear back in 1999 and 2000, that George Walker Bush would be the worst president in my lifetime--I continue to believe that despite several nadirs in American leadership over the last two centuries (Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Rutherford Hayes, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, etc.), W Bush will never be matched again if at least 50% of the voting population is even moderately sane--and would lead the country into certain disaster, the nature of which were not yet known then but the certainty of which was as clear as the candidate's stumbling, hazy answers and demonstrably phony cowboy persona, as well as by the toxic political and economic records of the people gathered round him, took material form from the day he assumed office, after the Supreme Court's judicial coup. But even with the California electric blackouts and the Enron collapse and of course, the sort of horrific incident and its aftermath that would have sunk many a presidency, the September 11, 2001 attacks by Al Qaeda, not even I could have imagined that Bush would, on the flimsiest of pretenses, con the Congress, the media, and millions of Americans, into the Iraq War. But he and his gang did. His and his associates' neoconservative, libertarian-laissez-faire fantasies, which included pimping out the US military to get ahold of that "sea of oil," as Wolfowitz once put it, and imposing their failed Randian policies on the new, juy-rigged state they created, predictably turned out badly. Very badly. Very, very badly. Criminally, and criminally badly. But that not of single of one these criminals has served time in jail or even been tried for war crimes speaks volumes to how rotten to the core our political system and media are. That any of the war-cheering pundits, like Friedman or David Brooks, both of whom still pontificate from their perches at The New York Times, also were not cast into the void of silence in the face of repeated critical failure, also is a dead mark on our society.

Tom Friedman's infamous "Suck on This" commentary about Iraq

In part because of all of the great blogs and sites that preceded and then swung into action in criticizing the rush to war, and its inept and corrupt prosecution, or the ones that emerged in the war's run up and wake, I initially vowed that I would not focus on politics, except indirectly, and for the most part, especially during my initial year of blogging, I maintained that stance. But I stepped away from that stricture a while ago, and while this never has become a political blog per se, I realized during the final, awful years of the Bush administration, which included the coup de grace bookend of the bursting housing bubble and global financial collapse (thank you, W!), and during various moments throughout this current administration's tenure, I have spoken out here and elsewhere. (I have often thought back about my early support for Barack Obama, in 2004, when he was running for the US Senate, and how I based that in part on his strong, vocal anti-war stance. I heard him articulate in person his opposition to the war. Perhaps the Presidency does change one, and perhaps his critique of Bush was opportunistic and paper-thin, but it was convincing. He will never be able to convince me of the viability of his drone war, or his stalwart support for the security and surveillance state, or many other issues on which he has shifted considerably to the right since his initial run for presidency, in 2008. (I also have come to realize that were she to run in 2016, I probably would support Hillary Clinton without hesitation, despite how abhorrent and pandering I found her support for Bush's folly.)

Iraq remains a deeply torn, traumatized society and country. While we should be hearing about what is happening there on a weekly or at least a monthly basis, we hear almost nothing about Iraq beyond intermittent posts about bombings, political quarrels, and demands the US continues to make on Iraq. Very few of the war enthusiasts devote more than the most cursory space, if even that, to Iraq today, to the challenges it faces, to its people and their voices, their stories, their lives. It is just another thing chewed on for a period, while it seemed useful, and spat out, without any real concern for the ramifications. In a sense, the war--which I do not want to reduce to the status of an analogy--is a good analogy for so much of what elites and their enablers wreak on this society. Perhaps they do consider the impacts of their actions, and perhaps they do pause, if for a second, but then again, if one goes simply on their actions as opposed to suppositions about their behavior, they act and apparently could care less. Unethical barely scratches the surface of such an outlook and mode of operate. But that's where we are. Ultimately those of us who see through the BS, the lies, the chicanery, the gaming of the system, the cravenness, the corruption, the destructiveness, the looming disasters, must never be silent and still, even if our cries and steps lead us into what looks like a cul-de-sac, a tunnel, a void. And we must be vigilant to call out those who lead us down paths of destruction, no matter how favored or well-placed or powerful they are. They bank on our silence, and our fear, and especially on a combination of both.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Launches @ Poets House

Though still recovering from AWP I headed over to Poets House last Sunday to catch Nightboat Books's book launch party to celebrate the publication of Coming Events (Collected Writings) by Susan GevirtzMusic for Porn by Rob Halpern; and Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal by Nathanaël. Poet and Nightboat Books publisher Stephen Motika introduced all three writers, who read snippets of their work, and then all three participated in a conversation that poet Douglas A. Martin moderated.

As the names of the writers suggest, these were three challenging texts that defy conventional genres. Nathanaël's text, which incorporate its footnotes as side notes and takes on a number of themes and topics, circled around the question of translation, in particular a prior text of hers, even as it unfolded as an autonomous text-critique in its own right. Halpern's work aimed, in his words, to explore "the allegorical figure of a soldier's wound," redressing Whitman's similar project via Charles Olson and the strategies of Genet. Gevirtz first delivered a talk aimed in part at addressing the relationship between poetry and thought, challenging Socrates's statement in the Ion that "For not by art [techne] do the poets sing, but by divine inspiration." Fluidity of genre--gender, as Nathanaël pointed out, in tracing back the root of the English word to its French antecedent--appeared central to her thinking. She followed the short essay with a selection of one of her poems from her collection.

The question and answer session ranged over these issues and others, proceeding from Martin's initial questions, which cited Gertrude Stein and Martin Heidegger, who had already arisen in Gevirtz's essay. The concept of mystery (Geheimnis) was one Martin mentioned and that several of the writers returned to, though Nathanaël deftly avoided invoking that philosopher and instead talked about other figures in her work, a chief one being that the seisme, or earthquake/aftershock, suggesting--while also avoiding explaining or defending her work--that, if I understood this correctly (and I might not have), that its implicit anteriority informed Sisyphus. For Halpern, the potential problem his text sparked in its abstraction of the soldier's body (and specificity), as well as that of the migrant worker (among others), was one he mentioned he had attempted to address on his text's first page, but he admitted he was not sure if he had resolved it. I had already purchased a copy of Nathanaël's book, so I bought Halpern's and Gevirtz's, and imagine spending a while reading and thinking about all three of them.

Poet and publisher Stephen Motika
Poet and publisher Stephen Motika, introducing the reading
Nathanaël reading
Rob Halpern
Rob Halpern, reading
Susan Gevirtz
Susan Gevirtz, reading
Douglas Martin, Rob Halpern, Nathanaël, and Susan Gevirtz at the Nightboat Books reading and book launch @ Poets House
Douglas Martin, Rob Halpern, Nathanaël, Susan Gevirtz

Yesterday, I headed back to Poets House for a reading by three poets published by Los Angeles's Red Hen Press: Dan Vera, Eloise Klein Healy, and Jane Hirshfield. In terms of poetic form, this reading was at the other end of the spectrum from the Nightboat books reading, but all three poets, like those at the reading last Sunday, took up political issues and questions in their work. Poet and Letras Latinas editor Francisco Aragón opened the event by introducing Dan, who read from his second book, Speaking Wiri Wiri, which won Red Hen Press's inaugural Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Prize (2013). I'd picked up Dan's book at AWP, so I especially enjoyed hearing him bring the words to life in his own voice ("that property produces progeny").

Red Hen Press's Kate Gale followed by introducing Healy, named last year to be the first ever Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. She read from her just-published book, A Wild Surmise: New & Selected Poems (2013), drawing from her earliest to her most recent poems. I especially happy that she read several poems from Artemis in Echo Park (1991), the first book of hers I read and the one I most associate with her. Last up was Hirshfield, whose poetry I am not that familiar with, though I enjoyed what I heard. What I took most from her work was a feeling of concision, and striking metaphors ("shoaling bees"). Unlike last week's reading there was no question and answer session, but Red Hen did host a nice reception upstairs.

Francisco Aragon, introducing Dan Vera
Francisco Aragón, introducing Dan Vera
Dan Vera reading
Dan Vera reading
Eloise Klein Healy, at the Red Hen Press reading
Eloise Klein Healy introducing her poetry
Jane Hirshfield, about to sign a book
Jane Hirshfield, about to sign a copy of one of her books

Friday, March 15, 2013

Quote (Translation): Hilda Hilst

"He was telluric and unique. He was dreaming. He dreamed of goodbyes and shadows. He dreamed of gods. He was cruel because he had always been desperate. He encountered a human-angel. So that they might live together, on Earth, forever, he cut off his wings. The other killed himself, plunging into the waters. I am still alive today. I am old. At night I drink a lot and look at the stars. Often, I write. Then I reconsider that one, the snowy breath, the desperation. I lie down. Austerely, I dream that I sow black beans and wings across a dark, sometimes mother-of-pearl, earth."

-- Copyright © by Hilda Hilst, from Letters from a Seducer (Cartas de um sedutor), originally published in 1991 by Editora Paulicéia, reprinted in 2001 by Globo Editora. Translation, copyright © by John Keene, 2013.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading @ St. Mark's Poetry Project

It has been many years since I last read at St. Mark Poetry Church as part of the Poetry Project's reading series, so it was a delight to present new work there, with poet Andy Mister, at the invitation of series coordinator and fellow poet, critic and Cave Canem fellow Simone White. In fact, it was decidedly new poetry because although I'd originally planned to bring a copy of Seismosis with me when I left Newark yesterday after a long, full day, beginning at 8:30 am and ending at 5 pm of teaching and meetings, I was so tired I forgot to grab any books, and so had only the sheaf of new and more recent work on me. It sufficed, and I did not collapse, though I was very thankful that the podium was sturdy enough that I could keep myself vertical because of it. I also enjoyed hearing Andy read; I was unfamiliar with his work, so his presentation of a nice sliver of his forthcoming book was a convincing introduction. I was grateful that so many writers I know and admire showed up, especially given that it was on a Monday night (a tough sell by any measure), and many thanks again to Simone and the Poetry Project for making it happen.

Simone White, introducing at St. Mark's Place
Simone White, introducing the reading
Andy Mister, who I read with at St. Mark's
Andy Mister, reading
Me reading (and propping myself up
on the podium as I did so)
Sheila, Bruce, David
Sheila, Bruce and David (thanks for coming!)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

AWP 2013 in Boston

As I was returning on a late-evening, slow train from Boston after attending the annual Associated Writing Programs (AWP), I tried, before briefly falling into a deep sleep--and nearly missing my stop at New York's Penn Station-- whose spell only my iPhone alarm and the conductor's loud yell broke, I tried to remember the first AWP I attended, and I couldn't. The conferences and years and cities blur, though some, like the gathering Baltimore several years back, or Denver's two years ago, marking my first visit ever to that city, or the prior one last decade in New York, or the several in Chicago, one of which I had to miss because of my father's death, remain as alive to me as if I were still there. So too do a few that I could not attend for various reasons, including the AWP conference that took place in Vancouver.  Yet whatever I may feel in the months and weeks leading up to each AWP conference I attend, I always return from them physically exhausted but intellectually and creatively energized, and this year was no exception. I overheard someone saying that by Friday afternoon 12,000 people had attended, a number that may or may not be astonishing and a high, though because of the layout of the Hynes Convention Center and the nearby hotels, this year felt far less frenzied than that maelstrom of last year's conference in Chicago. By the first full day I'd been there I was feeling overwhelmed by the circus-like atmosphere, and was glad that I could head home and revive myself before returning for another day of events.

Snowy Boston
Snowquestered Boston
The AWP conference also always feels a bit more upbeat than the Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences, perhaps because the literary world, far more so than the scholarly-academic one, still (thankfully!) includes large numbers of non-professionals, lovers and enthusiasts of literature and books,   amateurs and dilettantes and tyros, and this is not a bad thing. AWP, and the American (by which I also include Canada and increasingly the global Anglophone literary sphere), as Mark McGurl and others have persuasively argued, is part of a literary-industrial complex, with an increasingly institutionalized, rationalized, stratified, hyper-commodified hierarchical system of actors, laborers, commodities, but what AWP also makes clear is that anyone who can afford to get into (or can inventively sneak into, at least for the first few days) the panels or readings or Book Fair, for example, can interact with anyone else who's there, and there are always a range of offsite events (readings, performances, musical events, etc.) that attendees accord just as much, and sometimes more value, than anything occurring within the conference itself. In fact, these offsite events often enrich and add considerably more value to your experience of the conference, and both offer a counterbalance and a leveling effect to the increasing dominance of academe. They also demonstrate that although there are numerous gatekeepers in the Anglophone American literary world, powerful publishers, institutions, famous authors and teachers, a history and tradition that must be acknowledged and reckoned with, creative writing at its core, as is the case for all art and art forms, remains fully beyond the grasp of anyone or any institution that would want to reduce it to a mere cog in the wheel of global-American capital, though it is that.
Snowy Boston, at night
Snowquestered Boston by night
Perhaps it is a question of perspective, but this year's conference also felt more diverse, in the sense of pluralism more so than multiculturalism, than prior ones, and even the briefest perusal of the major official readings shows that the organizers have really made an effort to feature an ever wider array of voices from within the institutions that make of AWP. (For writers outside institutions, it's another story.) Yet I still often feel that there are too many blind spots that persist, particularly in terms of the composition of panels. A friend who attended the Digital lit panel, for example, noted that not a single writer of color was on it or discussed. (This was the subject of a paper I gave at the MLA and so I was particularly interested to hear how the AWP panel turned out, especially since I could not attend it.) The same was true of other generalist panels at the conference. Yet in other cases, where panel organizers did the work of trying to look beyond a narrow ken, the panels were more racially and ethnically diverse. As VIDA has once again made clear, the problem of sexism also continues to plague the American literary landscape, and AWP, given its power, can become a force to change things. But the barriers in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class that are endemic to academe and academic institutions carry over into a conference like AWP. As I said, I felt this year's conference was better than prior ones, but that could be my limited perspective. It is up to AWP's members and participants, though, as much as to its organizers, to continue the improvements the organization has made.

Natasha Trethewey opening the reading
US Poet Laureate and Dark Room longtime member
Natasha Trethewey opening the Dark Room Reunion Reading
at the AWP Conference
Sharan Strange
Dark Room cofounder Sharan Strange reading her work
James Brandon Lewis and Thomas Sayers Ellis
Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis performing
with Thomas Sayers Ellis at the Dark Room Reunion reading
Tracy concluding the Dark Room reunion reading at AWP
Tracy K. Smith concluding the Dark Room reading
My chief reason for attending this year was to participate in the Dark Room Writers' Collective reunion reading, which took place on Thursday afternoon at 3 pm at the Hynes Convention Center. It was an especially important reunion because Cambridge was where the Dark Room began, and on a personal level, it was where I went to college and worked for many years; Boston was the city where all of us cut our literary teeth as writers, and the Dark Room's final home before its dissolution in the late 1990s. Natasha Trethewey, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, could not participate because she is an AWP board member, but she did introduce the event, which included amany of us who had been members through the years: Tisa Bryant, Tracy K. Smith, Artress Bethany White, and Kevin Young; founders Thomas Sayers Ellis, Janice Lowe, and Sharan Strange; and I. As has become a tradition at reunion readings, a younger writer, poet Abiku Roger Reeves, joined us, as did the talented young saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who performed expertly with Thomas. A number of other fellow members who couldn't attend were there in spirit. The room was full, and despite starting a little after 3, we didn't go over and were able to participate in a lively Q&A afterwards with the audience, which included a number of writers, elders and youngsters, all of us had met, learned from and worked with over the years. So goes the Dark Room motto: TOTAL LIFE IS WHAT WE WANT.

My other reason for attending was to join students to answer question at the Rutgers-Newark MFA table, at the Book Fair, something I'd done for Northwestern's MFA program at last year's AWP. I am always fascinated by the range of people who stop by the table to inquire about the program. During one lull, however, passing before the table wasn't just one of the many amazing authors peopling event, but, as I quickly noted, extracting my camera for posterity's sake, one of the greatest living authors in the Arabic or any language, Adonis (Adunis), who was supposed to pay a visit to Chicago (and the Poetry and Poetics Program at Northwestern) in the fall of 2011, but was too ill to do so. I stopped him and Khaled Mattawa, and translator and escort for the day, asked if I could take his picture, and he graciously allowed me to do so. Though I had had to miss his event the prior day, I also got to thank him in person for his work. After he'd moved on, several other people milling about nearby asked who he was, and I was glad to tell them.

The extraordinary Adonis (Adunis - أدونيس;)
At the Derek Walcott-Seamus Heaney
reading and conversation at AWP
The third reason I attended the conference was to attend a dinner at a great Ethiopian restaurant hosted by Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska Press, with the great Kwame Dawes serving as Chief-of-Ceremony and colleague Chris Abani (whom I'd never met in person) as reader, in honor of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, on whose panel I'd served in selecting the inaugural winner, the tremendous young Kenyan poet Clifton Gachagua. He wasn't there nor was one of the judges, Bernardine Evaristo, but in attendance were two others, Matthew Shenoda and Gabeba Baderoon.  I also had the opportunity to meet poet Nathalie Handal, who'll be visiting Rutgers-Newark in several months, and two British poets whom I've admired from afar for many years: Kadija Sesay George and Dorothea Smartt. (In fact they'd been on a panel the prior afternoon, but because my train was delayed by over two hours as a result of the snow and who knows what else, I had to spring to my event and so was unable to catch them.) Also present and offering spirited remarks was Laura Sillerman herself. One final treat of the evening was a video that convened two of the giants of contemporary African literature; in it Kofi Anyidohoo interviewed Kofi Awoonor, who later read from a new long poem.

Kwame at the Sillerman Book Prize Dinner
Kwame Dawes, leading the proceedings
at the Sillerman Book Prize dinner
Chris Abani
Chris Abani, reading poems by great
African poets, and his own beautiful poetry
After dinner (l-r): Tracy K. Smith, Matthew Shenoda, Kwame Dawes,
Nathalie Handal, Chris Abani, and another dinner guest
I ran into so many writers over the weekend I could fill multiple blog posts just listing them, and I will inevitably leave people out, so I'll say instead that it was wonderful as always running into so many old friends and making new ones, and I especially appreciated having the opportunities to chat and spend time with some of them at various points throughout the trip. I must mention that the first person I ever read with outside college, at the Dark Room, was Samuel R. Delany, one of my heroes, and I happened upon him Friday afternoon as I was leaving the Hynes with the Dark Room writers and other friends. I can hardly express how important he has been to me as a writer, as an intellectual, as someone who puts his ideas and art into practice, and I cherish ever opportunity I have to see him. As it happened as I was speaking with him, the head of Rutgers-Newark's MFA program, Jayne Anne Phillips, a writer I first began reading at the behest of my friend Kevin Keels shortly after I joined the Dark Room, was passing by, so they got to speak and I felt that in that moment, a circle was coming together, uncannily. There were many such moments, including running into my former NYU classmate Martha Witt on the train up to Boston; Martha was a dear friend when we were in graduate school and now teaches in New Jersey, and we were able to exchange information so that we will no longer have to play phone tag as we had for years.

One final highlight of the visit was participating in a Dark Room photo shoot conducted by the acclaimed photographer Elsa Dorfman, in her studio in Cambridge. Thomas, who'd serendipitously happened upon her during one of her visits to New York, arranged for several photos using a large frame color Polaroid camera, and in addition to the fun of hanging out, watching Dorfman work her photographic magic was priceless. Many aspects of prior AWP conferences have faded, but I don't think I'll soon forget this one or the enjoyable time I had. That it occurred in Boston makes it that much more special.

The third Dark Room group portrait
The third Dark Room Portrait, by Elsa Dorfman
(l-r: John Keene, Danielle Legros-Georges, Janice Lowe, Tisa Bryant,
Major Jackson, Sharan Strange, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Artress
Bethany White, Patrick Sylvain, Tracy K. Smith)