Notes From the Field - AWP Day 2

Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds.

Friday morning at AWP many attendees are moving slowly. Bloodshot eyes abound at the bookfair. This is a result of the many opportunities to drink, dance and attend offsite readings at places like The Ace Hotel’s rooftop deck, featuring a pool the size of a postage stamp that no one was “swimming” in, until suddenly it was full of dudes in what looked like their underwear.

Bro soup aside, choosing what reading to attend in the evening is agony.

“I was standing two feet away from Natalie Diaz and I couldn’t hear a word of her reading!” I heard a woman complain at one.

“I just totally snubbed James Franco in the elevator!” boomed a pant-suited young woman staggering into the hushed The Offing reading.

Evening readings proliferated all across the city, from the swanky downtown public library to somebody’s AirBnB in Silverlake, featuring incredible line-ups of ten, or more, writers crammed into a tiny room, the likes of Danez Smith performing with Seattle’s own Willie Fitzgerald. I fell asleep Thursday night full of tacos and literature, words buzzing around my head, fat bees pollinating my dreams.

Friday morning I slipped into the tail end of a panel “You Don’t Know Me At All: The Creation of Self as Protagonist in Memoir,” and watched Cheryl Strayed smile and chat with a throng of swooning writers. I was there for the next panel “Cunty Faggots: Who Can Say Wut?” with Eileen Myles, Danez Smith, and TC Tolbert. Moderator Christopher Soto began with a “trigger warning, for everything.” He shared a conversation he had with Junot Diaz about the n-word and its use in Oscar Wao which led to the question “how can we write about the realities of queer and trans communities if we can’t use vernacular language?” which was not actually a question, because all of these writers engage some sort of vernacular in their work. Smith described it as a problem of translation, and noted that something is always lost in the act of transcribing a thought to the page anyway, but it is worth the risk.

“As a poet, I can talk about the realities of a black queer individual through plants, if I want – I have metaphors,” Smith said with a smile. “I speak in eight different ‘languages,’ and when I speak in code I use it to invite, or to exclude. Am I supposed to center on the center? In my work I center the margins. When I write I’m purposefully not centering the most average motherfucker. As a reader when I hear vernacular it makes me feel home, validated, that my language is worthy.”

Myles discussed the privilege of success. “My writing is not vernacular, I’m Eileen Myles now. Editors explain to publishers who might be offended, ‘this is her thing.’ Winning, I change the game.”

Graywolf Press publisher Fiona McCrae hosted a reading and conversation with Geoff Dyer, Leslie Jamison, and Maggie Nelson. Each read a short nonfiction excerpt that, by chance, included blood and guts. Dyer described Jackson Pollack’s drunk driving car wreck death as “his final drip painting.” He examined the tortured genius binge-drinking artist myth with word play, sly humor, and sampled language, pivoting on a hilarious deadpan rap, “romantic, fantastic, semi-bombastic,” concluding that this drunk ego-maniac was “a bore, and boring.” Jamison read about wounds from The Empathy Exams, and Nelson on fetuses from The Argonauts. Their conversation turned to the process of writing nonfiction.

“Defensiveness doesn’t have much place,” said Nelson. “I’m offering up my way of thinking as I write.” She paraphrased Deleuze, “part of the horror of speaking and writing is this. What else is writing but to be a traitor to one’ own brain, traitor to one’s sex, to one’s class, to one’s authority? And to be a traitor to writing.” Wittgenstein illustrates the process of thinking with an image of climbing up a ladder where the rung below is discarded, Nelson explained, and this is how she views writing.

Dyer described an essay “as a record of the process of discovery. The book ends exactly at the point I am qualified to write. If I didn’t start writing until I researched and knew everything, it would’ve killed the desire to write.”

Jamison talked about how Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage was like a bible for her – it gave permission to not know where the writing was going. Dyer laughingly pointed out that this “liberation” could also be “an excuse for laziness.” These three minds are anything but lazy.

The final reading and conversation I attended was possibly the best thing I’ve seen this year. Douglas Kearny, Robin Coste Lewis, and Gregory Pardlo are all stunning poets, and the combined effect of their performances and subsequent discussion blasted the cobwebs out of the rafters in that florescent-lit convention center.

“I’m a pastoral poet in a post-colonial body,” Lewis quipped. “When I see an ocean I can’t look at it without thinking of the Middle Passage. But then, it’s the OCEAN, and beautiful.” Kearny launched into a mind-blowing performance of “a peppy poem about the Middle Passage,” that was a high-wire mash-up of sharks, Disney’s Little Mermaid, Parliament, the funk band not the government. He sang, voiced different characters, moving back and forth to embody the multitudes so rapidly that it exhausted the ASL interpreter who had to tap out with a replacement interpreter.

“Begin a poetry reading with delight,” Kearny introduced his devastating poem, “The Miscarriage.”

“April Fools!” he said when he finished. I can’t do his work justice in this blog post, but Seattle poet and teaching artist Daemond Arrindell likened Kearny’s work on the page to “e.e. cummings on steroids,” and I strongly recommend seeking it out.

The three poets discussed beauty, and joy, and writing gorgeous poems about ugly history.

“Beauty is not pretty,” Lewis said. “In Spanish, there is a saying, roughly translated, “strong, ugly, and formal,’ and that’s a compliment.”

Pardlo spoke about the sense of responsibility to the ancestors, and to community as Cave Canem writers and part of the African Diaspora, but also to the future. Kearny talked about being a component in a larger body, and going towards the thing that is terrifying.

He said, “When your hand trembles above the keyboard—that’s the poem.”