Notes From the Field - AWP Day 3

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.

The final day of AWP produces a noticeable thrum from inside the hive. Up and down the teal conference center hallways 14,000 attendees power walk and talk and gesticulate wildly, swinging beige tote bags with great vigor. Drinking fountains were in short supply, although the dehydrated could quench their thirst at one of the many cocktail carts that popped up at noon throughout the venue. Thrifty writers were found purchasing half-racks of beer at a nearby grocery, poetically named “Smart & Final,” sidestepping the day-drinking surge of hockey fans swarming the Staples Center for the game.

Victoria Chang, Kevin Young, Kimiko Hahn and Mark Doty spoke about “What’s the Big Idea? Intention vs. Intuition In the Writing Process” in a panel discussion moderated by Melissa Stein.

Chang explained her process as one, initially, of intuition.

“This book was written in a car, waiting, to pick up a child from school, or some practice or other,” during a time when her father’s brain was deteriorating, her mom was sick, she had a bad boss, and a bunch of kids under the age of five. “I wrote these long lines without punctuation—notes, really. It was an aura, an itch, a feeling nagging… these ghosts hanging around my head. I was examining the slippage of hierarchy and shifting roles of everyday life—you’re the mom so you’re the boss of kids, but your dad is a man so when he is around he is boss, and at work your boss is the boss.” Following this thread led her to a “critical mass of 20 pages of junk typed up,” where a pattern emerged, which provided a form, and more and more intention built on that first impulse.

Kevin Young’s talk took on the form of a list poem. He began:

When I hear the word “intuition,” I think of mother wit.
When I hear mother wit, I think of eyes in the back of the head.
When I hear eyes, I think of second sight.
When I hear second sight, I think of my father —

He went on to tell the story of first learning about his father’s special ability at his funeral. “Second sight is a kind of double-vision, and what you need to edit: seeing the poem’s present, and future,” he said. “Think about how you read something before, and after.” How he read something when his father was alive and then after he was dead. “No one wants to write an elegy. They come unbidden. Necessity is at this poem’s heart.” He read the stunning “Prayer for Black-Eyed Peas,” one of his complex, layered odes to food that rose up from grief. At first, it is not obviously about his dad, but the “you” shifts in the poem, and toward the end he appears:

Holy sister, you are my father
planted along the road
one mile from where he
was born, brought full
circle, almost.

Small book of hours, quiet
captain, you are our future
born blind, eyes swole shut,
or sewn.

Hahn read an excerpt from her essay “The Concept Collection: All Bark and No Wow,” comparing the literary traditions of renga, lyric sequence, Pound’s “Cantos,” Whitman’s “Songs of Myself to the music recording industry’s genre of the concept album, where a central theme or storyline exists throughout an entire album, as opposed to a collection of songs. She cautioned, “does a concept allow moving around, though? A ‘project’ can shut off poems. If it is not moving, it is just a project.” The consciously constructed arc can be too tidy. “Marketing potential—BLEH!” Later she said, “language can often be a portal. Words have multiple meanings—loafers, broach…” She described her take on necrophilia in her poem “Exhume” as “unearthing the past and, in a sense, fucking with it.”

Mark Doty traced how a poem begins “as a report on an experience, and in that act of reporting, something begins to shift. There is the speaking part of writing a poem, the announcement on the page; and then the listening – what else comes up?” Once this question opens the poem, he examines the language and sees “a hole I could go down. We realize there is something besides us in the landscape.” A poem can occupy levels of meaning, levels of tonal variation. “The lyric poem is a technology of shift,” he said, “bringing onto the page the questions we can’t answer.”

Over at the bookfair, publishers were slashing prices. They don’t want to schlep home all those books. Some attendees’ eyes might have been bigger than their suitcase expanders. I picked up Anis Mojgani’s gorgeous illustrated prose poem memoir The Pocketknife Bible, from Write Bloody Press and met Rachel McKibbens, a poet who is currently touring the country performing cathartic poetry rituals with a typewriter. Trauma survivors can type their own lines, contributing to a multi-state group poem.

Waywiser books strung up a Trump piñata, offering the opportunity to go at it with a neon orange bat for every book purchased. Eric McHenry, poet laureate of Kansas, was there, signing his new collection Odd Evening. His poem, “Turkeys and Strippers,” ends with these lines:

please raise your phantom hand and take the Phantom Oath with me:
When I have the power I am going to use it differently.

Poet Cody Walker was held up in horrific LA traffic due to some sort of explosion (for a film shoot) on the freeway. As he signed my copy of his new book The Self-Styled No-Child, (which includes this jaw-dropper) I heard the clacketty-clacking of typewriter keys. There was a bearded young man typing up haiku on demand! Business was slow. People were too glazed, or too frantic, or too busy snubbing one another to be bothered with commissions. I leave you with a haiku from Walker’s book:

I’m a mountain and
you’re a new weather pattern
that crushes mountains.