Notes From the Field - AWP wrap up, the day after

Now that I am home and eating real meals again, there is time to mull over all the cringey moments of AWP 2016. Like when I bum-rushed Kevin Young in order to gush about how much my middle school students loved his poem “Ode to Gumbo.” I actually said, “you’ve got fans in the 8th grade, Kevin.” And then ran away. Or when I stood right behind Rachel Kushner at a small private reception, stared at her hair and, like a super creep, didn’t say anything. Yes, she was wearing leather pants. I think. It was dark and a nervous fan-girl film came over my eyes. Then I ran away for a minute, but the bouncer wouldn’t let me back in. Or when I rushed up to an author I admire and pressed my weird book upon him and said, “bye!” like a three-year-old. I even waved my hand down low in a weird, rapid erasing move, as if I were cute, and small. A toddler would have been charming. I was a weird lady at a conference doing a lot of running.

After spending a few hours shame spiraling and Hoovering cheese puffs, I remembered my haul of books and settled in with Franny Choi’s Floating Brilliant Gone (Write Bloody, 2014). One of the saddest parts of AWP is all the simultaneous events, some of them spread out all over the city, which was made more difficult by LA’s sprawl and car-centric architecture, and the fact that one cannot attend several panels at once. Clearly, I am easily over-stimulated (see above), but, in debriefing with comrades post-AWP, there were many opportunities to kick myself for missing certain events, like Choi’s reading with Danez Smith as part of the Dark Noise Collective. But I have her book, and many more glinting in my stack – memory palaces of my path through the bookfair, where I pinged back and forth all over the place like multiball. John Hankiewicz’s Asthma (poetry dance comics), Nick Courtright’s Let There Be Light (the Genesis creation myth in reverse), Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours, and many more.

I received three lucky amulets this year: a small crystal, a silver Viking homunculus, and a tiny plastic sea anemone. It happened like this: right at the moment I was so tired, or hungry, or feeling so very alone, one of my favorite writer friends (thank you, Corinne Manning, Katie Ogle, Sierra Nelson) would appear and say, “how are you doing?” and palm me this small charm. It reminded me of when I ran a half-marathon, and halfway up this dreadful hill, a woman cheering us on handed me a baggie of gummy bears. The memory of the sweetness and the tiny bumps of bear limbs on my tongue in tandem with her cowbell of a voice can still propel me to huff up that hill. Likewise, I worry these small tokens in my pocket throughout AWP-ing, and stand them next to my head while I sleep to watch over me, miniature guardians, kitchen witches of conference, hoping they will confer on me some of their givers’ wisdom.

I am still mulling over all that went on, remembering Mark Doty explaining how to embrace frustration, discussing the methods he uses to disrupt — changing point of view, tense, syntax, tone, form, even using C.D. Wright’s writing it backwards exercise, to generate surprise. Inspired by a National Geographic photo of a frozen baby mammoth, he found himself struggling to be faithful to history, chafing against “the whole ‘objective’ thing.” He recognized he needed to be faithful to art, and to himself. Kimiko Hahn described it as that moment when she let her character say, “who are you to speak for me?” And here is what Doty’s perfectly preserved ice baby, brought up from the underworld, said:

I am still one month old,
and forty thousand years without
my mother.

I carry this image of aloneness on a scale I can barely fathom – 40,000 years — with me as I move through LAX and home again. How it is to be alone in a crowd of 12,000 like-minded strangers – and the unlikelihood that any of our words will travel that far through time like this baby mammoth, its legs frozen and preserved mid-stride. And how many little things – extremely ancient rocks, warrior miniatures, sea creatures posing as plants, OK! Magazine, minutes waiting in cars – might have something to say if I am listening.