Recites His Poetry!
And Reflects On This Year’s AWP Conference:
“You Will Be Assimilated”, or “A Machine For Not Seeing Books”
As a writer, a large part of my job consists in schmoozing and hobnobbing with others of my tribe. Therefore, I went to Chicago last week to add my biological and technological distinctiveness to that of the AWP (Associated Writers and Writing Programs) at their annual conference and bookfair, held in the cavernous Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, across the street from Millenium Park and its famous big shiny reflecting metal bean thingy. 2012’s gathering was the largest in AWP’s history, with approximately 10,000 attendees, vendors, and presenters.
Like the “W” in the group’s acronym, which must do double duty by standing for both “Writers and Writing,” AWP tries, perhaps a bit harder than is seemly, to be all things to all people. You have your small presses, your large presses, your literary magazines, your MFA programs, your authors looking to submit their manuscripts, your freelance editors and designers offering their services, et al., all somewhat haphazardly conglomerated in a ginormous protean expanse of writing-related whatnot.
After a 20-hour train ride from Baltimore—during which, at one point, the electrical system broke down so we had to sit in total darkness in rural West Virginia for a couple hours during a lightning storm, which felt a little like being in a Hitchcock film set somewhere behind the iron curtain, especially after someone noticed that the lavatory smoke detectors had ceased to function and decided to fill the train with cigarette fumes—I immediately plunged, sleepless and grimy, into this intense, insular environment. As I wandered through the bookfair, my face quickly assumed the same expression I observed on most of those around me: mouth hanging slightly open, empty eyes moving rapidly from side to side, scanning for promotional swag. I was reminded of Harold Bloom’s definition of art museums: “machines for not seeing paintings.”
There were, however, highlights: I attended several interesting panels where I learned, among other things, that 220 out of Emily Dickinson’s 1800 or so poems have birds in them and that her second-most-frequently named bird is the bobolink, that the symptoms of lupus are described by some doctors as “loss of self-tolerance,” that neurologists have shown that imagined events create the same neural pathways as real ones (this may or may not explain why I sometimes have vivid memories of things that never happened), and that most Westerners are uncomfortable with silence. Also, I read some of my poems and they were well received, and I thrust my chapbook manuscript into the hands of various publishers, and my cousin bought me pizza, and it snowed, and I saw Margaret Atwood, and I randomly met a guy from my hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
For reading material on the train, I brought, purely coincidentally, Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Greywolf Press, 1992), which I’d recently acquired “for free,” to use the vernacular, at The Book Thing. In the title essay, Gioia laments the dwindling audience for contemporary poetry, its increasing remoteness from popular concerns and its retreat into the ivory tower. It’s hard not to take in the spectacle of AWP without feeling the sting of such commentary. In many ways, so-called serious literature in general, not just poetry, has become a sort of arcane cottage industry, a self-contained world with little interest in or connection with anything outside itself. As Gioia writes:
“The proliferation of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been a response less to the increased appetite for poetry among the public than to the desperate need of writing teachers for validation. Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers.”
This is harsh, but not entirely inaccurate, and it may shed some light on the overwhelming unwieldiness of AWP as well as its cliquey vibe. But soft: I think I’ve said too much already; these are trade secrets, not suitable for the uninitiated. So never mind. But do look for me, won’t you, at next year’s conference in Boston. We’ll know each other by the secret handshake….