Sunday, March 23, 2014

Writing Conferences, AWP and the Las Vegas Hardware Show

Why do people go to writing conferences?

Everybody likes to talk about risk in the arts, and there is no denying that risk is important. One has to meet the wolves on their territory. So there is this part about bringing one’s most recently drafted gift to the pack, watching them feed— all the while hoping for the word “brilliant” to escape around those critical, masticating, jaws.

There is the bit about reading something to people, always dreamt in advance without pants. (Someday someone is going to take their trousers down on stage, and we’ll all be thrilled. Or has that happened?)  For some, it’s the piece about standing up in a panel where someone might actually prove you wrong. Or foolish. Usually both. (And what, you may ask, is a picture of a squid doing there?)

Of course, there is the terror of crowds— the certainty, for instance, that you will be embraced by someone whose intimate physical characteristics are entwined in your memory without benefit of an attached name, or perhaps even gender preference. Risk. Part of the game.

But there is a lot to be said for a particular kind of safety to be found at a writers’ conference.

Since it has so recently passed its season, consider the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference.

At one level, no matter what it may have once been, it resembles a trade show. I’m thinking specifically of the National Hardware Show, aka the Vegas Show. In May, more than twenty-five thousand sellers and buyers gather a block off the strip to pitch hand tools, lawn implements, hoses, hammers, and big-deal, new products desperately seeking Home Depot shelf space. It is an orgy of salesmanship. The bookstore at AWP comes to mind. And now, the size. Every year a few thousand more: hovering around thirteen thousand this last time up.

At a hardware show, these people know how to sell! Anyone, for instance, who buys a product at the Vegas Show is only thinking about how it will sell to the realm of customers she has had in mind every minute of the three day sales frenzy. And it’s all about the money, every bit, my boss would say, as we flew home defeated. What I learned during my one visit to the National Hardware Show was that I couldn’t sell dog food to a starving Doberman.

What I also learned, I wasn’t alone.

Okay. I love tools.

I like to look at tools. I like to handle tools. I like to dream about what I could make with a tool. I keep tools that are no good, some that are outmoded entirely. I know how to use some tools whose place on the planet has been lost.

And, here’s the point, it wasn’t all about the money.

There were lots of us there for the tools. We all were supposed to be selling something, and everybody did it a little bit. But because we were there, our very presence at the show, told us we were the elite of the tool-obsessed community. Our obsession was not only with the tool, but with the craftsman, the expert in trade.

Just so with the AWP Conference. At some level, people are selling themselves, their ideas, their books, their poems, and often being paid on the spot with an attentive ear. But I go back to AWP now, whenever I can, not to sell anything at all. Rather, I go out of the love of the tool and the craftsman.

There is risk, I suppose. Rejection, of course. Embarrassment, maybe, or in my case, most assuredly some level of remorse.

However, this is not the whole story. It is in the nature of craftsmanship that practitioners will expend their courtesies upon others in the trade. At AWP, you are respected because you are there. You find yourself accepted because because you are on the floor at the conference. There is little risk that you will fail to depart feeling anything but emboldened to chance that awful, eerily inappropriate metaphor in your solitary room. The analogy that somehow mystifies us into our own sense of greatness. One is among other lovers of the tool at the AWP conference, as much as at the Vegas Show.

Of course, there are outliers in any such gathering, and for those persons, the purpose of AWP is different, I suppose. But my sense is they are as oblivious to risk as the wordsmith (and I mean 'wordsmith' in the broadest, most laudatory, sense) who told me, “AWP? Eh, where poets go to spawn.”

Do you suppose he was thinking of someone's intimate physical characteristics? Do you suppose there's any gambling associated with attendance at the Vegas Show?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Patronage II, Context, Causality, and Molly Ringwald

My friend, Francine, is a magnificent, theatrical woman who one would be proud to accompany anywhere, and so it was that we picked seats in the front row of a reading given by University of Washington faculty. These faculties were poets, deeply skilled worders, with Heather McHugh on the end whose pattering, elfin charm led us to her reading of John Berryman’s “A Strut for Roethke,” Dreamsong 18. How I love the beat poet elegy drumming in this:

Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost
Across the Sound but north from Bremerton,
Hit a way down note.
And never a cadenza gain of flowers, or cost.
Him who could really do that cleared his throat
& staggered on.

Heather McHugh, Elfin
Copyright foils a longer quote, just like it deviled Stephen Dobyns when he was working to publish it in his collection of essays, Next Word, Better Word. He had to pay out of pocket for permission to use the poem. He couldn’t afford all of it. But he needed at least this much for his essay “Context and Causality”.        

Dobyns riffs on the interplay of effects on the page and causes off the page. Heather read the poem by Berryman about Roethke’s death in the context of being in Seattle at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. The cause was the University of Washington where Roethke ghosts abound. The effect came from Heather's reading through the massive fall of the poem to this blunt end:

Weeds, too, he favoured as   most men don’t favor men.
The Garden Master’s gone.  

I’d hoped to talk to Heather, but I postponed my chance because I knew I would see her that night at a fundraiser. It was to be in the Chihuly Boathouse and the idea of a boathouse had intrigued me, not knowing anything at all about this great, grand, one-eyed, glass artist Dale Chihuly who has been following me around forever— for lunch, we had found ourselves in a restaurant where his lighting was tangled in the chandeliers, and I had pretended to understand the comments between my friends and the waiter, the delight they were experiencing. Yes, Chihuly or whatever that word is. Above the toilet in my hotel room, a framed picture of Chihuly’s glass sculpture. A friend reminds me the lobby of the Bellagio is Chihuly. 

His studio is appears to be truly a boathouse, a corrugated steel shed without any sort of signage. I went with Pete Turchi who is a very good person to accompany anyone on a search owing to his obsession with maps. He likes to think of literature as a form of cartography. The two of us with our smart phones helped guide the cab driver and we found the address after a circuitous path. Pete has the calmness of a person who knows that any destination may be arrived at through proper orienteering. He, too, is paying for permissions out of pocket, a book to come.  Here’s a nice essay about his thinking, he's quoted here by Jane Porter: 

"We all want to be efficient in some way," says writer Peter Turchi. "Sometimes there's a different kind of efficiency that comes from allowing ourselves to explore and get lost."

Alfa Romeo at Open Bar
Heather blew by us on the sidewalk, bound the other direction, a wave and a ‘catch you later’ as she passed, hurrying off on some errand in support of the fundraiser. This was the charity Heather had originated: Caregifted. It was a jazz. There would be raffles, I supposed. Molly Ringwald would be singing. Pinsky was supposed to read. Open bar.
This is what I didn’t know about Chihuly; he is magic, a necromancer of design. Pete, knowing all, navigated us through the building’s maze toward ever increasing humidity and warmth to a lap pool ringed by mirrors, overhung with fantastic, dreaming explosions of light and lined at the bottom with Chihuly’s glassware. The place seems to be a factory and a home, made to house and display, it evokes encouragement, humor, and awe and wealth. It is a strut for Roethke, a roarer across the sound full of riches.
Chihuly's Lap Pool with Swim Hazards

Magnificent Francine and I had stayed at the reading until Heather finished. We had watched her slip-slide away from Berryman’s strut into lines she had taken from letters written to her by the beneficiaries of Caregifted. She had spliced words together, voices from the clients’ applications for the program, collected through some strange mathematical formula that made the phrases seem to be illusions of chance. It was as if the phrases could be simply allowed to fall together, and that even through pure luck, they would so powerfully convey the love people feel in spite of their helplessness/hopelessness. The cause was the life they'd been handed, and the effect was the knowledge that their lives would evermore be defined by the moment-to-moment care they must give to their sons, daughters, husbands, wives. This is the burden of love that chance, or perhaps God, had given them. Terrible— and wonderful— words, wonder and terror.  

Roarer Across the Sound
At the boathouse, I told people about Heather's reading that afternoon. The jazz event audience was supremely well-heeled. Wristwatches that cannot be purchased, only inherited. Clothing as creative, playful and affluent as the Seattle skyline. I told people that McHugh was using her MacArthur grant to fund Caregifted, unlike many of such award winners who must use it to pay off their mortgages. We watched a video of a man/boy trying to communicate to the camera while his mother sat in the background at a desk. She reminded him of his name when the cameraman asked for it, and the man/boy answered using a kind of palm pilot. How do I know it was his mother? Only a mother could have anticipated this child’s frustration as she did. It was the habit of thousands of iterations, telling this adult child his name.

When Heather had finished her reading for the UW audience, Francine and I heard none of the usual sort of sigh made by appreciators to let the poet know she had been heard. A true silence. Our hearts were stopped. The lines had arisen out of Heather’s usual, wonderful, slip-sliding patter, a drag race down the punning, funning, crying, weird, gravel road of her mind, and we had been captivated into Berryman's strut for Roethke then sent skidding around the corner and into space with these strange, terrifying sentences.
Woman Diving Above Molly Ringwald Who Can't be Seen
At the end, Heather said, "Sixty-fucking-five years old, and I'm still learning about love."

The Boathouse Jazz show was presented in a large space that may have normally been Chihuly's studio. Heather spoke, then read under the light from a diving girl taken from some Miami motel-- or perhaps Chihuly had made it. Pete and I left the event after seeing Molly Ringwald— tall on the stage, extravagantly elegant, and she responded to an intricate pianist with torch songs she sang prettily.