Highlights of AWP 2011

This week I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference for the first time and was blown away by the insights and camaraderie showered upon me. The book fair alone was rewarding enough: hundreds of literary magazines, presses, MFA programs, and literary organisations filled four large rooms. Finding time to wander the booths was a challenge given the many readings and workshops going on all day and into the evening, not to mention the parties and receptions and conversations in the lobby and hallways.

I enjoyed hearing many of my favorite writers read and talk about their work, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz (see my blog about his first book here). Joshua Ferris, whose first book I blogged about here, read a new story in its entirety, and Salvador Plascencia, whose amazing People of Paper I blogged about here, gave a hilarious non-reading, in spite of the early hour in which he described being “barely literate”. Other readings I was sorry to miss included Rae Armantrout, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Strout, Howard Norman, and Stanley Plumley. The WAMFest performance, featuring singer/songwriters and novelists John Wesley Harding (who writes as Wesley Stace) and Josh Ritter surprised and touched me with the intersection of music and prose. Stace’s new novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer about a folksong collector in the early 20th century was of particular interest to me given my interest in Cecil Sharp, Mary Neal and Maud Karpeles. Stace said that sometimes a story is just too big for a song, while Ritter described a song as a hallway with many doors, and said that in a novel one can open them and explore what’s inside.

The hardest part was choosing among the many enticing workshops in each timeslot. Some offered practical advice on issues such as copyright, while others explored aspects of the craft of writing such as the lyric essay and metafiction in Latino writing. As I’ve been interested in the influence of place on writing, I benefited from the workshop on the effect of the environment on Appalachian writers. As a poet, I enjoyed hearing poets talk about using the past in their work and the relation of new research on the brain to poetry. However, the workshop that most thrilled and inspired me was the one on Leaping Prose. Bly’s book Leaping Poetry has been a huge influence on me, so I loved hearing Peter Grandbois, Carol Moldaw, Kazim Ali, and Carole Maso translate Bly’s ideas into prose, using their own and others’ stories as examples.

Scattered through the schedule, too, were tributes to writers by those who knew them. I enjoyed the many personal anecdotes related in the celebration of Elizabeth Bishop and Ai, but most moving to me was the tribute to Paul Celan. John Felstiner and Susan Gillespie read letters, recently translated by Gillespie, between Celan and his friend, Ilana Shmueli, written during the last months of his life. Ian Fairley, who has translated several collections of Celan’s poems, used three poems to talk about the complexities of translation, exploring the multiple meanings of a single word and how alternate meanings can shadow the chosen one. Since I’ve been working on translating Italian poems, I listened open-mouthed to Fairley’s soft voice describing etymologies and shades of meaning, what influences a poem and what is left unsaid, how Celan uses poems to give himself a face and how every reader becomes a translator. Gillespie also discussed talked about translation, about needing to bear towards the words and take our bearing from them.

Every writing conference I’ve been to has energised me. Just being around and talking with other writers gives me boost, reminding me that I am a writer, one among many perhaps but nonetheless a writer. From AWP I brought home pages of notes, piles of books, many memories, and a recharged spirit.

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