So Ten Thousand Writers Walk Into A Hotel Bar…
March 8, 2012 § 5 Comments
We’ve been suffering from a surplus of opportunities lately, and I’m finally beginning to feel rested and laundered enough to talk about them!
Weekend before last, the Piper Center for Creative Writing hosted the Desert Nights, Rising Stars writer’s conference where the visiting poets included Carolyn Forché, Eleanor Wilner, A. Van Jordan, and Denise Duhamel, and that star-studded list barely scratches the surface of the brilliance we had the pleasure of hosting. It would be hard for me to pinpoint a personal highlight. I moderated a panel on Poetry of Witness featuring Forché, Wilner, and ASU’s own Cynthia Hogue, in which Wilner called for a renaming of “political” poetry to citizen’s poetry. I like that, the sense of belonging, the responsibility it invokes.
And maybe some of you know about an intimate gathering of a few writers in Chicago this past weekend. AWP was a madhouse, and there were 10,000 writers there for the first time in the association’s history. Think about that: ten thousand writers. It was something I tried to wrap my mind around the entire time I was there, watching all of the be-scarved, be-spectacled pea coats waddling around the conference hotels, weighted down from all those books, journals, and lit mags. What can we make of that many writers in one place? What does it do for us? Obviously, the panels and readings and the book fair and all that shaking hands with other people who love what we love—there’s undeniable value there. But it’s something else, too, something airborne.
Margaret Atwood was the keynote speaker this year, and while her speech was delightful (and short), I kept thinking back to a lecture she delivered at Hay On Wye back in 1995 in which she talked about the moment she realized she was a writer:
The day I became a poet was a sunny day of no particular ominousness. I was walking across the football field, not because I was sports-minded or had plans to smoke a cigarette behind the field house — the only other reason for going there — but because this was my normal way home from school. I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sisnister at the same time.
I suspect this is the way all poets begin writing poetry, only they don’t want to admit it, so they make up more rational explanations. But this is the true explanation, and I defy anyone to disprove it.
She was 16 years old when this happened to her (“I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault,” she says in the essay, and I can vividly imagine the smirk I’d bet accompanied it, since she used it liberally during her keynote last Thursday). And it’s this sense of a “large invisible thumb” coming down from the sky that struck me as I elbowed my way through the crowded aisles of the book fair. That there’s something tremendously moving about people buying plane tickets, booking hotel rooms, spending practical resources like time and money to descend upon a city to be around other writers. What we do can be so lonely at the heart of it, and as overwhelming and hectic as these conferences can be, there’s reminder in the midst of it all, one to keep in your pocket for those quiet moments when you sit at your desk and wonder, what am I doing: that there are at least 10,000 people who, at any given moment, might feel the same. Who share this shape-making impulse, for all its joys and stresses. And there’s something marvelously big and valuable about that fact.
For more thoughts on wrapping up AWP, what it’s all for, what you go home with other than severe sleep deprivation and 30+ pounds of books, you may also want to check out “Writer’s Respond: What I Learned at AWP 2012,” which has a lot of funny, big-hearted observations (don’t forget to check out part 2 and part 3). My favorite is Brian Oliu’s: “Editors are writers who are publishers who are friends who are drinkers who are huggers who are lovely people, of which most of them are rooting for you on your search for capturing something fantastic.”
And now, I’ll pose this question to the peanut gallery: did you have a “large invisible thumb” moment when you realized you were a writer? Was it a gift from an anonymous donor? Or a birthmark you came out of the womb with? Tell us that story.