AWP 2011: Oye Como Va

This year’s AWP convention in Washington was one of the best I’ve ever been to. It was also one of the strangest. The far more serious matter of Egypt overshadowed everything–for me, anyhow–as did my other writing life outside of po-biz. The precise chronology of events is a bit fuzzy. I should fact-check like a good reporter; for now, here’s a poet’s pastiche:

DAY 0 (Tuesday): Drove from Atlanta, skirting the gargantuan storm system that kept many folks from flying into DC. Was almost the only person on road. Weather was foggy and misty in Georgia, not too bad in North Carolina, and extremely dense rain from Richmond up. Had the rain been snow, it would have been a blizzard. Listened to Tahrir Square events unfold on BBC World Service, CNN, and MSNBC via satellite radio, pondering geopolitics while driving through the storm.

After trolling from place to place until the wee hours, finally found room at the inn: a no-tell motel in “La Republica Popular de Takoma Park,” as the bumper sticker says. Slept on the unused of the two beds, still fully clothed. Contemplated adding both hammock and folding cot to survival stash in trunk.

DAY 1 (Wednesday): Thank you, IHOP. Thank you, strategically-located banks. Thank you, schedule, for not placing me in the bank when it was robbed four days earlier. Arrive at historic Omni Shoreham with its nifty diving rebreather history. Exceptional staff. Beautiful room. Clean room. Light switch cover that rests directly on wall surface. No DNA samples from previous occupants. A desk where I could line up 50 or so Katrina-poetry-related books, plug in my laptop, and refine my annotations. I watched TV as street fighting broke out between police and protestors, feeling the same dread I felt the first night of the (first) Gulf War, wondering whether I would see or hear people I knew get blown up during their liveshot. Finally removed to the hotel bar for a double and a call to my favorite newsheimer. Scary night, even now.

DAY 2 (THURSDAY): Friends arrive. Panels ensue. I hit the bookfair after the long hike across the street, down the block, down the stairs, up the elevator, through the hall, across the lobby, down the escalator, into the bookfair, and then back, and back, and back to small-press-hinterlands to see Louie, Palmer, and Pat at Pecan Grove‘s table. Hooray for Pat and her new book, Inherent Vice, which she kindly signed! Reverse-hustled through aforementioned maze to see “Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape” panel back at the Omni. On the sign outside the meeting room, someone has posted a note, along the lines of: “The Cuba panel has been cancelled. None of the presenters were able to fly out of the Midwest.” Shortages here, too? Is this how it’s gonna go? Oyame. It’s not often that I get to talk Cuban literature outside of my own house.

Meandered into overpriced hotel buffet and bumped into Nicole and Peter Cooley. Had old-home week with them and met Thomas Beller, to whom I apologize publicly for all the New Orleans-centric references.

Escaped from AWP to meet up with old pal at CNN’s Washington bureau. Got the nickel tour to see how the new setup works. Saw old friends and colleagues, more than one of whom asked,”So, when are you coming back? We need you!”

This gives me much to think about.

I’m thinking.

Went to Busboys and Poets with said pal to meet an old college pal of his. Had dinner, wine, great conversation. Then we get down to business, that being our 23-year relationship as dance partners. Regrouped at the funkalicious Madam Organ’s, where a badass Latin band did bossa nova interpretations of Nirvana, hipped James Taylor up to speed, and threw down some smokin’ Colombian dance music and Grateful Dead. Oye como va. Unfortunately, I was dead on arrival, feeling my age and his, and barely moved my exhausted gringa feet while he did all the work. Who are these tiny twenty-somethings with the 360-degree swivel hips? I want to dance like that when I’m 90.

We discussed the goat-decor’s pendulous appendages. I allowed as how they might function as mistletoe for guys betting on which girl they could catch.

Inexplicably, DC seems to put orange slices in all of its beer.

Beg for mercy because my feet hurt so damn bad.

Drag into the Omni lobby, exhausted but thrilled at seeing the old crew again. Who should I find in the hotel bar but my new crew–West Chester and FORMALISTA friends Marilyn and Kathrine? Drink, talk shop, show photos on various digital devices. Eventually drag up to bed, order room service (which arrives in even wee-er hours), fall asleep over $20 egg and revolution of people who would make far better use of both the egg and the $20. Self-indulgent poets and writers, spending all that money on hotel rooms and airfare. I can’t enjoy this.

* * *

DAY 3 (FRIDAY): Oversleep yet again, this time through Mezzo Cammin timeline panel. Hit the NEA how-to-apply-for-a-grant panel, only to discover that poets should read the website. Left with other poets who also have read the website, but were looking for finer nuances. Back to the bookfair. Hugs and catching up every few feet. And lunch with Marilyn, Kathrine, and Moira. And drinks with Mona Lisa and Sister Anne, talking about Catholicism and community and her upcoming trip to the Father/Mother Land Ghana, and especially about Mona Lisa’s finally disentangling the byzantine New Orleans permitting offices to pour the slab on the house in which she and five generations of her family had lived until Katrina took it. Every AWP since Katrina, we discuss the glacial progress that is rebuilding her piece of New Orleans. Six AWPs later, still no house.

* * *

I wasn’t organized enough to get new business cards before AWP. I zipped over to the copy center, whomped up something pre-fab, and had a very short run of cards made at the whopping price of about 26 cents each. I gulped and put it on the plastic. The place was slammed. The woman behind the counter dickered with the carpet installer about coming back after closing. He didn’t want to. She talked him into it. I figured I’d copy the bib in the morning.

Height of the night: the Floricanto reading, which blew the roof off the historic True Reformer Building. Highlights: Martin Espada’s poem about the marriage problem, Marilyn Nelson braving croakiness to read and run, the curandera/politician who read as if she were officiating at High Mass, Sonia Sanchez’s shaman-self channelling/chanting/exorcizing, and the room itself, which looked and felt like a church. Each reader was outlined by a white aura. Lighting? Energy? Spirit beings? Poets report. You decide.

* * *

Back in my room, still drained from faux-dancing effort, I tweaked an extensive bibliography of post-K poetry and poetics. I saved it to Gdocs. I saved it to my hard drive. I saved it to a jump drive. Multiple redundancies. The plan: print some copies and e-mail it to anyone who gets left out. Oye como va.

So then I start writing a few thoughts about poetry in and out of post-Katrina New Orleans. No big deal. I peeked in the mirror occasionally to see Egypt while I was writing what I thought was a quick and dirty set-up for the bibliography. And I kept writing. And writing. Nicole had asked me point-blank last year, “Why don’t you write about it?” And I stammered and said I hadn’t been there in the same way and that nobody really cared about my vantage point and all those things writers in denial say when they avoid writing. And then it was 4:37 in the morning, and I had this crazed, slightly disjointed essay about who has the right to say what. And it was a first draft, not anything I would read at the panel, but the makings of a really good essay for sometime in the near future.

Then I insisted on sanity and sleep, but just let me check my e-mail once first, and et cetera. So I open the ASLE mailbox, which apparently I hadn’t done since November. And there was an e-mail from Sheryl St. Germain about precisely this notion of outsiders speaking for locals, only from the point of view of nature writing. And from November. And, she was giving a talk about it at this same AWP, which hadn’t registered with me because I was only looking at poetry panels. So I opened her essay and it was a hell of a lot like mine, although clearly not a first draft. So I told her about this weird coincidence. Two writers plus one wavelength equals a certain kind of poetic zeitgeist.

We will explore further.

* * *

DAY 4 (SATURDAY): I have given up completely on all panels other than the one I’m moderating. The tubercular cough that’s haunted me all week inexplicably disappears in the oppressive mist that today coats everything. I eat lunch with Pat and Marilyn and Kathrine at the Lebanese place everyone’s been raving about. I hustle over to the copy center. It’s closed. The carpet guy is there. I ask you: who the hell decides to close the hotel bar and the copy center in the middle of the afternoon during a writers’ conference? Oh, it’s the hotel. Not my hotel, mind you. That other flagshippy one, where the ladies’ room looks like the Superdome’s by the third quarter. The hotel for which AWP probably paid a fortune because it had a copy center and a bar in close proximity.

Oye como va.

* * *

I don’t want to waste people’s time. Especially in the final session slot.

It goes like this:

Kalamu doesn’t make it. Peter has what he’s going to read. Julie has a DVD of clips from the Still Standing reading: Lee Grue and Paul Chasse. I bring the necessary dongles and cables to make the computer talk to the projector, but neither the audio nor the volume control appear. I am on my knees before a roomful of people, listening to Peter’s talk and making sacrifices to the computer idol. St. Fragile and St. Expedite intercede for us, in the form of the hotel a/v guy bearing an audio jack. Now we can all oye como va. I handed out cards to anyone who wanted me to e-mail a copy of the bibliography. And I felt compelled to read that strange essay.

We made it work.

And then we opened up the mic to the audience, as opposed to taking questions, and the room was energized.

They made it work even better.

Keep open to the poetry of the moment.

* * *

I rushed off with Peter and Nicole to the oil-spill reading, which overlapped the Katrina panel. This means I stood up my other friends and our vague plans. Oye como va. Anne Waldman did a Buddhist version of Sonia Sanchez’ exorcism, violently yoking rant and chant and manatee and humanity together. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open.” I would like to see a Sanchez-Waldman reading. Just the two of them. That would split the earth in two.

Dinner at a little Ethiopian place. Again, I missed someone at home who knows more than a little bit about Ethiopia firsthand. The rest of the world was very much part of the little corner we call AWP this year, more so than ever.

Far more than choice of restaurants makes the matter pressing.

* * *

Day 5 (SUNDAY): The long leisurely drive back, but not before photographing plastic debris along the Potomac and visiting Mr. Lincoln. At the corner, another former colleague jogged past. I flagged her down, and we hugged and jabbered on the streetcorner. “Do what your heart tells you,” she says, and she is in a position to know what that means.

Many stops, a hike uphill in the snow, past deer tracks, hawks huddling in highway trees. Truckstops. Atop the mountain, after dark, Egypt by satellite and Cuba by radio skip.

Oye.

You’re a writer. Do you choose to spend the rest of your days caught up in adminstrivia and makework? Do you write your way around the world? How does your writing serve the world? How does it serve your fullest possible remaining time on the planet? How much time will you exchange for money? For writing? For having written?

Can you hear how it goes for you?

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5 thoughts on “AWP 2011: Oye Como Va

  1. Christine says:

    Well, you’ve been busy. Writing and dancing and hobnobbing sounds pretty good. A whirlwind. Hope you get some time to rest your tired dogs a spell.

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