Friend of the Happy Booker Report: AWP with Christy Zink
Austin doesn’t seem to believe in breakfast. Maybe it’s all the Sixth Streeters, groggy with hangovers and who aren’t getting out into the day until around noon, squinting even then, but the day starts a little slowly here. This is far from life in Washington, DC—my hometown—where the Starbucks compete with each other every half block of downtown to put coffee in your body when you’re off far too early to work far too hard. But then I remember that I’m in a town where people take seriously their laid-back attitude and where the central political message is “Keep Austin Weird.”
And so it’s slowly that the AWP conference woke up, too. But all the better to have enjoyed my first night here, with a great introduction to this creative city, getting a taste of this city’s celebrated music scene through local favorites The Brew at the Speakeasy bar. Listen to Felipe on trumpet, and you’d never know he worked in an engineering design firm by day. He’s got the heart of a fulltime artist; I’d have thought nobody could play Latin jazz like that if his whole life wasn’t in it.
But here we are in Austin, a blue town in the reddest state of all, where anything is possible.
On Thursday morning, the first full day of the conference, I found Reb Livingston (she of No Tell Motel and "Crucial Rooster” fame) holding court at the Bookfair. She agreed that the morning was off to a slow start but promptly offered to pick someone as an enemy and start a fistfight right in front of her conference table to stir things up.
Much as I love a good fight, things stirred up all on their own. By midday, the conference was in full buzz. Readings all over the place. People talking fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and everything in between. The word is that there were over 4,000 people signed up before the conference, not to mention those disorganized, lazy, or capricious enough to register only once we got here. With all these writers all from pillar to post in downtown Austin, I was reminded by Flannery O’Connor’s snappy comment on whether writing programs discouraged writers: “Not enough.”
Because the fact is that it was alternately exciting and exhausting to be at AWP. Amazing to realize there are approximately 7,423,742 literary journals to be had here at the Bookfair (I exaggerate, but only a little) that show independent publishing alive and well. Depressing to realize how many brilliant new books are out there that I’ll just never get to. Intriguing to talk to editors like David Gessner, who oversees the newish journal Ecotone—a word translated as a transitional zone between two communities but also as a place of danger or opportunity—that stands out from the crowd from its concerted attention on Place. Worrisome to see a conference and the panels still too much divided by race. Frustrating as a fiction writer myself to see that the swaggering boy fiction writer aesthetic is still being encouraged at graduate schools across the country.
But then there’s the good stuff: panels that wake you up and teach you something and make this whole racket worthwhile. Here’s poet David St. John speaking on the first day on the “kinematic lyric” and the crossovers between poetry and film, of how cinema increasingly seeks to capture the “fragmentary, disjunctive experience” of “the wreckage of our age.” St. John tells us that we’re saved in some way, though, by the act of capturing, because that representation of fracture creates a feeling of wholeness, such that we hold together and don’t, in the end, ourselves fly apart. Here is Ralph Angel then talking about the beauty of film, which tackles “how to tell the story without telling the story.” How the supposedly objective narrative we hear in this country is, indeed, a lie. How he is grateful for film: that it precedes him and will outlive him; he, in writing work that directly addresses filmmakers such as Hitchcock and Kieslowski, himself becomes part of this “continuum of human expression.”
That night, it’s off to an authentic barbecue (or, as it says on the label, Bar-B-Q) dinner at the infamous Stubbs. Gathered there were a group of fellows from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and their partners and friends. The VCCA artists’ colony is one of the most sacred places in this country for writers (artists and composers, too), of quiet woods and lovely, converted barn studios and those long-lashed cows that greet you every morning. At my immediate table, writers Leslie Pietrzyk, Porter Shreve, Bich Nguyen, and Darcy Cummings, and poets representing each of the Carolinas. The talk was of new writing projects, of the non-Washington Washington novel and John Keats’ poetry, of an abundance of Polish food and a dearth of Vietnamese dinners, all over fried green tomatoes and beef brisket.
I was especially excited to hear that Darcy’s collection of poems The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer’s Life is forthcoming this summer from Bright Hill Press; I’m so eager to see those poems collected together that reimagine Alice in Wonderland, this time growing up, a little older and a whole lot more complicated.
Amy Allen, who’s on staff at the VCCA and a writer herself, filled me in about the fancy digs of Moulin à Nef, VCCA’s new “sister campus” in the South of France that houses fellows but that is also available to other lucky folks when the timing’s right.
So what is there to say about Austin, about converging with old friends and meeting new acquaintances and hearing new ideas on craft and teaching and the artistic world we dwell in at our best and talking new projects in a city that’s all new to me? “C’est magnifique, y’all.”