What could be better than a report from the AWP front? Two reports! Yes, we're offering a twofer today, and it's not even Tuesday. You want AWP info? Well, we've got the goods x 2. Here's the story from Christy Zink and Chris Meeks. Enjoy!
Friend of the Happy Booker Report: AWP part deux, by Christy Zink
Grackles are truly scary things. Let the poets tell you about the beauty of birdlife. I’m here to tell you that that crazy squawk/squeal from the trees in Austin is something to fear.
And that’s not the only ugly winged animal in this town. Meet the “Congress Avenue Bats”—not a local sports team but the name for the thousands to million and a half bats that migrate to Austin and congregate under a single bridge from March to October. The city invites all of us here back in September for Batfest 2006. There’s even a Bat Hotline for updates (call 512-416-5700, ext. 3636, in case you don’t believe me) and safety tips for the taking. Clearly the bats here are serious business.
Thank goodness for plenty of reasons to stay inside. Among them:
- Hugh Ferrer, in the panel “Is the Great American Novel Dead?” posing the question “Could you fictionalize a neocon?” Where, he wondered, were the Paul Wolfowitzes in contemporary fiction? What, he posited, would happen if a writer situated Donald Rumsfeld at the Burning Man Festival? This fiction editor of The Iowa Review used his wry humor to get at some pointed comments about the dearth of political characters in American novels, ending with an offer of “bonus points” for anyone who could place John Bolton right in the middle of a children’s story.
- The “Flash, Sudden, & Other Very Short Fiction” discussion in which panelists grappled over a question Robert Shapard framed for us—just how short a story can be and still be a story.
Ray Gonzales provided the crowd with a reading list including Julio Cortazar, Lydia Davis, Eduardo Galena, and Judith Kitchen that would keep most of us busy for much more than a semester, and zeroed in on his biggest question for short forms: “Does flash fiction,” he asked, “contain and create contemporary myths?”
Steve Almond lauded the “urgency of poetry” these forms contain and read his chilling story “Pornography” about a man watching a street fight between two women in Greece.
Deb Olin Unferth read a hilarious discussion between an overthinking woman and her lover called “To Be Honest” and shared her own love for how these forms allow “abstraction, suggestion, and withholding,” so that the absences are as important (if not more so) as the present story.
Minnie Marie Hayes, editor of StoryQuarterly noted how important short fiction is to literary journals and how (hint to audience) they’re always on the lookout for more.
And Ron Carlson repeated the advice of a former mentor for writing fiction: “Never start at the beginning. Leave everything out. Quit before the ending.” His short short in the form of a recommendation letter, in an audience full of creative writing teachers who’ve just been writing far too many such letters in the past few weeks, had people doubled over. But he also spoke strongly and seriously about the particular need in writing such forms to not edit ourselves, to occupy a huge tolerance for where the character wants to go, and to always hew close to the place of the human heart.
- Venturing outside (bats be damned) to the patio of Finn and Porter to hear good news about Beverly Lowry’s new biography of Harriet Tubman due out next March or April, complete with a host of maps, photographs, and other period images to bring that story fully alive to all of her readers.
Brave enough once again to face the outdoors, later on Friday night I
moved “off campus” to Bookpeople, which claims itself the largest
bookstore in Texas. The “Hot Prose From Four Hot Pros” reading there
promised sexy fiction and posted signs up forbidding entry to anyone
not of age. Up on the top floor, the reading was, indeed, steamy and
enticing and intriguing. (Readers will appreciate that my notes from
this reading were taken on the backside of receipts I’ll have to turn
into my university, so that some little old lady in accounts payable
will likely have a heart attack over this.)
Sheri Joseph read sections from her novel Bear Me Safely Over, tracing both the anonymity and impossible closeness of sex in a bathroom stall as two lovers who’d separated come together and separate again.
Steve Almond (and no, I wasn’t following him around, although I have no doubt some women from the conference did) considered what the year 2033 might look like if the red states seceded from the blue states and how that would change the sexual landscape of America. Let’s just say that Jenna Bush makes a rather raunchy appearance that dear old Dad would certainly not be pleased to hear.
Michelle Richmond (now this one, I might follow around just about anywhere) announced that she was the “voice of chastity” because there was no intercourse in her story. But this was no comedy of well-dressed manners. Her story traced the adventures of a woman training to become a nurse-practitioner of “manual manipulation,” where handjobs have become an accepted medical treatment for any number of ailments, from arthritis to nearsightedness and farsightedness. This story where the male orgasm is likened to a kneejerk or a sneeze (she invited the audience to vote on that) ran in the February issue of Playboy, so all of you out there who haven’t yet read the issue for the articles, now’s your chance.
Michelle Tea rounded out the readings with a scene from her novel Rose of No Man’s Land, of two fourteen-year-old girls discovering both crystal meth and each other at the T. Rex Miniature Golf Course, taking the implicit sexuality between all girl friends at that age to something much more explicit and achingly real.
Audience members—many of them Austinites, a welcome break from the AWP crowd where everyone knows each others’ names and sometimes a whole lot more—asked great questions about the amount of research involved, about how fantasies on the page affect real relationships out in the world, and about writing sex and facing family members. Michelle Tea’s answer to the last one got a good laugh: “Oh, you just gotta cut all family ties.” Tea addressed, then, the inherent difficulty of tackling such subjects as sex as a writer, saying that “culturally, you’re either sexual or serious but not both.” Steve Almond discussed the “exquisite emotion” involved in sexuality and asked, “What else would you write about?” and “When are people more themselves?” Michelle Richmond pointed out that this kind of writing often gets considered genre, like writing about cowboys and detectives. “We all have sex,” she noted. “We don’t all rope cattle and find fingerprints.” To cap the evening, she made a strong argument for the legitimacy of sex as an inherent part of our human lives and of its due place in the world of literary writing. I left flush and happy. I smiled, sated, all the way back to the hotel….
And so the evening ended with drinks among old friends and writers much more important than I will ever be at the AWP party. I owe thanks to writer Robin Allnutt—who seemingly knows everyone—for getting me into the Liberty Tavern party where I was much too tired to schmooze and avoided the open bar in favor of plain water. Trust me when I say that likely there were deals made, eyelashes batted, flings begun, flings begun the day before sourly ended, drinks overconsumed, and secrets overspilled. But not by me, and at end of day two I toddled off to bed to dream of bats and grackles and writers and the flush of language, the pulse of the heart, the body making its coupling with a welcome hotel bed.
Friend of the Happy Booker Report 2: "Hey, I was at AWP, too!" by Chris Meeks
I first should set the scene. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs meets in one giant convention each year, roughly 4000 writers and instructors in one spot, all thirsty for meeting friends, listening to ideas and perceptions in the many panels, stumbling into great poems or stories in readings, and eying many literary journals, books, and other writers. This is my third AWP convention, the first one being in Kansas City, Missouri, about six years ago. The gathering has grown since then, requiring more rooms for panels and perhaps less room for spontaneous meetings.
The AWP is open to any writer for $59 in yearly dues ($37 for registered students). The convention is another $159 ($40 for students), plus your travel and hotels costs.
My first conference was utterly fun as I ran into pockets of people reading in the hotel bar, lobby, or some unexpected nook. It was Bohemia. I sat in on one small reading with people who I learned had been published in Nimrod. Later they asked me to read.
That first convention, actually, was one of the best shots of Rapidgrow I’ve had as a writer. I met a number of editors of literary journals, and while most tables had printed submission guidelines to hand out, in a few places, I could hear what kinds of stories they really liked. My submissions later were addressed to the editors, and I could make it personal, having met them. As in most careers, it’s about who you know—and it’s not unreasonable. After all, we all want to work with people we like.
This year the convention was in Austin, Texas, best known for its lively music and arts scene and the home of the University of Texas. It’s also the state capital and not as flat as most of the state. In fact, flying in, I could see farms, thick stands of trees, and a few rivers. My rental car took me into a clogged freeway as I crept toward downtown. Over the next three days, I’d learn that that freeway was choked much of the time. It’s not unlike Los Angeles where I’m from, but the distances are shorter.
The conference is really built into four parts. Much of each day is filled with panels, 75-minute gatherings on an eclectic range of subjects. The Guide-to-the-Conference book weighed perhaps two pounds and it was stuffed with events starting on Wednesday night and ending early Sunday. You scan for titles that might look interesting, such as “The Formlessness of Form in Fiction” or “Why Do People Hate Experimental Fiction?” One panel on teaching and writing with humor caught my eye, but five minutes of a woman dourly reading from a paper in a monotone made me flee into the afternoon.
Another part of the conference is the 5 p.m. cash bars that spring up in rooms around the hotel, hosted by one university or publication and another. You get $3 drinks, chips and hot Cheez Whiz, and vegetable platters made up of mostly yellow peppers. Right after the cash bars come the major readings. I caught Walter Mosley’s keynote address on Thursday night. He passionately spoke about how his father wanted him to work in a prison for a dependable living, but Mosley attended an AWP Convention in 1989 and became convinced he should become a writer—and he has with such incredible books as Devil in the Blue Dress. His speech was short and invigorating, reminding the audience it’s not the money and number of copies that should drive us, but the writing itself. He says he’s written a short story, his best ever, and no one will publish it. He’s proud of that.
Another major component of the convention is making new friends or hooking up with friends you didn’t know who were there. The best place to find these people is the main hotel bar. This year was the Hilton. On Friday, avoiding the sponsored cash bars, I met writer Jessica Inclan, author of the fabulous Her Daughter’s Eyes, at the Hilton watering hole, and she seemed to know many people. Soon I was running into people I knew— five, specifically—whom I didn’t expect to meet there. This serendipity, which always seems to happen at the conference, is the gravy part of the event.
The last main component is the Book Exhibition. Imagine an area the size of three skating rinks, lined with rows and rows of tables, each staffed by two or more people, selling mainly literary journals and literary books with titles most people have never heard of. If you’re a struggling short story writer or poet, you’ll certainly know of The Paris Review, Agni, Tin House, and a few others. The convention shows you other possibilities such as Meridian, Gulf Coast, and Carve Magazine. I’m always stunned that little university journals, most of which have a circulation of 500 to 1000 copies, pay for and staff a table for three solid days, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. One of my favorite parts of the Book Exhibition was meeting Reb Livingston at her No Tell Motel table. Wearing a pink tee shirt and grinning like a barker at a State Fair, she’s passionate about her project. Here’s a woman who has become her own micropublisher, finding poems and publishing them online, and she prints the best of them into book form using the print-on-demand publisher, Lulu Press.
I spent much of my time at the convention at the Book Exhibition, speaking with editors, meeting new people, and mentioning when I could my new book, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. I’m not sure if this convention will have any ripples or it was merely a way to have a good steak at a fabulous Austin restaurant, Moonshine. There’s something about a good steak.