Saturday, February 14, 2009

AWP, or Zombie Fest

At the bookfair today, one of the dudes at the tables called AWP "Zombie Fest," and I was like, "Whaaaa???"

"Man, no one here has had more than seven hours sleep total, we're all wandering around with a glazed look in our eyes, moaning."

OMG, THAT'S TRUE! I was laughing hard. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

YESTERDAY, we set up the Sagebrush end of our booktable and let people know what we were all about by offering issues for free. It was insane madness, with journals, books, membership drives, literary criticism anthologies. People wearing patterned stockings, horn-rimmed glasses and funky knit hats were wandering around, offering book trades and sharing Valentine's Day chocolates and candies.

When Vincent and I got up to wander around and buy books, we ended up seeing a lot of people who we didn't expect to see. First, was Anne-Marie Fowler who has published an anthology of Asian American women writers. It's nice to see a project start as a cfp and then come to fruition. We bought a copy for the UTSA students to enjoy. I met Anne-Marie in New York when she was reading at The Bowery Poetry Club, and she had me as one of the participants of a women writer's workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Ever since then, our paths have continued to cross, so I was happily surprised to see her there.

Then we ran into Maria Mazziotti-Gillan. She is famous for LOTS of great anthologies, one of which I taught at UTSA. I mentioned that some students have a hard time with it and this sweet, dynamic woman was thrilled. "It's supposed to be unsettling!" Hence the title. :)

Later, we ran into Alex Espinoza, author of Still Water Saints and Vincent's Macondo buddy. He had a book table and is staying in the same hotel as us, so we've run into him several times and he is always a happy person to talk to, full of jokes and good spirit.

Other folks we were thrilled to see include Khalil Murrell, of the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Foundation. He's the dude that gets us a gig every April that allows us to go East, read poetry, get paid, and see our friends! And Khalil is an amazingly interesting and talented poet and friend, but more on that in a sec.

After running around at the bookfair, we saw David Vance, who I work with at UTSA, chatted a bit and planned on heading to another panel, but fatigue set in. We'd been up since 8 a.m. and we needed lunch. David directed us to Cafe Intelligentsia, which he argued has the best coffee in the country. After Vincent had a cup, he agreed. Mmmmm.

The panel took backseat to a nap before dinner with friends. Our friend Gerrard, who we hadn't seen since we lived out East, met us in the lounge of our hotel at around 6:30 p.m. and we were soooo happy to see our bandmate. We were catching up on our lives for nearly two hours and we could have gone on and on, but we had other friends to meet!

By 8:30, we were at Ben Pao's for excellent Chinese food. We met with Michelle, Sagebrush Head Officer, and two of my oldest, closest friends, Nancy and her husband Roy. As soon as we all got together, mad joking was the tone for the rest of the evening. Nancy, aw man, she's my homegirl. Because I've had an expense account for the majority of the trip and I haven't had to touch my own cash much, I was finally able to treat all my friends with my own money for the first time in my life, something that they've been doing for me for longer than I can remember. This meant a lot to me. I feel like they deserve so much more, but starving artists can't offer much beyond a work of art. I hope they continue to like my poems.

Our excellent waiter pointed out that I had added a tip when the restaurant already does that. Wow. That doesn't usually happen. We broke him off something for that and he took a photo of all of us which was promptly placed on Facebook. Oh, how cliche'. Since the evening was still young, I suggested, predictably, the 96th floor (the 95th is the restaurant; 96th is the bar) of the John Hancock building, which normally has an awesome view. It had started to snow, but we didn't care. We went anyway.

This time Nancy and Roy treated. They always do that! We laughed loudly some more except when the entire room became eerily silent at my joking about Vincent's friends in Nashville not exactly focusing on my face when I met them. Boy was I red! And Vinny was, too. Total uncomfortable silence moment which caused Gerrard to giggle on cue. What are old friends for if not to witness us fall on our faces?

We left at last call and got a lift to our hotel by Nancy and Roy. Big hugs and a rock in my stomach upon realizing that I have to leave Chicago and all my insides behind again. Nancy and Roy, classy folks that they are, gave Gerrard a ride home to Hyde Park, and Vinny and I slept uncomfortably, missing all of them already.


TODAY, we got up LATE.

But, we planned on spending the whole day at the conference. We headed to the bookfair first because we knew some folks would be closing shop. Lots of book deals and lots of great journals for Sagebrush volunteers to learn from. We were able to buy some good books for ourselves, too. Howard Zinn, Bill Ayers, the Helix, Lyric, Rio Grande Review, so many titles I can't list them all. We ran into David again and we mentioned the fatigue and late nights and just nodded. Still, the mood was celebratory. Chocolate and wine was being passed around and one table offered free love poems that you could pick out of a box. My poem was about totally imperfect, poorly matched people being so incredibly happy together. It made me smile.

After our book work, we packed up the goodies and had some lunch in the conference hotel so that we could make the Chicago slam panel on time. Vincent and I talked about the support we had in New York and how whenever someone is struggling on stage, the audience always applauds and "gives love" in order to encourage the writer to keep going and feel comfortable. Even though New York is considered "rude," its poetry and writer scene, though very competitive, is extremely supportive and willing to lend a hand and share and listen. This is where I learned to take my first steps as a real writer. I got choked up at remembering the always there supportive applause, and I realized how much I missed this.

So when we got to the slam panel on time and saw that Marc Smith and the other panelists were not there, it was perfect timing that C.J. Laity, of Chicago, decided to host an impromptu, illegal AWP panel open mic. Everyone who had gathered stayed to watch people go up on a open mic that was totally unplanned. I read a poem, Vincent read a poem, Khalil showed up and read a poem (an AMAZING piece on everything that his father taught him - SO moved), a wonderful Romanian woman read a poem, there was a sarcastic Barnes and Noble poem, a Michelle Obama is my bestie (bestest friend) poem, and poems by so many different poets, it couldn't have been better.

I said it at the mic and I will write it here again: This is exactly what I came here for. No stuffiness, no pompous attitude, just poets sharing their work on the mic. I couldn't have been in a better room of the conference. I think Marc Smith would have loved to have seen the anti-slam, as well. And C.J. Laity remembered me, too! I had met him through Al DeGenova, of After Hours (the journal that published my first poem, "Cubanita"), and he had posted some of my work on his website. Good memory!

Now, I'm headed to meet high school friends at an anti-Valentine's Day party, but really, I'm all about the love right now. I've been emotionally conflicted for much of this trip but some things changed this for me. One was that Marco let me know that the Sagebrush event that I set up but could not attend in San Antonio went very well - opera was sung, apparently! The second was hearing the poets.

There's something cool about knowing that poetry and art is simultaneously going on in various parts of my worlds, near and far. This is so good, I'm finally at a loss for words.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chicago and AWP, or When Writers Gather

Despite ridiculous reports that Chicago is a city of misery, I've had the wonderful opportunity to return to my mother city and retrace the concrete cracks of my youth by attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, hosted by my alma mater, Columbia College Chicago. I never even knew about the conference 'til I was asked to attend, by our generous funders, to promote the literary journal I edit, The Sagebrush Review (a journal fully run by undergraduate and graduate students at UTSA). I didn't even have a chance to think about the conference until a few days before I was set to leave, my work schedule being so incredibly hectic. I had qualifying exam committee meetings, Master Teaching Fellowship meetings, interns to direct, poetry/short story readings to plan in absentia, classes to grade papers for, and, oh yeah, clothes to pack and a plane to catch.

Thankfully, despite bad weather, my plane was only delayed a little over an hour. Vincent and I, along with Michelle, the Head Officer of the Sagebrush, checked in to our hotel, The Palmer House Hilton, on Wednesday at around 5 p.m. or so. The plan was to get freshened up (shower) and meet for a nice meal. I'd passed the Palmer House a million times growing up in Chicago, and I knew it was where Tom Cruise met Guido the Killer Pimp in "Risky Business," but I other than using its hallway to get from Wabash to State on cold days, I'd never really stepped inside. The lobby and its bar are incredible. Really regal, old school decadence, or at least that's how they're promoting the place right now. They aren't too far off. The ballrooms and larger spaces are a photographer's dream, but the actual rooms are remodeled spaces that harken back to a time when we were smaller people and when plumbing wasn't so good. Either way, you can't complain about free. I feel very taken care of. So I was happy to look all around at the gilded fixtures and mirrored chandeliers before walking down the street to have good Italian (something which doesn't exist in San Antonio). We went to Italian Village, which is Chicago's oldest Italian restaurant. The pasta and sauces were amazing and Michelle had an excellent moscato. The waiter was super nice, too. After dinner, we talked into the wee hours under the dim lights of the Palmer House bar. I had a sweet pear brandy and took pictures galore.

The next day, an overpriced breakfast in bed and then off to the conference. WOW. There are A LOT of people here from all over the world! I've heard Spanish and English in a variety of accents, some Eastern languages I unfortunately have not been schooled in, and definitely some European ones I can grasp a little of. Vincent and I went to a panel called, "Revising Modernisms: Innovative Latino Writing in the 21st Century," which featured J. Michael Martinez, Antonio Viego, John-Michael Rivera, Gabriel Gomez, and Jennifer Reimer. The last speaker had some interesting things to say about his experience at UCLA, I believe. Something about only being given one Latino author to read in his four years, even though the population of the state and school is majority Latino. However, the panel itself was...dry. I was also disappointed when one female poet rearranged a T.S. Eliot quote and said that for her poetry is the negation of identity. Her statement was meant to reveal how poetry is "fake" or a distortion of what is real. She went on to say that she does not want to write from a racialized identity because it is problematic and she inevitably feels forced to represent. While I understand the need to not be pigeonholed, I personally find it impossible to write from a place completely devoid of racial bias or influence.

The panel titled, "Hip Hop and the Future of the Black Writer," was more of what I was looking for. It featured Jessica Young, Avery R. Young, Toni Assante Lightfoot, Tacuma Roeback, Alexis Pride, and Cynthium Johnson-Woodfolk. We were only able to catch the tail end of this panel, but boy were we happy we did. The energy in the too small space for all the people who wanted to be there was dynamic! Instead of just reading from papers, the writers were speaking from the heart and also taking questions from the chair of the panel and the audience. This was an interactive panel. Some statements that stood out to me included but were by no means limited to: "People who criticize current commercial hip hop and say that it is bad are people who are criticizing America because the medium very accurately reflects what America values and what we are giving power to. If you don't like what you see, then you need to change it. If you don't like it, get up and dance."; someone quoted Nas, referring to the Black community - "We are the slave and the master" - in terms of the oppressed but also the ones who create the culture that the master ends up using; for better or worse, hip hop has created a new space for the independent Black businessperson and Sean Combs was brought up, particularly for how he had the original Declaration of Independence at one of his Long Island parties and how he stayed home to watch the Inauguration with his son so that his son could see something he did not ever have the chance to see as a young Black child; and finally, education and our failure to make it successful for the past 15 or so years was brought up, especially in terms of not being good communicators and readers of what our children are bringing to the table (because we just bluntly correct them instead of trying to understand what they are trying to communicate and helping them with their communication).

Vincent and I loved the hip hop panel and, over lunch at George Mitchell's Artists Cafe, lamented that the same vibe was not found in the Latino panel we attended. It turns out not all the Latino panels were as stuffy, so maybe we just hit a crowd that hadn't had enough sleep.

After lunch, we wanted to take advantage of Chicago style. We took the Blue Line up to Damen and I showed Vincent all the spots on the buildings as we came up out of the tunnel that were painted over by Daley in the early 1990s because the city decided the gorgeous graffiti murals were bad. Bucktown is crazy gentrified. It is complete. The basement loft where Billy Wimsatt (Upski) and Alex (of Stoney Island fame) used to live is now a jewelry shop. The I.D. Under house I think got leveled. Still, we had a good time. I got a $29 dress at Akira, the new (to me) fashion empire, apparently. And Vincent had an excellent time digging the stacks at Reckless Records.
We took the train back to our home base and by now it was time for dinner. Since we are doing conference stuff and seeing friends the rest of the time, we decided to have a Valentine's Day date early. Pops for Champagne and a jazz show in its basement club was what we decided on. I'd heard Rose Colella on her myspace page and fell in love with her sweet voice, so it was perfectly romantic. We stayed for her early set and part of her second set, and held hands while dipping into fondue. But we wanted more writing. Poetry, specifically.

So, we ran back to the Chicago Hilton and Towers and caught the last hour of the poetry slam, which featured a lot of young dudes. Not a lot of ladies, but alas, all the judges were male, too. Still, it was nice to hear the young voices. And, what's really cool is that tomorrow's slam is a flash fiction slam, which I've never heard of, so it looks like the form is branching, which is great.

After walking around the rooms of the stunning Towers, we decided to walk back to the Palmer House, taking in the desolate city streets at night. Across the way, sculptors are creating ice art for a blues festival, it appears. Not exactly sure what it's all about, but it looks like the final product is going to be amazing. The moon was 3/4 full. And the doormen were hosing off the streets. It was a nice walk.

Tomorrow, the goal is to actually be able to set up our book table, which will offer free copies of the Sagebrush Review (not the issue I've edited, but good previous ones). Holla!