Among Artists and Writers: Writing AWP, Los Angeles, 2016
by Simon Calder
INT. FLORENCE’S COROLLA
Florence drives. The radio plays.
(to the car behind her)
Are you going to let me in?
Are You Going to Let Me In?
Delivered by Greta Gerwig’s character, Florence, to the soundtrack of the Steve Miller Band’s song Jet Airliner, this is the first piece of dialogue in Noah Baumbauch’s movie Greenberg. At this year’s L.A.-based Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, Jeff Hoffman highlighted the naturalness with which Greenberg thus announces its central concern – the difficulty of establishing human connections – through a metaphor to which we in attendance could by then all relate: the difficulty of merging into traffic in L.A.
Hoffman’s panel – titled “Writing LA: City as Character” – was one of the first I attended at this year’s conference, having flown in from Minnesota on Thursday morning. Processing the panel, my airliner-addled brain presented Florence’s question to L.A. and AWP.
AWP, Los Angeles, 2016: with your twenty or so featured readings; with your six-hundred plus panels; and with your countless receptions, mixers, dance parties, and other off-site events, are you going to let me in?
How Should I Begin?
More like Greenberg than Florence in this respect, it was as I was being driven to the convention centre from the Redbury hotel on Friday morning that I had my first truly rewarding conversation about writing that weekend. Said conversation was with an Uber driver named Christian, who had aspirations to write but wasn’t sure where to begin. Adept as he was at all styles of connecting, I thanked Christian for the ride and acknowledged both our affinity and my hope that I would encounter some guidance at the panel to which he had driven me, a panel titled What’s The Big Idea? Intention vs. Intuition in the Writing Process.
So, I was thinking a lot about the title of the panel – Intention versus Intuition – and when I think of “intuition” I think of “women’s intuition,” and when I think of “women’s intuition” I think of “mother wit,” and when I think of “mother wit” I think of “having eyes in the back of your head,” and when I think of “having eyes in the back of your head” I think of “second sight,” and when I think of “second sight” I think of … my father.
That was the quite brilliant beginning of Kevin Young’s contribution to the panel.
Second sight is double vision, Young expanded, and it is needed not so much to write as to edit a poem: “it is the ability to see a poem’s present but also its future, or potential future.” The first poems that came to Young after his father’s death were odes to everyday things, from barbeque sauce to black eyed peas. Had it not been for Young’s capacity to see potential (then forge actual) futures in (and from) the present, there would not have arisen Dear Darkness, the marvelous new collection from which he read a poem – again, concerning “second sight” – to close.
Moments later, Mark Doty humbly acknowledged the great difficulty we writers all inevitably have when it comes to describing “what we do when we write.” To illustrate the complexity of the process, Doty then delivered this wonderful anecdote:
Years ago, when I was a guest faculty member at an eastern university, a permanent position for a writer in residence opened. I thought I should apply and they scheduled an interview for me with members of the English Department, to be followed by a reading I’d give to students, faculty, and the dean. I dressed up and appeared on time, feeling energetic about the prospect. The interview began with this statement by the chair of the group: “Did anyone tell you that the job description has changed? … We would like the person we hire to also be the head of the writing program.” I said “Oh, I can do that,” and the interview proceeded.
I thought I was taking the questions seriously and answering in reasonably particular fashion, but I was aware of something wrong. My arms had begun to itch. Both of them. I was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with the cuffs buttoned, so I couldn’t see anything, and yet as the interview proceeded I was only more and more aware that I was consumed by itch; dying of itch; that I would give up any job in the world if I could just attend to the itch.
Fortunately, the committee gave me a few minutes alone to prepare for the reading. As soon as I left the room, I unbuttoned my cuffs, yanked up my sleeves to discover that both arms were covered in hives. I had never had hives before or since.
My body announced in undeniable fashion that I did not want to direct the writing program.
We know through different channels, Doty elucidated, and we operate on multiple levels, especially when important events are going on. A poem seems alive to us, he hypothesized, when it departs from one mode and operates in another, when more than one aspect of the self – not just thinking; not just feeling – is at work or, rather, in play.
“Nagging; sight; insight; itching; pressure”: Kimiko Hahn noted that each of her fellow panelists emphasized the role of some bodily sensation in their composition processes.
After the conference was over, I reflected on that panel, and made a list of six events that had viscerally affected me and my fellow conference-goers, relating a pertinent phrase to each one. Recalling moderator Melanie Klein’s central question, “at what points in the creative process do we steer our work consciously?” I handed the wheel to those six events and phrases, converting them into a cohort of Christians, so to speak. Are You Going to Let Me In? This phrase from Greenberg, via “Writing L.A.,” would chauffer me through my opening section; then Prufrock’s question – And How Should I Begin? – would take the wheel for section two. Next, the third (and strangest) of my phrases – Visit Our Make And Go Us Let – would relate to two events: Poetry Magazine’s Prufrock Party and a panel titled There’s No “I” in “We”: Writing Creative Nonfiction About the Groups We Belong To.
Visit Our Make And Go Us Let
One further piece of advice that Doty imparted to writers struggling to get past go was to experiment with beginning at the end, composing a piece sentence-by-sentence in reverse. I have to thank Eileen Myles for my recognition that if one takes the question “Should I begin?’ and reverses the words one arrives at a declaration of intent: “Begin I should!” Myles executed that reversal at Poetry Magazine’s Prufrock Party, an off-site event at The Regent nightclub on Thursday night. If Myles did not conceive the significance of that one specific reversal that would be because, word-for-word, in reverse, to a packed Los Angeles nightclub, she recited the entirety of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in reverse. Fantastic was it and.
My finding Eileen’s reading fantastic has much to do with the answer I formed to a third and final question: how was I to begin describing AWP, Los Angeles, 2016 to and for a broader community of writers? My interest and investment in that question led me to a panel titled “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘We’: Writing Creative Nonfiction About the Groups We Belong To,” the conference program blurb for which read like this:
We all belong to groups. When we write creative nonfiction about our family, race, religion, gender, sexuality, generation, or industry, many of us struggle to balance and maintain our own first-person voice within a story that might be shared by many different people. Four writers who have navigated the tug of war between the “I” and the “We,” of various groups, discuss how to successfully write first-person narratives that tell more than just one’s own story.
Of course, the very notion of a Prufrock Party is paradoxical. On the one hand, the namesake of our party is J. Alfred, the protagonist of a poem that Eliot almost titled “Prufrock Among The Women” precisely so as to highlight the otherness (for Prufrock) of connectedness, potency, and carnal love; on the other hand, we are in the city of vice, enjoying a night that will culminate in a burlesque show-accompanied performance from female-fronted L.A.-based DIY noise pop riotgazers TULIPS. And to top it off our audience consists of introspective writers, most of whom are intimately familiar with the words of Eliot’s poem, many of whom are intimately familiar with the feelings of poor Prufrock. What better way, then, to speak to and for this community than to take those all-too-familiar, canonical phrases, then both preserve and subvert by reversing them. What better way to navigate the war between The “I” and This “Us” (including, even, the “I” of Prufrock, for whom there is no “us”) than to transform Prufrock’s impotent and isolated drama of literary anguish into a jubilantly communal literary romp.
Poets & writers, should we begin?
Begin we should, writers & poets!
Visit our make and go us let!
I’m An Interesting Human Too
“I’m an interesting human too.” This assertion by the founder, curator, and host of the LIC (Long Island City) Reading Series, Catherine LaSota, struck me and stuck with me, prompting an itch beneath my sleeves, so to speak, to which I felt compelled to attend from thereon out. I had not intended to write about LaSota’s panel, titled “The Art of the Literary Interview,” my task being to somehow convey the communal experience of AWP, and that panel being – I thought – too idiosyncratic, appealing not to poets and writers in general, but to me qua host of Back to the City: Minneapolis Music Conversation, my Minnesota-based radio show and podcast series. As LaSota stressed the value of asking “what special thing is going to happen when these particular people” – interviewer and interviewee – “come together,” it struck me that her reflections were, in fact, directly relevant to my task of composing this piece. Following that intuition, I allowed myself to attend and report on a panel of even less general interest, one quite adeptly moderated by In the Margins’ Abigail Browning concerning literary podcasts. Some special things resulted from my allowing myself that liberty.
AWP’s a Ponzi Scheme
Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be writers
Coz AWP’s a Ponzi scheme to me.
These lines are from a wonderfully humorous literary rendition of Ed Bruce’s “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” written and recorded by Benjamin Percy (author of The Dead Lands) for the inaugural episode of one of our finest literary podcasts, Ampersand.
Not too long after the release of Ampersand’s sixth episode, Poets & Writers editor in chief Kevin Larimer found himself in the company of Abigail Browning and Book Fight Podcast’s Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister on a panel concerning the rise of the literary podcast genre and what mistakes to avoid in one’s first year of starting a podcast. I was expecting this panel to be quite applicable to my Minnesota music podcast project, which is in its first year. I could not have possibly predicted the degree to which it turned out to be so.
At one point, when asked who listens to Book Fight, Ingram and McAllister retorted “a lot of Midwest librarians, based on Twitter conversations. Minnesota – it’s cold!” And, of course, Larimer fondly encouraged those in attendance to check out the musical number that Percy had recorded for Ampersand’s inaugural episode with – it turned out – a Minnesotan band with which I am very familiar, The Bratlanders.
“In addition to The Bratlanders helping me out with the song,” Percy explained in a phone interview from Northfield, Minnesota, “Andy Flory – who is a music professor here at Carleton and also a member of a band called The Counterfactuals – was involved with the backing vocals, sound-mixing, and production.”
Up until recently, my friend Daniel Grohl, who is both the frontman of The Counterfactuals and a philosophy professor at Carleton, was the only serious academic or writer I know to just as seriously committed to music. Together, AWP, Los Angeles, 2016 and Ampersand episode one changed that dramatically.
Another guest on the episode was Mark Doty, whose reflected among other things on the increasing readiness with which young people embrace “the lexicon for understanding life” provided by poetry; Doty then added that this phenomenon is also “reflected in indie music,” where subjects again “focus on the individual and the quirky,” that is, on “one person making a mark in time” beyond the stale realm wherein subjects seem to be offered only “a slate of marketing choices.”
“I want to experience a language in which I can experience the poet’s own hand,” C.D. Wright qua regular writing contest judge informed Poets & Writers senior editor Melissa Falverno, who happened to reveal in that same episode that she too plays in a “literary rock band,” Self Help. “I want to have a sustained feeling,” Wright elaborated, echoing the Whitman-influenced musical artist Vic Chestnutt:
Everybody wants to wear the cleats
Everybody wants to be Dominique
I want to be someone separate from me
I want to have a sustained feeling.
Listening to the inaugural Ampersand episode after the conference, not only was it amusing to hear Percy characterizing the conference as a Ponzi scheme in his song; it was also revealing to hear of Percy winning a karaoke competition (and therein also a Springsteen biography) at a previous AWP, and to hear of Larimer first meeting Percy – and hearing his “distinctive voice, like a sonar” – at yet another annual meeting of our Association of Writers and Writing Programs. And suddenly it struck me that I had not yet developed sufficient “second sight” in initially attempting to narrate the general experience of AWP, for AWP is a place where multitudes of interesting individuals – people who neither want to wear the cleats nor be Dominique – come together, inducing special happenings. At its best and most essentially, AWP unites us, inciting us to poetry.
Among Artists and Writers
Among artists and writers, the urge for renewal is gaining ground.
This fragment from C.D. Wright’s “Spring & All” struck me down. The line was launched by Dana Levin, whose contribution to Incite Them to Poetry: A Reading for C.D. Wright at the Ace Hotel was a reading of this and other essays from Wright’s recent, posthumous collection The Poet, the lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All.
If any one aspect of AWP 2016 was all about the communal experience (a communal experience elicited by the absence of one dearly loved individual) it was this commemorative reading for “C.D.” In the transpersonal words of our conference’s website, “C.D. Wright, the author of over a dozen books, passed away on January 12, 2016 at her home in Barrington, Rhode Island. She was 67.” As foregrounded by one among our number, so many of us were floored by an elevator sign – “C.D. Wright, Second Floor” – which seemed to promise the impossible, and in a sense spoke the truth to and for we who would co-inhabit C.D.’s words in that shared space. In Wright’s words we shared a world.
In a Word,
I like nouns that go up: loft. And ones that sink: mud. I like ones that peck: chicken. And canter: canter. Those that comfort: flannel and pelt. Cell is an excellent word, in that it sweetly fulfills it assigned sound in a small, thin container. Unlike hell, which is disappointing. Overall. Wanting in force and fury. I like that a lone syllable names a necessary thing: bridge, house, door, food, bed. And the ones that sustain us: dirt, milk, and so on. What a thing, that a syllable – birth, time, space, death – points to the major mysteries with such simplicity, as with a silent finger. And to our very vital parts: head, snout, heart, butt. And our fundamental feeling: fear.
As Levin read this piece, I cannot have been alone in fixating on one of those silent, finger-pointing syllables – death – but at this event intended to celebrate C.D.’s life and legacy I was also not the only one incited to poetry (and therein life, and therein liberty) by so many of Wright’s other, world-forging phrases and words, phrases and words including these:
“Poetry is a necessity of life.”
“It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.”
“I want to experience a sustained feeling.”
“Among artists and writers, the urge for renewal is gaining ground.”
Among artists and writers – whether it be on the couches by the convention center’s entrance, outside the Ace hotel, inside the Marriott bar, or in all of these places – friendships and collaborative plans were formed, at this conference just as at any other. Personally, I experienced a range of sustained feelings and found myself leaving L.A. with a number of new, unanticipated intention: from hosting an AWP, Los Angeles, 2016 special of my radio show, Back to the City, featuring Prufrock Party headliners TULIPS and poet / songwriter Laura Minor, to tentatively planning to co-host with Dana Levin a hotel bar-based off-site AWP podcast at Washington 2017.
And so it was as C.D. knew it would be: that among artists and writers all kinds of urges – for renewal; for freedom; for connection – gained ground. And so in the city of angels the radio plays and Steve Miller cinematically sings “I’ve been thinking about my home … and I feel like it’s all been done … You know I’ve got to be movin’ on.”
Another car merges into traffic. Another driver expresses her gratitude.
Are you going to let me in?
The radio plays.
About the Author:
Simon Calder is a British university lecturer, music writer, music radio host, and musician based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.