AWP Through a First Timer’s Kaleidoscope


by Calliope Michail

Friday, March 22nd

I’ll begin at the beginning of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) instigated adventure. Today we had to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch our 10-hour flight to Seattle. Russell, Berfrois and Queen Mobs Teahouse editor and Twitterer extraordinaire, did not want to sit next to me, because he thought I would sketch him. So I slept in my seat while he read soggy newspapers from his first water spill of the day, a safe distance of 10 rows away.

We arrived in Seattle, where Russell discovered a burgeoning toothache. I was to blame, because I had apparently neglected to give him the toothpaste I’d promised him before succumbing to my hibernation. We couldn’t dwell on that, however, because we had to find our way to Portland. We considered walking, after finding out that all the trains were booked for the day. Arriving in Portland on a last-minute Greyhound, my aunt and cousin picked us up and we got some much needed rest.

Monday, March 25th

The toothache persists. The combined efforts of my family and fellow Portland local, Joe Linker, could not get Russell an appointment at the dentist. Who could, you ask? Shuwei, 4,910 miles away.

Wednesday, March 27th

The toothache subsides with the help of antibiotics. I feel a toothache of my own coming on. Sympathy pains. Or maybe just psychosomatic pangs from a premonition of how overwhelming the sheer magnitude of this event appears to be, as we walk through the empty bookfair hall to register on the eve of the first day. A sea of white tables and partitions, with large signs hanging from the ceiling marking the aisles for over 700 exhibitors, holds its breath.

Thursday, March 28th – Saturday 30th 

At this point, linearity crumbles and my memory of the next three days morphs into a kaleidoscopic mesh of panel discussions, independent press stands, offsite readings, books, writers and poets.

The program we got in our complimentary tote was a thick book filled with descriptions of the different panels and readings (as well as a plethora of MFA ads – who knew there are so many). Topics ranged from genre specific to interdisciplinary, to discussions on gender, race, LBTQ+, the occult, translation, art, place… and the list goes on and on, with all the intersections you could hope for. I felt like a kid in a candy shop; excited, overwhelmed, and fully aware that I couldn’t possibly get my hands on all the candy. With about 35 panels per slot, six times a day, and the bookfair happening concurrently, there was only so much one could do.

I spent most of my time at the Berfrois and QMT table, chatting with fellow past contributors who were kind enough spend a couple hours selling books and donning our eye-catching ornithic mascot which Russell had rescued from one of Portland’s many vintage shops for the occasion. Passers-by were intrigued by the large yellow chicken head, lured over by the tub of red-vines, and stuck around for the books and, as someone put it, our “enthusiastic, somewhat intense, selling techniques.” Russell got frequent compliments on his “exotic” British accent and I became well-versed in explaining what the obscure name ‘Berfrois’ means.

With Joe Linker we talked about the mellifluously named Alma Lolloon, the titular character of one of his books, and our mutual love for Portland’s Bipartisan Café. Dorothy Chan brought her infectious energy to the table along with her two new poetry collections, which left us feeling ravenous! Teresa K. Miller awakened my wanderlust with her pictures and tales of cave explorations in Southeast Asia. S. Cearley, with his enigmatic magnifying spectacle extensions, brought what I dubbed his “dancing words,” which are beautiful concrete poetry that he creates through a computer program he’s designed. But even at an event so big, the writing world once again proves to be a small one, for when I came to the booth to relieve Mary-Kim Arnold from her book signing shift– who, by the way, has written a beautiful poetic essay book called The Litany for a Long Moment, about her search for her birth mother in South Korea, which opens up an exploration of so much more through the tethers of a lost language, memory and identity – I saw her chatting with Adrianne Kalfopoulou, poet and Creative Writing professor whom I know from my hometown Athens, Greece. We discussed the intricacies of autobiographical writing and finding the balance between reality and imagination, especially where memory and narrative are involved. I was then whisked off by veteran AWP attendee, Adrianne, to see some of her favourite presses, including Graywolf and Red Hen Press.

As I perused the bookfair – or, more like jogged through it in order to take in as much as possible – I spotted San Francisco based Kelsey St. Press, which holds an almost mythic status in my mind as one of the independent publishers of some of my favourite experimental poets (including Rosemarie Waldrop, Barbara Guest, Karen Brodine, and more), as well as one of the early presses to blend art and poetry through beautiful books born of artist/poet collaborations. Hazel White, one of the poets of the press, spoke to me about her work, which fuses her background as a landscape writer with experimental poetics, negotiating the intersections of architecture, nature, and our place within spaces.

One of the panels I attended was “Image and Text: Crossing Media, Crossing Genre.” Jena Osman presented some of her poetic and essayistic research, with fascinating slides of woodcut illustrations from various 19th Century sources, including La Méthode graphique dans les sciences expérimentales by Etienne-Jules Marey, published in 1878. The overarching interrogation centred upon the illusion of authority that pictures lend to an event and text lends to images, which can lead to “troubling essentialisms”. Joanna Luloff talked about photography in relation to memory and reality, and the contradictory nature of photographs, viewed as fixed and reliable evidence whereas, as Barthes puts it, they are more of a “modest, shared hallucination,” that can even lend itself to the borrowing of other people’s memories. As someone with a terrible memory, I know I rely on photographs to jog it, and have made my peace with the “fear that photographs may replace memory” (Luloff quoting Sontag). Matthea Harvey shared her fascination with clouds, her research into Luke Howard’s cloud taxonomy and her own playful “Nubes Kardashianums” taxonomy, which consists of taking polaroids of every cloud that appears in Keeping up with the Kardashians (including objects that aren’t clouds, but look like them, i.e. a dog, or reflections of clouds in Kourtney’s sunglasses, etc.).

Back at the table, I spotted book artist Barbara Tetenbaum, with whom I’d taken a book arts workshop about four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, during an Artist Books fair, and leaped out of my seat as she was walking past. She told me the sad news about the Oregon College of Art and Craft shutting down – a great plight to the art and craft community – and her and her colleagues’ struggle to ensure that the beautiful and expensive equipment acquired over the years remain accessible in some form to the public and future generations of students and practitioners. I wished her the best of luck, and hope to see her efforts pay off.

In my gallop through the fair, I discovered a new press, which caught my attention with its punk-rock aesthetic and distinctive book covers. King Shot Press “is a radical publishing house that’s flavoured kinda like a blend of ‘80s hardcore records, goth existentialism, Gucci Mane, and monster movies.” I can’t put it better than their own website does. I picked up a book and saw that the press insignia had Athens & Portland written in it. Upon enquiring, I found out that Michael, the publisher, is half Greek, half Portlandian, and enthusiastically encouraged them to do an event in Athens. We were soon joined by his partner in crime, Tiffany, who represents the Xicanx side of the Press, and I was thrilled at the coincidence of finding all three major parts of my heritage bundled up into one badass press.

Being bilingual, translation has always been a point of interest to me, so I attended a panel titled, “Translation as the Art of Reincarnation.” Translation is a metaphor of the essence of a text; and I liked the image of translation as a reincarnation, as texts take on “the fragrance and texture of new skins in their new language.” There’s something very corporeal and metaphysical at the same time about this metaphor, and as I thought about it more, I spiralled into a web of metaphors – translation taking on new skins all around me, beyond texts and language. Moderator Helene Cardona quoted Rushdie: “Having been borne across the world, we are translated men” [and women. – and women, Rushdie, come on] “It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” Jen Kwon Dobbs brought up a topic I used to grapple with: “the migrant writer feels guilty… the ultimate betrayal is to write in a foreign language,” she said, speaking of her experience writing in English instead of Korean, but that translation can function as “a homecoming, a reconciliation.” She also spoke of the liberating beauty of mistranslations, which create “generative errors” and “a third space for the half-formed.” She supported the writer/translator’s right to “conserve all ways of writing with language’s materiality, even if doing so offends a native ethnonational idea of language.” After all, the general consensus in the room echoed Octavio Paz in that “every translation is an original, every original is a translation.”

One of the offsite readings we went to was hosted by Red Hen Press at Cider Riot, where the reading took place in a chilly back room that doubled as the storage space for the cidery’s locally sourced and brewed ciders. The readings by the Red Hen authors and poets were varied in theme and style which made for a highly enjoyable night. I took notes during the readings, thinking they would spark my memory down the line, but all I have is a few scattered lines from different writers. So, here’s an amalgamated found poem of the night:

Forbidden to walk ruins
When I was six, I stole a Barbie
The feeling has to be authentic
but the story can be made up
The wing walker of Hollywood
Everyone thinks poems are autobiographical
Fill the cavity with crumbs
How am I myself when I keep on disappearing
It’s a texture thing

The new poet laureate of Oregon, Kim Stafford, also read on the night and quoted Elizabeth Woody, his predecessor and Oregon’s first Native American poet laureate, saying: “The more I do poetry, the less it is about what the poem is and the more it is about who the poem serves.” On my bus ride home that night, I mull over this moral/artistic conundrum, which informs or affects much of the poetry I enjoy. A line by Marco Antonio Huerta, one of the panellists from a panel I’d briefly dropped in on earlier in the day comprised of writer-translators from Azerbaijan, Mexico, Pakistan and Uruguay, pops into my head: “Why do I have to think about sovereignty when I’m having sex?”

On the final day, after selling almost all the books at our table, we packed up what remained along with all the books we’d bought and swapped for, grabbed chicken head by his grubby synthetic plumes and left the Oregon Convention Centre for the last time. We celebrated a successful AWP with an offsite reading at which Queen Mobs poets read to a full house, alongside poets from Be About It Press and Yes, Poetry/Operating System at a stripped back house in Alberta, with a very Portland-esque DIY vibe. Portland happens to be my mom’s hometown, so in honour of a few of my family members who were there, I read a poem about my grandmother. It was the first time I’d read in front of family, and the experience of reading a poem that draws on our shared familial history to my aunt, for example, who’d experienced first-hand some of the references I only know through stories, made me think of some of the conversations I’d had with fellow poets the past couple of days on writing through memory, biography and autobiography. After the readings concluded, poets chatted and mingled with beers in hand and I eventually said my goodbyes to Simon and Russell, who would continue their literary escapades in Minneapolis. Russell’s toothache had subsided significantly, in case you were wondering.

What is the AWP? Much like a Tarot reading – with tarot, witchcraft and the occult experiencing a noticeable resurgence in popularity, as noted by Simon Calder in his mystical journey through the conference and bookfair – it is unlikely you will get the same configuration of cards as the next person. As a first timer, it was a great opportunity to discover new writers and presses as well as meet people from the ever-growing web of virtual acquaintances that gather predominantly in the Twittersphere. Writing can be a solitary affair and I think these kinds of events can bring out an array of emotions: on the one hand, a nagging feeling of not doing enough spurred on by an amplified awareness of the commodification of writing into an industry that is governed by the politics and capitalist drives of any other; and on the other hand, a sense of community, the exchange of ideas, knowledge and human experience, and the motivation to keep exploring, both as a reader and a writer.


About the Author:

Calliope Michail is a London-based poet and translator. Her first collection of poems, Along Mosaic Roads, was published in 2018 by The 87 Press.