In February 2017, the RCAH Center for Poetry staff made the trek to Washington, D.C. for AWP. We thought the trip was worthy of some reflection. Edited 5/8/17 to include additional reflections.
Day one: Director Anita Skeen leads the way into the vastness that is the AWP Bookfair. See more snapshots of the adventure on Instagram.
Anita Skeen, Director, RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU
This February was the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU’s first excursion to the Associated Writing Programs Conference (AWP) in Washington, D.C. I have gone many, many times in all my years of teaching but this was the first time I went with five of the six interns from the Poetry Center: Grace Carras, Erin Lammers, Sydney Meadowcroft, Sarah Teppen, and Arzelia Williams. The original plan was for all 8 of us to go, but Laurie Hollinger, the assistant director, was laid low by the flu a few days before we were to leave and Alexis Stark had a commitment with her honor fraternity the weekend of the conference. But they were with us in spirit. Without all the logistical arrangements Laurie had made for us—hotel rooms, registration, rental car, etc.—and Alexis’ box of goodies she packed for us on the trip—fruit snacks, applesauce, cereal, granola bars—things wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. We had financial help for the interns from Lizzy King, the assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Research, and Dean Steve Esquith who paid our transportation costs. Lori Lancour in the RCAH office was wonderful in suggesting avenues for additional funding and when February 8, 2017 rolled around, we had everything we needed to set out on our 10-hour drive to the nation’s capitol. Spirits were high as we sang and ate our way through four states. I was a little worried about driving into D.C. at rush hour and not knowing exactly where our hotel was, but then I realized I had five people in the car under the age of 22 all of whom had navigational devices in their pockets. We would be just fine.
It’s hard to explain to someone who has never attended AWP what it’s like for three days. With 30-35 sessions in every time slot beginning at 9:00 in the morning and ending at 6:00 at night (and then there are the evening events which run from 8:30 until midnight), there’s a real danger for intellectual, emotional, and physical overload. Several weeks before AWP, individuals who have attended the conference before post on their blogs and websites “How to do AWP.” The advice includes everything from “DO NOT try to do everything,” to where the nearby Starbucks are, from what tables at the Bookfair are “musts” to stop at, to what restaurants are where and, this year, where and when the protests would be held. I’ve been attending AWP since 1974 when, I believe, the conference was held in Kansas City and had 300 people in attendance and I still have never learned how not to be overwhelmed. Sessions I attended this year that were particularly meaningful were ones that focused on social justice and activism in the literary community; writing about place; recovering neglected poets; the poem as invocation, the poem as persona; crafting the feminist historical lyric; rural America in contemporary literature; and the importance and power of the work of Adrienne Rich. That last one left me in tears. The keynote address on Thursday night by Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Teheran, was powerful, political and personal in extraordinary ways. Readings by Sonia Sanchez, Ocean Vuong, Terrence Hayes, Rita Dove, and Eileen Myles reminded me why I do what I do, why I write what I write, why we need so many writers to remind us, in the words of Audre Lorde, that poetry is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
Finally, I have to reflect on what it was like to be with these five young, bright, energetic, funny, highly-motivated women who were wide-eyed and breathless about what they were experiencing. They attended such a cross-section of sessions from those focusing on social justice and activism, translation, minority writers, publishing, community engagement, literary history, spoken word art and just about every other content area offered. They wandered the Bookfair finding treasures (let me say there were over 900 tables at the Bookfair), getting writers to sign books they had purchased, and spreading the word about the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and our new Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Series. I asked them to compile a list of writers whom they heard or met that they thought might be possibilities for visiting writers to the Poetry Center or for Wednesday Night Live. Their lists were epic, and I am sure will result in having some writers come to the Poetry Center whom we might not have known about had the interns not attended the conference. Above all, I watched their excitement about literature and its power, about ways of taking poetry out of the academy and into the community, about what it was like to be in the middle of 12,000 people all of whom cared about language, about diversity, about the necessity for free speech and for everyone’s voice to be heard and valued.
It took the work of a village to get us to AWP. We saw the critical and necessary work of a village as we participated in AWP. Now it is our job to help our village grow and thrive.
AWP 2017: A New Love for Literature
Arzelia Williams, Intern: MSU Arts & Humanities/Social Relations & Policy Sophomore
Everyone told me as a first time attendee to AWP, it is not wise to try to do everything in three days. When I walked into the Convention Center and saw giant signs with a directory listing of panels before making my way to the escalator leading me to the largest collection of books I have even seen outside of a library, I knew I would try to do everything anyway.
I wondered how many times on Thursday morning after my first panel whether or not my responsibility was to be an activist first and an artist second or reverse order. It was Eleanor Wilner during the panel that said “my mind is a dog without a master.” This reminded me that my art is freeing and speaks of truth. Even if that truth disrupts another fantasy. She reminded everyone of how Robert Hayden refused to call himself a black poet even if his poems were soaked in the meaning of being black. This encouraged me to question the meaning of blackness within my own art. Her words resonated with me. “The proof is always in the poem. It is then the poem may serve without being service literature.”
My favorite panel that I accidentally stumbled upon was “When a Poet and a Cartoonist Walk into a Bar: Collaborating Across Genres.” When reading it in the program book and looking at the title, I made the assumption that the panel would be focused primarily on animation. I was surely wrong. A poet and artist by the name of Jonah Mixon-Webster created a soundtrack of black laughter. He summarizes the project with “the sound of black joy is a pollutant to those who historically hate it.” This audio track was influenced by a 2015 incident on the Napa Valley Wine Train in which a black women’s book club was booted from the train after being accused of laughing too loudly. The ways in which we intersect poetry with other art forms to create a finished piece or collection is fascinating. He mentioned the process to create the project involved approximately 32 hours of audio recording to create a ten-minute clip. The way in which we are influenced by the things we hear and see transforms poetry into non-traditional works of art.
Overall, the most distinct part of AWP I remember most was the people I went with. Too often we see each other in the Poetry Center, at events, or passing by in the hallway but we rarely get to sit down and share stories with each other. All of us attended different panels that matched our own interests and we would share the best part of our day over dinner during our time at AWP. It provided an opportunity for me to get to know the other interns better, resulting in us becoming closer.
Community, Activism, and Empowerment: AWP 2017
Sydney Meadowcroft, Intern: MSU Arts & Humanites (m. Sociology) Senior
Community and activism were everywhere you looked at this year’s AWP conference. Although this was my first time attending the conference, and I had no frame of reference for the atmosphere of previous events, it was clear there was something in the air this year. Just blocks from the White House and Capitol Hill, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was abuzz with writers and readers eager to discuss how their craft can fit into and affect the contentious political and cultural atmosphere. The sessions were proposed and planned almost a year ago, but each I attended seemed to have taken on a new life, fueled by passion to stand up for human rights, equality, inclusion, and the arts.
For my fellow interns and me, AWP was an important form of self-directed and self-motivated education. Once we set foot into the convention center, we were set loose to explore, choose sessions to attend, wander the book fair, and essentially do as we pleased from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nothing but our commitment to the Center for Poetry and our paid registration fee really held us to absorbing all the knowledge we did. But all of us dove in head first to sessions close to the length of a typical college class, but that felt like a distinguished privilege to witness. Although some of us were a bit too eager and drained our mental and physical energy during the first day, we took advantage of all the knowledge and passion the presenters were pouring out across the vast convention center.
As a white, straight, cisgender female, I felt a pull to attend sessions outside of my own (largely privileged) identities, and learn from people working to make their voices heard and make room for others to do the same. I attended a panel discussion on how to write with or against your identity and how activism should play into your art. I listened as trans and gender non-conforming writers read their writing and expressed their experiences. However, I also let myself be drawn to events that spoke to my identities and interests, listening to messages of female empowerment, discussions of environmentalism in writing, and even analysis of “Hamilton: An American Musical” and its dealings with race, history, and the relationship between poetry and hip hop. Finding the balance of pursuing my own passions and learning about those of others was important to me in having an educational and successful AWP. As I listened to the wonderful experiences of my fellow interns as we shared highlights at dinner each night, I found myself wishing I had Hermione Granger’s time turner, or some kind of ability to spread myself at multiple events at once. There was so much to absorb and learn on such a variety of topics.
This atmosphere of many creative people coming together under a love of writing and reading, yet discussing so many different topics, reminded me a lot of the community in the RCAH. Although we study in and are passionate about so many different fields, we come together over a curiosity about the world and everything it has to offer. You will scarcely find an RCAH community member who isn’t interested in what you’re passionate about, even if their passions differ widely from yours. The same was true for AWP. Everyone was there to learn and share, to expand their knowledge and to come together to defend their right to speak out for their passions and values.
Our AWP experience (besides the night’s dance party and the 10 hour drive home) concluded in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Saturday night. Hundreds of AWP attendees gathered there for a candlelight vigil in support of free speech. Although it was difficult to hear the speakers on the makeshift sound system, just being there in solidarity was powerful enough for me. I enjoyed simply staring at the flickering of my candle, watching the strange and beautiful shapes the wax made as it melted and tumbled on top of itself. As I stared I tried to come up with a metaphor for the wax, but nothing came to me. But that was okay; I realized I needed that moment to just enjoy the beauty of the phenomena, along with the beauty of so many people coming together to defend their rights and what they’re passionate about.
There are countless beautiful moments I wish I had time and space to write about, from jokes and deep political discussions with my fellow interns, to witnessing two attendees who had just met shower each other with compliments and empowerment, to seeing Sarah Kay read again after discovering her at Wednesday Night Live as an RCAH freshman. The experience of AWP was greater and more valuable than I can describe. It felt like the first push of a send off into that ever-closer looming “real world” I will step into come May, both exhilarating and terrifying. Weeks later, I’m still struggling with that candle metaphor, but AWP taught me that what’s important is that I’m still trying; still fighting to express myself and explore my passions.
Excitement + Exhilaration + Exhaustion = Excellent Experience
Erin Lammers, Intern; MSU Arts & Humanities/History senior
Though it’s been almost two months since we attended AWP in Washington, DC, I’m still struggling to put the experience into words and tangible moments. One aspect of the trip overall that most of us agree on is that none of us were prepared for the wonderful monstrosity that is AWP. We were excited to visit DC—the first time, for some of us—we were excited to get to know each other better, and we were excited to gain further insight into the intent and impact of poetry. Little did I know how relevant every single instant would be to redefining and affirming my conceptions of writing, poetry, narrative building, and community engagement.
By simply browsing the panel options offered during each time slot throughout each of the three days, we inferred stark differences in academic and literary interest. This disparity was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed us to attend as many diverse discussions as possible. At the end of every day, we chatted over dinner about which sessions we attended, which speakers were worthwhile, and what we took away from some of the best panels. The first day, I felt like my head might explode from the sheer weight of new ideas and ways of conceptualizing writing; I attended six and a half sessions, and I was exhausted. I was exhilarated, but exhausted. Most of the panels that I attended ran along a similar theme: community building, accessible material, and inclusive practices. While the entire conference was not solely about poetry, almost half of the sessions that I went to addressed or incorporated poetry in some way, which surprised and impressed me. These academic-influenced combinations of literary activism with the importance of poetry – especially spoken word – provided reassurance that the aspirations I have after college are indeed possible. Furthermore, many of the collaborative and inclusive tools and suggestions shared also stimulated new ideas for community/outreach events and programs related to my work in museums, where public enrichment and engagement is vital.
Prior to arriving in DC, I had laid out extensive schedules for every day of the conference, but on the second and third days, I had spontaneously altered my day plan. On the second day, I made the mistake (or happy accident, depending on how you look at it) of wandering into the book fair, which consisted of over 900 booths and tables. I was both overwhelmed and enthralled, given that fabulous and intriguing books of poetry and fiction sprawled endlessly, along with just as many interesting people visiting and hosting the booths. Overall, I would argue that most attendees of the conference—presenters, panelists, booth operators, and average visitors—were welcoming, positive, and engaging professionals willing to discuss important, complex topics raised throughout the conference. What further surprised me was the range of professions and interests that people ascribed to, and how these differences provided a plethora of platforms for learning and knowledge exchange. Being an undergraduate student, I found that every session I attended was not only accessible, but relevant to my work within and outside of the Center for Poetry. The applicability of various ideologies and practices to the fields of history, museum work, and community-based non-profit organizations is just one among many immeasurable benefits of experiencing AWP.
I will count attending the AWP conference as a representative from the Center for Poetry, RCAH, and MSU as one of the high points in an already spectacularly fulfilling and opportunity-laden academic year. Not only did conference staff, presenters, panelists, writers, and other attendees establish and reinforce RCAH principles of learning and engagement, but they were also welcoming and encouraging. AWP strove to create an intellectually and compassionately uninhibited atmosphere to confront complex, systemic societal issues alongside contemporary concerns, and why and how they affect all of us. More importantly, it is so imperative that these narratives are recognized and told, specifically from their own perspectives, and that writing – poetry especially – provides a sometimes painful, usually beautiful, and always necessary way to experience the world.