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, and will be sharing attendees’ thoughts over the next week or so.
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.