Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

Of the thousands of attendees, each likely had an agenda as varied as the lineup, which included around 550 events, 2,000 presenters, and more than 800 presses, journals, and literary organizations from around the world, plus hundreds of off-site offerings. Suffice to say that Portland was abuzz with literary types and even if you weren’t aware of the conference, you may have found yourself wandering, unbeknownst, into the middle of a reading at a restaurant, coffee shop, or other venue around town.

I had the privilege of accompanying one of my all-time favorite writers, a cherished friend who also happened to be a featured reader and panelist—the poet, short story writer, and essayist Tess Gallagher, whose latest book of poems, Is, Is Not, will be released by Graywolf Press in May. (No, this is not a plug for her book. Yes, do yourself a favor and find this book!) She and her nephew, Caleb Barber, who is also a poet and an ultra-distance runner, ventured from Northwest Washington and landed in Portland on Wednesday, helping me to see the conference as both a home-towner and as a visitor.

A few things about that: Portland boasts a plethora of friendly and artistic Lyft drivers. We met a painter, a photographer and a guitarist who shared a passionate appreciation of the singer and songwriter Mississippi John Hurt.   If you’re in the mood for a stroll and the weather is fair, the walk from the convention center to downtown, especially amidst the blooming cherry blossoms, must have inspired at least a dozen or two poems during the conference, and when one needs food, it’s almost as if hunger itself can conjure a decent place to eat. Seeing our city anew enhanced the event, and braving the maelstrom of the convention center with a writer like Tess, who has lived the writer’s life so richly, quadrupled the pleasure of it. My luck at palling around with such a beloved sidekick is also worth mentioning because writers seem to accumulate writers in their lives, and an added joy was meeting some whom Tess has fostered and some with whom she has blazed the trail. Ah, my very fine fortune to travel with Tess!

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BUT, BACK TO CHICKENS—and what do chickens have to do with anything? Only that they offer as good a place to start as any.

Beth Van Hoesen, “Boris,” 1981, color aquatint, etching, and drypoint with roulette, hand colored with watercolor on moderately thick, moderately textured white wove paper. Portland Art Museum; Gift of the E. Mark Adams and Beth Van Hoesen Adams Trust.

Whitehead’s keynote address, careening and so of the times, offered some tasty writing advice, sprinkled with a dose of inspiration, simmered in juicy commentary, all masterfully crafted as a meditation on a decade of his trying out various chicken recipes and the lessons they’ve taught him.

Whitehead, whose 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, was funny, but not to be underestimated. Buried within his speech, some acute and undoubtedly hard-earned insights crackled, “I usually spend Thursday nights at home in my apartment, weeping over my regrets,he began, “so this is a nice change of pace.” He seemed reluctant to get at the pedagogy too overtly, yet the good tips were still plentiful. “Tackle the story you don’t know how to write,” for example. Or, for any writer who feels stifled by an MFA program: “Think of the workshop as a laboratory of failure.” Finally—someone said it!

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Eli Dapolonia, Katherine Dunn’s son, speaking at the AWP off-site celebration of the the posthumous release of her book “On Cussing,” at the Urban Studio in Northwest Portland. ArtsWatch photo

I COULDN’T HELP BUT WONDER what Portland’s own Katherine Dunn, the late author of Geek Love, would’ve made of the speech. I should have asked Debra Gwartney what she thought. Gwartney helped to champion publication of Dunn’s lecture “On Cussing: Bad Words and Creative Cursing” posthumously (it’s just been released, with a foreword by her friend and filmmaker Gus Van Sant, in an edition by Tin House Books, distributed by W.W. Norton & Company), and she colorfully brought Dunn’s essence into the room in a panel discussion on Saturday as a one-in-a-million Portland original who could turn a phrase to a sublime tilt, smoked hand-rolled cigarettes she kept in an Altoid tin, and never shied away from a fight or from championing the work of the creatives around town who were lucky enough to know her.

“She believed in facing the world with her elbows out,” Gwartney said of Dunn, and her love of her friend, how the relationships we craft in the writing world matter even more than the writing itself, struck a deep chord.  I think Dunn would have been delighted as Whitehead employed several well-placed f-bombs. His most straightforward advice went something like this: Write anything you want, just don’t “eff” it up. On cultural appropriation: “If it tastes like shit, it’s cultural appropriation. If you pull it off, it’s good eatin’!” The last time a speech felt this fresh to me was David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address, delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, and Whitehead’s speech at times seemed aimed at the same demographic. “You have to keep working to transcend your bad programming,” he said. “College kids are supposed to be annoying …. use your empathy and intelligence to get it right.” It seemed a perfect way to kick off the AWP, and I have been feeling sorry for chickens, but inspired to write better, ever since.

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MY OFFICIAL KICK-OFF, however, came the evening before, when we attended a lively event at the Ace Hotel in celebration of Graywolf Press’s 45th year, an astonishing achievement for one of the nation’s most respected nonprofit literary publishers, whose humble beginnings can be traced back to the Pacific Northwest in Port Townsend, Washington.

Gallagher, who was being honored as the press’s very first author (her groundbreaking 1976 book of poetry, Instructions to the Double), recounted how Graywolf’s founder, Scott Walker, hand-set and hand-printed every page. That book’s original printing saw fifteen hundred copies, which sold out quickly. The printing was then off-sited, and sales reached 18,000 in no time.

Under the leadership of Fiona McCrae, who celebrates her 25th year as director and publisher, the press continues to thrive, and given the atmosphere in the Ace Hotel and the commemoration of two beloved Graywolf poets who passed away this past year, Linda Gregg and Tony Hoagland, the literary world shrunk briefly into something beautiful and intimate, almost familial.

“Portland, you’re amazing – and, yes, caught us a little off guard with our highest number of attendees in a couple of years,” organizers wrote on the conference Facebook page. “Thanks for making it through these epic lines today!” AWP photo

That shrinking feeling didn’t last long. The next day brought us face-to-face with the mighty book fair and a registration line that seemed to end somewhere in Gresham. I can only imagine the number of people who missed panels, or arrived late, as they fussed with slow computers and thousands of other people. To be fair, I left in awe that such an event could be carried off as relatively seamlessly as it was, and I did note that accommodations for conference attendees with disabilities seemed well-considered this year, an important response to what I had read was a difficulty at last year’s event in Tampa, Florida. Conference organizers even provided a lactation suite, yoga, a quiet space to decompress, and a sober AWP meeting to kick off the morning (and maybe even one in the evening, too).

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BACK TO THE BOOK FAIR: I know some folks who didn’t leave the book fair once they arrived. I am not suggesting that they didn’t make it out alive, just that their experience, for one reason or another, kept them tethered to a table and unable to get away for any panel discussions or readings. If one must be stuck somewhere, though, assuming agoraphobia or poor cell phone reception is not an obstacle, it wouldn’t have been such a bad place to be stuck. For those of you who are considering attending next year’s conference in San Antonio and want to stock your shelves, I picked up a handy bit of advice: Visit the book fair late on Saturday, when no one wants to slog unpurchased books back home and everyone’s happy to barter.

Browsing at the book fair, which was open all conference long. AWP photo

While my friend was ensconced in her book-signing, I decided to chat up an Oregonian with an inspiring tale about how a tiny press based at Chemeketa Community College, near Salem, has saved students roughly $2 million in the past few years.

Steve Richardson of Chemeketa Press. Photo by Danielle Vermette

With a lifelong dream and a staff of four, longtime creative writing professor and managing editor Steve Richardson discovered a need and filled it. Chemeketa Press creates textbooks to be used in the school’s own classrooms. Not only does this offer professional development opportunities for the professors, it also rallies the students to become part of the generative process for the textbooks. Given the weighty cost of education, the idea of creating books that students can purchase at a fraction of the usual cost, and that are “alive” and vital to a particular subject and tailored to the needs of the students’ classes, struck me as genius. Steve joked that when he proposed it, and its hefty price tag, “it was the first time an administrator ever said yes to me!” The concept seemed practical and revolutionary, and it will be fascinating to follow the press’s progress. Bravo to Chemeketa Press.

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THE BOOK FAIR CAN BE THOUGHT OF as the conference’s veins and arteries, but the events are really the heart of the thing. They follow three tracks—panel, pedagogy, and reading, although most offerings contained a little of each, as did the large featured events in the evening in the Portland Ballroom or the Oregon Ballroom on the upstairs level of the convention center. I enjoyed all of the events, but some highlights will follow.

As is so often the case, unexpected twists and turns added flavor and dimension. This was certainly the case with Poetry Northwest’s 60th Anniversary Reading. The oldest continuing literary magazine in the Pacific Northwest, it was first published in June, 1959, and its history is illustrious. It began with an original editorial team consisting of Richard Hugo, Carolyn Kizer, Edith Shiffert, Nelson Bentley, and Errol Pritchard. Prior to her founding of the literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts, Carolyn Kizer was the sole selecting editor of the magazine, until 1966. David Wagoner then began his 36-year tenure.

Kevin Craft kicked things off at the 60th anniversary celebration by reading Linda Gregg’s poem “Prayer,” and then introduced the Seattle poet Sierra Nelson, whose collection The Lachrymose Report is the debut book of the new publishing arm of Poetry NW. Nelson gave a lovely reading (peppered with some audience call-and-response and a moment of a cappella), as did Supritah Rajan, who read from a collection called Fabula. Things seemed to be going pretty well according to plan. Eric McHenry, the Poet Laureate Emeritus of Kansas, author of the collection Odd Evening, and a late addition to the panel, delighted the audience with his Jimmy Stewartesque charm and some truly funny and poignant (and even rhyming!) poems, including an especially memorable one about the skyjacker D.B. Cooper.

But it was Olena Kalytiak Davis, a poet from Anchorage, Alaska, and author of four collections, including The Poems She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, who pulled back the editor-author curtain for a sublime moment when she announced in earnest that, despite being “a notorious poetry hater,” she was able to fulfill the “assignment” Kevin had given her and find something from the archives to read—something she actually liked, even though she hates doing assignments. Oh, the moment was funny. She managed a terrific reading from the magazine’s archives. It went so well, in fact, that we didn’t get to hear any of her own poems before the session ran out of time. The Poetry NW archives are available online, by the way, and are an enormous gift for people who, unlike Davis, actually love poems.

Sign of the times (and the conference). Photo by Danielle Vermette

We also caught a reading that celebrated 45 years of the only-one-of-its-kind journal, The Sun, aptly titled Personal, Political, Provocative. It featured another surprise, with the last-minute addition of Ellen Bass, the poet and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, who happens to be a professor at the nearby Pacific University’s low residency MFA program (the same program in which Katherine Dunn taught before she died in 2016). Bass was joined by Northwest writer David James Duncan, author of multiple novels including The River Why and The Brothers K; poet John Brehm, who edited a wonderful little book that I highly recommend called Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy, and read a piece documenting Portland’s annual witnessing of the swifts at Chapman school; and award-winning novelist Susan Straight, who is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside (NOT Riverdale, she corrected Sy Safransky, the journal’s founder and editor) and author of eight novels including Highwire Moon and Between Heaven and Here.

Sy Safransky, founder and editor of The Sun. Photo by Danielle Vermette

All are frequent contributors to The Sun, and gave such engaging readings that I let their words wash over me without taking a note while immensely enjoying watching my friend take in the readings as well. Duncan offered an unforgettable read from an essay that was published in The Sun called “Cherish This Ecstasy,” about the near-extinction of the peregrine falcon, a disintegrating marriage, and an unanswered letter to one inventive Cornell ornithologist.

Safransky—who published the first issue of The Sun in January 1974—provided a highlight when he tried to visualize the scope of the readership by imaging people by the tons they represent and then translating that number of tons into an enormous herd of elephants. I have, on and off, taken a subscription to The Sun after one was gifted by a friend in my writing program, and like most of its readership, will never forget the first issue I opened. If you are looking for a great gift for a reader in your life, this group reminded me just how authentic and incalculably valuable The Sun’s contribution is to the literary conversation.

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Sarah Graefe, Ramón Esquivel: the coast is queer. Photo by Danielle Vermette

THE NEXT READINGS I’LL MENTION shared something significant—a focus on geography, exploring both external and internal landscape: identity, belonging, imagining one’s self an outsider, and how so many writers are from elsewhere, or better yet, anywhere other than the place they were born–and not by accident. The first, The Coast Is Queer: LGBTQ+ Voices from the Pacific Northwest, brought writer Kate Gray to the podium, an Oregon Book Award finalist for her 2007 book of poems, Another Sunset We Survive. Kate grew up in New England and was drawn to the West because she “needed to have my inside match my outside.” The move wasn’t an easy one: Gray recounted how the Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative Christian political-pressure group active in the 1990s, likened queerness to bestiality and pedophilia. She stuck it out, though, owing in part to her passion for rowing and the healing power of the outdoors. Eventually she felt like “I grew up with Oregon. As I got more comfortable with my inside-outside, Oregon also got more comfortable with the fact that there were a lot of queer people around.”

Playwright Ramón Esquivel, from Central Washington, read an evocative excerpt from his play ¡O Cascadia! and said that his stories “begin between spaces … I have rarely felt that I have truly belonged to any one community.” He also explained that as he began to be described as a “mid-career” writer, he felt an obligation to help other queer writers of color by claiming that identity more fully for himself.

On selecting a reading, the fiction writer and poet Carol Guess, author of more than a dozen books, chose serial killers over divorce but considered “what it means for the state and the nation to allow us to get married and then, very greedily, allow us to get divorced.” Carol also teaches at Western Washington University and collaborates frequently with other writers in interesting ways. Canadian novelist, poet and filmmaker, Michael V. Smith read some excellent poems from his book Bad Ideas and challenged me to wonder why people who identify as straight don’t often attend their queer friends’ readings. Sara Graefe, a playwright, teacher, and screenwriter based in Vancouver, B.C., introduced the other authors and read a piece from a book she edited called Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories. All the authors discussed their diverse experiences in Cascadia—the challenges, but also what sustains them.

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Dmae Roberts, Heidi W. Durrow: on growing up multiracial in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Danielle Vermette

YOU KNOW THAT DÉJÀ-VU FEELING when you walk into a room and not only recognize that you have experienced an event before, but you begin to wonder why your past or future self is reminding your now self to remember it? That’s precisely how I felt sitting in on Growing Up Mixed/Multiracial in the Pacific Northwest, a discussion that featured a panel of some mighty talented women.

Faith Adiele, a writer of two memoirs and the subject of her own fascinating PBS documentary, My Journey Home, joined Heidi Durrow, founder and executive director of the Mixed Remixed book and film festival in Los Angeles and author of the award-winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. Dmae Roberts, Portland’s two-time Peabody Award-winning writer and radio producer (among so many other things), contributed robustly to the conversation, as did the poet and playwright Lisa Marie Rollins, author of the book Other Words for Grief. The conversation was far-ranging and fascinating, covering everything from the tragic mulatto trope to how it feels to not be seen as “enough” of something to be accepted in all your complexity when you are multiracial by either group. The panelists also discussed how being multiracial informs an art practice.

Adiele grew up in rural Washington state, and pointed out that despite the high percentage of whiteness reported in the census in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, the Pacific Northwest also has a large multiracial population, offering an interesting complexity to the region and an opportunity for a nuanced discussion about what it even means to be “mixed.”

Roberts read an excerpt from The Letting Go Trilogies called “Secret Asian Woman” and confessed to wondering whether or not, when her Taiwanese mother died, “would I still be Asian?” She also discussed growing up in the Scandinavian town of Junction City, Oregon, where her brother was bullied severely, and how she spent much of her youth torn between the impulse to “pass” or to stand up and fight. When Heidi Durrow was asked if her book was semi-autobiographical, she joked that the narrator, Rachel, “was taller. She’s 5’6”!”

Lisa Marie Rollins, a black and Philippine woman born in Renton, Wash., was adopted into a conservative, evangelical Christian family in Tacoma and attended an all-white private school all the way until high school. “My experience as a multiracial child, and then young girl, and then a young woman before I moved to Southern California, was that of a multiracial body, but I am also a transracial adoptee, so my identity is less about the navigation of my two blood identities, but more about the clear racial and cultural lines that were drawn on a daily basis in my community and the world around me, over and over, in sometimes physically violent ways and the not-so-seeming violent micro-aggressive ways.” She discussed how the Pacific Northwest landscape still “sits in my bones” and continues to be about “water and haunting and secrets and somehow mixed in with the layers of the forest that are dying and living at the same time.” She read from her play Token, and talked about the “shadow selves,” including a young girl, Hannah Williams, and how those shadow selves haunt her when she returns to the Pacific Northwest.

Adiele concluded the reading portion, before discussion. A “Nigerian-Nordic girl” who grew up in the Yakima Valley, Adiele showed a clip from her 35-minute PBS documentary Coming Home. The tale ventures from Harvard to a Buddhist nunnery, and I will not spoil it, but encourage you to watch the documentary. This reading and discussion was a highlight, and ever late to the party, I was especially intrigued by the use of a child narrator in Durrow’s book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, curious to read it and see what this young Rachel Morse will teach us.

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REGARDING THE SUBJECT OF GEOGRAPHY AND IDENTITY: We also attended a session called Is Murakami an American Writer? that, among other fine points, hit on the significance of translation and transnational literature. I had no idea Haruki Murakami was such a prolific translator of English-language writers into Japanese, nor had I ever considered whether his being an American writer or a Japanese writer much mattered, only that academics enjoy discussing such things. But it’s clear that his having a foot in both worlds has broadened the scope of international literature exponentially.

Haruki Murakami/2005. Wikimedia Commons

We had to make an early dash from that discussion, but not before a fuzzy idea began to coalesce. Not a profound idea, as the conference doesn’t offer much time for reflection, but a very basic one, really—the kind that comes back to you in new, interesting ways, again and again, until you can eventually consider it a little more imaginatively: just how writing is infused by one thing, apart from imagination, maybe more than anything else—location, location, location!—the happenstance of where we are born, the places we left, the places we wish we were. Where claims us, and where we claim.

I then began to take writers out of their place, just to see what might happen: a whole universe of “what if’s,” as in, what if Murakami had been born in Tanzania, Flannery O’Connor in Brooklyn, Samuel Clemens in Malaysia. I warned you—not a profound idea, but a rewarding game to play if you ever need to entertain yourself. If you get as far as I did, you may even begin to compose sentences to the stories they would write. Not a bad exercise!

I even learned that Hannah Aizenman, the poetry coordinator for The New Yorker magazine, grew up in Alabama, of all places. I have no idea why I should be surprised to learn this. I have been to Alabama and know for a fact that it has many nice characteristics to recommend it, but she “couldn’t wait to get to the East Coast,” where she happily remains. As a side note, she attended the conference by not attending the conference. She decided to take in the town and many off-site events instead—a savvy way to absorb the essence of a place, certainly, and with Powell’s in the mix, a built-in book fair, too!

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Ilya Kaminsky, Tess Gallagher, Jeff Shotts on the big stage. Photo by Danielle Vermette

ARE YOU STILL WITH ME? I’m barely here myself, trust me, but I wanted to save the best for last. Although there really isn’t a best at such an event; just moments where that glorious collective sigh/gasp “ummmm” trickles through the audience when a reader hits a note so true and profound and universal that the writing floats out into the hemisphere, well beyond the scrutiny of even the most difficult-to-please editor.

The final reading I will mention, which happened in the Oregon Ballroom on Friday night, existed in that very sacred place infused with collective sighs. As Jeff Shotts, the editor of Graywolf Press, noted in the question-answer portion of the discussion afterward, it reminded everyone in the audience of the “capaciousness and elasticity of contemporary poetry.”

The first reader, Ilya Kaminsky, born in the former Soviet Union, was wrongly diagnosed at age four with a cold when he was actually suffering with mumps, and lost most of his hearing, a condition that surely helped to foster a rhythm and musicality that is utterly unique to his work. Kaminsky is the author of two searingly original books, Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic, and his impassioned reading electrified the audience, nearly reaching the pitch of a rock concert.

The building felt almost depleted of oxygen when Tess Gallagher, the author of eight seminal volumes of poetry, approached the podium and began reading an excerpt from the afterword, and then some poems, from her new book, Is, Is Not. The poet, who divides her time between the Northwest of Ireland and her hometown on the Olympic Peninsula, managed to transform the enormous space into an intimate cottage. Her reading, nuanced and hypnotic, invited the audience into that realm where the concrete and experiential meet the furthest reach of the empathetic imagination. The pairing couldn’t have been more dazzling and dynamic, which left me thinking for days that poetry may be the single shortest distance between any people.

Every conference worth its salt has a souvenir T-shirt. This one fits its host city like a cup of joe and a stack of books on a bike in the rain. AWP photo

THE NEXT MORNING SAW a sweet goodbye breakfast and a mad dash back to the convention center, and that’s more or less it (you made it!)—the highlight reel from one lone writer in Oregon. I imagine that the AWP conference, for some, is like a birthday or New Year’s, where one takes inventory and refuels and makes resolutions for another year. If you are considering attending the conference and worry (as I did) that it will be overwhelming, a reminder of the insane number of talented people all hustling to slurp up the ink, don’t sweat it.

If anything, the conference had the opposite impact, leaving me with a few surprising tips to mull over: Cultivate relationships that inspire you. Take some time to smell the cherry blossoms. Keep striving to make your best work—the work that no one else can make. Don’t  take yourself too seriously as long as you take the work seriously enough.

And, at the end of the day, as Whitehead reminded us (this advice is lost on some poor trembling chicken), “Writing a book, getting published, will not make you whole. It will not fix you.  If you’re unhappy, it will not make you happy.  Let’s face it. You have long-standing issues or else you wouldn’t be in this line of work, statistics-wise.”

 

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