Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference in Seattle, February 27 to March 1. When I first heard the conference was going to be as close as Seattle this year, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go. Especially because so many of my favourite American writers were going to be there—including Robert Hass, whose poems have greatly influenced my own work.
So what were the highlights for me? Well, on day one, I really enjoyed a reading by poets published with Copper Canyon Press. I only discovered Ellen Bass’s poetry last year, when she had her poem “What Did I Love” published in The New Yorker, but since then I picked up her first two poetry books and greatly enjoyed them. Along with some other fantastic poets with new books, she was reading from her newly-released third collection, Like a Beggar. “What Did I Love” is in this new collection, along with dozens of lovely, honest, graceful, sometimes funny poems (I also especially loved her reading of “The Morning After“). At the same time I picked up a book by Marianne Boruch, whose work I was not familiar with before. Part of her collection Cadaver, Speak, is inspired out of a semester she spent on a Faculty Fellowship for Study in a Second Discipline at Purdue University (where she teaches) that allowed her to study in the medical cadaver lab. Her book has this intriguing sequence spoken from the point of view of a woman who died at age 99 and donated her body for research.
I also went to the Keynote Presentation to hear Annie Proulx talk about why we write, and the state of the publishing world. Her talk managed to be both sort of realist and optimistic at the same time. What perhaps struck me the most, however, was the sheer size of the room the presentation was held in! Essentially, it was four giant ballrooms opened up into one giant room completely full of chairs. The Washington State Convention Center is not skimpy on space.
On Friday, I enjoyed a panel called “How to Teach Students to Speak Language for a New Century,” which is an anthology of contemporary poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere. The speakers had really interesting things to say about how to anthologize, the role of anthologies, and the importance, specifically, of starting conversations about poetry outside of the West.
I also enjoyed “ ‘A Shapeless Flame’: The Nature of Poetry and Desire,” which talked about the role of desire and sex in poetry, and—in a completely different topic—I was very impressed with the pedagogy offered in a panel called “Beg, Borrow, Steal: Twenty-five Best Teaching Practices.”
As a writer, though, I was most excited about the reading by Robert Hass, Eva Saulitis, and Gary Synder. The topic was all about writing nature in an “age of science,” and all three writers had really lovely readings. Eva Saulitis read a beautiful, engaging essay about her experience as a marine biologist studying orcas off Prince William Sound, and how her scientific work is related to her creative work. I was enchanted by her reading. Gary Synder, of course, was wonderful, and I was especially excited to hear Robert Hass read poems I’ve loved since I was a fledging undergrad poet. It was a very down-to-earth, emotionally-generous evening, and I left feeling full of wonder for the world and for poetry. Please read Robert Hass’s poems, if you haven’t! My favourite book by him might be Human Wishes, but I love them all.
Final highlights for me include a reading about Rumi, featuring Coleman Barks, the celebrated translator of Rumi. Barks had this sly little smile that sometimes crept up onto his face while he read the poems, and it was so wonderful to see his genuine enjoyment, there, of Rumi’s poems. Brad Gooch, who is working on a biography of Rumi, spoke as well, and was completely captivating. I’ll be watching for the release of the biography when it’s published. It sounds like an incredibly challenging and rewarding process to write a biography about someone who lived in the 13th century.
The last event I attended was the reading by Jane Hirschfield and Sharon Olds. Both writers were wonderful. I was a little surprised by how funny Sharon Olds was! She read a little from her most recent collection, Stag’s Leap, but she also read some new work. I’ll be looking for that, too, when it comes out.
What I learned about attending a conference is that you can never attend everything that you want to, and that you really have very little time to do anything but the conference. Not that you really want to! The AWP Conference had its own bookfair, too, which meant that my tote bag got heavier and heavier by the end of each day!