Sorry for the delay–I have been a bit swamped this week catching up with work after a busy weekend. But finally, here’s the rundown of my second day at AWP. I first went to a panel in memory of Lucille Clifton. I did not realize that she had passed away so recently, just last February. The essays that were read by her former students, fellow poets and colleagues were beautiful. There were lots of tears from the audience/speakers and the sharing of fond memories. It is clear that along with her amazing writing talent she was one of those people who really cared about others and nurtured relationships. She was an incredible woman and I wish that I had had the opportunity to hear her speak before she passed away. One of the audience members who got up afterwards to speak shared some advice that Lucille had given her: get to the heart of the poem. say what you want to say and cut the rest. be true to your individual voice. what do you think? what do you feel? Another woman stood up and commented that we must not forget in this “post-racial” era that Lucille was an African-american poet, and that we need to continue to nurture African-american writers. MFA programs are still predominantly white.
Michele joined me at this point and we went to a panel called “Diversity in a Diverse Writing Community: One MFA Program’s Experience” which I thought might answer some of the questions I had due to the comment about MFA programs being predominantly white. Unfortunately some of the original panelists had not been able to make it. Still, the beginning essays/comments were interesting, about how everyone’s work is in some way from their own story, own knowledge. They talked about the literature of diaspora, belonging, migration, or as one woman put it “the literature of the longing.” However, after the opening I found that it was not that interesting. It became more of an advertisement for their specific program in City College and how diverse it is. It does sound like a great program, and obviously what they are doing is working, however I would have liked more discussion of what it really means to be “diverse.” How do we measure “diversity”? How could other programs do a better job of attracting a variety of students?
The final panel that Michele and I went to was “Undivided: Poet as Public Citizen”, and it was fantastic! Toi Derricotte (whose book The Black Notebooks we are reading in our Queer Autobiographics course) started her essay with a poem by Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me?” and talked about trauma in poetry. She talked about the importance of speaking out because, “shame produces silence and silence means everything stays the same.” As one of the founders of Cave Canem, she also talked about how that organization has changed over the years and how important it has been in nurturing other African-American writers.
Martin Espada’s speech/essay was also very interesting. (And he had a great voice!) Some of the things he said: The only solution to irrelevancy is relevancy…Many people ignore poets because poets ignore most people…Our government is a government of words, which they use to instill fear. Words like “torture” and “weapons of mass destruction” lose their meaning when used the way the government has used them recently. Poets must use the same words that the government uses, and return the blood to the words…Poetry humanizes in the face of dehumanization; poetry frees the voice stuck in the throat.
Carolyn Forche talked next about how it is strange to her that some poets become considered “public poets” or “political poets” because all poets become public when they publish. Writers who champion the oppressed, are often labeled political, as she was. To which she said “I see it as not being political but as being awake to the world. How can you be a poet if you are not awake in the world? The label political poet is odd. I don’t want the label anymore. I want to ask why are others not?”
The last panelist was Mark Nowak, and he started with a passage from Langston Hughes “Adventures of a social poet” where Hughes comments on the fact that when poets talk about nature no one pays attention, but when poets talk about poverty or race, someone calls the police. Nowak further discussed the difference between Poetry, with a capital P, as a noun and poetry, with a small p, as a verb. He has held poetry workshops with workers inside closing Ford factories and is currently working on a project on global service-worker poetry. That is, scaling Poetry into poetry , working on collaborations and working with movements for social justice.
Both days at the conference were great, and the panels really inspired me to think about writing and more broadly the ways in which I am living my life. (Probably also comes with the territory of currently navigating grief). What am I passionate about? What do I care about? I have not been as involved in activism this past year, nor have I written much poetry. What is stopping me? Or as Dan puts it in his post, what is slowing me down? This conference made me remember how much I love writing and has made me want to finish some new poems. Hopefully this newfound determination will help me produce some new things. Also, with the political poet panelists voices in my ear, perhaps I can rekindle both my activism and writing at the same time. Here’s to a productive 2011!