Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Poets annual conference, commonly referred to as AWP. On the road to Minneapolis I was reminded how remarkable dull early April’s color palette can be. Indiana was a bed of fog cascading from South Bend to Gary. My friend and I talked about alien sightings, and I divulged that I had seen one too many television specials and Youtube videos on the subject. I explained that some of the most well documented cases of extraterrestrial visitations in this country had occurred on military bases, that weapons systems would suddenly go offline with no explanation. We tried to conceive of what alien life might look like. My friend spoke of the difficulty at Area 51, which was that humans communicate using verbal language, and the aliens communicated telepathically. I recounted one incident I had seen something about in which several people claimed to have seen an orb of yellow light in a forest that split apart and regrouped, the implication being that it was a life form that could completely unify as one being but split apart for the purpose of some unknown task, perhaps information gathering.
We picked up four other passengers in Chicago. The fog had lifted, but the sky remained a sunny grey. We talked about long term goals for touring, for gathering, laughed at billboards for oddly named strip clubs in rural Wisconsin. We slept, ate bad food, listened to podcasts about criminal behavior and the 9/11 attacks. It was pleasant and important to be six black writers in America without being overwhelmed by collective grief for those many hours, and expressing anger or frustration without having to justify our emotions. Before the journey, I had only met two of my fellow travelers, and by the time we arrived at the Cave Canem Fellows reading at the Loft Literary Center, I was weary but in good spirits.
Cave Canem is known as “the watering hole for black poetry”, a term coined by Nikky Finney. As I sat in the audience, I was overcome by how grateful I was to be part of a species who used language. I wondered if telepathic communication would negate the need for emotion or art. If telepathy was an evolutionary advancement for extraterrestrial species, I’m not sure I want that kind of change. I watched poet after poet get up to the mic and deftly and precisely express their innermost truths, I was once again proud to be a Cave Canem fellow and to be human and present for such an occasion. Later that night, while standing in the long line to get into the Prince Purple Party, held at the night club made famous by Purple Rain, I began to worry that my friend’s brother had forgotten I was coming in to town. He wasn’t returning phone calls or texts, and I expressed my anxiety to two other Cave fellows who I was standing in line with. One, whom I didn’t know very well, offered that she had an extra bed in her room in the host hotel. This of course became the source of several Write A Hotel Room jokes from friends over the course of the conference. The party itself was wild and rowdy. It involved a lot of dancing and a reading of Prince-related poems. If you’ve looked at the photos on Write A House’s website of my house, you’ll already know that I am a big fan of his work. During the night I made at least one joke about Prince showing up at the party, despite his having a show in Detroit the next night. Someone said that maybe he was waiting in the line that stretched around the block, and I laughed at the thought of him ever having stood in line for anything. I concluded that if he were to appear, he’d probably descend from the heavens like the mythical alien being he is.
The next morning I attended several panels. The one which stands out most in my mind was a panel entitled “From Poverty to Poetry” with Dawn Lonsinger, Jane Wong, Eduardo Corral, Rachel Mckibbens and Airea D. Matthews. While each had varied cultural experiences, one thread throughout their talks was the experience of being alienated within the realms of the academy and publishing. This wasn’t about being ostracized, but many of the panelists spoke of interacting with colleagues who had no context for their lived experiences, and the gap in expectations and rewards. This was a different kind of alien. Throughout most of the panel, I found myself choking back tears. This wasn’t because of any particular sadness in what was being said, but that for me it was revelatory to be at a conference like AWP and know that everyone on the panel and many of the people in the room shared certain experiences and yet consistently felt alienated in the spaces we have occupied throughout our lives. Several panelists talked about their parents’ exhausted bodies, their own exhausted bodies, and it occurred to me that in some ways these were identical despite differences. It was hard not to recall the story of the orb aliens—one being that connects and splits apart when needed.
Following the panel, I watched one of the panelists worry over something that had not been discussed, which was that when poor or working class writers received grants or won awards, the money was often spent on very practical things and often did not allow those writers more time or space in order to produce work. Part of that reality was also that those funding the awards don’t always want to hear that money goes towards long-needed car or home repairs. Someone said that Sylvia Plath had bought a swimming pool with award money, and someone else corrected that person and said that it had been Anne Sexton, which then turned into a joke about Anne Sexton winning a Macarthur grant and using it to buy a lot of cigarettes and crisp white shorts. We had all cringed at the thought of Plath or Sexton owning having a swimming pool as if that hadn’t already died, and we could see some other terrible fate awaiting each of them in the past. And wasn’t it silly anyhow, how often the two were confused for one another. A college professor of mine had told me once about a grad school professor of hers who refused to call Plath anything other than “Ted Hughes’ wife”, so being mistaken for Sexton seems a better post-mortem fate than that. Amidst our laughter about the crisp white shorts, I thought too about how the chasm between privilege and lack of it could be traversed. Who in that large group of witty giggling poets hadn’t grappled with mental illness in some way or another? Didn’t we all cringe out of fear that their stories could be our stories? None of us had inherited fur coats from our mothers, of course, but wasn’t this kind of fragility and vulnerability too familiar? Isn’t that why we were allowed to make jokes?
The week before heading to AWP I was at a work meeting and for some reason the smell of coffee being made and the florescent lights triggered memories of being in a psych ward that were so vivid I wanted to run out of the room screaming as if it were on fire. I didn’t. I maybe cringed. When my brain functions “normally”, which is thankfully most of the time, I often have to grapple with what I assume will be the inevitable embarrassment of having to explain the static in my brain to someone in a language other than poetry. That too feels alien, particularly in a culture that has so stigmatized illnesses of the mind as if the mind were not part of the body.
Later in the week I attended another panel that I have been mulling over since. I hadn’t initially intended to go to this panel, but I had missed a reading with Claudia Rankine, Marie Howe and Anne Carson, and was intent to see Rankine speak at least once. Graywolf Press authors Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss and Leslie Jamison were all on the panel. It was a panel about the “new nonfiction” and it was difficult to find a seat in. I found this heartening for many reasons. It was wonderful to see a panel of four women be so revered and well-attended that every available flat surface was being used as a seat. One of the first questions posed to the panelists was about the body in their work, and the anxieties around the body. What fascinated me most was something I think Biss said, which was that given the number of micro-organisms and bacteria on human bodies, we were technically more “them” than we were “us”. There was also an interrogation of what it meant to conceive of human beings as separate entities, that perhaps that was a false notion. There was also a stern rejection of thinking of the body and the mind separately. One of the panelists declared that we weren’t allowed to have a mind without a body. This had also been a subject of another panel I had attended that spoke to the importance of the body and how work focusing on the body was often seen as less intellectual or worthy. At this point, I began to wonder if we weren’t in some ways already a species of unified body, scientifically speaking. Culture, language and violence stand in the way of this being any kind of tangible reality, but I liked thinking about tension and anxiety within society being created by separation instead of what we think of as historical opposition.
In many ways, I had traveled to Minneapolis with the intent of networking, and getting the lay of the literary landscape in a broader sense, and I did. What I didn’t anticipate was leaving with my head filled with new ideas of how I wanted to evolve as a writer. I’ve never been to AWP previously, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
On the last night of the conference I attended the Dark Noise Collective’s fish fry, held at Danez Smith’s grandmother’s house in St. Paul. It was a space unlike others at the convention center or even off-site events I had attended. It felt familial. We were all exhausted, but the amount of love shared amongst everyone present was a tangible thing. Just before I left a group of black poets played an impromptu game of what Danez called “black pop quiz” where he asked questions in reference to his grandmother’s house that we all somehow had the answers too because of our own grandmothers. We knew he had never eaten off the plates in the china cabinet, that there was a “good” carpet, that the home had housed eight people at one time. It was hard not to feel like we were some form of proto-orb alien in that moment, part of something shared on an almost cellular level. It was a warm place, devoid of business or contracts—a common ground in which we were earth, seed and rain laughing and holding each other, feeling anything but alien.