Mark Doty nailed the essence of AWP, no surprise, when he characterized it as "a social situation that makes everyone want to feel known and recognized, and then makes the known the recognized want to run and hide."
Nope, I couldn't have said it better myself.
That said, my response to the "look at me/get away from me" impulse is to attend the panels, listen to the poems being read, take notes, and be inspired by both poets you've admired for years (Albert Goldbarth, Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Sherman Alexie), as well as poets you had no idea existed yesterday and are now smitten with (Erica Dawson, Stacey Waite, Karl Elder).
That's the main reason I am here, anyhoo, to get that po-buzz, to be moved to laughter/tears by the music and meaning of words.
Once again, I only made it through two sessions today, sex poetry and the Beloit Poetry Journal 60-year anniversary celebration.
I chose well. Both of these rocked.
The sex poetry panel was all good, but especially Stacey Waite (Whoa, that woman can write and perform like nobody's business) and Dorianne Laux, who, in "Dolly's Breasts," describes Dolly Parton's knockers as "a pair of fat-cheeked Baptists dreaming of peaches." Oh, and Jan Beatty's poem "I Saw One of Blake's Angels" -- whoa, that was amazing. Oh, and so was Aaron Smith's "What Christian's Say During Sex," so really this was the ticket through and through, including Sharon Doubiago's "How to Make Love to a Man," and the factoid she provided that there are at least two Bibles bound in Comanche skin.
The poets on stage talked about censorship, having trouble placing their work, not getting to share their work with high school students. Waite lamented the fact that "high school students read Adrienne Rich's 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers' year in and year out while being forbidden her '21 Love Poems.'" Laux, however, was more upbeat, reminding us that The Poet's Companion, with its quite sexy and explicit Erotic Poetry chapter, is a textbook used in hundreds of high schools across the country.
Great job, panelists, especially with answering the question from the audience about how to be a het male and write het love poetry without coming off as misogynistic (interrogate, investigate, go deeply into the experience so that it's yours and yours only, basically).
And then it was off the the Beloit Poetry Journal 60th Anniversary Celebration, the crown-jewel of my CCC/AWP experience to date. After a lovely, loving introduction from co-editors Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald, Goldbarth (who first pubbed in BPJ in 1972) had us all rapt within seconds as he launched into a poem I can't possibly begin to describe, though (sorry if you weren't there!) it brought down the house.
Susan Tichy bravely and beautifully followed, and then Karl Elder took the stage, a man in love with the 26 letters of the alphabet in a way I didn't know possible; he writes abecadarians like nobody's business. His work is lively, honed, exact, sublime. A poem for his grandson Owen, titled "Ode to O" appears, along with Goldbarth's, in the BPJ chapbook of Chad Walsh Prize winners. (I will not spoil your experience of reading any of these fine poems by excerpting them here.)
Next came Janet Holmes and her incredible pastiche on the Chinese musician and instrument-maker Parch, and then, the finale, Sherman Alexie, who shared a very rousing reading of "Defending Walt Whitman," one of my all-time favorite Whitman-inspired poems, right up there with Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."
Before he left the stage, Alexie reminded aspiring poets that "it's still almost all about rejection," and shared the fact that his poem in the just-out BPJ chapbook needed to be "heavily edited" before it could be printed. "And I am happy for that," he said more than once, because he knows that inferior work does not deserve to be published.
And now I am back in my shoddy motel room munching cinnamon gummy bears from Cook's Fresh Market (if you are wondering where to get really good to-go food to take back to your hotel room--fresh salads, yummy sandwiches, gourmet cheeses and crackers--this is the place for you).
Doty's right; it's all a bit of an existential circus, but just like back home it's really all about balance. When you've had enough of the Big Top, head back to your room, run a hot bath, and pour yourself an ice cold Sanpelligrino. Then sit back, relax, and keep in mind that you wouldn't sell many books if they're wasn't no AWP.