Intern Post, Leslie Standridge: Looking Back and Looking Forward (An AWP 16 Tale)

SR Contributor Larry Eby (Issue 10) and I

AWP? What’s that? My friends and family and anyone else I told about my weekend plans inquired into my LA trip plans.

Well it’s a conference for writers, basically. I replied casually and coolly as if I wasn’t a newbie.

Well, what do you do there?

Uh, like, go to panels and stuff, and buy books. Writer things.

Sounds fun.

I think so! 

I’ll admit, I had slight doubts about the truth of the last statement. Did I think AWP would be interesting? Enjoyable? Worth going to? Yes, yes, and yes. However, I wasn’t sure if it would be fun, per sé, in the sense of childlike amusement, easy-going, “relax and have fun,” fun. Boy, was I wrong.

The conference was predated by a road trip, something I was a little nervous about in the beginning. I’m not good with long car trips (motion sickness), I do not pack lightly (fear of not having the right outfit for the right event is a legitimate thing), and I was travelling with two women I didn’t know really well (what do I talk about?!). However, within an hour of being on the road (and a Dramamine), my qualms melted away. We bonded quickly over shared ailments and McDonalds (oh, and of course what AWP panels we were looking forward to).

Once arrived in LA, we got settled into the lovely JW Marriott and began our trek to the convention center, which overwhelming both size-wise and architecturally (there are just so many bars everywhere). We checked in, got our badges, and even pestered a security guard into taking our photo. We were officially clocked in to AWP 16.

The next couple of days would be, for lack of a better word, an experience. It may seem cliché, but I really did learn a lot about my interests, my long-term goals, and, most importantly, myself. I had the fantastic opportunity to become friends with and grow closer to my fellow interns (and roommates during the trip), Ofelia, Alexis, and Jess, who are all beautiful, intelligent, and incredibly talented women. I grew all the more appreciative of my internship with S[r] and of Trish, the most amazing mentor probably in all of existence. I also gained much knowledge about craft, met my favorite slam poet, Anis Mojgani, and came home with two tote bags worth of swag.

So, now a AWP vet, I have compiled a list of eight things about AWP that I think anyone, first-timer or old-timer, should keep in mind:

  1. You won’t go to all the panels you want to go to. In fact, after the first day, you probably won’t even try to go to all of those panels. That’s perfectly okay—you are human and you will probably be exhausted all week anyway. We are all taking a slight detour from real life to go to AWP, which is impressive enough, right?
  2.  It’s okay to eat at some greasy chain restaurant the first night—don’t stress yourself out trying to find a Yelp-approved, hole-in-the-wall , unique restaurant. Sometimes you end up at a run-down Hooters at 10 at night, even in LA. You’re tired, you deserve wings and cold fries!
  3. If a panel takes a turn for the worse, don’t be afraid to skip out. AWP is about curating your own writerly education and if the panelists start arguing with each other about something completely off topic, well, you aren’t really learning anything are you?
  4. Social media, namely Twitter, is one of the best parts of AWP—see hashtags #badAWPadvice, #AWP16, and #overheardatAWP. Not only is social media great for building your brand (look at all I’m accomplishing, everyone) and interacting with big names/presses/magazines in the industry, but it also allows for some inside humor.
  5. Set aside at least 2-3 hours, maybe more, for the book fair. I promise it is worth your while to take your time and really pay attention to the books, magazines, contests, MFA programs, and so on that are all being offered. Don’t be afraid to talk to people at the tables either. We want to answer your questions and chat about you, your writing, and whatever else may come up. Also, if you are a poor college student, buying on the last day is a more financially viable option.
  6. Ask questions in panels and network (if you can) with the panelists, especially in career-oriented panels. Don’t be afraid that your question may sound dumb or that you’re hair looks wonky. There is no better chance to put your name in the mind of an editor than if you give it to them directly.
  7. Go to the AWP dance party and shake off all the stress from the day. Writers are great dancers! Also, it is free entertainment.
  8.  Remember: you are a writer. Even in the midst of so many brilliant and successful people who have accomplished more than you, you are a writer. Don’t feel intimidated!

AWP changed me, for the better. It reignited a lot of the passion I had lost for reading and writing over the past year (senioritis and personal life drama can really destroy your livelihood). I’m confident that its impact is similar on all attendees—after all, so many people continue to come back. If you’re interested in going, I encourage you to do it (and I’m not even getting paid to say this, so you know it’s a real sentiment), and if you have gone before, and will again, I will see you in D.C. Look for the dark-haired girl frantically searching for a Hooters.

Guest Post, Terese Svoboda: On Matters of Anger

screaming-1436580Angry, that’s what a critic has declared my When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New Poems. Rather than worry that under gender scrutiny, “anger” is the equivalent of “shrill,” I decided to investigate anger in my influences and to discover whether the term, whether accurate or not, should be avoided at all costs. Although C.K. Williams’s poems addressed war, poverty and climate change, he escaped the anger label entirely. His obituary likened him to Walt Whitman, “politically engaged and passionate” and “Throughout, the sense of moral urgency remained, but without the declamatory tone.” The headline for Adrienne Rich’s obituary ran: “Adrienne Rich, the Poet Beyond Anger.” She is deemed “one of the great poets of rage,” and all there is of anger is the mention that it’s the Old Norse term for “anguish.” Craig Morgan Teicher’s headline for an NPR review of Derek Walcott’s work is “60 Years Of Poems Mix Anger, Ambivalence And Authority,” but the quote in the piece uses “rage” instead of “anger:”

Ablaze with rage, I thought
Some slave is rotting in this manorial lake,
And still the coal of my compassion fought:
That Albion too, was once
A colony like ours, “a piece of the continent, a part of the main”

Walcott, “Ruins in a Great House”

Last month Karen Finley, the artist who brought down the NEA two decades ago, wrote: “Speaking out with passion is considered inappropriate; you can still see that 25 years later in the scrutiny of Hillary Clinton… You have a right to be angry. We need to have a place in our society where we can be expressing discomfort and conflict.”

The number one aesthetic rationale for avoiding anger is that it dates the work. Whatever you’re unhappy about will change and need a footnote in the Norton Anthology. Number two is that it will always alienate some of its audience and thereby make the work less universal, less classic, less worthy of attention. But Shelley’s “England in 1819,” a poem written two hundred years ago about inequity, is one that has endured. Consider its opening lines: “An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;/Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring.” I presume the poem has never been a favorite of monarchs, nor even of oligarchies, but for the 99% it’s still a Yes. Anger is one valid response to truth. “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry” is text-on-the-screen from “The Big Short,” the new movie about the 2008 housing bubble, a very angry film.  As Paul Celan wrote: “Not-to-want-to-become-aware-of is the liar’s main business….”

I posit that making readers uncomfortable with anger is just as valid as causing the reader to become aroused with love poems. When Lola Ridge (1874-1941) was asked by the arch-conservative English poet Alice Hunt Bartlett what topics she felt were appropriate to poetry, she wrote: “Let anything that burns you come out whether it be propaganda or not… I write about something that I feel intensely. How can you help writing about something you feel intensely?” You can imagine Bartlett phrasing the question around the issue of Ridge’s social conscience, most visible in her first book about Jewish immigrants, The Ghetto and Other Poems, a book that didn’t bemoan the Jew’s situation, nor condemn them like Eliot and Pound, but celebrated their place in a new country. Here is Ridge’s imagist poem about the vast number of unemployed who struggled during a downturn at the beginning of the 20th century:

Debris

I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

With anger you only have to flex the muscle, not kayo the reader, allowing her to judge whether she is going to join you in your anger—the way you would with regard to any emotion expressed in a poem. That flexing is difficult, an art. When Czesaw Milosz published “Sarajevo,” a poem that wasn’t his best, he told his translator Robert Hass, “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed rather than silent.” The world is full of uncalled-for beauty and senseless tragedy and perfidy, and poets must try to express all of it. The Brooklyn Rail recently wrote: “Terese Svoboda is one of few contemporary American writers who possesses a global consciousness.”  I don’t want to remain silent. Is that a problem for you?

Guest Post, Sudha Balagopal: How Parallel Lines Meet

draw-the-line-1159036All aspiring writers have heard these two pieces of advice that some consider inane, others gospel: write what you know and write the book you want to read.

What if the two are parallel lines that cannot meet?

Let me explain. Although we spoke a different language at home, the medium of my education in India was English and stayed that way throughout school and college–part of the legacy the British left behind.

My first memory of reading is from a text book called The Radiant Reader. The words tap a rhythm in my brain even today: “Sing Mother Sing, Can Mother Sing, Pat Sing to Mother, Mother Sing to Pat.” From there, our readings evolved, as we grew older, to include stories like Jerome K. Jerome’s Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture.

In life outside school we didn’t often come across names like Pat, Jerome or Podger.

By third and fourth grade I’d expanded my pleasure reading, salivating over descriptions of chocolate eclairs in Enid Blyton’s books. I experienced the adventures of the Five Find-Outers with Fatty (politically incorrect these days, Fatty’s name was shortened from Frederick Algernon Trotteville) and Mr. Goon.

I’d never laid eyes on a chocolate eclair. Nor did the inhabitants of my books look anything like my neighbors who wore sarees and salwar kameezes and ate gulab jamuns instead of scones.

Somewhere along my reading journey, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys appeared on the bookshelf, introducing me to a world different from the British one I’d known so far. Their American adventures were fun to read, but mostly, they ignited envy. The teenaged Nancy Drew drove a car (a car!), solved mysteries and had a boyfriend. Few women I knew drove. If a family owned an automobile, most likely a hired driver or the father of the house drove it.

At school, I absorbed Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and Shakespeare. In my final year I pored over the text book Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, only to fall in love with the gentle, reliable Gabriel Oak.

During summer break, I cowered in my bed while Bronte’s Jane Eyre suffered. I devoured books by Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse which made for an interesting amalgam of mysteries and humor. I wept when Beth died in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which presented a different America from the one I’d read in the Nancy Drew series.

Our English curriculum included few Indians writing in English. My Calcutta school introduced me to the luminous Rabindranath Tagore. His evergreen short story, Cabuliwallah, in which a father and young daughter share a close relationship, also explores the unexpected yet tender connection between people of different social classes—the vendor from Kabul and little Mini. Later, in college, I discovered the unpretentious but humorous and memorable literature of R. K. Narayan, nominated several times for the Nobel prize.

Fast forward decades and I am now a writer. Words emerge from the deep well of consciousness and they must be that way to be authentic. My work might paint a world that’s not familiar to those in the western world. My first collection, There are Seven Notes, thematically links stories against the landscape of Indian classical music.

Thus, the conundrum. How do I bridge the gap between that which I know and that which I read today, have read in the past and will continue to read?

One day, when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for perhaps the tenth time in my life, my brain went “ting.” It didn’t matter that the author and I inhabited different worlds. The book touched me and it remained with me. Harper Lee may have written about places she knows, about issues specific to the American South, about race and color and justice, but she also torched a deep truth within me, tapped into what I too know, what I too am familiar with. Blending her truth with mine. What is wrong, is wrong. Justice knows no boundaries.

Neither do human relationships. Scout and her father, Atticus Finch had a special bond. Scout also had another connection, the reclusive Boo Radley.  On the opposite side of the globe, Tagore describes a similar tender kinship between Mini and her father, and between Mini and the man from Kabul.

I pay obeisance to Harper Lee. She made parallel lines meet. That’s how little Mini in Tagore’s Cabuliwallah and Scout Finch in Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird occupy the same corner in my heart.

Writing, then, is not about geography or the color of the characters’ hair or eyes, about the snow or the heat, about chocolate eclairs or gulab jamuns. Those make up the scaffolding for something larger. It’s about universal truths. That’s what I love to read. That’s what I’d like to know more about.

That’s what I want to explore in my writing.