“oh yeah, I’ve read some of your work”

I was so sure I wasn’t a writer that I stopped going to workshops and readings. I stopped writing altogether except for furtive moments in longhand in a spiral notebook…I mean I began to wonder if I’d grow hair on my palms like some 19th century masturbator.  ~ Zoe Zolbrad, author of Currency, which was published after languishing in a box in her basement for almost 20 years


Seriously. What was I doing here…at AWP?  The 2012 national conference www.awp.org drew its biggest crowd ever—sold out at over ten thousand registrants this year in Chicago. To me, 25 year veteran hack, all the neck-laniered participants appeared to fall into two categories: 1) best-selling authors and poets straight from a book signing; or 2) dark, brooding authors and poets soon to be discovered and subsequently scheduled for book signings.  I, on the other hand, was 3) an obvious poser who changed my answer every single time someone asked me if I was a writer, which was plenty of times.  It was, in fact, how every conversation started at the sponsor’s book fair that filled the lower level of the Hilton featuring over 300 exhibitors of every manner of small indy presses, large publishing houses, university MFA programs, poetry contests, photography exhibits, writer’s workshops, chapbook retreats, twitter colloquies, creative non-fiction salons, flash fictionaries, and let’s-all-pretend-we-like-that edgy, on-line ‘zine.

In a world plagued by natural and man-made disasters of every kind including a global economic crisis with its synthetic faux-cabulary of recovery and the embarrassingly rude media mentality that comedian Lewis Black likened to buffalo harvesting in that reporters “used every part of the tragedy” regarding Whitney Houston’s unhappy ending, it’s hard to imagine that the state of Letters is actually robust and flourishing. Perhaps spreading virally is a better description.  Either way, it is just such a time as this that the literary subset of already-unemployed-certainly-apathetic-highly-self-regarding humanity turns to its own (usually digital) apparatus to undertake the arduous work of expressing the world’s condition.

The inclination to painful, almost certainly fatal diagnoses is highly contagious to the lettered and those fascinated with letters. Misery loves company. While the AWP meme is largely academe, the virus also presents in the mortician-by-day/slam-poet-by-night sequelly that spoke of a great contagion. How can we calmly discuss what’s wrong with everything except in words whispered on a piece of paper?  For some, yelling them into a mic helps. But we all appear to have had a bad case of it; we could claim to have caught this fever or come by it congenitally, but bigod it was good to have somebody, anybody trying to make sense of it all…willing to cope right out loud and on paper (or on-line).  I really don’t care if it feeds the ego or soothes the savage beast, there’s a moral imperative for someone(s) to put a pen to the president’s lament as well as the lover’s.  Read Wendell Berry…you will be healed…I’m just saying.

What better time to become a poet and writer, why not claim it? Yes, I am a Poet (spoken as affirmation as I looked in the mirror in the hotel room each morning of the four-day AWP event).  I listened to Philip Levine, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Lim, Mark Waggener, Marion Winik, Chris Fink, and so many more.  I was moved beyond words sometimes… full to overflowing with something caused by words that simultaneously transcended words.

OK, not always, but still…plenty. Yes, sometimes I thought, geez, if that passes for poetry, I just might have a shot.  Other times, the achingly true arc of an expression was so fine it was as if I’d been shot in the throat with it…my windpipe constricted and I was speechless…darn sure nothing else ever again needed to be written down about anything at all…certainly not by me. The summit had been reached. What was the point?  I’d better just get a newspaper route, that might be my niche in broadest sense of the publication chain.  But mostly, I felt that all roads in my life were merging the skills I’d acquired after 25 years of client-sponsored copy inside a :30 second broadcast-length window with the desires of my heart to be a Real Writer.  What did I have to say for myself?

It would seem that no serious writer or poet begins his or her foray into the field at my age, but the record will show that I actually might have launched my career as a poet by winning the Alice M. Edwards Creative Writing Award in the category of poetry at Graceland College in the spring of 1981.  In truth, I should have received a prize for every spoon-bending attempt to imaginatively capture the taste of pizza or the quality, service and selection that awaited the tall or big man at Mr. B’s.  I will admit to a degree of satisfaction that I was lauded with Commercial of the Year in 1996 by the Virginia Association of Broadcasters.  This was for the magic act I performed that made a local celebrity of my client who wanted to be his furniture chain’s on-air “talent” (this term refers to anyone who appears on camera whether they have talent or not…sadly, he did not; cue the magic). During this era, I submitted some really bad poetry under a pen-name that will remain nameless to protect innocent family members with the same name.  I wrote a lot of non-creative Op-Ed and some journalistic pieces that got published in places the literati never go.

These are the sort of details I wouldn’t want my (two) new friends at AWP to know.

Instead, let us—ten thousand hopeful and strong—write on…about men, menstruation, meningitis and mendacity…the meaning in all of that.  Let F words be used liberally but only when called for.  Let sentences run-on past the rules and end a preposition with.  Let the sticky-note on our computer screens that says SUBMIT in bold, capital letters remind us of the discipline of writing as well as the contest deadline.  And let someone at AWP 2013 recognize me…when he says “yes, I’ve read some of your work,” this time let it be true.

 © April 2012

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