Prose from Poetry Magazine

I Go to AWP

by Kay Ryan
A Lifetime Of Preferring Not To

I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It’s been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP*, I have often said.

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine. It turns out I have an aversion to cooperative endeavors of all sorts. I couldn’t imagine making a play or movie, for instance; so many people involved. I don’t like orchestral music. I don’t like team sports. I love the solitary, the hermetic, the cranky self-taught. Make mine the desert saints, the pole-sitters, the endurance cyclists, the artist who paints rocks cast from bronze so that they look exactly like the rocks they were cast from; you can’t tell the difference when they’re side by side. It took her years to do a pocketful. You just know she doesn’t go to art conferences. Certainly not zillion-strong international ones, giant wheeling circuses of panel discussions.

How, then, one wonders, can it be that I have just come back from AWP’s annual conference in Vancouver, treading upon a lifetime of preferring not to?

It Was Easier Than I Thought

I was invited to attend as an outsider, and to write a piece for Poetry. I could go but retain my alienation. This was so doable. Of course, in truth I could only do this now, when I am quite old. If I were young and hadn’t published anything, it would be different. Now, even if my sense of self is threatened, shouldn’t I already have used most of it up? How much more can there be left? Maybe I would never have been influenced, as I feared I would, but to this day I believe I needed to guard against something, even if that something was imaginary. I needed to protect something valuable. The most important thing a beginning writer may have going for her is her bone-deep impulse to defend a self that at the time might not look all that worth getting worked up about. You’ll note a feral protectiveness—a wariness, a mistrust. But the important point is that this mistrust is the outside of the place that has to be kept empty for the slow development of self-trust. You have to defend before it looks like you have anything to defend. But if you don’t do it too early, it’s too late.

One must truly HOLD A SPACE for oneself. All things conspire to close up this space. Everything about AWP has always struck me as closing the space.

Another Fear

I have a weak character. I am very susceptible to other people’s enthusiasms, at times actually courting them. I like to sit among people who feel strongly about a basketball team, say, and get excited with them. I love to love ouzo with ouzo lovers. These are, of course, innocent examples. But this weakness concerns me in going to AWP. If I’m exposed to the enthusiasms of others, I know that I am capable of betraying my deepest convictions, laughing in the face of a lifetime of hostility to instruction, horror at groupthink. The only way I’ve ever gotten along in this world is by staying away from it; I have had only enough character to keep myself out of situations that require character. Now here I am, going to AWP. How am I going to remember: these people are THE SPAWN OF THE DEVIL? They will seem like individuals, not deadly white threads of the great creative writing fungus.

Registration Wednesday, 30 March 2005

I am given a black tote bag when I register. Very nice with the AWP logo. I see on a table behind the registration station hundreds of these black bags, primed with schedules, and stacked up like gunnysacks at the potato packers. The schedule is a 230-page affair. I note with rising alarm that there are up to fifteen choices for what to do, each hour and a half session, morning to night, for three days.

What we have here before us is the exhilaration of bulk: bulk bags, bulk panels, bulk poets. Even though this is Canada, we are having an American experience: the American romance with bulk. Attendees who use American institutions such as Costco won’t have a problem. They already know how to handle things like AWP. They already know about proportion. A Costco sense of proportion is understanding that you have to get enough bulk to fill up your pickup-bed-sized shopping cart. And you have to have that shopping cart (which will hold four steel-belted radials) because regular-sized ones would look miniature in proportion with the wide avenues of the towering metropolis of bulk. Everything conspires to shame you out of any natural modesty you came in with. You cannot just want a bottle of Tabasco sauce.

Any more than you could just want to go to one panel or hear one writer read. The AWP catalog says to you, as the Costco shopping cart says to you, Think big! Glut yourself! All this wouldn’t be going on if it weren’t a good idea to heap your day up with it! And don’t worry; it’s all disposable! One panel will wipe out all memory of the previous panel, just like with TV. It would be wrong, unthrifty, to go back to your room and sit.

Plus, as with Costcos, which are inevitably situated a long way from wherever you live, you have come so far, all the way to Canada! You’d better fill up.

The Bookfair

Because this is only Wednesday, registration day, most of the tables in the big hall are still empty, but there are signs announcing the names of the presses and journals that will be occupying them. There are venerable names and new ones. Some of these journals I’ve had dealings with for decades. Slow dealings, sending off poems in the mail, waiting for a reply. By the time I’d get my poems back (usually all of them) they would look new to me. I could see them in a new way, maybe like children getting off the bus from their first day of school. They’d been somewhere where they had to fend for themselves. You could get a new respect for them, and also you could think to yourself, How could I have sent them off looking like that?

In any case, it was a distant, silent relationship with these presses and journals. I wanted something from them, but I had to count on the words I’d put on the page to get it for me. Whether or not I started out liking the patient discipline of this exchange, I came to like it. It slowed me down. If I’d gotten those poems back at email speed, say, they wouldn’t have been away long enough for me to lose hope the way you need to. You really shouldn’t be living for a reaction all the time.

I also liked the fact that there were no faces or voices; we were all disembodied, writer and editor alike. Just the slow old mail. I wanted my poems to fight their way like that. Fight and fight again. No networking, no friends in high places, no internships. I think that’s how poems finally have to live, alone without your help, so they should get used to it.

Tomorrow morning at the AWP bookfair a young writer will be able to meet everybody, editors, publishers, all in one place. They’ll all be sitting there behind their piles of books and journals. The hopeful young writer could have conversations, exchange email addresses, hand them manuscripts. Next month if he sent an editor some work he could start his email with, “I’m following up on our conversation at last month’s AWP bookfair.... ” It kind of makes me sick to think about.

On the other hand, maybe there will be free keychains.

My First Panel Experience

The Creative Process: The Creative Writer as Teacher Thursday, 31 March. 9:00-10:15 AM.

I’m sitting in the Vancouver Island Room on the Conference Floor of the Fairmont Hotel. The draped and elevated table of the panel setup looks like the Last Supper but with just water glasses. The room is aggressively paneled in white with elaborate gold trim. Even the chandeliered ceiling is paneled and trimmed. Good motif for panels, I guess.

The question to be addressed by our panel is, How does the creative writing teacher stay creative? I have chosen this panel using my current selection method: what looks most inimical to your nature?

These creative writing teachers have apparently gone into this line of work because they felt themselves helped by a writing teacher and feel a desire to pass it on. They resort frequently to various forms of the words “mentor,” both noun and verb. They share a meaning for this word so that it requires no explanation.

Nor are they confused by the verb “to workshop.” As easily and comfortably as I might say, “We started sanding the table” do these creative writing teachers say, “We started workshopping poems.”

Before we get on to the question of how the creative writing teacher might stay creative, I would like to pause at these words, mentor and workshop. If, as my dictionary tells me, a mentor is a wise counselor, then to mentor would surely be to give wise counsel. And of course it would imply somebody on the other side receiving the wise counsel. Because it seems to me so deep and intimate, I have always had a very cautious feeling about this word mentor, as something far beyond the teacher of a class a student signed up for. It would be specific to two people who found some particular affinity, a relationship that would develop gradually. It would rarely occur.

When I was a young writer, for some years I only knew one poet, Rosalie Moore, thirty-plus years my senior. We got to be friends and she was encouraging to me, but we barely understood each other at all. We stayed friends until she died in her nineties. Occasionally over the years someone would refer to Rosalie as my mentor and I always felt an electric shock, like red cartoon arrows flying off my body, like bristles. Rosalie wasn’t my mentor. She would agree with that. I just don’t think the word should be used casually. It should be deep. Some people have mentors, some never do. I didn’t.

Workshop. In the old days before creative writing programs, a workshop was a place, often a basement, where you sawed or hammered, drilled or planed something. You could not simply workshop something. Now you can. You can take something you wrote by yourself to a group and get it workshopped. Sometimes it probably is a lot like getting it hammered. Other writers read your work, give their reactions, and make suggestions for change. A writer might bring a piece back for more workshopping later, even. I have to assume that the writer respects these other writers’ opinions, and that just scares the daylights out of me. It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids. These are experiments you can perform down in that old kind of workshop, where Dad used to hide out from too many other people’s claims on him.

Back to the Panel

The ways the panel members say they stay creative are not what I would have said in their place, which is that I had abandoned the teaching of creative writing and run as though my clothes were on fire. Rather, one says she teaches but she also does her own writing projects at the same time, currently putting together an anthology of stories by sex workers. This is a person of an industriousness, social res-ponsibility, and generosity beyond my imagining. A number of panel members, with members of the audience nodding in agreement, say that they are actually nourished by student work, and stimulated to do their own work. I am speechless. My sense of this panel, mostly made up of women and attended by women for what reason I can’t say, is that these are sincere, helpful, useful people who show their students their own gifts and help them to enjoy the riches of language while also trying to get some writing done themselves. They have to juggle these competing demands upon their souls and it is hard and honorable. I agree and shoot me now.

Reconsideration: Neglected and Forgotten Poets 10:30-11:45 AM. A different room.

I already feel stunned, absent, polite, and I’m just starting my second panel. I saw Margaret Kaufman from Marin in the jam-packed, wood-paneled elevator coming down to the conference floor, all of us with tags around our necks and black totes. I was embarrassed to be seen. She invited me to join her and Jackie Kudler for dinner. I made vague distracted sounds.

This is a big, big room, with big, big chandeliers and really lots of paneling. I didn’t get a copy of the handout of the poems; all gone.

Ignored poet #1: John Logan. Presenter mumbled and did not raise his eyes. I take personal offense at this sort of behavior. He also didn’t introduce himself. What is it with that?

These presenters assume that everybody has taken/taught writing courses. It’s natural life to everyone here. They refer to their own professors and various writing programs where they’ve taught or been students, and the audience murmurs, laughs, and groans in response, because that’s the kind of church this is. Obviously, this is a big part of the pleasure of a conference like this, the good Sam Club quality, the fact that these people kind of know each other; they migrate all over the continent, not in trailers, but nonetheless as a fluid band, dividing, reforming. Tagged, like birds.

Do the presenters not introduce themselves because they are modest? Because they expect to be known? Because the previous presenter didn’t?

I notice that these ignored poets tend to be unearthed by their old students. No surprise there, I guess.

“...creative process that reflects dialectical (mumble)...” blurry speakers, reading essays of routine critical phrasing...

(I guess I shouldn’t have expected to like neglected poets since I don’t like many unneglected ones, even.)

“...relation between gnostic and experiential truth...”

I hear furious clapping from some other room; I feel I have come to the wrong panel.

The American Sonnet 12:00-1:15 AM, that same day.

My third panel in one morning! I’m off to a strong start.

About a hundred people are waiting to hear about the American sonnet. The room is stuffed. That itself is something, don’t you think? A hundred people would choose the sonnet panel over the fourteen other panels on offer this session, ranging from “Women Writing Obsession and the Twenty-First Century Imagination” to “Where It’s All Too Real: Alaska’s Nonfictional Demand.” It’s enough to make you think that maybe people interested in poetry are hungry for some order, some shared requirements. It’s moving to me. Most of the scheduled panelists don’t show up, including Gerald Stern, whom everyone misses a lot because of the way he is in person (I don’t know how he is) and because of his apparently freewheeling approach to the sonnet.

Molly Peacock is a late-add to the decimated panel, but she says a nice thing. She says it’s wrong to think of the sonnet as a “container” or prison; instead it is a “skeleton,” which allows something to live and move. I can see a beautiful, animated X-ray of a galloping horse. This is a muscular and vigorous feeling about form. And in addition to the form’s usefulness as an armature, Peacock recommends the writing of sonnets as a way to measure oneself against the history of literature, and a way to connect with that history. Whatever one’s feelings about sonnet writing, I find these attractive thoughts, after so many years of everybody going it so damned alone. Wanting to be connected, wanting to be great in some great tradition, these are sweet ideas. But how can I reconcile them with my own preference for isolation from the other toilers? I explain it to myself this way: I don’t want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellowshipping way, but I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead.

Lunch Break

I met up with Dorianne Laux at the sonnet panel. In spite of my abstract contempt for everyone in attendance here, I am on the functional level delighted as well as grateful to see this person whom I know and like, a warm human being, a strong poet, and the head of a writing program in Oregon. This is all so distressing. I knew it would be. We find Dorianne’s husband, world’s-nicest-poet Joe Millar, and collect Major Jackson, a young poet making a name for himself, teaching in a writing program, and not incidentally an old student of Dorianne’s, and we all go for lunch at a little place around the corner from the Fairmont. I am so happy to be tucked into this booth with these down-to-earth, generous people whose lives are writing, as mine is. Why have I kept myself from this camaraderie? There’s lots of relaxed book chat. Major talks about not yet feeling he has an arc for his new book. (What is an arc? Dorianne explains that this is a term current in creative writing circles and refers to a shape the whole book of poems should ideally have, like a narrative arc, as I understand it, and forgive me if I have this wrong.) Already it is coming to me why I don’t have more of this camaraderie; just the thought of vogue shapes for poetry books oppresses like cathedral tunes. Dorianne seems to be able to coexist with stuff like this, letting it wash over her. The more I think about it, the more oppressed I feel—so many of us writing books of poetry, with or without arc. How in the world can I feel really, really special? No, I think poets should take the lesson of the great aromatic eucalyptus tree and poison the soil beneath us.

The Contemporary Sestina 3:00-4:15 PM, still that same day somehow.

I can’t stay away from these panels on forms. Just to say, “The Contemporary Sestina” sounds as lovely and hopeless as saying, “The Contemporary Minuet.”

And again, there is a full house. I will admit to having no personal patience with using such an extremely strict form (or indeed any strict forms) but I feel an attraction to the general atmosphere of rigor it excites. It feels penitential, religious in its extremity, the sestina: a scourge against shapelessness, a six-sextet-plus-a-tercet rod of discipline.

And indeed the panelists quickly establish an atmosphere of almost kabbalistic mystery for the antique sestina, which had its heyday in the Middle Ages. We are plunged immediately into its spiritual possibilities. When we enter it, do we leave worldly time and enter ecstatic eternal time? Is the sestina another form of the medieval cathedral? Does the numerologically suggestive sestina allow entrance into the axis mundi? Perhaps the sestina—because of the ways it repeats—is an uroboros (accent on the second syllable, I note) eating its tail, cycling without end. And this question arises: can a ritual (the form of the sestina, for example) be somehow satisfying in itself, even if we no longer understand why it has the pattern it has or what powers it was originally meant to invoke? Can the repetition of a pattern—alone—give us consolation? I cannot speak about the sestina particularly, but in general I think, yes; we are adjusted, physically corrected, by the repetition of patterns. They hit some deep drone part of our brains and make things better.

But to return to the sestina, it is especially good for obsessive- compulsives, say the practitioners (both kidding and not), perfect for those who enjoy being “boxed in.” The sestina says over and over, “You must say it some other way” (other than the easy way). The sestina-writer creates her own monster as she battles it, the meanings of the six repeated words twisting and writhing away as the dragon of the sestina grows sextet by sextet. I enjoy the panel’s emphasis on what a titanic wrestling match it is to write a poem. I certainly feel this when I write a poem, even though it’s not a sestina.

What a fine panel this was, inviting the mystical by way of stringent form, celebrating at once the exercise of intention and fruitful thwarting of intention. I felt completely removed from the modern world.

Where Are the Poet-Critics? 9:00-10:15 AM, Friday (hump of the conference).

Herb Leibowitz, who edits Parnassus, was supposed to be on this panel, and I really wanted to meet him. He edited an essay of mine for his magazine once, and he was so fussy that it seemed like a grooming ritual from another hemisphere, important in ways that I couldn’t understand. I hoped all the people on this panel would be smart and particular like that.

Herb Leibowitz didn’t show, but the present speaker seemed to fit the bill. I had come in quite late, I’m sorry to say (panel hangover from yesterday), and the room was excitingly jammed, people sitting on the floor, a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred, in all. There was a smart feeling here. The severely dressed woman to my left, taking furious notes in her Moleskine as I snuck in to the last free seat, would not deign to tell me that it was Linda Gregerson speaking although I whispered my inquiry. It was my shoddy behavior of arriving late and wanting to be caught up. I hate that too.

Linda Gregerson spoke of the importance of the poet-critic in a precise and strenuous manner that I appreciated very much. It’s satisfying to watch someone being exact in front of you. It makes you automatically feel that what they are saying matters. There was a compelling, hesitating quality to her sentences, as though in each she was rejecting a variety of possible formulations, very quickly, before fastening upon the happiest. We have to listen to so many dumb people; it’s such a pleasure to watch somebody’s brain working that fast. A second panel member, Cynthia Hogue, was also compelling, but not in that close-cropped-hair way I especially like. Hers was a more relaxed-haired intelligence. She spoke of having bought the whole deconstructionist thing of the eighties and of having adopted their alienating jargon. At the time she found it intellectually exhilarating, plus she had to get her PhD. It had taken her years, she said, to purge her language of this theoretical luggage and to come to understand that criticism and poetry should talk. I like this very sophisticated AA confession thing, confessing to being a reformed deconstructionist. I am failing to get across the high level of discourse this panel was at, but it was a high level. It appears that the theoretical zealotry of the eighties is in major decline, and it’s getting to be OK for all sorts of good sense to reign again. This was a serious and passionate gathering. Cynthia Hogue said, and it thrills me when someone will go this far: “Critical writing is spiritual practice.” Of course it is. Everything truly attended to is spiritual practice, isn’t it? More of that, please.

Transgressive and Post-Confessional Narrative in Contemporary American Poetry 12:00-1:15 PM, Friday.

Such a lot to think about, just in the panel’s title!

The word transgressive is thick upon the ground here at AWP. I could also have attended panels titled, “Transgression and Conven-tion: Writing the Erotic Poem” and “Impure Poetry: The Poetics of the Transgressive, Taboo, and Impolite.” It’s funny how writers will all want to jump on the same bed till the springs pop out. Then they go jump on another one. Transgressive apparently now means sex. Didn’t there used to be other transgressions? Will there be others again? How about, transgression against obsessive self-regard? That would be a good one: “Hello. I’m Jen and I keep having impersonal thoughts.”

Then post-confessional. What could this mean? Is post confession what comes after confession? Perhaps contrition? Or Hail Marys? Or dedication to good works? Or does post-confessional mean Confessional like Sexton or Lowell, but ironic and self-conscious now—saying, I am confessing, I see myself confessing, but I know no one can really confess?

In the event, transgressive and post-confessional narrative turned out to mean loosely-plotted tales of sex and attitude, read really fast and/or at high volume, which left me feeling amused and pleasantly avuncular, grateful to not be listening to a mumble panel.

Wait; I can’t feel avuncular. I’m a genetic woman. But I do. Am I starting to have transgressive issues?

A Drink in the Bar Friday night and none too soon

I met up with someone I knew, a longtime magazine editor not used to AWP and as ill at ease as I was. We had a drink in the bar of the Fairmont Friday evening. I’d already had a drink there earlier and had set my backpack on fire in the candle on the low table between the cozy chairs. Big flames. I was wise to that this time. The editor hated being there. He knew it was going to make his life harder; every writer you meet means one more personal rejection letter you have to write. We both resented, but from opposite ends, personality horning in on the real question: the words on the page.

Telling Secrets, Loud Silences, and Consensual Reality: The Art of the Memoir 1:30-2:45 PM, Saturday. Philip Lopate, etc.

My last panel!

I went to this because I love Philip Lopate’s essay anthology so much. Memoir is the perfect thing to hear talked about or read aloud. You can stand lots and lots (as opposed to poetry). It’s juicy stories: father with hands cut off, son bathing him; mentally ill daughter who must constantly tell her life aloud; the brother who married the Headless Woman in the circus; the father who choked his wife (but not all the way).

The concern of this panel is, How far can you go, telling other people’s secrets? A tormenting question, and not just legally. The memoirist whose brother married the Headless Woman, for example, lost good relations with a sister over her tale-telling.

The audience is keenly interested. Judging by their detailed questions to the panelists, they intend to Try This at Home. Is it fair to write about your young children? Your still-living parents? I am refreshed by Philip Lopate’s candor; he is less concerned with being seen as a good guy and a non-exploiter than he is with making “something shapely.” I think it’s good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.

Brief Dilation Upon Panels

There is something inherently Monty Pythonish about panels. The set-up is perfect for farce: starched rigidity (topic, table, moderator, time limits, matching water goblets) combined with a thrumming undercurrent of overcivilized competition. Soon after introductions, the dramatic differences in style and talent among the panelists begin to tear the table apart. In the best panels a happy anarchy ensues, resulting in a shambles enjoyed by all.

The Big Final Reading: Anne Carson & W.S. Merwin 4:30-6:15 PM (especially long session—the star treatment).

Amazing, disorienting mystery room! They have gutted the inte-rior of the conference floor (where I have occupied so many paneled interiors these last three days) to create a single room the size of a sports pavilion for the big final reading. Hundreds and hundreds of AWP attendees drain through the large doors. There is an irresistible pull to this room. I can’t calculate the strength it would have taken not to come. Maybe if you were early, it wouldn’t be like this; it’s probably the great suck of people. Something important must be going to happen if there are this many people here. We are thousands, maybe a million. We darken the long rows of chairs. We are one organism— a seated organism.

I am pretty far up front, maybe thirty or forty rows back, and Anne Carson is quite big, I mean the top half of her that I can see. She is larger than the top half of a gel-cap, maybe a gel-cap half and a half. It is easy to make out her black tuxedoish jacket and the blazing white shirt whose collar flies up into dramatic wing tips like a magician’s. She is sporting an insouciant brown ponytail! I always thought of her with her hair down and this is much more playful. I can see it bounce when she turns her head suddenly to the side. These are show clothes and this will be a show! I can’t see her expressions, but fortunately she has a microphone for expressions. It’s hard to judge, when a person is in the gel-cap size range, but she seems gamine, elfin. Oh, and really, really smart. How does smart sound? It isn’t the Greek and Latin references. The smartness is a tone, something light—dry—exact and amused. It makes it a pleasure to listen to her language and thought experiments; they are offered lightly; you are under no emotional obligation to care. Which of course makes it more possible to do so. Noting what a very big audience it is (as though she hadn’t known it would be), she begins differently than she had planned. She’ll start with a thirteen-second (as I recall) interactive love poem relying upon the audience for a small recitative part. She divides us in half with her tiny commanding arm: this million will say this when I indicate (“What a deal!”) and this million will say this (“I’ll take it!”). She says her parts, we roar our briefer parts, and we’re in cahoots, co- creating (we flatter ourselves to think) a heady ambient smartness. It keeps on like that. She does a bunch of Catullus translations—in which she lobs modern references into classical poems (at one point Catullus looks in the “fridge”) the way she lobs Latin into her contemporary stuff—not quite beautiful or exactly amusing, but always out of left field.

W.S. Merwin reads second. Not a fortunate match. We are assured that he has won every prize winnable, but here today it is hard to see why. The poems drift across the acres of convention space as vague and shapeless as clouds; I keep feeling like maybe I’m taking mini-naps and missing the pieces that connect things up.

But what could you tell about anybody’s poetry in this big-top atmosphere? The room is all out of proportion with how poetry works. The pressure is all wrong. This place is right for revivals and mass conversions, for stars and demagogues. I don’t think I’d trust poetry that worked too well here. Aren’t the persuasions of poetry private? To my mind, the right sized room to hear poetry is my head, the words speaking from the page.

On the way Home

It’s over.

On the Sunday morning flight back to San Francisco I had the aisle seat next to two young women who, judging by their totes, had been to AWP. Except for serving as a mild obstacle in the passing of snacks, I was invisible to them and their friends seated across the aisle. My seatmates spent much of the flight planning out an elaborate future exchange of poems, something that would spur them to write after they no longer had the support of the creative writing program they were finishing. Near the end of the flight, when it’s safe to talk to strangers because you will soon separate, I offered my opinion on the Carson/Merwin reading they’d started discussing, and then we all said who we were. The young woman by the window said, “Wait, are you the Kay Ryan who wrote an essay about becoming a poet? Because I used that essay in the first creative writing class I ever taught, and it worked so well!”

It turned out that she and I wound up waiting at the same Airporter bench, and she said again how happy she was to have met me. Oh God, wasn’t this just the perfect illustration of everything I hated? Wasn’t this the AWP predicament in miniature? What in the world was this lovely, unfledged creature doing teaching a creative writing course? And what in the world was my essay doing encouraging these ever expanding fuzzy rings of literary mediocrity, deepening the dismal soup of helpful, supportive writing environments? Shouldn’t I have been up on my back legs at least as much as Simone Weil would have been? Simone Weil, you will recall, abominated all mediocrity and would have recommended vaporizing all of its creators but for the fact that the mediocre grows in the same soil as the great and therefore kill one, kill the other. Simone Weil would have starved herself to death before she would have gone to AWP.

But I had already gone to AWP. And in the presence of this pleasant and possibly promising person waiting for the bus with me I didn’t even think of vaporizing anything or anybody. No, I didn’t even struggle in my chains. Instead I felt pleased that my essay had proven useful, and flattered to be recognized, and wanted very much to be likeable in person.

*AWP is the standard abbreviation for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

COMMENTS (23)

On February 25, 2007 at 5:03pm christiane wrote:
very contrary to what she might think, or want, Kay Ryan ought, like Costco, to be a household name. ..like Starbucks - everywhere and consumed by the masses, daily... even in small amounts. But of course there is too much of that dense 'lightness' in her and her work, not enough bulk that feels nourishing. And that would be 'all out of proportion for how she works'..is. She offers no comfort food, despite the intimacy and reassurance that is envitably found in even her most isolating/isolated ideas. Her prose and poetry are exquisite and her thinking rich and generous in their amazing compactness, her difficult thoughts eased, made warm, more inviting and non caustic by her humour - the poet in her willing and able to extract beauty - or paint beautifully- even what she does not find beautiful. I can never get enough of reading her.

On July 26, 2008 at 9:59am w.f.roby wrote:
For America to have a poet laureate who does not believe in the workshop, who holds contempt for poets, who believes (in her own words) that we ought to be lonely / solitary beings -- this is a sad, sad day.

What a shame.

Kay Ryan has no business holding the office of poet laureate.

On July 29, 2008 at 6:35pm wrote:
Just another self-absorbed "Poet" (with a capitol 'P') with no sense of anything past her backyard, let alone craft or currents.

On July 29, 2008 at 10:17pm Janet Butler wrote:
I love Kay Ryan. Her The Niagara River is my favorite book of poetry, which I read all in a breath, and have re-read and re-read so much that I had to finally leave it at home so I could carry other worthy poets-to-ponder when Transbaying or otherwise employed. She is wonderful in her acuteness and honesty, and I feel better after reading her for following my instinct, and wanting to keep myself for myself, ignoring invitations to slams and bams and what-nots. May she long reign, our Poet Laureate!!

On July 30, 2008 at 12:26am m.r.callahan wrote:
hooray, hooray, how wonderful to have such a poet laureate! it's not that we ought to be "lonely / solitary beings" -- it's that we are. the workshop is part of the carnival...

On July 30, 2008 at 9:33am neokobe wrote:
Some of the comments (ok, w.f.roby's) smack of misogyny. If Franz Wright (or some other male poet in thier late fifties or sixties who chose a position as an outsider and, as if often the case with male outsider poets, who had a history of substance abuse which people could then take as a signifier of authenticity) were laureate and had written the same article wouldn't it be praised as caustic but authentic, or the refreshing view of an iconoclast? Wouldn't the outsider status of that same male be attributed to the 'integrity' or some other supposedly intrinsic quality of his work? Apparently, a female with the same outsider status has simply decided to be difficult (in other words, her status as female trumps all consideration of her work) and her views are then summarily dismissed because she dares to have opinions about the work she has dedicated her life to. Also, I think one 'sad' would have sufficied in describing a day when someone with whom you disagree is appointed to an office so culturally irrelevant as to barely exist at all.

On July 30, 2008 at 9:51am Tripping Bridge wrote:
Is w.f.roby being sarcastic, ironic, or honest? It is so hard to tell and they don't leave any clues--such as a a ;-) or :-P or X-(.

What does it even mean to "believe in the workshop"? Whenever I have had the misfortune to attend a "workshop" all I can think of is the cliche "too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth". Panels are worse. Truly, the best part of any conference is meeting new people to share food and drink.

And I think you have misread Mrs. Ryan's article. This essay is neurotic and self-doubting, the travelogue of a stranger in a strange land. She isn't passing judgement on a foreign culture, but asking aloud "Why are these people so different from me"; an anthropologist not a judge.

On July 30, 2008 at 3:02pm George McAllister wrote:
Unlike a previous commenter, I immediately identified with Ms. Ryan's comments. While not, like her, a writer, I do share her misanthropy. And please don't misunderstand - I use the word with great affection. It has a proud history, from Diogenes to Florence King. There are still too few of them about. I'm going out to buy all of her books as soon as I can.

On July 31, 2008 at 8:55am Will Eastland wrote:
WF Roby made no connection between his objections and Ms. Ryan's gender. He took umbrage with specific opinions and statements made within the article. To say he would not have disagreed with a male who made the same statements is "hypothesis contrary to fact", a logical fallacy, and, perhaps, an indication of some hypersensitivity.

On July 31, 2008 at 1:50pm Marlene Rosen Fine wrote:
Before the announcement that she is our new Poet L., I had never heard of her. & now I am so glad to have read her & I had so much fun reading her poems aloud. I favor some of her poems more. So what? I don't like all of Strand or Gluck or Sharon Olds & sometimes use my editing on their poems to clean up. So Ryan has her own way to think, write, make music. Yes! Workshops can open words to writers. Writers must open themselves!

On August 1, 2008 at 9:17am neokobe wrote:
Dear Will Eastland-I never wrote that WF Roby made a connection between his objections and Ms. Ryan's gender. He doesn't have to explicitly, that's how ideology works. Also, I never indicated that he specifically would have reacted differently to a male writer, simply that the standard reaction to this sort of writing tends to favor males. Mainly, I thought the specific nature of his reaction was telling.

To me, his intentional omission of an argument leaves me few options other than to believe that we are to take his statements as fact because he was arguing against a woman. Also, and perhaps I didn't make this clear, I didn't think that WF Roby disliked Ryan simply because she is a woman, but because of the type of woman she is. Could I be wrong? Of course.

As for ""hypothesis contrary to fact", a logical fallacy, and, perhaps, an indication of some hypersensitivity" I have to suggest that, perhaps, you're holding me to a higher standard than you hold WF Roby to. Had he given even the slighest hint of an argument I would have been better able to address what I sensed was a compositionally implied misogyny. Indeed, an argument of any kind may have made my post unnecessary, however, WF conciously chose to omit all arguments and I can think of few other reasons, other than Ryan's gender, why he would think arbitrary statements would suffice to make any point.

On another level, I must admit, you are right. I could have asked WF to present some evidence to support his statement, and waited around for him to clarify things. And in my attempt to address something I happen to think is wrong, I didn't strictly adhere to any rigorous logical or scientific methodology. Guilty! Though that is a pretty last sentence.

On August 2, 2008 at 4:39pm rknester wrote:
I am a product of the poetry workshop system, but I understand what Ryan is talking about. Perhaps she is even correct that a community of poets is a contradiction in terms. For me, it works because I am not, as she is, a person who prefers to be by myself. I think best when stimulated by others, which is why I enjoy teaching--not just creative writing but literature and composition. People and my interactions with them are my subject in my own work, most of the time. And people tend to introduce me to thinks I will come to love that I do not know about now. That's the best argument for workshops, but they aren't for everyone.

On November 14, 2008 at 3:57pm Joy F wrote:
What a delightful piece! I found myself distressed at reaching the sentence "My last panel!" because it meant the conference, and Ryan's startling observation of it, was almost at an end. It's been hella long time since any online article made me feel that.

And what a perfect tone to strike. Anyone who finds anything to take offense at in this piece is, frankly, an ignoramus with a tin ear. Ryan combines astonishment, amusement, and skepticism with just the right amount of humility. And, of course, she writes a killer line.

On December 5, 2008 at 5:03am M. Porter Swaid wrote:
Wow. What a great tale.

Peace

On January 23, 2009 at 10:50am bucky wrote:
This was a delightful piece that resonated with every molecule of my outlaw soul.

OUTLAW POETS...make your voices heard.

Thank you so much Ms Ryan for this piece.

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too many words

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On March 5, 2009 at 6:30am shlomo dror wrote:
Reading this essay/memoir was the most pleasurable read I've had in a while. KR SHOWS that she is a poet by her use of language, her imagery and sensual use of words, obviously chosen one by one.

Looking over the comments provided by readers, I see they come from precisely the mind set she despises. They react to her personality as if we need to judge a writer's "interpersonal style" to measure the value of his or her writing. How many popularity contests would Emily Dickenson win if that were the way of the world?

Her personality is simply another one of her gifts to the public, like it or not.

On March 27, 2009 at 6:24pm Pharme73 wrote:
Very nice site!

On July 9, 2009 at 5:00am Winston Riley wrote:
I like what I see of Kay Ryan after reading about her in Newsweek. With a poetry blog and writing poetry again after 30 years of business, I certainly relate. I also know about the loneliness of "seeking" readership. www.everymanslifeafairytale.blogspot.com

On July 11, 2009 at 11:20am Susan Kirby-Smith wrote:
Thoroughly enjoyed it. Such gentle and brave honesty and witty observations, flights of thought.

On October 9, 2011 at 9:06am Emma K wrote:
I like this article. It was a pretty amusing observation on the contemporary social circle that writers move about in, the panels with long names, the readings by poets unheard of by people who don't read poetry (which sadly is most of the population) and the reality that it's basically unheard of these days to be a writer without attending or teaching workshop. It was interesting to see Ms. Ryan, who just doesn't mesh as well with this culture as other writers, try and navigate it. It certainly made me want to read some of her poetry, and once again reasserting the underground-ness of poetry happenings, I had no idea she had been poet laureate.

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 Kay  Ryan

Biography

Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Ryan's tightly compressed, rhythmically dense poetry is often compared to that of Emily . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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