I am late to the post-AWP wrap-up party, I suppose, but nonetheless, I have a few thoughts about my four-and-a-half days in Denver. One thing, I talked to several people, some friends, some just people, who call themselves Denver residents. They all noted that Denver was a dull place to live. I would remark that I live in Iowa City, Iowa, and that things can get pretty dull there, if you know what I mean, and they would say, well, sure, it’s Iowa. But Denver is a big old frontier town next to the mountains, gateway to the West, and yet somehow it’s like a giant newfangled strip mall. How did that happen?
My thinking is that all of the people who made these general kinds of remarks were, in fact, transient residents; most were in school, at various writing programs, or were teaching at various writing programs. And since all of them were writers of some stripe, they were also the kind of residents given to spending some serious time considering. Just considering. In other words, they of course have worked out a position, have articulated a poetics, if you will, of everything, including how Denver as it is today might square with vatic Denver, the Denver that used to be (or probably never was).
But wait, there’s more. I also spent a fair bit of time walking the four blocks between my hotel and the convention center where the AWP book fair was housed. Back and forth, mostly lovely, crisp weather, especially in the morning, when I always underdressed and fairly froze as little mountain wind jags bounced around downtown. I felt like I was experiencing a Rocky Mountain High at those times, when the wind shot through me, and I pulled my pathetically thin windbreaker tighter around me, and I would even stop at times at a corner and consider walking back the one block, now two, now three to put on a warmer jacket, which I had brought, of course, had brought three jackets, because I like to be prepared for all possible weather events wherever I go, and sometimes I would occupy that corner for even five minutes, barely registering the crowds around me shuffling through the crosswalk as the light turned green, then stopping as the light turned red, at this point my bones had begun to hurt, it was that wind, and it would take some cab driver laying on his horn at an old woman who crossed at the wrong time for me to snap out of my contemplation and just walk into the convention center, bracing myself for the other weather inside this enormous building.
Once inside, I saw a lot of very serious people. I felt extremely unserious. I wasn’t on a panel; I wasn’t delivering a reading. I was at the conference thanks to the largesse of The Iowa Review, where I am the poetry editor, and also to support Canarium Books, which I co-edit with the three loveliest people I know. But walking into the airplane hangar-like room that housed the hundreds of presses, organizations, magazines, self-published writers, etc. I felt very small. Mostly because the room was just so big (if I was given to a more lyric kind of writing, I would remark that the experience of seeing the book fair room for the first time was sublime, in the way Wordsworth describes the mountain’s immensity, etc., i.e., one feels at a remove from the din, even if one has to soon proceed forward and attach one’s self (in)to it (yes, it is something like the shadow world in The Matrix, at least in a low-level reading/fantasy kind of way).
Moving forward into the business of this conference, the serious people surface, often stern behind a table or booth, often wearing the death-mask they have had fitted for just such occasions, the occasion of what, exactly? The occasion of pedaling wares, perhaps, or (re)connecting with serious people (Matrix again), or deflecting the stares of less serious people. What is very interesting to me is that I saw and sometimes met serious people all over the place, whether a major literary organization with culture cache, or a tiny press that essentially serves as a vanity press to anyone willing to subvent the publication of their book. The former serious people mostly made sense to me. I used to work for The Poetry Foundation (I forget now if I am supposed to initial cap the “The”) and it is a very serious organization, as is The Academy of American Poets, Poets & Writers, the NEA, and so forth. But I also, as I mentioned above, invest myself in a small, tiny press and I used to always think that small, tiny presses were, by nature, supposed to be at least sort of unserious. But they often are not.
The reasons are probably legion, but one thing that I noticed this year was that gap between the so-called Haves and Have-nots (the Establishment and the DIY Establishment) has increased (most think the gap is shrinking, because of things like the Internet and Print on Demand and because of things like hybridization and the grotesque and how academia has begun to swallow such things up and so the marginals have arrived, but that’s not true). I felt a serious disconnect, talking to serious and unserious people, between how the serious feel they are perceived by others and how the unserious desire to be perceived by others. Or rather, that’s the distinction.
The serious people are always, in a context like AWP, “being thought about.” E.g., everyone has an opinion on how The Poetry Foundation should spend its money, or if So and So really should have been awarded a Guggenheim (for that is a lot of money for “a poet whose poems makes me want to punch a donkey immediately after reading.” Actual quote overheard on book fair floor.) But the unserious people spend a lot of time miming the actions of serious people (holding readings in contemporary art museums; sending extensive press releases out whenever they pass wind; publishing their own selected correspondence; sending letters to me when I used to work for The Poetry Foundation, wondering whether I’d be interested in featuring them on poetryfoundation.org, and then after not being featured on poetryfoundation.org, talking some serious trash on poetryfoundation.org for being an evil organization hell-bent on destroying literacy in this country (generally speaking, of course)).
And I have no problem with the latter—the desire for unseriousness to mature into seriousness. From unperceived to perceived. This is like the transition toward the sublime, the overwhelming flattening of the senses and reason, say, before the fact of the mountain. If that’s your thing.
Anyhow, I am going to post once more on AWP, and then let it go. The next post will feature assorted video and audio clips made in and around the conference.
Poet and filmmaker Nick Twemlow is a senior editor of the Iowa Review and co-editor of Canarium Books. His first collection of poetry, Palm Trees (2012), won the Norma Farber first book award from the Poetry Society of America. Judge Timothy Liu noted of Twemlow’s work, “Reading Twemlow gives one a deep sense about what's exciting...