8000 Writers Descend on Denver - AWP, Second Installment

Please scroll down to April 15 to read the first "8000 Writers Descend on Denver" installment about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Denver last weekend.

"What is to give light, must endure burning."  This is the motto that has, for 36 years, fed the brave editorial direction of The Sun magazine.  I wasn't able to attend the INTO THE FIRE reading by Sun authors Sy Safransky, Ellen Bass, and 5 other notibles, but I heard it was fabulous. 

Instead, I attended WHEN FORM INVENTS FUNCTION: THE CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN INDIAN PROSE POEM, in part because Sherman Alexie was supposed to be on the panel (a stand-up comedian who brilliantly disguises himself as an author, so brilliantly in fact that War Dances just won the 2010 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction), but in greater part because my frend, Choctaw author LeAnne Howe was on the panel.  If you want to know who invented baseball, read LeAnne's novel Miko Kings, and check out her Miko King blog.

Part of the panel discussion revolved around genre, a hotly debated topic for more than 10 years in LeAnne's academic circle at the University of Illinois, where she is a professor of English and American Indian Studies.  "Hey, we're Indian," LeAnne told the audience (in her charming, radically intelligent way), "we don't need no stinking genre."  She went on to say, "Let the work teach you about the process...let the work find its own genre."

Her advice makes sense.  Find the fire, let it burn (fuel the writing with passion), then let the writing inform the genre.  Most of the time, we do just the opposite.  We sit down and say, "I'm going to write a poem."  Then, even though the writing might unfold as something different, we try over and over again to fit it into the genre in which we thought we were going to write.  "Sometimes," said LeAnne, "we discover what a piece of writing is by discovering what it's not."

Several panels explored the western landscape as both character and genre: Western Myth Busters, Women Writing the West, To West or Not to West, The First Next Place: Montana Writers Take on Regionalism, and The Transplanted Writer (mentioned in my first AWP installment). The idea of remythologizing the West has been a favorite (and tiring) topic at conferences in the West for decades.  I found myself writing in my notebook I LOVE THE WEST out of shear self-defense because many of panels did a good job of exhausting the topic. 

Do women write the West differently?  This question was posed several times.  Are women more apt to allow myths, our own and others, to live side by side without feeling the need to prove either one true or false?  What are your thoughts?  Perhaps the "woman's" West is a more diverse landscape.

During the conference, a moving tribute was paid to Standing Rock Sioux author VINE DELORIA, JR,  Controversial author of twenty books about the Native American experience, he wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times in 1976, "We have brought the white man a long way in 500 years. From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence."  Mitakuye Oyasin.  The Universe is alive, and we are all related.  Much of the career of this esteemed scholar was devoted to diversifying our beliefs about the West.

On the final night of the conference, Terry Tempest Williams (photo credit Ted C. Brummond), author of 15 books including the beloved memoir Refuge, joined Rick Bass, author of 20 books including the memoir Why I Came West, for a final keynote presentation.  When I said hello to Terry earlier that day, she shared with me that she had had mysterious health concerns and that the doctors had discovered a small vasculer mass in the language part of her brain.  She opted not to have surgery, so the mass was still there.  Each day seemed suddenly a rare gift, not to be squandered.

A few hours later, during the final event with Rick Bass, Terry told the audience of hundreds that she was going to read something very raw, something that required courage.  "I shared a draft with Rick last night," she said, "and he cared enough to be critical.  To preserve my dignity, I won't repeat what he said." The audience laughed, then quieted as she began to speak of the vascular mass, of the visions that came, of the birds that appeared, and reappeared, bringing both beauty and a sense of otherworldliness.

When Rick took the stage after Terry, he quickly shared with the audience that the sponsors of the event (University of North Carolina Wilmington) had wined and dined him to excess, plying him him with coffee to sober him up before he spoke.  I'm glad the coffee didn't work - he was charming in this slightly inebriated state. 

Perhaps Denver's Mile Hi thin air was partly to blame.  The air here is intoxicating, even when you're born and reared along the Front Range and grow up in the shadows of Colorado's rocky, white-capped peaks.  The conference, too, was intoxicating - almost too much of a good thing.  But taken one panel at a time, one speaker at a time, one idea at a time, well worth the satiated feeling that followed.

Apply to present at the 2011 AWP Conference in Washington, D.C.


Page, it's great to read about some of the panels I wasn't able to attend. (I did make it to the Sun reading, though, and it was indeed a highlight.) I love what LeAnne Howe says about genre. Leslie Marmon Silko said something similar, that she's able to combine fictional elements in her memoir (the "fictional" part being her communication with star beings, which her publisher might consider fictional but ...). Perhaps it's true that Native American writing can transcend genre because of its strong spiritual elements...
Page Lambert said…
Hi Kristin! Good to see you at AWP! Sorry I missed the SUN reading. Not all Native American writing has strong spiritual elements - their topics are as diverse as main stream writing - but perhaps a strong oral story telling tradition (for any culture) frees up the writer to step outside the bounds of traditional genre writing. Interesting things to think about!

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