AWP recap – Part I

This week, it was all about AWP – the Association of Writers and Writing Programs – whose annual conference headquartered itself just a few blocks from me at the Chicago Hilton. My poetry group (the SLANG 6) registered for the conference in lieu of our February workshop. Needless to say, it was an embarrassment of riches.

Multiply six time slots per day times 15 concurrent seminars in each time slot, then times three days, and I believe you get 270 seminars from which to choose. Add to that a variety of competing readings each evening and over 500 exhibitors at the accompanying Bookfair, and it’s rather an overwhelming experience.

I’ll be recapping two seminars at a time; here are the first two.

1. The Sister Art(s): Toward a Feminist Ekphrasis


Ekphrastic = writing that comments upon another art form, e.g., a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film. A famous example is Keats’ “Ode Upon a Grecian Urn.”

Moderated by Grace Bauer from the University of Nebraska, each woman on the panel spoke about an ekphrastic project and then read some of their related poetry. Leslie Adrienne Miller discussed her book The Resurrection Trade, in which she writes about Victorian anatomical pictures created for male medical doctors of the time. I didn’t care for the poetry – very academic – but the pictures were horrifying.

Robin Becker spoke about her experiences researching the first home economics programs at MIT and other prestigious universities, how empowering that was for women, and the effect of the end of WWII on those programs – dissolution or co-option into male-dominated departments.

Joy Manesiotis did not focus so much on her poetic work, itself, but spoke about how her studies as a visual artist have influenced her poetry. Many of the processes are the same, she says. What is allowed to enter the frame of the picture/poem? What do you include and exclude? But of course, differences also exist: The viewer can take in a painting all in one look, but a reader can only read one word of a poem at at time.

Joy also made an interesting comment about how – in her view – contemporary poetry has become so “noisy.” It’s all about having something to say, whereas, many writers need to wander around in the dark in solitude until they bump into something. I perked up at that, because I’m absolutely the “wander round in the dark” kind of writer. I hope to make strides in the other direction, too, but I do tend to go out into the world, observe, and then write.


Fresh from grad school, Christine Stewart-Nunez just published her first collection of poetry, Unbound & Branded, which was inspired by a magazine portfolio of artists responding to the image of supermodel Kate Moss. She read from a paper she published on the subject and passed around the pictures of Moss, who was attempting to reinvent herself after childbirth. The following poem has to be the most entertaining piece read during the session.

Bad girl
by Christine Stewart-Nunez 

Peel back the universe, bad girl. Wear black minis  
and fishnets for us all. Tell that boss  
to fuck off. Take blame for the affair.  
Leave lovers bleeding in bed for other girls  
to save. Spend your whole paycheck on yourself. 

Punch through the rules, bad girl. Publish 
nude photos of yourself. Stab the rapist to kill. 
Shatter ceilings with your stilettos; find  
new uses for your bra. Leave Sunday mornings  
for the spa and evenings for sipping scotch. 

Read more

2. What’s in the Magazines: A Conversation

Moderated by a staffer from Poets & Writers magazine, this panel featured editors from New Letters, Adirondack Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. Not a lot of revelations here, but some useful reminders. What do the lit journals look for?

  • Writing with intensity
  • Writing that advances the art
  • Writing that will stand up to numerous readings
  • Writing that offers hope

Actually, that last one got disputed by several editors. New Letters doesn’t like to publish anything that doesn’t offer some hope. Thankfully, the other editors didn’t seem to care if the work ended in complete despair. Hooray for gloom and depression!

The real contrast on this panel was obvious: the old guard (New Letters) and the new media (Adirondack Review). New Letters is a print journal that has expanded into a variety of online ventures, including podcasts, but their sensibility remains staunchly print. Adirondack Review is an online journal that seems excited about the ways poetry can be published online.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not part of the “print is dead” crowd. I love books as objects. But while I won’t read an entire novel on a screen, I will certainly read a poem on my laptop. Also, the New Letters guy just sounded defensive about the online world. “And now we have to do podcasts,” is exactly how he put it. Yes, well, no one has to subscribe to your journal either. Poetry is optional in most people’s lives. I say let’s  give them as many ways to find it and “read” it as we can.

More to come on AWP.

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