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The Year Kay Ryan Went to AWP (To Cover It): 4 Excerpts

I like poetryA few excerpts from Kay Ryan's "I Go To AWP" (written for Poetry, in 2005, the year AWP was in Vancouver)


 Simone Weil would have starved herself to death before she would have gone to AWP.

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.

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.

Manhattan cocktailLunch 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.

Death of LiteratureTransgressive 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?


Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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