I just returned to Boston after spending two days at the AWP Conference in Chicago. I’m sure a lot of writers will blog about their experiences at the conference. They’ll touch on the shuttle bus rides between the Hilton Chicago (the main conference hotel) and the Palmer House Hilton (where many events were also held), the barely audible poetry narrations (accompanied by short films) playing on small screens in the elevators, and the hope you held onto, every time you got into one of those elevators, that you would actually go up if you pressed “up.” There was the overwhelming crowd that packed the Hilton Chicago lobby from morning until night (10,000 writers converging to attend meetings, panels, lunches, and dinners, and to peruse the massive bookfair) and the $12 glasses of wine at the hotel restaurant. And of course there were the panels themselves, packed with interesting writers and topics.
I had the opportunity to meet with old friends (it was so nice to see Mike Steinberg and Joy Castro) and to make new ones in Chicago (such as the editors of Connotation Press, who hosted a fun reading at Kasey’s Tavern on Thursday). I also attended two panels (I missed the third panel I intended to hear when my veterinarian called with news about one of my cats just as the panel was starting — the cat is OK). The Brevity blog has posted a number of summaries of the creative nonfiction panels written by guest bloggers.
Ironically, for me, I think the moments that stand out the most among the many valuable, interesting, and intimidating times I had during my stay had nothing to do with writing. For example on Thursday, just after arriving in town, I dragged friend Cindy Zelman two blocks to the shore of Lake Michigan, simply because I couldn’t travel to Chicago without making the effort to see the lake. The day was cloudy and cold, and we sat on a cracked cement wall taking in the vastness of the water in front of us with the skyline of Chicago behind us and to our left.
On Friday morning I met my friend Karin Gottshall, a very special poet, and we talked about life and marriage and friendship more than about writing. And later that day, after attending a panel at the Palmer House Hotel, I decided to walk back to the Chicago Hilton in the rain. Many years ago I wrote a poem that started with the line: “There’s something strange about the city in the rain.” I wrote that poem about Boston, but I experienced the same feeling in Chicago while I was huddled in my jacket, head down, walking quickly along the streets as the cars whisked by, looking up occasionally to see the streetlights that came on as the sky continued to darken.
On Friday night my husband joined me for my final evening in town, and we walked the half-block to Buddy Guy’s Legends club armed with tickets we’d printed off the Internet before the conference. We planned to have dinner at the club and then hear a band or two, but when we arrived we saw a sign taped to the door that said: “Closed for a Private Party Until 10.” We were pondering what this might mean when a gentleman waiting to get in the door explained that the event was related to AWP. The staff waved us in when we presented our tickets, and we soon realized that the “private party” was in fact a “Literary Death Match.” The event featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley (author of A Thousand Acres and Private Life), fiction writer and PANK co-editor Roxane Gay (author of Ayiti), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and National Book Critics Circle finalist Major Jackson, and National Book Award winner Darin Strauss (author of Half a Life). The judges for the evening were award-winning author Michael Martone, multi-award-winning poet Mark Doty, and performer, writer, and Second City teacher Rachael Mason. The evening was, simply, full of not only some great readings but a lot of plain, rip-roaring fun — right down to the fact that the winner was named after an audience member pointed out that “Dostoyevsky” has an alternative spelling (Dostoevsky). Roxane Gay’s “phone a friend” audience member had actually spelled the name correctly, and Roxane won the event after initially having been declared the runner up. Major Jackson settled for second place.
OK, that event was about writing (sort of!), but then came the music. We stayed until midnight listening to Zac Harmon and his band, master musicians (even the 26-year-old keyboardist blew us away). I have played and sung a bit in my life, but what I’ve done is absolutely nothing when compared with the talent, skill, and mastery of great musicians. Although my talent as a performer is minor, I was born with the gift of a very good ear (my father has perfect pitch). So when I hear the real thing, it truly transports me. In those moments listening to the Blues in Chicago, after two days of battling the crowds at AWP, I thought to myself: “There’s nothing, simply nothing like good music.”
Well, OK. There are a few great, great novels or memoirs or poems or essays. And since I write a lot better than I play or sing, I will stick to the writing.
Travel home safely, old and new friends.