I am thoroughly soaked with things AWP. Most treasured among my bookfair finds is a beautiful, beautiful book of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, from Archipelago, one of my favorite small presses.
Yesterday afternoon, I saw Mary Gaitskill and Sapphire read. Gaitskill read from a novel-in-progress, generating about her an unearthly hum; in one bit of the excerpt a woman noted how everyone must accept darkness, how much easier life becomes when one does so; and at one moment this question is posed: what is fertilized by a decomposing personality? I’ll be on the look out for that next book. Sapphire read from Push (I don’t think I was the only one on the verge of sob; in high school I think I bawled through most of the book). She interspersed this with poems by Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Rodgers, and Ai, poets that had influenced her work and died in the past year. Her second novel, The Kid, is coming out this spring. I can’t wait.
Finally, of the many panels I attended, I think I’ll most remember a very instructive anecdote Steve Yarbrough told during Politics in the Novel:
Back when he was in graduate school, his professor brought in a photo of a starving child in Africa – with a distended belly and all the things one might immediately think. He held up the photo to the class and said: “This is what’s wrong with sentimentality in fiction.” A calculated move, directed at a student in the class who’d been in the Peace Corps. The student reacted angrily, as expected – how can you say that, etc.
The professor replied that the photo was reductive: you can only have one emotion in response to it. Then he held up another photograph. The second photo showed two children, also starving, from the same place, except it was not so focused on the starving body. The angle widened; you got a sense of the landscape. One boy was hitting another boy on the head with a tree branch. The photo elicited questions; what was happening between them, why the fight? One boy had been singing; the other told him, “you have the ugliest voice I’ve ever heard.” This photo was complex and human; multiple emotions, multiple questions arose. Such a useful, helpful anecdote.
Those are the highlights. I have loads of other notes on the business of finding an agent, on epiphanic and episodic stories, on Robert Coover’s defamiliarizing the known so that we may see again (that was Brian Evenson speaking, at my professor Maya Sonenberg’s panel). Perhaps I’ll write more as other bits reverberate.