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Going to AWP Without Really Going to AWP: A Post-AWP Report

2 Apr

This past weekend was my sixth time attending the AWP conference. My first was in New York in 2008, an overwhelming affair of 8,000 writers crammed into a couple Midtown hotels. That year, I sat on the floor beside a woman from Texas Tech who thought my plan to wait five years before getting an MFA was absurd. The next thing I knew, I was working as a paralegal to save money for graduate school, and by August 2009, I had a full ride to the University of Washington and Michael and I moved cross-country to Seattle. You could say that AWP changed our life pretty radically.

Over the years, we went to a smattering of conferences, but each year I went to fewer and fewer panels, as they tend to repeat and I learned you can only soak up so much information. In 2015 in Minneapolis, I mostly had lunch and dinner with friends, a most pleasant experience, but I’d realized the conference fee had been a waste. Next time, I resolved, I would go to AWP without going to AWP.

Last year in Tampa, with my novel just out, I didn’t get to do that. But *this* year, in Portland, it finally happened, and I highly recommend it to folks who’ve been around the AWP block. I was more relaxed. More hydrated! I had time to stay on top of my online teaching, so less stressed.

Now for some highlights:

Wednesday night, we started at The Old Portland, a wine bar owned by Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols. They only serve old French wine; I misheard the description of the Corsican rosé as “foggy” and enjoyed it very much; Michael enjoyed a ten-year-old red Bordeaux. Then, the very Portland-y (more stoner than twee Portlandia) bartender said, “Yeah, we don’t like advertise or anything,” and showed us the Odditorium, the band’s 10,000-foot “clubhouse,” where they rehearse, record, film music videos, and the like. It was cavernous and quiet. Michael, a big Dandy Warhols fan, was in heaven.

“Ice Cream,” the mono-print I made at VSC when I was sad that the ice cream shop had closed and there was no ice cream to be had.

Thursday afternoon, we went to the Vermont Studio Center alumni happy hour. I’d finished a first draft of Daughters of the Air there back in 2007. Three former literary staff read poetry from their recent releases. A line from Nandi Comer’s American Family: A Syndrome: “If there is blood, the artist has chosen to omit it.” Ryan Walsh spoke of the connection between visual art and writing at VSC (I still cherish learning how to make a mono-print there) and vegetable poems. Zayne Turner read from “Her Radioactive Materials.”

Most of the other readings I attended featured numerous readers, so, forthwith, more of a collage:

Reading “Cauliflower Tells You

At Strange Theater: A Fabulist Reading, there were spiders and trousseaus and swans roasted in revenge and Japanese monsters and red rooms and porcine men and tyrants and cauliflower-fueled murder. A doll’s head was raffled off, among other trinkets; I offered a rare talisman of Cyndi Lauper’s trip to Yemen.

Friday, we went to the PageBoy Magazine Happy Hour, featuring 17-word poems and prose. It was a fun afternoon of zingy one-liners and dreamy experimental works and Gertrude Stein jokes. Then we were off to Literary Bingo with Lilla Lit, a new Portland-based reading series; it was fast and furious with four-minute readings (a loud buzzer ushered off writers going over). Chocolate was pelted at every shout of “bingo!”; I caught a peanut-butter ball overhead with my left hand and won a copy of Jennifer Perrine’s In the Human Zoo. I also read a poem and someone won a copy of Daughters of the Air. All readings should have strict word and time limits and buzzers and prizes!

Saturday, we paid $5 to get into the convention center book fair. I had a lovely time chatting with Chicago-based folks in advance of our move (yes! big news tucked away over here; more on that in a future post), signing books at the Lanternfish Press table, and seeing fellow LFP authors Charles J. Eskew (Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark) and Andrew Katz (The Vampire Gideon’s Suicide Hotline and Halfway House for Orphaned Girls). It was also super cool meeting Carmen Maria Machado, who signed Her Body and Other Parties and Carmilla, an LFP reprint of a lesbian vampire romance that predates Dracula, with a Borgesian introduction and footnotes by Machado.

Fun!

We also picked up a whole slew of poetry in translation (from Romanian and Hebrew), essays on art, novels, short story collections. I can’t wait to read it all! Our last stop was the Northwest Micropress Fair at the Ace Hotel, where I signed copies of Sugar, my chapbook from Chin Music Press, and hung out with regional small presses, which felt like a special little send off before we leave the Pacific Northwest.

I heard that the conference had ballooned to 12,000 (15,000?) attendees. Amazing! Perhaps, perhaps, we’ll be in San Antonio next year, and if not San Antonio, Kansas City, and if not Kansas City, Philadelphia…?

Word Play Transformations: Original Music Inspired by Seattle7Writers

5 Mar

On Saturday night, members of the Bushwick Book Club Seattle performed music inspired by Seattle7Writers Laurie Frankel, Michael Schmeltzer, and me! It was quite an experience to see the cover of Daughters of the Air projected onto the big screen as three tremendously talented singer/songwriters performed music written in response to it. Some drew directly from the text, weaving my words into their lyrics, and others told the story in a new way, drawing from the emotional complexities of the difficult mother-daughter relationship and painful history. Fifteen years of work and 260 pages of fraught novel distilled into three beautiful songs! I got a little verklempt. You can listen to some of the songs from that night right over here.

Music Inspired by Literature

22 Feb

Yesterday, I got a sneak peek at a song Sean Morse is writing in response to Daughters of the Air for Word Play: Original Music inspired by Seattle7Writers. The theme of the concert (happening on March 2 at Hugo House) is “Transformations,” which is certainly fitting for the metamorphoses in my novel. But it’s also super cool to experience a transformation of one art form to another. And what a honor to have one’s own work transformed!

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Chicken with Plums by Marjane Satrapi

16 Aug

Snapseed 2I adored the film Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution. So when I stumbled upon Chicken with Plums (trans. Anjali Singh) in a Little Free Library, I knew I hit Little Free Library gold. The title, too, is tantalizing. (Some of you may be familiar with my obsession with plums.)

Set in November 1955, Chicken with Plums is the story of Satrapi’s great-uncle Nasser Ali Kahn, a pre-eminent tar player. (The tar is a string instrument from the Caucus region.) It’s a heartbreaking story—I nearly burst into tears by page 36—about love, loss, and longing. (Apropos of love, loss, and longing, what would a tango played on a tar sound like? Is that possible? Please comment with links or research leads!) Nasser’s beloved tar breaks, no replacement will do, and he loses the will to live. I read this book just after Anthony Bourdain committed suicide, so this may be why I found it particularly affecting. But Nasser finds some comfort in his brother and a beloved childhood dish, chicken with plums. (Here’s a recipe. The author of the recipe calls saffron “the world’s most expensive Prozac.”)

In addition to being heartbreaking, Chicken with Plums highlighted so many things about the history of Iran that I just didn’t know much about, such as the nationalization of the oil industry, which led to the U.K.- and-U.S.-backed coup in 1953. To paraphrase my high school English teacher Mr. Faciano: if you read literature, you get everything—in this case history, politics, music, gastronomy—plus a compelling story, gorgeously told.

“And Time Was No More” by Teffi

3 May

SubtlyWorded

The physical object that is Teffi’s Subtly Worded elicits in me a desire for extravagance. The texture of the cover, the deckled edge pages, the small purse-sized shape, the delectable bird pulling upon the woman’s hat ribbon—it is all delicious. (I have confessed here to hugging bookcases before; I also hug books.) Content-wise, I was intrigued with what perspectives Teffi, a Russian who fled the Revolution for France and has been compared to Chekhov, might offer.

It took me a few years to get through this collection, however. The prose is gorgeous, and I don’t fully understand why I couldn’t connect with these stories more. They seemed to lack a certain undercurrent. Perhaps they demand rereading. I did not enjoy Chekhov’s “Gusev” initially; I only came around on that story when rereading.

I decided to finally finish Subtly Worded this past New Year’s Eve. Michael and I went to the Fireside Lounge at the Hotel Sorrento (which is one of my favorite places in Seattle; check out their monthly Silent Reading Party). Our waitress had a wholesome yet aristocratic look about her in a cream-colored silk blouse; it seemed somehow fitting to the world of Teffi. There was live jazz and a roaring fire. And a chanteuse with a melodica, which she defined as the love child of an accordion and harmonica. Michael read Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts, which he adored (another book to add to my WIT pile). My cocktail tasted like chocolate and pine-sap.

“And Time Was No More,” my favorite story in Subtly Worded, is set in a cabin in the woods and moves with a dreamy end-of-life nostalgia. I wanted to copy out nearly every luscious paragraph. Here’s one that sums up the theme and impressionistic atmosphere:

“Sunset, on the other hand, is always sad. It may be voluptuous and opulent, and as richly sated as an Assyrian king, but it is always sad, always solemn. It is the death of the day.”

In the hotel lounge, a young woman strutted her newfound charms (plunging neckline, stilettos) beside her parents. Meanwhile, in Teffi: “At least once in your life you should hear a fox singing.”

The story turns quite philosophical. A mysterious hunter tells the narrator, “Just think of me as a composite character from your previous life.” The philosophical conversation between hunter and narrator got to be a bit too much, but the conceit, this sort of last-day-on-earth mélange of memory, did stick with me. Plus who doesn’t want to hear a fox singing?

DAUGHTERS OF THE AIR Playlist on Largehearted Boy

5 Feb

Published by Lanternfish PressIt was super fun creating a playlist of music related to Daughters of the Air for David Gutowski’s literature and music blog, Largehearted Boy. I’ve included music from the time of the book, the late ’70s and early ’80s, as well as music that fits the atmosphere (dark, weird). Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi and Arcade Fire and Antony and the Johnsons and more! Have a listen right here.

“The Ball” by Irène Némirovsky

10 Aug

Golder

I read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française in French to prepare for my language exam at UW. Among the three works I inched through, it was the only one I managed to finish that summer. (The others were Swann’s Way, which I hope to tackle again one day, though it will probably have to be in English with some kind of Proust support group, and a vintage collection of short stories in a volume designed for college students, which was kind of stodgy.)  What I remember best from Suite Française, other than the scenes of Parisians evacuating before the German Occupation, is Némirovsky’s use of light. A woman hiding in a house shrouded in trees seems trapped in something aquatic. It was then that I learned and cherished the word glaucous.

Other than the fact that the French were fleeing the Nazis, there was no whiff of anti-Semitism in that book that I, with my limited language skills, could detect. So I was surprised, when reading Claire Messud’s introduction to the collection David Golder, The Ball, Snow in Autumn, The Courilof Affair that Némirovsky was virulently anti-Semitic, a token Jew at a right-wing newspaper, and a convert to Catholicism. Not that any of this saved her in the end. (For an in-depth discussion of Némirovsky see Susan Rubin Suleiman’s The Némirovsky Question.)

Michael read “David Golder,” the novel that made Némirovsky famous at 26. Though the story is well-written, the stereotypical depictions of Jewish businessmen did not sit well with him. (It should be pointed out, if you don’t know, that the stereotype of the banker Jew is a result of centuries of discrimination, as Jews were not allowed to practice most other professions or own land.) I wondered whether the popularity of “David Golder” had any connection to pandering to stereotypes. I decided to save my time and skip to “The Ball.”

Here, the Kampfs are a nouveau-riche couple who want to throw their first big party. M. Kampf “made a killing” in the Stock Market and in just four years they moved from a modest apartment to one that could accommodate (if a bit uncomfortably) 200 guests. The story was published in 1929 and you can feel the imminent doom.

M. Kampf is Jewish (alas, the Jewish stockbroker) and his wife is Catholic. They’re raising their fourteen-year-old daughter Antoinette to be Catholic. Mme. Kampf, whose past is questioned and who married M. Kampf for money, is desperate to host a glamorous party that will establish her reputation with the aristocracy. She hires a band to play the blues and the Charleston, and orders a bevy of roses, buckets of champagne, aspic, oysters, foie gras, caviar sandwiches, game, fish, petit fours, and, a modern luxury to be delivered fresh at 11 pm: ice cream.

Poor Antoinette keeps getting in the way of party planning. It is her violent emotions that attract me most to this story. Her thoughts feel the most real, compared to the somewhat flat, Mme. Bovary-esque aspirations of Mme. Kampf. Indignant, in bed, Antoinette thinks:

To them a fourteen-year-old was just a kid–to be pushed around like a dog…I want to die! God, please make me die…Dear God, sweet Holy Virgin, why did you make me their child? Punish them, I’m begging you. Punish them just once, and after that, I’ll gladly die.

Antoinette’s desire for vengeance suggests something darker here than your run-of-the-mill teen anger, but it also pushes this story deliciously to its conclusion. The characters probably aren’t any more likable than in “David Golder,” not that that is a requirement for my reading pleasure. But Antoinette’s course of action moves the story toward a complex, yet surprisingly tender, picture of mother-daughter conflicts.  If you like the glamor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age Stories, or coming-of-age stories in general, you’ll want to check this one out.

“Come Dance with Me,” a song inspired by “More Like Home Than Home”

6 Oct

A while back, I shared a YouTube video of Bradford Loomis performing his song “Come Dance with Me,” which was inspired by my short story “More Like Home Than Home”. This August, he released a new album with Beth Whitney, Banner Days, which features a gorgeous recording of the song. Check out the song and the whole album–they are so, so talented. You can read “More Like Home Than Home” in the Emerald issue of Fairy Tale Review.

Dancing About Architecture

19 May

My sixth set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog dives into the vast territory of creative writing involving music, with wisdom from E.M. Forester, Milan Kundera, and Maya Sonenberg, and a short list of reading suggestions from Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” to a forthcoming novel on the inventor of the theremin.

Berlin

16 Dec

On the first night of Hannukah, the family Szilagyi saw Lou Reed’s Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse, which has been promoted as “an evening to press between the crumbling leaves of fall.” Indeed, with DUMBO all foggy under the Manhattan Bridge, the slow polished melodies and gritty explosions seemed just right– if only it hadn’t been unseasonably warm. Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performed as well and I was mildly surprised to see a youngin’ from Spoke the Hub up there, singing “Sad Song”. I had to wonder what little Timmy thought of the occasionally lurid lyrics (bad pun, I know, but my grandmother did think we were going to see “Lurid’s Berlin”–wee!). After the quasi-rock opera finished, the adult performers came back for an encore. Lou et al. sang “Sweet Jane” and “Rock Minuet” and Antony sang something divine in between.

I also received “Kafka’s Soup: A Complete History of World Literature in 14 Recipes” which has been a fun read so far. I’m looking forward to Clafoutis Grandmere a la Virginia Woolf.

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