Sunday, March 11, 2012

A.S.U.'s annual Desert Nights Rising Stars Writers Conference - (The Half Of It)

It took me awhile to recover from ASU's 2012 Desert Nights Rising Stars writers conference, but I had an amazing time. It was one of those times when all kinds of bizarre and fortunately timed "coincidences" seem to conspire in the best possible way.

I've always heard great things from friends who attended in years past, but I've never gone to any of these. Fortunately, Hayden's Ferry Review gave me a free pass and it just so happened to be the year that one of my favorite poets, Denise Duhamel, would be involved. I've been a big fan for years and given away quite a few copies of her books as gifts, because some of my friends ended up loving them so much. But I've never been able to see and hear her in person, so I was already excited based on that alone. Excellent timing.

Still, several things were making me a little nervous about the whole conference, as it drew closer. Then, the week before the conference, I noticed an interesting blog post by Kelli Russell Agodon. I don't know her, but I like her poetry and her blog is one of the best poet blogs around.

"Okay, please file this under "My Weirdest Blog Post Yet". . .

but last night I had a dream that the Wicked Witch of the West came to tell me that someone in the world (a mom, I'm guessing) has a baby-inspired blog and wants to go to a writer's conference, but isn't going to because she feels she "just has a baby-inspired blog" and isn't a real writer.

If this is you, you should go to the conference.  Glenda the Good Witch believes you should go.  She said it's a first step before many."

That hit very close to my Kansasesque heart. Not only because I was going through a dry stretch of not getting much of my "supposedly real" poetry published, but I also got a lot of attention recently, for this photo that I posted on my blog and on facebook. So I took the liberty of deciding that her dream had to be meant for me.

On a side note, she's always entertaining and involved in cool projects and I learn about some exciting things over on her blog. In fact, she recently posted about getting her contributor copy for the debut issue of a brand new journal called CARBON COPY MAGAZINE that she was excited to be published in, alongside an amazing list of poets including Denise Duhamel. You never know about brand new journals, but if the first issue has poets like Agodon, Duhamel, David Trinidad, Charles Harper Webb, and Allison Joseph, it must be pretty damn decent.

So I go to the opening night banquet and run into Hayden's Ferry Review managing editor Beth Staples and thank her for allowing me in. She was kind and welcoming and introduced me to Stephanie, an HFR staffer from San Francisco who was also attending her first conference. So we stuck together and pretended like we weren't completely out of place. It was enormously helpful and I was able to relax and settle in and enjoy hearing Carolyn Forche read some new poems. She was captivating and had a strong voice and quickly reminded me why I was there. Being surrounded by people who care deeply about writing and listening to others who have spent lifetimes refining their respective crafts was an experience that I needed to dive into. And if I didn't drown or get the bends, I might surface with stronger lungs and glimpses of the bottom of the ocean that will stay with me for years.

Then Xu Xi read for us and became my opening night favorite. It's always harder for fiction writers to hold an audience's attention for 20 minutes. Since poems are short, it creates a natural pacing that is easier to present. Even if it's a bad poem, it will be over before you get too restless and there is hope that the next one could be better. But Xu Xi's writing was lively enough to keep us engaged from start to finish.

The next morning I was browsing the bookstore shelves in the main lobby area and I was approached by someone who said he recognized me from a poetry slam that he saw years ago. I didn't recognize him at first, because I don't often read in poetry slams and it had certainly been awhile. But he mentioned that he liked my poem enough to buy one of my chapbooks. Then I remembered exactly who he was and where it happened, because he was probably the only person in the history of ever to buy one of my chapbooks after a slam. He's an exceptionally friendly writer named Ed Tankersly and we started talking about the writers we were looking forward to seeing here at the conference and I accidentally convinced him and a few other people near us to buy one of Duhamel's books. I pointed out that she would be reading later that night and you wouldn't want to miss it.

The morning officially began with a keynote address from Bernard Cooper on Wrestling With Doubt as a writer. I didn't know Cooper or his work, but he was an excellent speaker and a whirlwind of empowerment. After listening to him for 40 minutes, I wanted to go and change the fucking world. I was even convinced that I COULD change the fucking world. Or at least topple a weakened regime in a small underdeveloped village. In fact, I was on the verge of storming out of the campus, throwing my notebooks in the trash and skipping this whole writing thing to go ahead and launch my Senatorial campaign. But I quickly returned to my senses and realized that the Senate is certainly a step down from poetry on the nobility ladder.

After a full day of classes. I wandered around campus by myself, reflecting on everything I experienced throughout the day (I'll write more about the individual classes in my next blog post) and killing time before Duhamel's reading, which was about 30 minutes away. So I checked my email and I got a notice from submishmash that Carbon Copy Magazine wanted to publish one of my poems in their second issue. Excellent Timing. The only reason I sent them some poems was because they had Kelli Russell Agodon and Duhamel in their first issue. And now I would have something semi-relevant to mention to Duhamel, when I got to meet her. Instead of sounding like this:

She read a bunch of favorites and the audience loved it, so there was a swarm around her table after the readings. When it was my turn to get a book signed, I said that her inscription would make it less likely that I would give this one away. Then I mentioned that I just found out about having one of my poems in the second issue of Carbon Copy, sounding like we probably get published in all the same places. No big deal. Ha! I started to walk away, but the next person in line was Ed and he grabbed my shoulder and told me to stay for this, as he proceeded to tell Denise that I should be getting some royalties for selling a bunch of her books that day. That was so kind of him and it made me look almost cool. I couldn't thank him enough. Then it got even more surreal, as I overheard the next several people in line after him, telling Duhamel how I had introduced them to her poetry. One person even pointed out that she recognized one of the poems she read that night ("How It Will End" which you can read over at Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac), because I had read it several years earlier, to the audience at the monthly poetry reading I host at Glendale Community College.

It probably looked like I arranged the entire scene and hired a cast of actors, but I was too shocked and happy to care.

I promise that my next post (whenever that happens) will be a lot less me, me, ME-centric and a little more about the classes, sessions and panels that I attended.


  1. This is an awesome post. I'm envious of the conference as it sounds much more contained that AWP! Huge congrats on the acceptance and the accolades from fellow Duhamel fans. What goes around does come around, and I bet she'll remember your support of her work. Wahooooooo.

  2. Funny you should say that, Sandy. I've been noticing where your poems have been ending up, lately. Now you're pretty much in that category, as well. I'll be saying things like "If Sandy's work is in this publication, then that's good enough for me."

    I think you're probably right about what comes around. Duhamel probably thought I was just exaggerating when I mentioned that I've circulated a decent amount of her work, but when a bunch of people behind me began to corroborate my claims, she must have suddenly realized that I wasn't just trying to schmooze.

  3. Aw, thanks for the kind words!

    And yes to that corroboration!

  4. Shawnte -

    I enjoyed reading of your conference experience, particularly because you approached the event with a lovely mix of wonder and humility.

    Your genuine reverence for writing — and not simply the writers — is refreshing.

    Eagerly awaiting the next installment.

  5. Sounds like it was a wonderful time, Shawnte. I really enjoyed your write-up.

    It does help to be buddies with whoever you run into or vaguely know at those sorts of things. And it amazes me how kind and friendly people are when we give them the chance!!

  6. Youre probably right. I could certainly be better about giving people the chance, in all situations.