On March 27, four Widener English majors–all Blue Route staff members–and two faculty members traveled to Portland, Oregon to attend the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Along with nearly 12,000 other writers, readers, editors, and publishers, the team enjoyed three amazing days of panels, networking opportunities, enlightening readings and keynotes speeches, and of course, the pacific northwest! Read on for a few words from all four senior English majors about their time in Portland!
Carlie and I signed up for an hour of manning the FUSE table in the book fair section of the conference. While we were setting up, Carlie nudged me and said, “Kelly, doesn’t that dog on that poster over there look just like the one you wrote about in Historical Fiction class?” Low and behold, I look over and the juxtaposing booth is sporting a poster of Laika, the space dog from the Sputnik II mission that I had just written about the week before coming to AWP. Naturally, I had to go over and investigate. I asked the woman working the booth why Laika was on the poster and she informed me that their book press had published an author who just wrote a biography on Laika. Not only were they selling copies, but he would be there signing them in an hour!
I purchased the book and stood waiting in line, mustering up the courage to ask the author, Kurt Caswell, if I could send him my short piece to read. I am a pretty confident and outgoing person but, for some reason, the minute I was next in line I almost chickened out. I told him about the poster and why I had to buy his book and meet him to tell him that I had also just written about Laika. He handed my book back to me after a really great conversation about Laika and I knew my window to ask him to read my story had closed. Then, to my complete shock, he asked me to send him my story to read and even gave me his personal email to send it to. I was elated.
Later that night, Rohan met a panelist named Shayla Lawson who wrote a poetry chapbook mixed with Frank Ocean songs and got us invited to a “battle of the bands” where she performed her work with her band. One of the opening acts, however, incorporated the song “Space Oddity” by David Bowie into his piece. The minute I heard the lyrics my head snapped over to look at Carlie who was already staring at me, mouth agape. “Space Oddity” is also an integral part of my short story about Laika. In a three-page story there is not much room and for two major aspects to crop up so blatantly at AWP had to be a sign for me to continue working with that piece. AWP is an invaluable resource for English and creative writing majors, it is a hub for creative minds and a space where we can feel important and bond with other professionals.
The first panel I attended at AWP was one of my favorites. It was titled “Translators Are the Unacknowledged Ambassadors of the World,” which is a play on the famous Percy Bysshe Shelley quote, “women are the unacknowledged poets of the world.” I speak two languages besides English, so languages and translation is something that always interested me. The final panelist opened my eyes to the Iranian culture and the struggles associated with translating Iranian literature to English. Unlike the first two panelists, she explained that Iran, as a nation, hinders its own artist by utilizing strict censorship and even executing writers. As a whole, this panel made me understand the crucial role translators have in the dissemination of literature. It helped me understand that translating is also a form of creative writing; a translator has to not only present the same meaning of the original work, but also closely match the same style.
In a sense, translators are poets and makers of things, too; they give readers access to things they could have never reached, due to a language barrier. AWP features a lot of intellectually stimulating and educational panels, which are great, but they can also cause a lot of mental fatigue. By attending poetry readings and readings of other kinds, it really helps your mind slow down and recharge, at least that was my experience. At “A Wild Girls Poetry Reading,” I was particularly moved by one poet, who wrote a collection of poetry where she was attempting to deal with the grief associated with her younger brother’s suicide. The stories she told the audience and the poetry she read were so raw and they made me empathize with her so much. I attended this reading on the first day and I could not stop thinking about her work. Her words impacted me the entire trip to the point that on the last day, I went and bought her book. I had to or I would never forgive myself. After I purchased it, I sat outside and read it from cover to cover, and her words continued to move me.
I decided to go to Page Meets Stage, a reading that is a yearly tradition at AWP. This was the best decision I made throughout the time of the conference. The reading consisted of five poets reading and performing poems after one another, “popcorning” in order and choosing what to perform based on what was read before them. The panel was led by Taylor Mali, four-time poetry slam champion and arguably the most famous American spoken word poet, and consisted of other notable poets like Anis Mojgani, Mark Doty, and Shayla Lawson. For the whole hour I just sat there, mouth agape, at the incomparable stage presence and refined performing art they all shared with the room. When it was time for Shayla Lawson to read, she prefaced her poems in explaining they were all from a book of poems inspired by Frank Ocean, an R&B artist and one of my main artistic inspirations. When Shayla finished performing “Strawberry Swing” from her poetry book I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean I struggled to retrieve my jaw from the floor and knew I had to speak to her after. Upon the panel’s conclusion I was able to do so.
We talked about Frank and our common interests, and after we spoke, she invited me to come to a reading she was orchestrating in downtown Portland. Of course, I obliged and I ended up going after the last of the panels of the day. In the library room of the Heathman Hotel, I heard Shayla and 4 of her colleagues read marvelous poetry. All of them are part of an association of writers called the Affrilacians, about 2,000 southern writers strong (per Facebook). Two of them I met and spoke with, published poet and educator Mitchell L.H. Douglas and former Kentucky poet laureate and educator Frank X Walker. Both were incredibly down to earth men who gave me insight on getting published and furthering my education, and I thank them for that. To whoever made the decision to take me as one of the students to go on AWP this year: thank you. Thank you. What I owe you can never be repaid. This was a span of days I can’t see myself ever forgetting, a span of days I firmly believe will prove to be important as I further my writing career.
One of the panels I attended was titled “8 Techniques Guaranteed to Take Your Script to the Next Level.” Using examples of films such as “Juno,” “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” among others, this panel offered techniques relative to character, scene structure, descriptions, and dialogue. Though I do not write screenplays myself, I have always loved reading the screenplays to my favorite movies and television shows. It makes a very visual experience feel like reading a book. This panel demonstrated the ways in which some screenwriting techniques have the ability to transcend into fiction writing, because, even if I am not worrying about camera angles, it is still storytelling. Screenwriting can sound like a novel just as a novel can read like a screenplay.
Something that stood out to me in particular had to do with a tip on character development: “we watch movies because we want to connect with our characters.” Is that not the same for fiction writers? Shouldn’t I also be focusing on want versus desire, asking emotional questions in scenes, considering symbolism and foreshadowing, making my language visual or finding imaginative ways to introduce my characters? Isn’t it good advice regardless of the medium to think about increasing tension and suspense by slowing down, using misdirection to reveal information, or revealing my characters through their actions? I chose to go to a variety panels on screenwriting and playwriting not because I want to try my hand at either one, but because I know that the techniques between them and fiction writing are interchangeable. I also know that films and television serve as my influence, the driving force that compels me to provide visual detail and intricate characters. I would not have been able to explore what that means to my writing or how related the two mediums are had I not been given this opportunity. My path may not have been the one most fiction writers would typically take, but I think that is what was so amazing about AWP at the end of the day. I was able to find what interested me and gained insight from an influencing medium all while taking my own unique path.
by Carlie Sisco