Women writers shine brightly at Denver events

A report, with audio excerpts, of exceptional women of letters

| Apr 12, 2010

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Leslie Marmon Silko reading at Denver writing conference (Photo: Joe Richey)

The three-day Associated Writing Programs Conference held at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver was dominated by a growing number of Wild Women Writers of the West, academic hipsters, lanky dreadlock sisters, far-out schiksas, budding Leslie Marmon Silkos. It seemed to me they were the liveliest crowd at the conference, and their events were the best attended.

On Thursday of the conference, well over 1,000 were present when Leslie Marmon Silko read from her forthcoming book, The Turquoise Ledge (Penguin). It’s a memoir, she warns, but one that drifts into fiction and poetry.

Silko’s introductory remarks serve as her apologia: “Even just the word memoir is almost kind of a joke, talking about, ‘well now I will retire and write my memoirs.’

“So I thought, “Oh, I’m an enemy of genres.” So I thought, ‘What’s this genre – memoir?’ ”

“I was the one to propose it because for years I’ve been making notes about just little things around my place: the rattlesnakes, and the ants and the bees, and things like that. I sort of have an easier relationship even now with rattlesnakes, and bees, and things, probably easier than with my family or human beings. I mean they are my family. I wanted to do something with that sort of material, and but then also collide it with all of these expectations of what a memoir could be like.”

Leslie Marmon Silko audio excerpt (MP3, 1 min 28 sec)
(Click to play, right-click to download)

Male-dominated events, like the panel on which I sat Friday morning, drew maybe 50 people to a ballroom suitable for 1,500.

Friday night, Anne Waldman, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and Gary Snyder filled the Four Seasons Room of the Colorado Convention Center with over 2,000 attendees. No one could remember a larger audience for a poetry reading in the history of Colorado.

Anne Waldman

Anne Waldman

Seeing Anne Waldman on the street and never having heard her recitations, one might think she was another charming Greenwich Village shopkeeper. But upon hearing from Marriage: A Sentence, and her latest book, Manatee/Humanity, AWP newcomers to this American performance poet diva from New York were stunned by her bolts of melo, phano and logo poeia.

Anne Waldman reading excerpt (MP3, 14 min 39 sec)
(Click to play, right-click to download)

Gary Snyder, who turns 80 next month, read from his poems and lectured in between, largely from his stump speech on everything from Northern Californian geology and the heavily populated and linguistically diverse Northwest to a resurgence of interest among California native peoples in traditional ways and rituals, and in expanding international dialogues among indigenous people. (See News from Native California.)

Snyder also instructed American poets on the traditional practice of haiku versus the American adaptations he reads. He prefers to call many of them “small poems.” Haiku possess particular elements, such as a hint at one of the four seasons in the poem, and are identified by certain traditional themes. And it is most definitely not the mere use of 17 syllables, as is lamely practiced, say, in The Denver Post’s “Haiku of the Week” series. Japanese newspapers often feature daily haiku and a weekly commentary on haiku. Snyder also told the creative crowd of young professionals that there are great practitioners of haiku in Japan, “but nobody makes a career out of it.” They don’t do it seeking a buck.

An enormous event

Putting on the Associated Writing Program Conference is an enormous undertaking. It’s perhaps the country’s largest annual literary gathering. Snafus and oversights are inevitable. We were shocked at the lack of perspicacity, for instance, in the fact that the Waldman-Snyder reading was not going to be recorded or videotaped at all.

I quickly took out my trusty digital audio recording device, got verbal permission from Gary and Anne and the AWP Program Director, and stationed it right on the podium. Most disappointingly, my sound card filled up, the machine turned off, and it missed all of Snyder’s historic reading and lecture. One of America’s greatest living male poets delivering at the largest poetry reading in the history of Colorado and, through my own male incompetence and lack of Eagle Scout preparedness, I failed to record it.

I started home dejected. Denver private investigator Doug Vaughan offered me a nightcap before taking me to the bus station. Two middle-aged, neo-trad dads walked into the bar of the male-dominated Denver Press Club on Glenarm a little after 11 pm. We were settling in to watch the scores roll in and talk to the jovial attorneys and journalists of Denver fresh out from their long weeks.

Surprise…more women poets!

To find the only bathroom I knew at The Press Club, I went through the kitchen and up the back stairs — where I found one hundred or more wild women! It was Women in Letters and Literary Arts’ evening of burlesque, literature and roller derby. I ran back and got Vaughan, and we stood stage left for a half an hour watching one amazing performance and act of poetic bravery after the next. The solidarity and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. It made me think of how it might have been October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg read Howl at The Six Gallery on Fillmore St. in San Francisco, except these were predominantly women — garish, unsinkable women — who told some of the best penis jokes I’ve heard in years.

Among the notable performers there: Erin Belieu (poet) and Cate Marvin (poet), co-founders and directors of WILLA, and WILLA Board Members Kara Candito (poet), Danielle Pafulnda (poet), Susan Steinberg (fiction), Barrie Jean Borich (nonfiction), Amy King (poet) and Ann Townsend (poet and essayist). The night was graced with distinguished writers Carol Muske-Dukes, Antonya Nelson, Kim Addonizio, Patricia Smith and Cathy Park-Hong. Look for more from WILLA (Women in Letters and Literary Arts) on Facebook and their website, www.willaweb.org.

And watch for more Wild Women Writers in the West coverage.


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