perm_identity The AWP and Me

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 190 ~ March, 2013

I can’t believe it’s been eight years since I went to my first AWP Conference, and I also feel somewhat amused that when I first heard of the AWP eight years ago, I thought it had something to do with auto workers and not writers and MFA writing programs and such. I’m grateful for the annual AWP Conference, it has been, for the most part, one source of continuity in my life, and I’m looking forward to the one this month in Boston.

Unlike most who attend the conference, I am not in the world of academia and I am about as far removed from  the literary world as one can get.  I run a weekly  newspaper in the Bronx, where over the years I’ve inadvertently learned more about politics than I ever wanted or desired. And I’m not talking about the superficial political entertainment you see on cable news networks — whether left leaning or right, or down the middle — but the hard urban party politics where people play for keeps to retain or expand power, and dole out jobs to loyal adherents. As such, I’ve seen many instances where truth came up against the law and lives were ruined because others had deep pockets and the legal system on their side, something that stunned me at first, but probably shouldn’t have, though my somewhat inner idealistic nature about right and wrong remained hard to penetrate, and still does at times on an emotional level.

I am definitely a literary outsider, and as such, I’ve been able to attend AWP Conferences sort of like an anthropologist studying the natives —  it was alien territory to me and I had no one to answer to or to try and impress. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t anxious, especially when I was moderating a panel, but so far, and I hope the same will be true this year, my panels have all come off pretty well, mostly because of the writers who agreed to be on them.

The publication of a story story of mine in a literary journal, and my ongoing opportunity to interview writers for PIF Magazine, slowly began to enable me to meet, and become friends, with a number of writers, one at a time.  I was thrilled to have my story accepted, it would be my second published story, the first one taking place 18 years earlier. Quite a gap, I know. I happened to be reading through the classified ads in Poets and Writers and I saw one seeking members for a writers’ workshop and from the email address listed to contact, which was a name, followed by a dot something, I was pretty sure it was for the editor who had accepted my story. I sent an email asking if I had found the Walter Cummins of The Literary Review who had recently accepted my story and a response came back almost immediately that I had indeed found him. From that initial exchange, I got to know Walter and he was very helpful, recommending some writers I could interview for PIF Magazine, which, of course, I did.

This started what I called one of my “literary links”, and I’ve developed others over the years, which is not difficult, because everyone I interview knows other interesting writers for me to interview. It was the Walter line of literary links, however, which led me to my first AWP Conference in Vancouver in 2005.

I did an interview with Thomas E. Kennedy, and then he subsequently recommended I do an interview with Gordon Weaver, author of four novels and ten story collections, and then a few months later Tom asked me to be on a panel honoring Gordon’s fiction writing over the past four decades. No big deal to many, but I was truly amazed, and then panic set in and I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, especially at a conference with so many in attendance.

I was struck by the fact the AWP Conference that year was in Canada, part of my dual heritage, both my parents were born and raised in Ontario, met at the University of Toronto, got married shortly after graduation, and then moved to New York City.  In the summer, since early childhood, I had gone to a lake in Ontario north of Toronto, and knew many friends from those days who had moved to British Columbia, so on one level, it seemed like familiar territory. But I was still nervous about the AWP, much more nervous than I should have been, but that’s just the way I am, always seeming to face the commonplace with excessive anxiety within.

I told my mother, one of the few individuals I could tell anything to without fear of rejection or ridicule, “I can’t go.” My mother, who was suffering from breast cancer and didn’t have long to live, said in a calm, reassuring voice, “You must go,” and so I did.

And that began my experience with AWP Conferences. I flew to Vancouver and arrived for the conference without knowing what to expect. I concentrated on quality, not quantity, and spent my time with five or so writers who were either on the Gordon Weaver panel or knew Gordon, and then returned home to New Jersey with five new friends that I am still in touch with today, and with whom I can pick up conversation in mid sentence, regardless of how much time has elapsed. My mother was very proud of me. I showed her an email Gordon sent thanking all of us who were on the panel, and my mother said, “See, I knew you’d do fine.”

I went back to the newspaper, missing the world of ideas and creativity, and then took care of my mother who died peacefully in her own bed that September, while I was holding her hand. Duff Brenna, a writer I met in Vancouver, whose recent memoir, Murdering the Mom, gets right to the heart of family conflict, talked to me on the phone from his home in California during this period, encouraging me to write about my mother and how she held our family together, while my father, a renowned psychiatrist, specializing in family therapy and mariage counseling, was caught up in a narcissistic world in which he moved further and further away from his children and wife.

I don’t know if I really believed it but I went to the AWP Conference in 2006, in Austin, Texas, planning to work toward a revival of PIF Magazine to what it should be, urging myself on with what I called “The Spirit of Mom.” I knew if she was alive, she would once again be proud of me, and I also knew she would be grateful that I was providing support to my widowed sister and her two children, and my brother, who were all still living in my mother’s house, which was now my father’s.

In Austin, I was looking forward to seeing the five friends I had made during my memorable Vancouver experience, but only one of them, Steve Heller, Professor & Chair of the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, who is still just Steve to me, even though he has actually served as president of the AWP this past year, was there. I spent the days of the conference meeting more writers. Then the evening before I left, I received back to back phone calls from my brother and sister, who were both very upset about my father saying he was going to sell the house. My sister played my father’s message from the answering machine. He sounded subtly, but overly self-conscious, probably because he knew what my mother had wanted, though I had no doubt his intentions were set and we, his children, were going to have a hell of a time preventing him from carrying out his goal of selling the house, and I worried about where my sister and her children, my nephew and niece, seven and fourteen at the time, were going to live.

I had dinner with Steve and his wife my last night in Austin, sitting outside behind the hotel where I was staying, overlooking the river, spectacular green leaves on hardy trees creating an idyllic view around, a view which could easily appear on a postcard. Steve was very helpful, offering an outside perspective. It’s strange, whenever I talk about my father, and try to explain how he was in a straight forward manner, most are appalled by his behavior, much more than I ever was, I suppose, because I’ve know some of his character flaws since early childhood.

Anyway, flash forward, and it’s 2007, and I’m at the AWP Conference in Atlanta. It was a very rough year since the conference in Austin. Before she died, my mother told me my sister and brother were lucky to have me as a brother, and she wasn’t worried about me at all. Once again, I thought it was another example of my mother having more confidence in me than I did in myself, which she always did, and probably helped me over the years more than I even know.

I was in Atlanta, and friends I made in Vancouver were there as well, most notably Tom Kennedy and Duff Brenna, and as usual, I had dinner with Steve Heller and filled him in on recent family dynamics. Keeping it simple, the newspaper headline could have read: Prominent psychiatrist evicts widowed daughter and grandchildren, which is indeed what happened. I think of my nephew, and am happy he’s so well-adjusted. He was the one who answered the door and found a policeman standing before him on the front steps. He called his mother, my sister, and the policeman served her with the eviction notice, which actually named my niece and nephew, as well as my brother, and set a date for all of them to vacate the premises.  From the eviction notice, we learned my father had married the psychiatric nurse who had been his companion for years, someone we dubbed “the social worker” because we were not too impressed with anything about her.

So, I was in Atlanta, looking forward to a break from siblings and politics in the Bronx. My sister and her kids were back in Ontario, where they had been previously living until my brother-in-law died in 2001 and they had come down to stay with my mother, and my brother had found an apartment in a town in New Jersey I had never heard of before, an apartment where he was allowed to keep his dog, which was the most important thing in his life.

Chance, or luck, or whatever, but the main occurrence for me at the AWP in Atlanta was meeting the poet Robert Dana, whom I interviewed for PIF Magazine later that year. Out of character, I attended a panel on the first day of the conference, a panel at the obscene hour, for me, of nine in the morning, which was a tribute to Robert Dana. The main reason I went was because Ted Solotaroff, who founded The New American Review, an influential literary journal existing for a decade after coming out with its first issue in 1967, was on the panel. I didn’t have a particularly good experience while earning an MFA, but Solotaroff had been my workshop teacher my second semester, and I looked forward to seeing him after so many years, if simply to tell him I was still writing.

I went to the panel, and lo and behold, Ted Solotaroff wasn’t there, he’d cancelled due to health concerns, and died the following year. I unexpectedly enjoyed myself anyway. I know nothing about poetry, but I do know about sincerity, and those on the panel were genuine in their praise and comments about Robert Dana. I must admit I had never heard of Robert Dana, and I’m not a poet, so it was a fluke, really, that I attended that particular panel. I greeted Robert Dana after the speakers were finished, shaking hands. He was surrounded by people grappling for his attention, many true well wishers, and it was not a situation conducive to conversation, so I passed him a card with my phone number on it.

A month or so later, back in New Jersey, I received an email from Robert Dana, stating, “I don’t quite remember you but you gave me your card at the AWP in Atlanta and “I’m responding.”

I quickly shot back an email and asked if Robert would be willing to do an interview for PIF magazine, to which he graciously agreed. I did the interview, and as is usually the case when doing interviews, I learned a great deal about him on a personal level, the how and why of the narrative flow of his life, which started at the beginning and ended where we were, engaging in a great conversation, where we laughed quite a bit over the phone.

As we talked on the phone, I realized Robert was part of literary history, starting in a class of about twenty-five with Robert Lowell running the workshop his first year, and the number of student poets being whittled down to “a core of thirteen” the next year when John Berryman succeeded Lowell. And Dana was certainly part of an impressive group of poets, which included Donald Justice, Philip Levine, Jane Cooper, Shirley Eliason, Paul Petrie, Melvin Walker LaFollette, William Dickey, Henri Coulette, Donald Peterson, and W. D. Snodgrass.

I like to learn ten times more about a person than I actually use in an interview, the additional information helping me to get a better idea of what influences and experiences may have shaped an individual’s character and development as a writer. I knew from the panel that Robert Dana was a revered poet who lived in Iowa most of his adult life, was named the Poet Laureate of the State of Iowa, and several of his poetry collections had been published by Anhinga Press, which he thought was a wonderful, little, quality publishing house, but I discovered many other fascinating details during the course of the interview — how he was born in Boston in 1929, where he became an orphan at the age of seven and was subsequently raised as a foster child in western Massachusetts.

I purchased a copy of the book, A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was edited by Robert Dana, before I did the interview with him.

In his introduction to the book about Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and founder of the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa, Dana states, “It may be worth mentioning here that I don’t think I ever heard anyone speak of a literary ‘career’ back then. That was not what the workshop was about in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of us hoped we’d be lucky enough to find a job teaching literature somewhere. We’d write poetry or stories as part of our work, and maybe we’d get good enough to achieve something noteworthy. There was a creation modesty that presided over our occasional dreaming, a modesty born of the conviction that writing is hard work, that it requires sacrifice and self-effacement. It was part of the mood Paul Engle created.”

The AWP was in New York City in 2008, and I moderated my first panel, a panel entitled New York in the Fifties, the idea coming from Dan Wakefield’s book of the same title. I was somewhat amazed to find myself in the presence of writers who were and are part of the historical literary landscape, and astounded that I was the common link bringing them all together on the panel, though Dan was responsible for introducing me to David Amram, a composer and musician who teamed up with Jack Kerouac for the first live jazz poetry reading in New York City in 1957, and Bruce Jay Friedman, hailed as a comic genius, as a short story writer, novelist, and playwright. Thomas Fleming, the historian and novelist, and author of more than 40 books, who had encouraged me as a writer for more years than I want to remember, and Stephen Koch, who taught in the MFA graduate writing program at Columbia University when I was there, eventually going on to become the chairman of the program for eight years, rounded out the panel.

The panel in New York City went so well, Bruce Jay Friedman, known as BJF, contacted me about proposing a panel on the short story, with him headlining it, which I did, and was pleased it was accepted. So, in 2009, I was off to Chicago and the AWP Conference, with BJF.

Prior to going to Chicago, I received an email from Robert Dana, which clearly showed his strength of character, and reminded me of my mother’s. His message said, “Let’s start with the good news,” and he mentioned his most recent poetry reading was recorded at Prairie Light Bookstore, and then he mentioned receiving an inquiry from a close friend and intelligent critic of his, Rick Holinger, whom he hoped I would contact, which I did, and now I am close friends with Rick.

I was floored by the bad news in the message, written in an informative, this is what’s happening style, that cancer in his pancreas had spread to his liver. The email continued, “Although I’ve not been given any time limits regarding my survivability, it would be overly optimistic to think I might last another entire year,” a statement, which, unfortunately, turned out to be true.

But Robert did go to Chicago with his wife, Peggy, and I went to his 80th birthday party, to which he kindly invited me, and I was happy so many who loved and cared about him were in attendance. And then, I’ll never forget this, despite the pain he was obviously in, and the morphine he was taking on a daily basis, he took time to come to the book fair the afternoon after the party to sit down and visit me for about a half hour at the table I was manning for PIF Magazine with an energetic and talented writer, Kirsten Clodfelter, who was certainly better at keeping track of sales of BJF’s most recent book than I was.

Robert Dana died just prior to the release of a poetry collection, New and Collected Poems 1955 to 2010, published by Anhinga Press, as well as a collection of essays, Paris on the Flats (University of Tampa Press), which he was still making edits and changes to during his final days. Totally unexpected, and quite an honor, or that’s at least how I felt, when my copy of Paris on the Flats arrived, I discovered that Robert had included the interview I did with him for PIF Magazine in it. I will never know whether he was too overwhelmed by his illness, or wanted to surprise me, but I had no idea the interview was going to appear.

Days after I returned from the AWP in Chicago, I learned my father died of a massive heart attack. My brother called to tell me. He had learned of my father’s death through a third party, one of my father’s psychiatric colleagues. The social worker never bothered to inform us. I was the one who called and told my two sisters about his death. No getting around it, just as my mother is in the forefront of my mind at every AWP Conference I’ve ever attended, my father’s death is also connected with me attending the annual conference.

I missed the AWP in Denver in 2010, and then the one in Washington, D.C. In 2011, family dynamics still in the wake of my father’s death, and a bitter conflict between my siblings and the social worker escalated, making it impossible.

I must add, however, once again, my siblings had the truth of what my mother wanted on their side, but unfortunately, I knew they were doomed and destined to lose the legal battle because the law was on the social worker’s side, and she had my father’s new will, which was a legal document, regardless of whether he was aware of its consequences, which stated in simple declarative sentences that he was disowning all four of us, his children. Usually, one kid gets disowned, maybe two at the most, but all of us? Others exclaimed, “What did you children do to that man?” But then, they already knew the answer, “Nothing.”

And now, here we are in 2013, and I’m off to Boston to moderate a panel, entitled  “A Tribute to DeWitt Henry” — the founder and longtime editor of Ploughshares. DeWitt was on a panel moderated by me on memoir writing the previous year in Chicago and that’s where I got the idea for this year’s panel.

While I’m looking forward to the conference in Boston, I’m very much aware that what I call connecting “literary links” have made this all possible, beginning with Thomas E. Kennedy asking me to attend that first AWP in Vancouver, and the continuing friendship with Steve Heller, and Robert Dana, and then BJF, and on and on, and I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to become friends with so many great writers, all of whom will be with me in spirit when I step up to the podium to begin the panel about DeWitt Henry.