The Editors: Grace Constellation
AWP started on a Thursday, but I decided to fly out on Tuesday. Other than my perennial desire to lengthen vacations, (come on, it was in Florida!) I wanted to check out a well-regarded Tampa brewery, Cigar City. Though I consider writing to be my job, I make around half (or two-thirds, depending on the month,) of my money from working at a beer bar. (If you want to come visit me, contact me privately and I will tell you the location :))
In an attempt to be a consummate professional even in the area that I do not consider to be my primary profession, I thought of this as R&D (it’s tax season baby!) and thus had no qualms with taking an extra day off from my regular life to hit up a brewery. I told myself I’d use the time at said brewery to finish my novel (ha) outside of the company of my usual ragtag crew of lovely but distracting New York pals.
Other than the logical fallacy of finishing a manuscript in a single night, I neglected to factor in the enduring challenge of being a female alone in public: within thirty minutes, A Strange Man sidled up to my spot at the bar and began questioning me on: what? I don’t remember, it may have had something to do with beer. The conversation got around to why I was in Tampa, and I explained, a writing conference.
I was wearing ripped denim shorts and a see through mesh shirt patterned with stars. This is the type of thing I wear all the time, but obviously winter in New York has put a cramp in my absurd style. I relished the opportunity to live my truth in extremely short shorts in Tampa.
Maybe an hour into talking to me, the man said: “I didn’t know people who wrote books dressed like you.”
It’s always a toss-up with an experience like AWP: will you feel left out or included?
Who is taken seriously as an artist, as a writer? For a long time, the answer to that question has been dudes: cis dudes, white dudes, dudes. Of course, many dude-writers are serious and gifted, but that does not mean that they alone deserve the patina of regard that the idea of ‘serious’ implies. But, I have been finding that in the smaller communities that I inhabit, there is nuance and a beginning of a departure. I spent a long time with a chip on my shoulder that some men in my life thought they were more serious than me because of the topics they write about. We dropped our third issue, with a critical essay penned by yours truly, at AWP, and two of the men who I assumed disregarded my work sent me enthusiastic texts about the essay. I couldn’t believe that two political writers took the time to read a nine page essay on the state of literary criticism! I didn’t believe them! I made them tell me their favorite parts to prove they weren’t lying!
I was eventually able to extract myself from the conversation with the douchey real estate man at the brewery (not before he tried to convince me to let him drive me back to my hotel!) and got a Lyft. I went to a gas station, got a six pack of High Life and some beef jerky, and resumed my efforts to peck away at my manuscript while wrapped in a blanket at my hotel desk.
I carried on my style of “not dressing like someone who writes books” for the entirety of the conference. I wore a crop top, ripped jeans and a blazer one day, a sequined skirt on another. One of my favorite memes with myself, as I’ve tried to molt out of caring whether or not people think I’m serious, is to indulge my most absurd desires in both fashion and demeanor, in an exercise to prove that legitimacy is possible no matter what trappings you don. I want to live in a world that is both a casual party and a serious conversation, or, as Chiara Barzini says in our interview this month,
“English [language] allows you to be literary even when you’re being trashy.”
I was lucky to attend the conference this year with pals in tow and a table at which to camp. I went last year, and it was a stellar experience, but there were plenty of moments where I felt completely adrift and just wanted a pal to laugh with. A lot has changed in the past year: I’ve dug my heels into the literary community in New York in a way that I barely imagined was possible a year ago. While at AWP 2017 I was constantly searching for an even vaguely familiar face, this year I was, as they say, ‘rolling with a crew.’ I couldn’t even find everyone I wanted to talk to or spend time with.
Of course, I got to thinking about how this came about, how in just a year you can meet so many people in a given microcosm of society. For me, it’s relatively easy to track. Most of the writers I know in New York I met through two sources. One is an ex-lover, while we were sleeping together we never crossed social paths, but in a bizarre turn of events, after the parting of the ways, he took pity on my relatively friendless state and invited me to a leftist happy hour. Though I see now that he meant this invitation in the spirit with which one says “we should get drinks...sometime,” I was lonely and ready to grasp at the chance of new friends.
The other half of my writer community, the literary writers, as they say, also have a common source: my mentor. Suffice to say that I know the majority of my friends in the literary community because one woman, for reasons that I can to this day not discern, saw something in me and/or my writing and over the course of our years of being acquainted has introduced me to other humans, and many of those people have become my good friends and professional colleagues. When I trace back the lineage of the relationships I have with other writers, it is easy: it traces back to her.
While it’s easy to describe these two connections in a similar way: “I knew a person and they introduced me to other people,” there is a difference: once, maybe more times, the ex-lover said something to me along the lines of “but, let’s think about it. Would you know any of these people if it weren’t for me?”
We are friends now, good friends, there is no bad blood on my end. We talk very frequently. But sometimes I think back to those words, and wonder if he still thinks of it as a transaction.
The woman, whose faith in me I still cannot fathom: never once has she asked to be thanked. I owe her nearly everything.
In Tampa, I met up with a friend from my small weird alternative college program, one of my only college friends who has stuck with the whole writing thing. We don’t talk particularly often, but as it always is with old friends, we slipped easily back into the old patterns of speech.
At one point we were hanging out with some of my New York friends at one of the weird conference hotel room cocktail hours, and a few of us decided to leave the harshly lit room and sit on the hotel patio. I was listening to my mentor and my friend from college, not participating in the conversation. From the hotel lobby, I began to hear the notes of a Coldplay cover on the piano, and naturally I got very, very emotional. The joy of watching the people who have helped me through the various eras of my life interact put me into a state of grace laced with a positive version of melodrama.
Alongside old friends and new friends becoming friends, creating one giant orb of friendship that is the secret source of all my powers, I got to live the uniquely internet-esque experience of watching people I’ve only interacted with online become animated in the sparkling flesh. This is always an interesting and lovely experience, but there was a new element for me this year when so many of the new friends were people featured in previous issues of The Review.
It’s always a toss-up with an experience like AWP: will you feel enthused about literary community or disheartened?
My friend and I sat outside the WolfHead off-site party smoking cigarettes and watching her boyfriend talk about video games on television, and when we tried to get back into the party we were told it was at capacity. (Whenever this happens to me I’m like, I was literally already in there. I’m part of the reason you’re at capacity! But I digress.) When we turned around, I found Elissa Washuta and Nick White waiting in line, two Triangle House authors who we published in February. There was the immediate moment of recognition, of laughter—similar to the way I fell back into the speech patterns with my college friend, except with people I’d never met.
In January, we published a year long conversation between Chelsea Hodson and Wendy C. Ortiz. They did a signing of Through Clenched Teeth at our booth, and aside from the pure joy of being in the presence of such luminaries, noticing the similarities and differences between how they conversed on the page and in the flesh was an experience that seems irreplicable outside of this strange world of literature.
These friends and artists, old and new, create a constellation of beauty in this time of such intense uncertainty. A few months ago I wrote about someone asking me what the point of the Triangle House Review is. One joy I didn’t anticipate is that I find new “points” every day, and this is one: to map the stars of literature as we think of them, stars that are close enough to touch and be marked by the intensity of their luminance.
Even with the warm Tampa respite, it’s been a long and hard winter. One of the only things that’s gotten me through it is the friendships I’ve formed with other writers. In her interview with Leah Dieterich, Barzini also says:
“There’s a lot of care-taking words that don’t have an English equivalent.”
I want a word for the care these friends have shown me, for the love that this community has created in a void in my life that feels sometimes impossible to fill. I want words for what it is to be critical while being kind, serious while colloquial, how to make art that is messy and honest but rigorous and true. We are creating a constellation and a language, and the work we’re publishing this month exemplifies it with a word related to grace.