I spent these past two days in Olympia, Washington on the Evergreen State College campus for PRESS: a cross-cultural literary conference. Their theme this year was “Activism and the Avant Garde” and it seemed like just the kind of thing I could appreciate. I did. After a long and rather unproductive conversation about some perceived injustice on Internet forums, it was wonderful to attend a conference with other writers and editors talking about things that actually matter.
Those who know me or my work might wonder how I ended up at a conference with experimental writers. I was primarily interested in that word “Activism.” Here was a conference about literary activists, literature as activism, active writing! How exciting! AND they were planning a panel on disability rights. Could there possibly even be a more perfect conference, I wondered. So I blocked out the time on my schedule to attend and submitted a mixed-genre essay titled “You Are Here: Activism from the Edge of the World.” This required me to really clarify my thoughts about the words “Avant Garde.” Writing the essay was in itself a wonderful learning experience for me.
When I got word from the organizing committee that they liked my essay and were inviting me to serve on a panel as a presenter, I was both elated and terrified. With three other writers, I was to serve on the panel discussing disability rights and disability literature. I didn’t want to just read my essay. For one thing, it was too long. For another, I needed the audience to be able to visualize what was on the page. The words themselves were not enough. Holy crap—was I experimenting with prose?!? In the end, my presentation wasn’t particularly radical (some talking and some PowerPoint slides), but I was able to pare it down to the things I really wanted to say while at the same time giving the “reader” the opportunity to see what I meant. I think it was successful.
The other three writers on the panel “The Unwritten Body” were also quite successful at presenting their ideas. Poet Jennifer Bartlett made an excellent case for ridding the English language of the word “invalid” (yes Mr. Ashbery, the disability community is watching) and for understanding that no one is “able-bodied.” In her words, “Aren’t we all damaged human forms?” Poet Jessica Baron is interested in how movement can be represented on the page, how we can reconcile a static space with the moving world we live in. Through her presentation, writer and student Jess Tourtellotte showed how society limits people with disabilities and creates a very different world experience. All three panelists had fascinating and thought-provoking things to say and I’m thankful to them for allowing me to share a bit of their space.
I attended three other panels through the course of the conference: one about small presses (interesting, but not as activist-based as I’d hoped), another about globalization and the role of language in that process (some excellent ideas in this panel), and the third that can best be summed up by the words of comedian Bill Barr. He said near the beginning of his presentation, “Whenever we’re against them, them probably looks a lot like me.” This panel generated some of the best critical discussion I’ve seen in months, largely, I think, because the three panelists (comedian Bill Barr, writer/editor Barry Graham, and writer/student Jeff Konen) were coming at the same subject from three very different directions and, more importantly, so obviously cared about the subject. I was utterly taken in by Graham’s reading—the gut honesty of it—and I could not overstate the power of Konen’s experience or the pride I felt learning that not only did he write about it, he did something about it.
Saturday night I attended the reading. 7 poets read from their work and I had that utterly wonderful experience of discovery. I purchased the book A Message Back and Other Furors by Leonard Schwartz immediately after the reading and wasn’t disappointed in that decision (full review forthcoming). After the readings, students performed Rodrigo Toscano’s Collapsible Poetics Theater—an experience well-worth having. If you aren’t familiar with Toscano’s work, I highly recommend becoming so. While it is way outside my usual preferences, there is no way to deny that his is important work both on the literary front and the activist front (it helps that he is so incredibly intelligent). I didn’t attend the afterparty, but I heard rave reviews from everyone that did. There were also readings Friday and Sunday nights, but I was unable to attend those. I was disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to see David Michael Wollach read Friday night (though I was not disappointed in the circumstances that required me to be elsewhere!). One of Wollach’s short stories will be appearing in The Externalist later this year and I have every confidence that his reading was well worth seeing.
I ask myself: What made this conference so successful? What is it that impacted me so tremendously that I spent the three and a half hour drive home just thinking? One thing I can pinpoint right away is that this was a mixed conference. It wasn’t just about poetry (though it was, in my opinion, a little too poetry-heavy) or fiction or nonfiction. In fact, it wasn’t just about writing. This conference included performers, photographers, comedians, researchers, prose writers, poets, and activists. Nor was it a conference about particular areas of activism. Numerous important subjects were presented from a variety of perspectives and styles, radical ideas were mixed in with more conservative ideas (I was called the ‘counterculture’ at one point—that was interesting), and everyone—whether they agreed or disagreed—talked about these things. That was another important success point of the conference. Attendees and panelists had the opportunity to talk. A long lunch break gave us the opportunity to discuss our ideas more fully, to ask others about theirs, and to learn through participation in conversation.
For example, I had the opportunity to chat with professor and poet Mark Wallace (many thanks to him for the encouragement as I struggled with a bad case of stage fright!) and much to my surprise, to rethink my perspective on language poetry and post-language poetry. Not that I think I’ll be reading a lot of it or getting heavily involved, but for the first time, someone was able to show me what it was all about. Whether I agree or disagree, I can at least understand. It’s easier to respect something we can see, even for a brief moment, in context. At lunch on Sunday, I had a long conversation with Laura Sández that still has me thinking. Saturday, I spoke with University of Oregon professor and editor of The Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster. I began reading his book The Vulnerable Planet (I wanted to read his ecological works in order) and look forward to communicating with him further about political economy and the ecological crises our world is experiencing. This man is all about solutions.
Other people and journals that I discovered during this conference and would like to recommend include Dogz Plot (Editor Barry Graham says, “I just like good stories,” Ignavia (Editor Nicholas Hayes wanted to create a venue for queer experimental literature), Kristin Prevallet (a highly unique poet), and oddly enough, Bizzaro Central (a collaboration of small presses specializing in over-the-top, uncategorizable fiction).
Perhaps the most incredible thing about this conference was the sheer energy of the participants. Artists and activists together were talking about all of the significant social concerns of our time, both within the United States and out in the wider world that we inhabit. This was undoubtedly the most thinking conference I have ever attended and I look forward to attending again in the future. Were there things that could have been improved? Certainly—we can always improve—but given that this was the first year of the conference, I’m utterly amazed at how beautifully the organizing committee put everything together. Keep at it, Evergreen State. Some of us have been waiting a long time for this conversation.