The Associated Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference has come around this year again, and this time, we’re moving in on the Big Apple. Already, friends have contacted friends, new phone numbers have been exchanged, those who were lucky to get their panel accepted are bracing in to present, new authors are about to sign new books, publishers are going to be there too, to meet potential authors, literary magazine publishers, journalists, poets, poets, poets are going to be all over the place like crazy, and of course, some folks are going to be interviewing for jobs in the middle of all of this crowd of more than seven thousand registrants, and did I hear that AWP is so sold out that there will be no one registering on site, no room in the INN, and oh, my God!
—–AWP – Austin TX in 2006- Lydia Melvin (Meta Sama) and me at our publisher, New Issues Press book table where Jade’s first book had just come out——-
For some of us who love to write and to see our work published, AWP has been a place for finding a base. When I went to my first AWP in 1999 in Albany New York, the city on a hill where the walls of official government buildings are marble even on the outside in that hilly town. I was the African woman everyone was surprised to see at a conference that almost saw no African presence. There were hardly any black people around, I tell you, and yet, my publisher, the late Herbert Scott of New Issues Press and Prose was confident that I would make it. “You’ll survive, Patricia, you will.”
He believed in me, so I took on AWP, jumped in the Western Michigan University van with him and three other grad students who were taking turns to drive. I had decided I had never driven anywhere that far from Kalamazoo before, and most of all from Kalamazoo to Albany, and I was not signing up to drive, and of course, Herb looked at me with that disapproving look, but I didn’t budged and didn’t drive. “If you didn’t sign up, you can’t drive now,” he told me when suddenly, I felt like driving after we’d overcome some hills or because I opened my eyes during the night and thought the car would throw us down the mountain.
—-AWP -Chicago, 2004- New Issues Press book table- Ever Saskya, New Issues Press poet and I pose for a shot. Ever’s book had just been released—
So, there was I in Albany, signing books, attracting conference attendants who stopped by our table just because of my accent. “So you’re from Africa?” People would ask me,”and how did you end up here?” They’d stand, surprised, and I wondered then and now whether they bought my books in good numbers because they liked me, hated to make me feel rejected or simply because they were surprised at my accent or by my boldness.Was my poetry that good, I wondered. Whatever it was, it was good to sell books those first years.
And I have survived well, thanks to Herb Scott for that small beginning. That year, I was so afraid of going to AWP that I didn’t book a hotel room in time or didn’t have the money to book a room that year. After all, I was a PhD student with a family of six, trying to recover from the Liberian civil war even while that war still raged, trying to joggle my newly turned-teenage two older kids, trying to joggle my beloved husband, and everything a woman joggles, trying to make sense of the news of on-going war at home, trying to be helpful to ailing parents, dying cousins, uncles and neighbors at home, etc. etc.
I got bunked up in a Best Western with another younger grad female student on New Issues Press booking, and stood at the table for days to pay for my free hotel bed.
From then on, I discovered that AWP was indeed very very white, but that there was still room for me, the African woman with the African accent, writing poetry that people were beginning to accept and love in America where everything African is unknown, and best of all was that I was building up a new family of poets who were of all races, male and female, and I was also learning that the life of a poet is different from any other life because you belong in a community, and that I was also here on this earth to change the way things look before I arrived.
___ AWP – Vancouver-The late Herb Scott, founder of New Issues Press standing next to New Issues current Managing Editor, Marianne Swierenga at the book table in Vancouver, Canada——
I went to every AWP since ’99 beside Vancouver. I don’t know why I didn’t go, but maybe I was afraid of another country, maybe. There was Kansas City, and then came AWP New Orleans soon after September 11. And then, I got one more book published from just being a part of an organization where I met publishers and friends who were like and unlike me. I got on panels and did readings, and saw another African or two at the AWP conferences following. There is always room for one even if that room is not as open as should be, but there is always room for another.
——(AWP- Chicago 2004, Ade-Juah, my then ten year daughter, our youngest and I walk through the Book Exhibition hall at the Palmer House Chicago. Every now and then, I take a child with me to AWP. Ade loved meeting the many great writers and publishers, and collecting AWP pins and pencils during the last days of the conference. She still remembers some of the writers by their names up to this date.)
Now AWP conference in New York City is full, I hear and I’ve read. I will be there however, having signed up early as always. My new publisher of my third book, Autumn House has signed me up to be at the table at 1 pm on the 31st to sign books, that is if anyone cares to come by and buy my books. If they do, thanks to them because there are so many books, anyone can get overlooked in the crowd of great writers.
Beside book signings, there are numerous other things I may be doing. Eating with friends, visiting with old friends from grad school, making new friends. I will also be reading at the New school in Greenwich Village. I am so honored to read with such a good group, and then I will be reading with a friend of mine, Ruby Harmon. It’s going to be hectic, but that’s why one attends a writers’ conference, to work.
____Here are some of my most lasting memories of past AWP conferences. In AWP conference in Atlanta last year, I was pulled to PEN America reception where I met all of these great writers as AWP draws out. Right before me in the crowd of writers eating and drinking was Rita Dove and her husband who had over heard me telling a Mexican writer that I would be attending the 17th International Poetry Festival of Medellin in the summer of 2007 as an invited guest. Rita and her husband, German born novelist, Fred Viebahn drew closer to us, and I was introduced to them. We were now in a circle of about six writers who had had the Medellin experience, and everyone was excited to recount their stories about the famous festival. Rita and Fred stood there and both took turns excitedly telling me about the International Poetry Festivals held every year in Medellin, and assured me that I would have a good time and not to worry. After a long conversation with them and others in a small circle while the others around us chattered in the small room, I realized I wanted my college son, MT Wesley, whom I had brought along to the Atlanta conference to meet Rita and her husband, especially, since they had a daughter at the University of Rochester where my son is studying.
My son, who had just arrived on a plane from Rochester came up quickly to the PEN America reception. I was so excited, I was beside myself. My son was going to be meeting a great American poet like Rita tonight. Of course, I’d met Rita numerous times at AWP, but had never been in a close conversation with her this long, so it was great.
MT, then a junior student at college, came up and I introduced Rita and her husband to him. But his eyes did not light up and he was not as impressed as I was. So I said to him, “MT, do you know who this is?” His eyes had that look of “okay, Mom, who is Rita Dove?”
“MT, ” I said again, “Did you learn any literature in high school and in college?”
“Mom, please help me, who is she?” MT, his hand in Rita’s hand was unlike the kid I thought I would have, verse in literature and all of the great writers, especially, of the black world. So, I was embarrassed.
Rita said, “It’s okay, hi MT, I’m Rita.”
“Hi, nice meeting you,” he smiled and said “Sorry, Mom,” I don’t know all the great poets you know.” k
“We have a lot that our schools are not teaching our kids,” I said to my embarrassment. “Every American kid and every black kid should know the great writers of our world,” I said. I then excused my not so literary son from the group, and moved him around the room to meet all of the poets and writers in the room that evening. I wanted to give him a literary lesson at this very literary conference. He shoke hands with Sonia Sonchez and all of the great writers in the room before I let him off to run back downstairs. I am sure that he was glad to be set free from what he called, “a bunch of crazy poets.”
But MT was the wrong kid. He told me throughout the Atlanta conference how much he disliked artist and their confused festivals and writers conferences like the one he was attending with me. The book tables and booths, he thought were all confusing to a guy who loves computers and Economics, law and the like.
And yet, this was not the most humbling of my AWP experiences. My first humbling experience was the Albany conference. I had just published my first book, Before the Palm Could Bloom in 1998, and felt like the world was now opening up to me again after all of my loss, and that I had achieved something even if that was just a small thing. So, I wanted everyone to know about my new book at that AWP.
Down the book exhibit aisle from New Issues Press book table was a tall, slender, blond woman looking like someone in their late fifties. She was staring ahead, so I drew her in a conversation. I was still bold enough to speak to strangers faster than I am today, having only been in this country then less than ten years. She lit up when I greeted her, and introduced herself, her calm voice of confidence. Then she asked about me, my books, etc., and I told her about my excitement of having published my first book. She smiled that knowing smile.
We talked for a little while and I wanted to know about her book or books, and if I could look at them if she had published a book. She smiled again, maybe feeling sorry for me or maybe identifying with me because maybe I was taking her to a past memory. “Do you have a book?” I asked.
You’ve got to understand that at the time I knew that you didn’t have to have a book to be here, but I wanted to meet people with books and to be encouraged by their presence.
“Yes,” she said. “I really like you, Patricia. You are so real,”
“Thanks. Can we go to your book table?” I asked. “How many books do you have?” I asked.
We walked, and as we walked, she said in that humble way. “I have published fifty books, Patricia,” she said in that soft voice only common to the famous. It is like they do not have to make an effort to say something about themselves because you should know if you knew any better.
I almost slipped and fell in the middle of the aisle, just hearing her say, “Fifty books.”
“But some of my publishers are here. The big ones are not here,” she said, taking my hand as if to help me not fall from the shock that here was a woman like me, not black, but a woman still, with fifty books.
I felt like a mosquito right there, a tiny little ant, standing and looking at this beautiful women who was humble enough to be here standing with me. This to me was AWP- where one can mix with the great and the small, the famous and the not so known, the student and the professor. I am looking forward to this sort of inspiration as I drive up to the big Apple for my ninth AWP conference. AWP conferences make me realize each year that there is more I need to do to be where I need to be when I visit the booths and see how many books being published and how many better writers are out there making a difference. And yet, I see myself also as an inspiration to someone like me who came to this country with nothing, someone who believes that there is still room in the INN for everyone, yes, there is room for all of us.
Two of my favorite poets, Paula McLain and Anthony Butts signing books at AWP Texas, 2006- New Issues Press table.
I will conclude on a poem I wrote on the train as I left AWP 2002 in New Orleans. That poem, “There’s Another New Orleans,” was pulled from Becoming Ebony before it was published, and never made it in The River is Rising, my third book. But it was published on my college website and in Chicken Bones soon after Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans. The poem below:
There’s Another New Orleans
By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Where the roads crawl backwards
behind streets broken up in many places
and children stand in doorways,
staring. Their eyes look far away,
and a woman stands by the street corner
hollering for a dollar to take her to the shelter.
At the Chinese restaurant,
a blind man was having a meal after
a long day collecting coins that we
tourists threw into a plastic bowl
on Canal Street.
My girlfriends and I took a streetcar
from Bourbon down to the Gardens
where colonial mansions rush past you
with lost history. I didn’t know
you could ride a streetcar on a sidewalk
and watch houses disappear into history.
I wanted to feel the years.
I wanted to holler until I cried, or danced
through these colonial-mansion-streets
so the past would come flying out like
The colonial houses want to tell me
we have done away with the past?
But the streets behind our view crawl
backwards into history we came here
to remember or forget.
Someone should have kept the years for us.
Someone should have carved up the years
on pieces of metal for us.
At the restaurant door, I lose my step
in the dark. A five-year-old-boy
is playing the harmonica–nine o’clock
at night on Thursday. On Bourbon Street
nude girls are dancing in a bar,
and the five-year-old-boy outside,
on the sidewalk collects brown coins
into a plastic bowl. Will we ever know
what pennies can do?
Down the road, we forget the child,
Just a few steps away, a saxophone
wails on a thin string. At Bourbon and Canal,
tourists come out in colonies, holding
on to the thin evening air.
What brings out the best of Canal Street
brings out the worst of Canal Street.
The Saxophone player sweats and balloons
hard into the night air of footsteps coming
and going in search of food and drinks
and happiness. Lovers holding on to each
other as if afraid of unfamiliar ghosts.
There’s another New Orleans, I say,
where the blind man rises at dawn
below our passing feet.
You will not see him beneath the footsteps.
The tall buildings will lose him too,
in the French Quarters, where the smell
of Cajun spices and crawfish drowns us tourists.
The Gumbo tasted like home food to me,
and my God, they brought Jollof Rice
all the way here, and named it Jambalaya.
Our waitress placed me in the middle
of people eating fresh oysters and drinking
red wine. The wines and hot peppers will drown
only the moment. Outside the night air,
on our way back to where hotel rooms await us,
there, again is the five-year-old,
somebody’s son–the child who plays
the harmonica like no other person
in the whole world.