Best Worst Year: Episode 13 (Or, Love That Dirty Water)

If you were one to say March means Winter’s Swan Song, then you obviously haven’t spent enough time in Boston. Seventeen floors up and the Boston skyline has been erased by the howling squall of Winter going absolutely fucking nowhere. It’s an upward corkscrew of snowflakes rushing towards the hotel window and suddenly they break and bank away from you, almost as if the wind is repelled by the gravity of your stare. Roofs collect weather like you empty bottles–swift and gradually. There’s something about snow that suits me. I don’t know if it’s the isolation; the pervading silence it can bring to a town at night; the way it halos street lights; the dull white noise washing against windows; whatever that seasonal alchemy it seeps into my bones, searching out the marrow of my poetry.

Or it could just underscore my capacity to be a shut-in, drink scotch, and listen to vinyl.

The annual literary flock returns to the movable feast that is the AWP Conference and Bookfair, 2k13 today. This is year seven for me, and my fifth year running the Afterhours All Collegiate Poetry Slam/Open Mic/Pot Luck Barbecuemitzpha. Hosting the Slam/Open has been a real privilege–I feel like it’s been a way for me to put my own little sideburned stamp on the annual conference. In my first two years AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs), there wasn’t a true spot for undergrads (or grad students for matter) to really participate officially as part of the conference. The open mic was usually held in a remote part of Convention Center X, preferably near a boiler room. There was minimal signage and no host. As a result you had an open mic at its most base definition–here’s a mic. Go. The open mic was a kudzu of tipsy observations and overextended diatribes of all flavors–generally an event you would avoid.

When I first started organizing the slams, AWP was small enough that the event became the alternative to the conference dance party (which usually happened down the hall from the slam). Attendance was always decent, and more importantly, the caliber of student work read at these slams always impressed me. There has always been at least one moment each night which has left me in awe of a student’s performance–be it the language, the wit, the craft, or the vulnerability. Some of the most honest experiences I’ve had with poetry have come between 10 and midnight at these events.

As AWP has grown exponentially, the need for an official Slam/Open has waned as more off-site events keep popping up year after year. That said, there should always be a space for student voices to be heard at the conference. For some folks, it’s the first time they’ve ever really read in a setting which wasn’t the neighborhood cafe/bar/library/discoteque. As a host, it is always humbling to be a part of that student’s initial reading experience.

And there’s always something wild–like the pack of twenty plus students from the Philadelphia Community College who heckled the everloving daylights out of the poetry slam judges in New York City back in ‘08 or watching the evolution of some killer Chicago grad students who came out both in ‘09 returning to the stage last year. Or the litany of drunks wandering into the space looking for drink tickets and a dance party. (Point of fact: I will never turn down a slow dance to Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself” although if you think about it, who is slow dancing to a song about being alone?). Or how I got pneumonia in DC on the last night of the conference?

All that said, traveling to this conference has been different than any other conference I’ve been to for AWP over the last seven years. I’m used to traveling alone–actually I prefer to travel alone. I move on my own clock and calendar and when it comes to conference travel I had very little time for anyone elses nonsense–I just be responsible for my own baggage (literal and emotional) and get on with it. Over the last year, I’ve become much more relaxed about travel simply because I am doing it all the time and exclusively on my timetable. But being here–in Boston as a part of and not a part of Wilkes University is strange. Not bad. Just strange.

It’s only natural I guess. You spend the better part of seven years intertwining your life with your career and then it’s no longer a part of your day to day existence, there is some space for estrangement and awkwardness–not that I need much of an invitation for the awkward dance (see previous paragraph about Eric Carmen). It’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend at a public event. You exchange pleasantries. You catch up. You talk. You nod. You smile. You hug. You ask questions. You wonder about dozens of things while you try and focus on what they’re saying to you. You tell them they look great. You don’t want it to be a routine. You don’t want to act the way we act because you are being dismissive. You get anxious. You are running out of things to say. You realize your life is so much different now than it was just a few short months ago. You feel calm. You don’t think “This is how I planned on handling it.” You’re not interested in competing when comparing. You harbour no ill will. You miss them, just enough to remember what missing someone feels like, but that’s it. You have both moved on and are the better for it. Or at least you hope they’re the better for it. At some point it doesn’t really matter. You are the better for it. You make vague plans for the future. You may keep them or not. Whether you do is immaterial. You are constantly making plans and shaping the world to fit you now. If these plans cross paths like you mixed these images up in this sentence then it’s okay. It’s okay for it not to happen too. It’s more than okay for it not to happen. Suddenly, the crowd swells between you and you are carried off to different rooms, different places. You are given over to the wind and weather scattering snow and ice beyond the windows overlooking Huntington Avenue. It’s flurries now, the streets are just wet, but the trees are frosted with a scenic nostalgia. You’re pretty sure this was a postcard hanging in your office once. You take one more look and head back to your hotel room to write about winter on the seventeenth floor.

Jim Warner is the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in The North American Review, PANK Magazine, Word Riot, and other journals. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. Follow him on Twitter: @whoismisterjim or see him this weekend at AWP as he will be hosting the All Collegiate After Hours Poetry Slams each and every night. To sign up visit the Wilkes University/Etruscan Booth (303).

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