Countdown to Publication Day 60: The Midwest Goes West for AWP (or What is Midwestern Literature Anyway?)

The annual conference of the AWP, (Advanced Writing Programs), has become a yearly hobnobbing event of inspiration and exhaustion—in the seminar room, at the bookfair table, or under the hotel bar—a conference that dangerously throws the talented and divinely publicized in among the not-so-famous and often desperate folk who are:

a) bright-eyed graduate students of the talented and publicized;
b) short-story lovers scanning the beautifully-made and never-heard-of or wonderfully-fat and often-heard-of literary magazines while trying to decide which is which;
c) wet-eyed novelists-to-be in hopes of someday understanding why they haven’t finished said novel, are wasting their time hobnobbing instead of finishing said novel, or can’t get anyone to publish their finished said novel;
d) newby novelists ill in the gills over Amazon stats and the piles of postcards they hope to somehow distribute among attendees in quiet and self-effacing ways;
e) happy-go-lucky NFS (pronounced “nymphs”; aka Non-Fiction Writers) dreaming of their next niche
f) the dreamy ones who are smarter than everyone else (aka poets)

But the AWP conference is of course something else. In fact, to me it’s becoming a yearly love-fest in which I get to revisit—in loud, bear-hugging ways—all the writer friends and acquaintances I have met and prayed with (in the literary sense) at various artist colonies, writing conferences, and readings over the years. At this year’s Denver incarnation, I of course attended a number of seminars and panels, even led one of my own (see previous post), though many of these blurred under the florescent lights as the days passed.

But which ones didn’t? In my excitement to join some familiar Midwestern types, I opened the doors early to a panel entitled “West by Midwest: Women Writers Crossing the 100th Meridian.” As I took a seat, I realized the previous panel was still going strong—was, in fact, only just then reaching its impassioned zenith. I looked at my program. I had walked into “Justice, Community, and The Republic of Poetry.” Certainly this fiction writer had already crossed some kind of meridian. The room was packed. The great Martin Espada punched the podium air with his finger. As his voice settled and the panel’s microphones grew quiet, the audience whooped and crowded the front for what seemed an ecstatic reunion of protesting lyricists (possible?). I was the whitest person in the room. Is justice not the provenance of the pale and towheaded? Obviously, the next panel would not be beginning on time.

But it did begin eventually. And the group of women on this panel, most of them Midwesterners or on the borders of being so, were such a understated bunch that the dissonance between them and the previous assembly was bewildering. I sat with Ladette Randolph (author of A Sandhills Ballad), a wonderfully gracious woman and recent acquaintance in her new post as Queen of Boston’s Ploughshares. Just as in my own fiction, hers has more of a dark and gritty vein than one might expect. Hooray for the ability to betray appearances.

Behind the panel desk stood Debra Marquart (The Horizontal World), a soft-spoken woman surely twenty years younger than she claims, both a past rock and heavy metal band member and performance poet. (Hooray again). She was the first to speak, offering a slide show of wonderfully-peculiar family photographs and historic finds. She shortly explained each, and it was this same unhurried and quiet voice, this ability to allow the photographs to take center stage while the fan whirled and the audience silently gazed that returned the room to simple contemplation. When Joy Passanante rose to speak, the title of her 2004 short story collection, The Art of Absence, sent me spinning. Of course, I thought. Isn’t this same absence and our attempts to shape it into something weightier than mere nothingness what I had tried to capture in The Quickening for years? Isn’t it what the landscape itself forces us to struggle with?

But Joy claimed that landscape was not what brought together this group of women or their subjects. Hers is an identity of interiors, and her work focuses on women within their domestic sphere, an attention to walls and their power that I myself have often failed to muster. What about the vistas? What about weather? Is my attention to the outdoors the reason why my character Enidina appears more masculine than most men?

Finally it was time for Jonis Agee (The River Wife), perhaps the most well-known and prolific on the panel’s roster. And now I knew why. With her no-nonsense vigor, her description of the Nebraska sandhills and their fierce monotony made me yearn for a road trip where I lost myself in unmarked territory. No wonder Ladette had written a ballad to such a place. Here was absence with a terrible presence. Here was the severity of the frontier returned to us. I had traveled as far as the Syrian desserts and Amazon rainforest, but never realized that my former back yard promised a genuine expedition.

That evening, as I hopped The Ride back to our hotel with my friend Lisa Borders (check out her novel Cloud Cuckoo Land), we found ourselves in a cultural muddle. Seated next to where we stood was a young woman, obviously another conference attendee. A stranger loomed over her with an idiot’s grin and lifted his enormous paw to pat her gently on the head. She gave a shy smile and laughed nervously at him. I inched my foot between the two, my every instinct compelling me to interfere if necessary, to physically head-off any continued patting or worse. Of course, this instinct in me is ridiculous. I’m barely over five feet tall and weigh little over a hundred pounds. The man was a giant. But Lisa reacted the same way, her jaw readied for a verbal punch. Lisa was a Jersey girl, and I had lived in Boston long enough to have adopted some of the city’s skepticism. The man patted again; the young woman laughed the same way. Lisa and I watched. He was obviously drunk, but also obviously mentally disabled, a kind of child enacting a child’s sense of wonder at this wonderful blonde head before him. The next we knew, the bus had stopped, the doors opened, and off he went with his grin.

I must admit I was curious about this woman’s reaction after the man had left. She couldn’t have been local to Denver, a city suffering a recent scourge of homelessness and marijuana-induced dread. Nor did she live in any of the major cities that line the coasts. Otherwise, the man would have been thrown through the door. Of course, I thought she might be a Midwesterner. Who else would sit so quietly as a poor dope with rotting breath played the bright, shiny thing on your head? Who else if not for a tame and friendly woman of the heartland?

I myself was not as ready as Lisa had been to tackle the man. I had kept my vigil, but at the same time found myself curious of his curiosity and forgiving of his childishness. I had become my own meridian full of cross purposes, considered either a well-balanced individual of both aggressiveness and patience or a walking identity crisis.

“Where are you from?” I finally asked. “Kentucky,” the woman.

So much for stereotypes. Of course, political maps with their reddened southern and middle strips make the two regions seem virtually the same. Some have difficulty drawing the Midwestern borders in the first place. And the idea of a Midwestern Literature seems a study of absence—in a negative way. The panel I attended had eventually discussed the same. Who are the great Midwestern writers? Why doesn’t the question instantly bring up clear definitions, the way that Southern Gothic and the Western Frontier instantly lend writers a genre they can either adopt or fight against? But the panelists assured their listeners that the Midwestern writer, particularly its women, was on the verge of distinction. Already many of them mentor students with great promise or work with writers-in-the-making, those of us no one has heard of with our postcards and unassuming ways. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges. And if ever a characterization is found, I hope I’m allowed onto the list of names despite my current residence, even if the Midwestern Writer becomes an identity that I quickly try to break.

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Tags: Agee, Books, Borders, Debra, Jonis, Joy, Ladette, Lisa, Marquart, Midwest, More…Passanante, Publishing, Randolph, Writing

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Comment by Michelle Hoover on June 1, 2010 at 7:10pm
Thanks for the comment, Cathy. Would love to read that essay and probably pass it on to others myself.
Comment by Cathy Day on June 1, 2010 at 2:02pm
Michelle, So sorry it's taken me such a long time to respond to this excellent post. Mark Winegardner wrote a great essay for Oxford American about ten years ago about why Midwestern writers don't have the same sense of pride and/or identity about their region as, say, Southern writers do. I need to find it and scan it in, because I find myself wanting to share it with other Midwestern writers all the time.

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