Last Friday night in Denver, sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. Mountain time, I watched literary legend--or at least one of my literary legends--Gary Snyder walk slowly to a podium and gaze out at an audience of at least 600 people in the cavernous Four Seasons Ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center.
"This is one big hall," Snyder remarked. "I came by earlier to see the room and couldn't see the end of it."
He might have been scanning California's Great Central Valley, thinking once again, as he wrote in Mountains and Rivers Without End, "us and our stuff just covering the ground."
But he wasn't. Instead, he saw row upon row of writers, writing instructors, writing students and writing program administrators on his first visit to the conference and said, "I can't believe how big this is. Go for it, kids. America needs more good writers."
Snyder's reading was one of the highlights of a three-day literary extravaganza known as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair. About 8,000 people were in Denver for meetings, panels, readings and socializing (okay, maybe a little networking, too). Writers, writers, everywhere.
Unlike my trips to BEA or regional bookseller shows, I always feel a bit like a fringe player at AWP even though I have my credentials handy--an MFA in writing from Bennington College--just in case someone asks to see my papers.
A lot of my work in Denver was decidedly offsite, including a nice reception Thursday night with the good folks from Unbridled Books and author Masha Hamilton, as well as a great conversation with MPIBA director Lisa Knudsen Saturday.
On Friday, while wandering through the book fair, I stopped by the Tattered Cover's display table, where Marti Stewart told me sales had been brisk. Even as I stood there, people were buying books, especially poetry collections. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, poetry matters at AWP.
At a panel titled "Shameless Book Promotion: Squad 365 Rides Again," which was presented to an overflow crowd at the Hyatt Regency, poet Todd Boss talked about creatively promoting his work, including his self-appointment as poet laureate of Nina's Café in St. Paul, Minn., and his acceptance of commissioned work.
"I want my poetry to reach a popular audience," he observed. "I find it troublesome that I should be forced to admit such a thing as if it were shameful." Boss also rejects the notion that poetry is an elite art form reserved for a certain class of reader: "In other countries around the world, contemporary poets are populist heroes, household names. This is not because those country’s populations are more educated nor because their poetry is less sophisticated. Rather, it is because in those cultures poetry is perceived as belonging to all audiences. It is viewed as a public resource."
Which brings me back to Gary Snyder. In 1970, I bought Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems for $1.50, and have had that book within reach for nearly four decades. Snyder was 40 years old when I got my copy. Now he's 80.
This book has become an object that transcends its modest packaging. Maybe not a sacred object; I'm not that sentimental. But if I open to page one, I see lines I bracketed when I was 20 years old:
I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
In a couple of weeks I'll be 60, and if I picked up this book for the first time now, I'd probably still highlight those lines. And these, on page six:
All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present sems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in dry air.
What does it mean? You already know what it means.
"Fortunately, my poetry is not that complicated," Snyder said in Denver as he made a case for demystifying his art. "You don't need to be an architect to walk into a building."
I'm glad I crossed the continent last week to hear him read. I resist the deification of paper for its own sake, have e-books on my iPod and read newspapers on my laptop, but maybe my copy of Riprap is a sacred object after all.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)