Sunday, August 2, 2009

Best Little Conference in the West

The euphoria from the conference is starting to ebb and I'm returning to being a town-girl with a needy cat and a flesh-&- blood family. Though I'm not all here yet; yesterday I wandered off-track walking to the market five blocks away, I shampooed my hair twice in one shower and skipped the conditioner (yeah, hairstyle a la rat's nest), I'm still a bit zingy and zany and lost in story-land. But the conversations in my head about poetry, public life, writing dates, next year's faculty, story collections, writing in the midst of living, urban legends, story arc, fried chicken lips, binaries, story shape, villanelles, cientos are starting to wind down, replaced by the give-and-take of civilian life: what sort of pasta for dinner, furlough days, picking up croissants for breakfast, the kibble-shortage, as pointed out by the cat.

But it was a most fabulous conference. In fact describing it is an exercise is saying "fantastic" eighteen different ways. Some of the highlights, though certainly not all, for me:

Toni Nelson's lecture which included a collage that acted like a map of her process in drafting stories. (She set the bar high from the get-go; Peter Ho Davies remarked that he now has "hand-out envy.")

The FAQ talk by Elizabeth Alexander about being Madame Ambassador for Poetry, her description of being at the Inaugural, of writing the Inaugural poem (one of four such poems in the US), of "writing in the midst," and sitting down later with your scrap-box, your rag-basket of ideas, words, inspirations. Those in the lecture can now claim an Obama Number of 2, right? (you know, like an Erdos number, or Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon).

The First Books Panel: Adrianne McDonnell, Skip Horuk, Robin Ekiss: great stories of books (a novel, short story collection, poetry, respectivley) making it into the world, including one (McDonnell) who had worked on her ms at the conference last summer.

All the readings were, ahem, fantastic: Carl Dennis and ZZ Packer on campus on Sunday; Jane Hirschfield and Robert Boswell at the Rubicon Winery on Monday. I could write whole blogs on each. The Tuesday night reading at the Napa Valley Opera House was particularly stunning both in setting (the refurbished auditorium is to die for) and content, from Camille Dungy's introduction of Elizabeth Alexander and her fantastic poems through the stories of Peter Ho Davies, which were a revelation to me. He brought down the house with his hilarious yet poignant Minotaur story (pronounced the British way "MY-no-taur") and then captured us with his story "Chance," searing, emotionally honest and true. Thursday night, David St John (with a spot-on intro by Mary Shea) and Toni Nelson at the Mondavi winery, another gem of setting and design, of art and words, where Toni read a work-in-progress, the first haunting chapter of a novel.

At my first Napa conference, Ron Carlson told us on the last day of our workshop to take a few minutes and set up a writing-date for ourselves within 24 hours of getting home, in order to keep the process going, to keep open all the dendrite-connections, synapse-firings stirred up during the conference. Which I did ... and so, excuse me, I have a hot date with a draft-map and a story. 

p.s. I know others have different highlights. I'd love to hear about them, so feel free to share in Comments!


  1. And I loved my workshop experience with Boswell. He set the bar high with the line by line craft explanation on the first day. It made for some fine discussions throughout the week.
    It was a great conference.

  2. The workshops seemed particularly strong this year. So glad you enjoyed yours. I can see how having established common ground in this way would give workshoppers some shared language to use in discussions. Cool!


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