My AWP ’15 in Reverse: Day 3

Happy 2016! This year is going to be full of nerding out creatively, and I am pumped.

So, in March of 2015, I attended my first AWP — it was a life shifting experience.

I set out afterward to unpack the experience in reverse, beginning with the last momentous day. So far, I have been able to write just one reflection, and now, yes, in 2016, I want to write the rest.

This is my process – nonlinear and slow.

No, glacial.

And this makes me wonder: what if I was able to honor my process and kept plugging away, anyway?

Well, friends, that is my intention for my creative work in 2016. To finish the things I have started or at the very least honor my process and every movement I make toward significantly advancing whatever it is that I start and have started.

I like the sound of that. Let’s see how it goes.

So, to the post.

AWP, for those who don’t know, is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

On the eight-hour Megabus ride to Minneapolis, I downloaded the super baller AWP app and set up my AWP schedule.

Of all the conference days, Friday was the day I was most excited about. I had readings and panels lined up from 9:00 a.m. til 5:30, and then my plan was to head to The Loft for the Bust Magazine’s reading featuring Roxane Gay, Franny Choi, and other amazing badass writers.

I am not a morning person, but I dragged myself to the shower by 8, was out the door by 8:30, and I got to AWP at 9 a.m. to hear readings from poets inspired by Gloria Anzaldua. The blurb in the program referenced women reading “from the Borderlands,” and I felt called to hear their tales, immerse myself in some (I presumed) fierce, femme of color poetry and perhaps find language that speaks to my own experience. I love hearing from others who also thrive at the boundaries, where rock meets surf; where sand meets shore.

When I got to the reading, I felt once again confused and a bit disappointed at this conference. For a panel that invoked the name of Gloria Anzaldua, I did not see any women of color on the panel — perhaps someone on the panel was mixed, but all of the panelists were white-passing.

I left.

I went straight for the VONA table in the exhibition hall. This table had become my safe place, my anchor, at this overwhelming conference. I was instantly welcomed back and was able to share my confusion and disappointment, which my VONA crew received whole and without any surprise.

They recommended that I attend the VONA panel happening at noon featuring VONA magnificence: Elmaz Abinader, David Mura, Frank Wilderson, and Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela.

This was the first panel that I sat all the way through since the beginning of the conference.

One by one the panelists gave life, speaking to the absolute necessity for writers of color to be nurtured. They sang truth about the maddening racial disparities still rampant in the (literary) world, and I had to refrain myself from jumping up several times and shouting “YES YES! SAY THAT!”

Instead I nodded and nodded and snapped and took copious notes.

I left walking on air, reaffirmed in not only my right to be at AWP and tell my stories, but I left reminded of my responsibility as a writer of color to lift up my fellow writers of color, continue building community, and support all efforts to get our stories out there.

I could have left AWP that day and been completely satisfied, but I ended up running into a fellow VONA alum who was on her way to see VONA luminary, Chris Abani. He was presenting on the panel entitled, “It’s a Crime to Skip This Panel.”

I don’t consider myself a crime writer, but Chris Abani is the truth, so I decided to sit in, and I am so grateful I did. It was at this panel that I was introduced to Joy Castro.

In contrast to the speakers before her, Castro discussed systemic oppression as the stuff of true crime. As she spoke I decided that the poem I would read the next day needed to be a mystery, and the mystery did not need to be solved.

My diasporic existence is mysterious, and my questions of identity and ethnic and national loyalty remain unsolved.

I cannot write poetry, fiction, plays, or nonfiction that fake false knowledge, but I can write to speak to the lingering questions and desires that drive me in many ways.

After Joy Castro blew my mind, Chris Abani spoke.

If you haven’t heard him yet, when Chris Abani speaks, tropical flowers bloom in the desert of your heart. Waterfalls crash through ceilings and flood the room. Unicorns appear to prance and graze.

You get the idea.

Abani is just so consistently clear and on point it makes me weep.

He spoke of narrative structure and what story is for. He spoke of what it means to be a writer and why we write, and if I heard him correctly writing usually comes back to figuring out what it means to be human and dropping the rhetoric. All of it.

It means creating a clearing on the page where a reader might encounter their own humanity as they witness the writer encountering theirs.

Or something like that.

So, here’s a cyber toast to writing and creating and living in 2016. Advancing and hopefully finishing what I start and have started. Keeping it real, and basically seeing what happens.


picture from

Line 27: “we word with salt this moisture vision”

Line 27 comes from the Caribbean poet, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. His poem, “Xango” is so gorgeous, I have to include it in its entirety.

I found it in The Heinemann Book of Caribbean Poetry, co-edited by Ian McDonald and Stewart Brown.




there is new breath here


there is a victory of sparrows

erzulie with green wings

feathers sheen of sperm


there is a west wind

sails open eyes the conch shell sings hallelujahs

i take you love at last my love

my night my dream my horse my gold/en horn my africa

softly of cheek now

sweet of pillow


of thorn


to my fire

we word with salt this moisture vision

we make from vision

black and bone and riddim


there is a gourd tree here

a boy with knotted snakes and coffle wires

a child

with water courses valleys clotted blood

these tendrils knitted to the cold


pear and wail

the earth on which he steps breaks furl

in rain




tiger clue

in his

the bamboo

clumps the bougainvillea


his syllables

taste of wood of cedar lignum vitae phlox

these gutterals

are his own mon general mon frere

his childhood of a stone

is rolled away he rings from rebells of the bone his liberated day


over the prairies now

comanche horsemen halt

it is the buff the brown the rose

that brings them closer

the thousand tangled wilful heads

bull yellow tossing

the stretch the itch the musk

the mollusc in the nostril

the flare of the drum

feet plundering the night from mud to arizona

the bison plunge into the thunders river

hammering the red trail blazing west to chattanooga

destroying de soto fransisco coronado


hooking the waggons john

ford and his fearless cow

boy crews j

p morgan is dead

coca cola is drowned

the statue of liberty’s never been born

manhattan is an island where cows cruise on flowers


and all this while he smiles carved terra cotta

high life/ing in abomey

he has learned to live with rebellions

book and bribe


blast and the wrecked village

he is earning his place on the corner

phantom jet flight of angels

computer conjur man

he embraces them all

for there is green at the root of his bullet

michelangelo working away at the roof of his murderous rocket

he anointeth the sun with oil

and his blues will inherit the world


he comes inward from the desert

with the sheriffs

he flows out of the rivers out of the water

toilets with shrimp and the moon’s monthly oysters

he comes up over the hill/slide with grave

diggers he walks he walks

in the street with moonlight with whistles with police kleghorns

with the whores pisstle


after so many twists

after so many journeys

after so many changes

bop hard bop soup bop funk

new thing marley soul rock skank

bunk johnson is riding again

after so many turns

after so many failures pain

the salt the dread the acid



he speaks

so softly near




he teaches


and faith

and how to use your seed and soul and lissom



he will heal



and balm

and water




he will shatter outwards to your light and calm and history

your thunder has come home


SAY CHEEEESE! My AWP in Reverse Order: Day 4

Check me out on the far left NOT showing a single tooth but CHEESING OUT in my own geeky (and very nervous) way before reading a new prose poem at The Loft in Minneapolis as part of Consequence: VONA/Voices Reading Generation One.

theloftpicThis is me. Usually in the frame but just slightly set apart, trying to figure out how to stand, not blind the camera with glare from my glasses, lower the head but not lower it too much, stand up straight but not toooo straight, stick my chin out a little because a friend who reads magazines told me that’s what you do in photos if you want to look semi decent, and oh yeah, remember to breathe without breathing ON anyone. Sigh.

I want to be at ease in photos, throw my head up and laugh or flash a wide toothy grin that says, “YEAH! AND?”

I am learning.

The process of learning this parallels my writing development.

This photo was taken at the end of my first experience at AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs aka A W(hite) Place, as Vanessa Martir so aptly renamed it for me forever.

This was the night before I got back on an eight-hour Megabus ride back to Chicago, back to my “life as usual”, which for me meant: last-minute apartment hunting, scrambling to pay a few bills, putting a little food back in the fridge, doing laundry, co-running a sliding scale health collective, finishing up a trimester at the college where I teach, cleaning the bathroom, reconnecting to my partner, and somewhere in there reflecting, making sense of what AWP was for me and what I am taking away.

I am still catching up: on emails, texts, cleaning, packing and laundry. Always laundry. As I cross items off my list, I am processing AWP. Taking notes.

Exactly a week after returning from AWP, what I can say for sure is that I am in awe.

On day 4 of AWP, I shared a stage with people I DEEPLY admire. People who take risks every day to write, affirm and create beauty in this world, teach and mentor others, make mistakes, raise kids, and do their best to live authentically in a world that is constantly saying, “UM, NO, NOT THAT WAY,” “SHHHHHH”, or more to the point “DIE.” Each of these people put themselves on the page and then on the stage. I am awed by that act of generosity and courage.

These are my VONA people, and I feel so blessed to be in the same frame with them, no matter how stoic and awkward I am. Their grace, generosity, and fierceness made space for me, and their relentless commitment to creation drives me forward to finish what I start and release it.

I think I am getting it.

Writing, and perhaps all art for that matter, requires release.

I have written since I was a kid – I have wanted to be a writer just as long. Generating writing is not difficult for me, but generating authentic writing and releasing it terrifies me.

The day of the reading, after working on my piece since Wednesday, I was struck hard with the terror. It dawned on me during my morning shower that “today was the day”, and there my body went: right into sympathetic mode where there is panic, heart racing, and those ever-familiar butterflies in the abdomen.

I breathed, texted people, and did my makeup super slowly, deliberately. It had to be fierce that day. Nothing too special, but fierce.

I got on the bus to AWP and decided to attend one last panel on turning personal writing into theatre, something I am absolutely interested in.

And yet again the panelists were all white, and yet again the audience was all white, and while I hated potentially missing out on some gems, I walked out of that panel, found a place to plug my laptop in, and I wrote. I tweaked my piece, emailed friends to read it, tweaked my piece some more — anything to quell the panic a little. That worked for a while and then…there it was again, right around lunchtime, so I got food and left the conference, snapped this photo:

prereadingI ate. I lay in the grass. I soaked in the sun. I put a penny in each boot, as a friend suggested I do for grounding. I breathed into my low abdomen. Full and warm, I went back to the conference center and printed out my piece. I felt the weight of the smooth paper in my hands, and I felt deep relief. My piece wasn’t “done” by any means, but it did what I set out to do that day, and that would suffice.

I made my way to The Loft way early where I wrote more, and thanks to the amazing staff at the Loft, I was able to see the space where the reading was going to take place. I slowly made my way through the space, visualized bodies in the chairs, stood on the stage, closed my eyes, breathed more and realized I was ready.

Of course before the reading, when everyone showed up and as actual bodies filled the seats I felt nervous, but it was not terror. It was excitement that held steady as I walked onto the stage, stood behind my mentor as she introduced me, stepped up to the microphone and read. The whole thing!

Of course I stumbled over these fresh words a couple times, and of course I have critiques of my reading — I could have gone slower or cracked a few jokes, but hey — I got through it, and in the end I was able to express my gratitude for my writing mentor, Minal Hajratwala, and that was absolutely one thing I was there to do.

The biggest takeaway from this experience is that the next leg of my writing development has to be finishing everything I have started and releasing it. Risking being misread. Risking being disagreed with. Risking sending out something that feels raw and “underdeveloped” because as Chris Abani says, you’re never really DONE with a piece. And there is no “good” or “bad” art — there is art that does what you set out to do, and there is art that does not. Period.

I think I am getting it. After a life of mulling over what it means to be a writer, I think I’m starting to understand in an embodied way, not just in a theoretical way.

I am also sitting with humility and gratitude that I was accepted to attend VONA again this year to study playwriting with Kim Euell.

I am elated, and I’m fundraising to get there. While I truly hate fundraising, my desire to get there beats out my shame. Here’s the link if you want to support.





As I said at The Loft, finding Minal Hajratwala and her groundbreaking work has changed everything for me and continues to change everything in massively tectonic ways. She introduced me to VONA, and VONA gives me the writing community that fills so many gaps, inspires me, and sustains me. I hope to one day give back to Minal and VONA some sliver of what they have brought to my life.

For now, I will get back to work on finishing what I have started.

13 Ways To Hack Your Writing – Tips From The Trenches


Vanessa Martir's Blog

Like many, I’ve eaten up those top tips for writers lists. I’ve quoted them on my Facebook page. Tagged them on the page for my Writing Our Lives workshop. I’ve made notes in my journal and posted them by my computer so I can stare at them when I write. I’ve read them with a curled lip, too, because while I see their value, I also can’t stand them.

These lists come off as pretentious and preachy. This whole nonsense of you have to do this or that to write brings me back to a professor at Columbia University who told me that if I wasn’t working on a poem or an essay or a book, I wasn’t writing. In his mind, journal writing did not count as writing. PLEASE! I still think that shit is nonsense. The writing process is such an individual one, such a personal journey, that…

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Let the Spring reconfiguration commence!

After the playwriting class at Chicago Dramatists ended, I will admit that I felt a sense of loss and “what now”?

I set my work in progress aside and threw my head into helping organize the Healing Justice Practice Space at the Incite! Color of Violence conference happening in Chicago. I cannot physically be there, but I am doing what I can to help young folks of color be there, and when they are there the work I have been a part of ensures that they might have a safer, quiet space to rest, breathe, and reflect before reentering the fray.

I continued my teaching, and I continued my healing justice work. I continued my own self education, and yes, I did continue my writing.

Tomorrow I get to be present at the Radical Black Women study and discussion circle convened by Mariame Kaba.

I am excited and freshly aware that being committed to creation requires ample time and space, so I am reconfiguring what a kind of life balance might look like to make sure I finish this play and other projects.

Today’s living cento line expresses a little of what I feel as spring begins and I recommit to a daily self care practice with deep gratitude for my ancestors, communities, and teachers of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

Line 25: “Plug ourselves into wireboard, keyboard, consensus.”

This one comes from “Confessional: Hijacked” by the brilliant Ching-In Chen.