Michelle Gillett: Solitary work, but support is welcome



I have a dozen new poetry books piled on my desk, a couple more on the bedside table. When I purchased them earlier in the month, my original plan was to read and read and read, but life interfered. Instead, I pick up a book and read a few poems, return to it later, read a few more. It's pure pleasure for me, and while it might seem extravagant, I did shop carefully.

I could have bought hundreds of poetry books at the Associated Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Boston a few weeks ago.

Eleven thousand (give or take) people attended the conference -- writers, publishers, editors, pseudo-writers, writers looking for publishers, readers, and assorted others. As somebody said, it's not a like a dentists' conference where everyone in attendance is a dentist. There were 1900 presentations, panels, readings, tributes and speakers; each hour and a half session offered 28 choices from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. followed by parties ad readings at night for three days. There were more than 600 book publishers showing off and selling their wares at the Book Fair which filled ballrooms on three floors of the Hynes Convention Center.

I got something out of most of the panels and readings I attended, although my favorite events were a tribute to short-story writer Edith Pearlman, a tribute to Adrienne Rich, and Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky reading from their book "Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva." I like being reminded of work that is truly great and hearing others praise and read it.


I still can't decide if it is encouraging or discouraging to see such a proliferation of writing programs and small publishers, and so many writers and so many people "shopping" for publishers and graduate programs and making connections. As Kay Ryan wrote in Poetry about her first experience attending an AWP Conference a number of years ago, "Wanting to be connected, wanting to be great in some great tradition, these are sweet ideas. But how can I reconcile them with my own preference for isolation from the other toilers? I explain it to myself this way: I don't want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellow-shipping way, but I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead."

I want the respect of the dead, too, but as my friend, poet Francine Sterle said, "Out of these 11,000 people, 10,999 will not be heard of in 50 years." Should that keep people from writing, from attending conferences? No. But it is important to acknowledge that writing is about toiling alone, and for all the discussions and panels about how and what to and not do, it is really just about putting your head down and writing.

What WAS encouraging, was to return home to a few more weeks of The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. This is the festival's third year of giving women of all ages and from many walks of life a chance to raise their voices and share their stories. Simon's Rock professor Jenny Browdy de Hernandez ,who founded the conference writes, "The ethos of this festival is supportive and inclusive -- we're not so much about big names as about opening up multiple platforms for talented girls and women to share their writing and gain confidence in their own writing." There were over 55 separate events all over Berkshire County -- workshops, readings, discussions, interviews.


It occurred to me that my favorite events at the AWP Conference were tributes to women, and that of the dozen books I bought, eight were by women. Yet, women are still underrepresented in the world of publishing. As Katha Pollitt pointed out in Slate a couple of years ago, "Both sexes see life through a gendered lens, after all. But while women are constantly reminded that their views are only partial, men have the luxury -- in life as in grammar -- of thinking they represent humanity, tout court. So while male editors may say they wish they had more women writers, women are always going to be an afterthought for them, an add-on, a specialty item -- dance criticism."

We all, male and female, need recognition and support. No one strives to be an after-thought. All those small presses at the AWP Conference are responsible for shaping writers' careers, just as national publications are -- but many still neglect work by women writers. After the conferences and festivals are over, we will get back to putting our heads down and writing, but some of us will do it with a little more confidence that our work will be recognized -- which makes events like The Festival of Women Writers so important.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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