Between a multitude of panels, hundreds of booths at the book fair, and numerous offsite reading and events, not to mention catching up with friends and writers from afar, AWP keeps most people pretty busy. As an editor this year, I spent a lot of time behind our beautiful IR table, but did see a handful of inspiring panels and heard poets I admire read their work in funky clubs around Chicago.
There’s something great about writers coming together, about being in a place where so many minds are linguistically inclined, are tuned in to the language of language and believe in the power of the word to change the world. I spent the weekend a tad awestruck—as I got a drink at the Irish pub downstairs, or waited in the restroom, or ran on the mini- track in the mornings, it was exciting to think that the strangers surrounding me were probably composing the next Great American novel, or the next gut-wrenching poem. The community of listeners too, those who appreciate poetry, who want to increase its reach, encouraged me when it comes to the future of literary arts. Yet when people in the same field come together, competition—for publication, for accolade, for attention—creeps in, and somehow sullies the beauty of what we have all met to promote and celebrate. Be it the networking I’m so woefully horrible at, or the palpable hunger for publication floating through the room, or the general name-tag eying to determine ‘who are you,’ I can’t say. But by the time I sat drinking my final Windy City coffee on Sunday, I felt distinctly inadequate, uninspired, and a smidge disillusioned.
I’ll be the first to say how important community is—I treasure my writing friends here in Bloomington. They read my work, they support me, encourage me, tell me when things just aren’t working, and I know I would be a worse writer and person without them. As I sat with a few half-started lines of a poem and a cold cup, before even leaving the conference, I received a rejection letter. And like an unexpected and welcome wind, Rilke rushed to mind. I love his poetry, (read Steven Mitchell’s translations of the Duino Elegies, if you haven’t!) but his first letter in Letters to a Young Poet called to me. I looked it up, and include an excerpt here:
“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice)…There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse”
My impulse, too often, is to get caught up in the world of competitive mania, to forget that I am called to write, that I must do it, that it is as essential an act as breathing. It has spread its roots to the very depths of my heart, but sometimes I think it is so deep I forget that calling, or take it for granted. This is not to say that literary journals shouldn’t exist and continue to publish poems, but that the poems must come first. That the work and the way of moving through the world as a quiet soul and as an observant being is worth something. Rilke reminds us for whom writing is a matter of life and death that writing does not equal acclaim or recognition, and that life as a writer requires an inward turning, of sorts, and a humility. Today what I hope most is that we all can embrace that solitude, can write in and through our most indifferent hours. No matter if we have one or two or two-hundred publications, if we attended this conference or not, participated in panels, readings, presentations, if we have been solicited or if we write in our closets, to our dogs, to the refrigerator, I hope we can all find solace in writing. That it keeps bearing witness. Because it must.
Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Translated by Stephen Mitchell