The first day of the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, I went to a poetry reading. Just judging from the title of this conference, I knew I would be a fish out of water. Literature is useful in my craft work, in my research on how to structure a sentence, a chapter, an essay, or a book. It is useful when I want to stay current on which memoirs on currently on the market that could be listed as comparable titles (comps) when I query publishers and agents. It is useful to enjoy the craft of others who are well-versed in the field, and in hoping to soak in some of their genius so it will show up in my own work (with my own style, of course). But I never quite bought into the idea of people creating theory about the work that creatives do when the creatives themselves probably don’t analyze themselves in such a way. (One day, though, I hope to read what theorists have to say about how I crafted my books and perhaps have a good chuckle. Or flash of inspiration and realization. Either would be fine.)
So, on that first day, I gravitated toward the poetry reading. Again, poetry isn’t quite my thing, but it’s closer and, at the very least, enjoyable to hear what these word artists are writing. I have tried a few poems after my MFA just to dip into different waters, and there was as much enjoyment in creating the rhythms and sounds as there is in listening to them. One woman, Adeena Carsick, had a visual poem running behind her as she performed her work. And performance it was with the sounds and singing and gestures. Another poet, Terrell Heick, read a series of Wendell Berry-style poems, linking his mother, his life in Kentucky, and nature. A third poet, Matthew Fink, wrote a reimagining of Greek mythology, incorporating cars and petroleum. The small classroom was half-filled, but the conversation that followed was lively and thought provoking (I mean, how could it not be?)
My reading was the next day. I was the first person in the room, but that’s not unusual for me. I show up early everywhere I go. Another reader, Susan Finch, arrived with her old graduate school friend in tow. Then the moderator came in. I had just watched him read his paper about narrative disruption in horror films, sat two desks away from him, and yet he didn’t remember I had been there. The third reader didn’t show. Six minutes passed the start time, Matthew, the moderator, read my brief bio, apparently Googling me beforehand. He messed up the names of the places I was published, and using the handwritten notes I had jotted quickly that morning on the hotel notepad, he said I live in Oxford, OH where I write with my husband (my husband is a mathematician, so technically he writes but not in that way). Matthew invited me up. After I began reading, three undergraduates came in, found their seats. And there was my audience.
After Susan and I both read, one of the students asked a question about our writing process. Then silence from the trio that sat in the back of the room. As a college instructor, I know how hard it can be to get these young adults to talk. Matthew jumped in, turned his desk to face Susan and me, and the three of us engaged in a chat about her writing, her time in graduate school, how she and I both had links to Indiana University in Bloomington, how Stephen King’s On Writing shouldn’t get the gold standard for all writers (In my humble opinion, I don’t think anyone else’s writing advice should be a gold standard).
Afterward, Susan shared with me her story of miscarriage and how she lost two babies before having her daughter. I had read my piece “Well-Meaning People” published by Ligeia Magazine in July 2021, which detailed my trip to the dentist pre-and post-miscarriage. Susan told me “that dentist story is so real! I had to deal with that too, except I became good friends with my hygienist because we both were going through pregnancy and loss at the same time.” In my story, my hygienist had dismissed the sad turn of events in my life.
The next day, I went to another fiction reading with three fabulous writers, and the three of them, the moderator, me, another middle-aged man, and a student way in the back (who left early) enjoyed the craft for what it is.
So, considering this was a conference mainly designed for those who design their lives around dissecting what creative writers do, I would say it was successful. Sure, I didn’t have the crowd that another panel I attended, had. They were selling their two volumes of poetry theory critique and it became standing-room only.
Before I had left my own reading, Susan had one more bit of wisdom. She said, “I have a colleague who did a reading of his book for two people. His book later won the Pulitzer Prize. It was one of those two attendees that nominated him for it.”
While those college kids I had at my talk likely won’t nominate me for anything, I can still be grateful they came. Hopefully they learned something, or at the very least enjoyed themselves.