Did you miss Unlikely Stories at the AWP Conference, Denver 2010? We missed you! (Even if you were there, probably.)

Festivities began on April 6th, around noon. There, in the airport of El Paso (which, unlike the rest of Texas, is in the same time zone as Denver), Donna Snyder and I rented a minivan for the purpose of the trip. Portents were excellent – we were blessed by The Clockwork Dolls. I had tried, the previous night, to purchase their track “Impartial” from CD Baby, knowing that it would be essential driving music, but CD Baby’s download software failed. When the Dolls heard that, they sent me their full album of mp3s, Dramatis Personae, free. Rocking was inevitable.

Donna returned to work, and I kicked around the airport waiting for Anne McMillen to fly in from Cleveland and start the party proper. The party commenced with Southwest Airlines losing Annie’s luggage – a reverb pedal and mixer she had borrowed from a friend, as well as most of her clothes and toiletries.

While we waited for Southwest to work that out, we were joined by Belinda Subraman. Belinda wanted and planned to go to Denver with us, but was unable to get the time off work. So the three of us headed to a nameless bar next to Smitty’s Pit BBQ, which presumably makes its money from those who are unable to tolerate the smell of piss in the more famous Brass Asp, to drink and speak of human inefficiency until Southwest called, informing us that they had successfully located Annie’s luggage in Portland, Oregon. We knew where we would be staying in Denver, so Annie tried to give them that address, but was frustrated by their need for a zip code. Apparently, Southwest has not discovered Google Maps.

While that was going on, Donna called to let us know that our chapbooks had arrived from Virgogray Press. Perfect timing – Donna’s new chapbook I Am South, and Annie’s sprawling Mind Static (available as a three-volume chapbook set), were ready to join us on our trip to Denver. I was carrying copies of Belinda’s Blue Rooms, Black Holes, White Lights (illustrated by César Ivan) and Lawrence Welsh’s brand-new chapbook, Carney Takedown (illustrated by Bill Rakocy) for sale, along with copies of Annie’s old chapbook, When Red Blood Cells Leak, to give as gifts to interested conventioneers. I also had copies of After Lolita, the new chapbook of profoundly fun erotic-prose poems by Cassandra L. Atherton that I printed for Ahadada Books.

With the luggage situation roughly settled and evening coming in, Annie and I parted from Belinda and joined the aforementioned Donna and Lawrence at Lucy’s for dinner (best machaca in the U.S.). Lawrence, Donna and Annie were all seeing new chapbooks for the first time, and there was much rejoicing. Somehow, I managed to drop Annie off where she was staying, make final preparations, and get to bed by 1:30am, setting my alarm for 5:15.

We hit the road promptly at 7am. It’s a pretty simple road. It goes north. By the time we gassed up in Albuquerque, Annie had decided to make the full twelve-hour drive, saying that her friends drive from Cleveland to Key West every year, and that she needed to make the full drive to earn a new Dyke Scout merit badge. (I would take over the driving in Denver, though I often had to get out so that Annie could parallel park.) We pulled into downtown Denver kinda late, after breakfast and a traffic jam. At this point, I pulled out my plastic map of Denver, and discovered, for the first but not the last time, that half the parallel streets in Denver intersect. I’d learn very quickly that Denver is a lovely city, which I like far better than the West’s other major cities – unless you’re driving. Do not drive there, because the streets are very stupid. Thank you for your time.

We now hooked up with Jesse Glass, the head of Ahadada Books. Jesse is a great poet (I maintain his poem, “The Passion of Phineas Gage,” was one of the best of its decade) who has published a number of interesting writers. It was at Jesse’s invitation that we bothered to come; Jesse had suggested, some time ago, that Ahadada and Unlikely should do a joint read at the convention. I arranged it, found a venue with the help of Amy Catanzano, and we were there and ready to go.

On Wednesday night, Jessie, Annie, Donna, and I navigated the too-full van to the venue: Michelangelo’s Coffee and Wine Bar, which will forever hold a wonderful place in my memory, thanks in part to Katie Gartner, their general manager. Michelangelo’s is an upscale little joint with classy wines and snazzy cocktails, next to very affordable desserts and beers. It was selected in part because poets both middle-class and not could afford to drink according to their incomes. The selection was fortuitous – the interior and wall art was beautiful and sophisticated, without the tepidity you find in more pretentious joints, and the sound system was excellent. The staff was flawless in courtesy and efficiency. The Barbed Wire Reading Group, which also has El Paso connections, were wise to book the joint for Friday night.

Although everything looked good (and later proved to be so), we split for more I-just-drove-twelve-hours-feed-me-a-fucking-cow fare. Jesse took us to Hamburger Mary’s Bar and Grille, which I can unreservedly say is the best tranny-themed hamburger restaurant I’ve ever been to, and also it was good. It takes a lot of their cocktails to get buzzed, though – good thing Jesse was buying. We were joined by Violetta Tarpinian, who was waiting for us, with Annie’s luggage, at the house she arranged for us.

And thank you, Violetta, and thank you so much, Thomas, for that house. It was a fabulous place to stay, near Denver’s City Park, a beautiful house owned by a Denver musician, offered far too inexpensively, that really made the trip possible for us. Thanks so, so much.

Jesse went back to his hotel, and we picked up León De la Rosa and his delightful wife, Dr. Gabriela Durán, from theirs. León was there due to the generosity of Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, where he teaches video art. Mad thanks to UACJ – the reading was made significantly more awesome by his presence.

At some point, Michael Harold, who does visual art under that name and literary art by his family’s pre-U.S. name, Michael Aro, arrived, though by then I was too drunk to remember how or when he got there. But I was meeting him for the first time, and the sheer mellowness he radiated impressed us all. None of the rest of us has that attribute, so we are grateful for his calming presence. Michael looks too young to be telling this story, but when I dropped him off at the airport five days later, he told me that he joined the USAF Reserve in ‘69, and managed to avoid being ordered to carry a gun (and therefore a court-martial) by working as an Operating Room Tech. People always save their best stories for bleary hung-over pre-flights.

I lost consciousness around 3am, and woke up at 7am on Thursday, at which point we got ourselves out and over to Jesse’s hotel, to help him set up for the bookfair. I had come with 800 flyers for our Saturday night read, and 400 advertisements for Make It New Media, the literary reproduction and distribution company I manage which Ahadada has employed, and Jesse was also placing Belinda’s and Lawrence’s books on his table. We walked to the bookfair to set up, and were denied entry, because we didn’t want to go through the lengthy process of acquiring our badges beforehand. Jesse stared down the security guard, playing bad cop while I played good cop, a new experience for me. Between his complaints of costs and his brutal flight in from Japan and my discussion of the guard’s stepson, who is named Jesse and stationed in Japan, we got through. Good thing I was drunk enough to be sociable (a fact that has no bearing on the fact that Denver’s parallel streets intersect).

After Jesse was set up and our event poster was hung, we wandered around the bookfair. The AWP bookfair is truly awesome in scope, and perhaps the best reason to go the conference (it is certainly the most heavily-guarded section). The massive room in the Denver Convention Center was absolutely filled with small presses, magazines, and web magazines, with thousands of writers wandering about, schmoozing, talking, and signing, signing, signing their books. Each table can have six official signings listed on the AWP web site, but of course we were all swapping books like madmen, and there wasn’t a table, booth, inch of floor, or human back on which books didn’t get signed and exchanged. I could not begin to catalog all the cool people I met – well, I could, but you wouldn’t read it. But if you are in that number, please shout out!

I bumped into Ana Božičević, who introduced me to her partner, Amy King, to discuss the web-zine they’re planning, Esque – I’m looking forward to doing some tech work on that. We met up with Wendy Taylor Carlisle and Lawrence, the latter being there due to the generosity of El Paso Community College, where he teaches creative writing. Lawrence, with his great new chapbook and forthcoming selected from University of New Mexico Press, was a vital addition to our crew, and I’m very grateful to EPCC for sending him.

That evening, Donna, Annie and I headed for the Con Tinta dinner in honor of Lalo Delgado and Alicia Gaspar de Alba. After dropping Violetta off at the house, I got us to the dinner very late (did I mention that Denver’s parallel streets intersect?), but we were in time to say hi to Rich Yañez and see El Pasoan powerhouse Griselda Liz Muñoz read her inspirational work. We saw Lalo’s family accept an award on his behalf – beautiful stuff. We bumped into Joe Zanghi (of Printed Matter Press) and Dayana Stetco on the downtown streets, then found Michael Harold, who had spent the day visiting a friend, and was wandering about, secure in the knowledge that someone would find him and take him home.

Donna and Annie went back to the house. Based on a recommendation from Lawrence, Wendy (who had been thrilling to the speeches of Michael Chabon), Violetta and I found a jazz club called El-Chapultepec, with a one-drink minimum per set, with the amazing Freddy Rodriguez Quartet playing two nights a week. It was the precise tonic I needed from the stress of organizing an event.

I experienced a period of unconsciousness, and we got to the conference late on Friday. León led our group (don’t ask me who we were at that point, we were Unlikely, I know that much) to Patricia Smith’s reading. Patricia Smith has an interesting history of controversy, and as remarkable a history of great writing. She read primarily about Katrina, including a long poem in which she spoke in the voices of the abandoned patients in New Orleans’ nursing homes. She read a darkly hilarious poem in which she introduced, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE HURRICANES OF 2005,” giving each one a one-line anthropomorphizing, ending with the sister they “didn’t talk about.” We all left with chills.

At the bookfair, we met more Ahadada authors, like Judith Skillman (who helped organize the event) and Janée J. Bauger, excellent poets both. At some point, Jeffrey Spahr-Summers joined us, and told us of his old disagreements with Ms. Smith, back in Chicago, and how people discouraged him from signing his name to the open letter he wrote about what he saw as her ethical violations. (Smith saw the letter and has long since shaken hands with Jeff.) He also showed us the amazingly circular entrance ramp into the Convention Center’s parking lot, with its legion of bumper-skid marks on every section of the turn.

Donna, Annie and I briefly attended the Outsider Writers’ read, where we expected to see Constance Stadler, who had called in sick for some damn reason. The read was pretty good, but Annie was feeling sick herself, so we returned to the house, and Michael and Violetta took the van to see the Gary Snyder & Anne Waldman read, where they might or might not have hooked up with Lawrence, who had walked there from his hotel.

On Saturday I dressed in my full faux-cowboy regalia and we hit the bookfair, papering the place with flyers for the read. We met Ahadada authors Adam Halbur and Donald Wellman, great guys whose work deserves your attention. As the bookfair closed, we helped Jesse shut down, loaded his boxes into the van, and I drove manically around Denver, making three trips to get all our various prodigal readers safely to the venue.

Once there, we kicked ass.

Jesse opened the event and introduced Amy Catanzano (the Naropa instructor who helped me find the venue), who gave a great read from her electronic chapbook, The Heartbeat Is a Fractal (Ahadada Books, 2009). Janeé J. Bauger was next, reading from her fascinating book of ekphrasis, Coördinates of Yes (Ahadada Books, 2010). Then I introduced Wendy Taylor Carlisle, who read:

And realized she was a transgressive poet after all (who knew?):

Followed by León De la Rosa, reading from his spoken word DVDs and the forthcoming Soy solo palabras but wish to be a city (Unlikely Books):

Jesse called an intermission, and the amazing bartender-slash-barista Adam Kinateder met all our needs in a flurry of hangover-inducing perfection. Then Judith Skillman took the stage, and gave a hilarious and self-deprecating routine on the dangers of being a suburban woman following León’s discussion of Juárez, then read from Prisoner of the Swifts (Ahadada, 2009). We heard from Dayana Stetco, who read from her outstanding book of plays, Seducing Velasquez and Other Plays (Ahadada, 2009).

And now, Michael Harold:

And Jeffrey Spahr-Summers:

Mark DuCharme, an instructor at Front Range Community College whose many chapbooks include The Found Titles Project (Ahadada, 2009), read his fascinating work. And Adam Halbur read touchingly from Poor Manners (Ahadada, 2009).

We took a brief intermission so that we could set up Annie’s equipment. And I’d like to take this moment to say that all the Unlikely writers in attendance are truly brilliant writers, with a great deal to offer. But when it comes to actual performance, we do have two heavy-hitters. Consider Anne McMillen:

And Donna Snyder:

Next up was Donald Wellman, who read a very funny piece about his prick, then progressed to a read from Prolog Pages (Ahadada, 2009). He was followed by Robert Thompson and Judy Halebsky, who gave perfect performances.

At this point, León had to go. This was a tragedy and a half, because he had the only videocamera. That’s right, folks, your humble and incredibly jackassed narrator did bring a videocamera, but managed to show up at the read without a memory card. All I can do is offer profuse apologies, and speak of the genius of:

Jared Schickling, who read from his forthcoming Ahadada chapbook, Old Glory. This is a fascinating and complex work which I’m privileged to have seen – an exciting progression in experimental verse.

Deb Hoag is a psychotherapist living in Arizona who brought her charming 12-year-old son, Sage, to the read. Deb, author of Crashin’ the Real (Dog Horn Press, 2009) is working on a fictionesque account of a therapist driven crazy by attempting to provide mental health care in the context of our mental health care system. She read from the first chapter of Unlikely Books’ forthcoming Dr. Gonzo, on the way that her profession turns urination into a crisis.

Violetta Tarpinian, the least-known of the Unlikely readers, came through at this point and kicked all our asses. She gave a spooky, thrilling poetry read steeped deep in expressionism and tension. I’m truly sorry that I can’t offer you folks a video, and I hope to have one at Unlikely soon.

And what more can possibly be said about Lawrence Welsh? It’s hard to pick someone to close out an event that massive, but I knew we would end strong with Lawrence. His style is windblown and careful, his avant bold and garded. He read from Carney Takedown, which you should purchase right now.

Lawrence was followed by three of Jesse’s friends, whose names I did not catch (can anyone help me with this?). He introduced them as Home Girls One, Two, and Three, though they are from Indiana (paradox!). At least two of them work for War, Literature, and the Arts.

Jesse said some kind words about the event, and I went to pay my tab, at which point Adam Kinateder welcomed us back any time. Who says that to poets? Three cheers for Michelangelo’s!

Thus did the afterparty commence.

Annie, Donna, Jesse, Violetta, Michael, Jeffrey, Deb, Sage, Jared Schickling, the three women from Indiana and probably some other people I was too drunk to find on a map returned to Thomas’s excellent house. Speaking as a charitable man, we of El Paso were obliged to share Don Julio, which we can acquire so much more cheaply than folks in the U.S. interior. Noblesse öblige, as it were. I myself drank my Viuda de Romero margaritas and talked with Jared Schickling, while Donna and Jesse hung out. As for Jesse, he has posted his own account of these events, which I find thoroughly surprising.

The next day, flights left, a van left, and puking was minimal. Win!

12 Responses to “Did you miss Unlikely Stories at the AWP Conference, Denver 2010? We missed you! (Even if you were there, probably.)”

  1. Jonathan says:

    The mix CD I made for the drive was:

    “Without Me,” Eminem
    “When I Grow Up,” Garbage
    “Starman,” David Bowie
    “Impartial,” The Clockwork Dolls (check out their Unlikely feature at http://www.unlikelystories.org/10/clockworkdolls0110.shtml )
    “Stuck in the God Damn Limbo,” Salvage My Dream (featured at Unlikely at http://www.unlikelystories.org/09/salvagemydream0309.shtml )
    “First We Take Manhattan,” Leonard Cohen (yeah, I got nothing)
    “Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol (he is so cool, screw you, man)
    “Dance, Motherfucker, Dance,” Violent Femmes
    “Seventeen,” Ladytron
    “Paparazzi,” Lady Gaga
    “Hit the Switch,” Bright Eyes
    “Sing,” The Dresden Dolls
    “The World’s Greatest,” R. Kelly
    “Cherry Lips,” Garbage
    “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” David Rovics (twice featured at Unlikely and published as an essayist periodically)
    “Animal City,” Shakira
    “21st Century Digital Boy,” Bad Religion
    “Blister in the Sun,” Violent Femmes
    “Extraordinary Machine,” Fiona Apple

    and the Web-only bonus track is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fda8ufdhRKI

  2. helena says:

    Dear Jonathan:

    I have had a great afternoon in Denver right here in Goa.

    Is there any Leon de la Rosa available online. He’s lethal and graceful. Has
    Rasa — Sanskrit for essence, flavour, feel. Would like to read more of him.

    Best to you,

    Helena

  3. macasares says:

    I was delighted by all the poets recorded on your blog! Congrats on a great read!

  4. Jonathan says:

    Thanks folks! We have several of Leon’s videos in the Movies section of the site, and http://www.leondelarosa.org has more.

  5. [...] did a reading a couple of weeks ago at AWP at the invitation of my publisher, Jonathan Penton. In order to get there, I left Flagstaff, [...]

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