AWW 2012: All in the Family

photo by Wendy Hart Beckman

by Ed Davis on July 23, 2012

An L.A. writer who segued seamlessly from doing stand-up comedy into reading his story about transporting his mother’s ashes to Niagara Falls for burial. An up-and-coming essayist describing how his young son told a New York Times editor his dad couldn’t come to the phone because he was “pooping.” A poetry teacher so full of energy that he not only explicated but embodied the poems of others. An afternoon poetry seminar where a writers’ work was as respected as if it were not merely the product of imagination and craft but one’s infant child. Teen writers’ hilarious “Famous New York agent” skit that stole the show on the last night. These are just a few mental snapshots I “took” during the latest Antioch Writers’ Workshop that closed auspiciously this year on Friday the 13th of July, 2012.

We Are Family
photo by Wendy Hart BeckmanDuring the last-night participants’ reading, one out-of-town faculty member described his group of fiction writers as a family, and I knew just what he meant. At the reception, if not at registration, the connection is instant: You are in the presence of similarly obsessed people who value words as much as you do—and want to talk and talk and talk about their obsession. The week is all about connecting with your sibs—and also a few elders—and if you stick around as long as I have, twenty-five years, attending almost every workshop as it moved from the bucolic campus of Antioch College to the Glen Helen Building and now to its present location at Antioch University Midwest, then family comes to mean even more.

Answering the Call

photo by Wendy Hart BeckmanFiction writer Bill Baker and poet Judson Jerome founded AWW in 1985, and I had the pleasure of attending that inaugural year, notable for the keynoter John Ciardi dying right before the workshop! But I didn’t attend the second workshop in ’86—maybe I got the mistaken impression that I was “done,” that you only do a workshop once? (What was I thinking?) Thus, I might not have been adopted by this family had it not been for Judson Jerome calling me to ask if I’d lead the late-night poetry seminar in ‘87. Intimidated, I stalled. “Thanks so much for thinking of me, but I write poetry; I don’t teach it.” When I suggested he contact a local college professor who both wrote and taught poetry, Jud huffed, “I don’t want him. I want you.”

I was flattered but even more panicked by the prospect of teaching a subject I’d not only never taught but never formally studied beyond lit courses where you spend more time on content than craft. I’d learned to write poetry the same way I’d learned to play the guitar as a teenager: from peers, by doing and imitating. But Jud Jerome was a very persuasive man, for which I’m thankful. I held my breath and said yes.

It was the first of many hard yesses this family has required of me over the years. I’ve said yes to coordinating the work-study volunteers, to co-directing the workshop for two years with Susan Carpenter, to substitute-teaching for poet John Drury in 2010 with a week’s notice, to reading my work in public many times.

Do You Believe in Magic?

photo by Wendy Hart BeckmanAnd the rewards?

Well, Gilah Pomeraz, who’s worn many workshop hats from finance person to board president, refers to the “magic” of AWW. While I won’t deny that I’ve felt it, after two and a half decades, it’s no longer really necessary, for me personally. It’s quite enough to feel I’m doing my tiny part for the family—carrying out the trash, emptying the litter box—while the well-oiled workshop machinery whirs around me. If it’s magic, it’s “magic” created through the hard work and dedication of many people, all year long. Maybe the magic is mostly felt by first-time participants who, arriving with hearts full of courage and hope, learn slowly to let go of fears and trust.

And in the end…

I felt both courage and trust last night at the participants’ reading, the grand finale. Beside me sat my poetry classmate who waited an hour and a half in order to stand and deliver her one minute, fifteen-second poem. As the amazing evening wore on, she shifted, crossing and re-crossing her legs, waiting to answer the call. It reminded me of my own call to teach I’d answered twenty-five years ago—and, yes, my fear. By saying yes, I’d agreed to help others breathe their dream into being in the rare, sanctified air where fellow writers listen, really, really listen, in a body, as one, to every nuance, every comma, metaphor and detail; for the emotion that tells us who we are and why any of us matters.

photo by Wendy Hart BeckmanWe writers are as subject to hubris as any arrogant businessman, but I’ve seen so many teachers and leaders at AWW not just doing their job but giving it all away, regardless of looming deadlines and myriad commitments, personal and professional. That’s what you do for family, right?

P.S.—This year I attended AWW as the beneficiary of a poetry contest co-sponsored by AWW and Mock Turtle Zine, a Dayton-based literary magazine. The generous scholarship, one of several given by AWW, enabled me to attend all morning sessions and Jim Daniels’ afternoon poetry seminar for free. If you’re a writer looking to attend, needing to attend this workshop, but can’t afford it, please examine financial aid options at www.antiochwritersworkshop.com. You can probably find a way.

photos by Wendy Hart Beckman

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy Beckman July 24, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Great post, Ed! Antioch is definitely a family! And what WERE you thinking, thinking that you could come once and be done? Having attended the Antioch Writers’ Workshop for many years as a participant, speaker (First Book Talk) and workfellow, I know that I always get some bit of inspiration or insight to take away from it. The only change is in how the family grows from year to year.

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Michelle Whitley Turner July 25, 2012 at 4:57 am

Magic; family we knew before we ever met; coming home where we’d never been except always; the drifting flow of writers’ language warming, calming, saving. Lovely; magic; indeed.

Thank you, Ed.

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mary grimm August 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Hi, Ed! I was there at that 1985 workshop, too, with Sue – did we ever talk about that? I remember John Frederick Nims, who replaced Ciardi – he was just such a wonderful old guy.

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