Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Austin International Poetry Festival: My Experience

Wow! I just made it through my first ever Austin International Poetry Festival, and it was great! I guess that's all you need to know, right? Post over for people who like brevity; for everyone else, I'll go ahead and touch on some of the high points. I was pretty much in the poetry zone when I was awake between Thursday morning and Sunday afternoon--and even had a few poetry-related dreams during the festival.

But this trip started early on Wednesday morning, because I made the decision to drive to and from the event--partly because of the expense of air travel and partly to have freedom to get where I needed without hitching a ride. For those who are unaware, Duluth, Georgia, is approximately 950 miles from Austin, Texas, which means that I would've been listening to the Proclaimers if the trip had been another 50 miles.

I don't want to spend too much time on the actual driving part of the trip, but it was my first time driving through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. I traveled down to I-10 and followed that along the gulf coast. Top impressions:
  • The Interstate system is truly impressive. Much of Lousiana (and parts of Mississippi and Alabama too) consisted of an Interstate supported on bridges above swampland. It's one thing to throw some asphalt on the earth or even a mountain, but it's something else to have miles and miles (and miles) of Interstate laid out on supports that had to be planted into the swamps.
  • Lousiana has a gambling problem. There are radio commercials that offer help for those with gambling problems, and I think every gas station has a casino.
  • Texas is big. I knew this from looking on a map, but I didn't realize it until I actually crossed the border and saw the first mile marker, which read 880. Also, especially in Houston, this state has some seriously tall Interstate exchange bridges.
I should also mention that I made my trip without knowing where I was going to be staying until I was about an hour outside of Austin. Talk about taking a leap of faith. My host, Patricia Fiske, was really nice when I arrived and introduced me to my roommates, Paul Richmond (from Greenfield, MA) and Bob "Mud" McMahon (from Brisbane, Australia, and one of the International Features). We stayed in a condo next door to Patricia.

Paul and Bob were great roommates for a couple reasons. First, they were nice and very human. Second, they'd been to previous AIPFs, so they knew how the festival tended to operate. So I got to know my new roommates and then crashed.

Woke up and followed Paul and Bob to the Ruta Maya, which acted as HQ for the event. This venue hosted some open mics, poetry workshops, and the big adult poetry slam on Saturday evening. It's a coffee shop, but one with a good-sized stage and sound system. Before officially registering, though after already meeting a few new poets, I read a couple poems for the open mic--both from my new chapbook, ENTER. Then, I got something to eat with my host Patricia and one of the International Features, Neil Meili (from Alberta, Canada).

Roommate Paul Richmond reading in first open mic at Ruta Maya.

After lunch, I made my way over to Dailey Middle School, where I was given the opportunity to lead a poetry workshop for a small group of 6th graders that meet twice a week to write poetry. I wanted to try something a little challenging of which they could be proud, so I got them to write a sestina using my nifty little sestina worksheet. In around an hour, all but one were able to not only complete a sestina but to also read it for the rest of the group. They were probably glad to have me gone, but I know at least a few more young poets who will be able to say they tackled one of the trickiest forms around.

Made it back to the Ruta Maya in time to have some Chinese food as part of the AIPF Registrant Buffet (with music provided by vocal artist Erin Ivey). While hidden in a corner, I met Del Cain, who revealed he was responsible for my invitation to the event. I would run into Del a few more times throughout the event, and I can't say thank you enough to him for asking me over.

After the buffet, everyone met up at Huston-Tillotson University to read their poems from the event's anthology that's titled di-verse-city. Hosted by the very funny Barbara Youngblood Carr, who was also the editor of the anthology, this event was a true marathon of poetry. The anthology featured 130 total poems (including 21 by the featured poets). And at least 70% of them were read. Then, there were masochists like myself who stuck around for an hour-long open mic. Of course, my excuse was that I was in good company, sitting next to Thom the Future, who's one of the main lynchpins of the Austin poetry scene.

My first reading the next day was at Kick Butt Coffee (near the airport). It was hosted by Thom the Future, and it was attended by many great poets, including Kelly Ann Ellis, who participates in the April PAD Challenges on my Poetic Asides blog--as do her students, who had Kelly ask me to autograph their poems. What a way to make my day right out of the gate!

Then, I drove into downtown Austin and attended a reading hosted by Del Cain at The Hideout, which featured some more great poets. In particular, I really enjoyed the poetry by Robert Wynne and John Milkereit. Both are very funny poets.

I walked around Austin a little before returning to The Hideout to read some of my own poetry at a city reading hosted by Ken Jones, who is a UT (hook 'em horns) grad/political poet/real cool guy. As with many of the other readings, I read some, other poets read some, and then, we did a round robin of poetry until our two-hour slot expired.

My final destination for the day was a 7-9 p.m. reading at Westminster Manor, a retirement center. We read in their chapel, and this was a nice change of pace reading. The audience was very supportive and interested in each of us, and they even had a poetry group within the community.

Woke up and hit the Austin History Center with Paul Richmond for an early morning reading hosted by India Rassner-Donovan. This reading introduced me several new poets, including a few who mixed Spanish with English. I was also introduced to Mary Margaret Carlisle, who is the project director for Sol Magazine Projects.

After this reading, I made my way over to Huston-Tillotson University to give a workshop on Finding Readers for Your Poetry. It's actually the first workshop I've ever led in the foyer of a building, but it was fun, and I hope it was helpful. I touched on many topics that I cover on this blog and answered specific questions from each person. There were actually a couple Poetic Asides blog readers here too.

Then, I gave myself a little break and wandered downtown Austin before checking out some of the Adult Poetry Slam at the Ruta Maya. I love watching slam, though I just can't see myself ever performing it. It's an important and vital part of poetry that I truly admire.

Around 7:30 p.m., we began the National & International Featured Poets Reading at the Baha'i Faith Center. There was a guy with a video camera up front, so I'm not sure if video of the readings will be made available later or not. There were many great performances, and I have to admit that it was my first time reading poetry in front of audience I could not see (the stage was lit and the audience was not)--and it did unnerve me a little. I only received praise after the event, but I felt kind of like a stripper up there with a faceless audience watching me undress myself (in words). I did get comfortable after a couple poems, so I think it was a great learning experience. This event lasted until a little after 11.

Afterward, I gave a lift to two other featured poets, Ogaga Ifowodo (Oleh, Delta State, Nigeria) and Tantra-zawadi (New York City), and since we were all hungry, we found a restaurant minutes before midnight that closed at midnight. After eating, we wandered a few buildings over to Strange Brew Coffee, where Thom the Future and Ken Jones were hosting an all-night open mic (round robin, one poem at a time style). Ogaga and I only lasted until 3 or so, and I drove him to his host's home before heading to my own bed. There were other poets who lasted all night.

This is me after a late night of poetry in Austin.

Had breakfast with Patricia Fiske and Paul Richmond at one of the poetry venues, Maria's Taco Express, before heading over to my final event of AIPF, 2011 Featured Poet Symposium, which was hosted by Dr. Kirpal Singh. I wish I could remember all the people on the panel, but it included a great mix of voices and perspectives.

During the panel, we discussed such big topics as the importance of poetry and the relation of poetry to world peace, as well as the effect of technology on poetry. In fact, that panel may have even given me an idea for a regular feature on my Poetic Asides blog.

Directly after the panel, I said some good-byes, jumped in my Kia Spectra, and hit the road for Duluth, Georgia. I guess I left around 3:30 Central Time. My navigation system took me mostly on I-20 to get home, so I traveled most of the night on mostly empty Interstate through mostly rural areas. I made it home around 9 a.m. Eastern Time, posted this poem and prompt on my Poetic Asides blog, did a little work, and then took a 3-hour nap before getting ready for my weekly Monday night Cub Scout den meeting.

Just like that, I left a world of non-stop poetry to rejoin a world of editorial deadlines, first grade Tiger Cubs, and a beautiful wife, who I wished could've experienced Austin with me. I had so much fun that I'm sure we'll get out there again, and next year is AIPF's 20th anniversary!


Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer


By the way, my limited edtion chapbook of poetry, ENTER, was officially released earlier this month. Many of the poems I read at AIPF were from this collection. Those poems were well-received there, and I've already received some good reviews from readers of the collection, including this from Andrew Kreider in an e-mail message titled Loving Enter: "Thanks for sending me a copy of ENTER. I read it in one sitting, and immediately went back to start again. Then gave it to my wife, who did the same thing. So many poems in the collection became worms in my brain. Courageous and challenging. With lots of space for the reader to enter the worlds you describe. I love the unassuming cover and simple layout - the whole piece is kind of subversive, which is very cool. Thanks for bringing these words to life, and for sharing them with the rest of us."

Isn't that like the coolest comment you could receive for a first collection? I think it's pretty awesome.

If you're interested in reserving a copy of ENTER before they sell out (there are only a handful left), then send me an e-mail at robertleebrewer@gmail.com with the subject line: Interested in Your Chapbook

(For those who contacted me while I was in Austin last week, I'll contact you with details tonight. I just wanted to get this summary posted while it was still fresh in my brain.)


Jerry Walraven said...

Wonderful post. And, I suspect, you didn't really leave a world of non-stop poetry. You bring it with you.

Anonymous said...

I laughed at your comment:” Paul and Bob were great roommates for a couple reasons. First, they were nice and very human.”
I right away wondered how many non-humans you have encountered -extraterrestrial poets?
Sounds like a wonderful experience, thanks for sharing.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

That IS funny, Gerardine. I just meant that neither had a big ego. :)

Thank you, Jerry.

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

I so much enjoyed reading this! I was an International Featured Reader there in 2006 — and stayed with Patricia Fiske! I was there the whole month of April (well, if you're coming all the way from Australia...) and stayed a lot of the time also with Neil Meili and his partner Dorsey. Also Bob Mud is a mate of mine, and Thom an old, old friend from way back. I remember Barbara Youngblood Carr and Dr Karpal Singh very well, and I read at the Baha'i Centre and the Hideout among other places. So what a trip down memory lane this was for me! I had the most wonderful time, with wonderful, kind people, and the total immersion in poetry was exhilarating. (And like you, I can't imagine doing slam.) Thanks, Robert. I'm glad you had such a great experience, and I'm glad you shared it here.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Wow! What a small world, Rosemary. And what a great poetry festival (with great people)!