Thoughts on the Conference


Wednesday I went to the 16th West Chester Poetry Conference. I had hoped to attend the whole conference this year but only made it to the banquet. I arrived a little later than I had hoped, and the First Books panel was already about half over. My friend, Susan McLean, was the recipient of the 2009 Richard Wilbur Award for her first book, The Best Disguise. She’s someone who’s been very supportive of my work over the years, and I wanted to be there to show my support for her. I call her the queen of the villanelle, which is one of those repeating forms people love to hate, lol. She makes it look so easy :)

Before dinner I mixed and mingled and took some pictures for the sake of friends who couldn’t make it. I tried to upload them at Eratosphere but it failed, so I put them on Facebook. Hopefully folks can view them that way. I’ve uploaded a video of Sam Gwynn making a presentation to Mike Peich at the banquet, which was pretty funny. They’re going to have a “roast” on Saturday which I imagine will be a blast. Hope someone tapes that. Anyway back to the pictures. I think most people don’t mind having their pictures taken, but some do, so I try to respect that. I usually ask and so far no one’s said no. Guess there’s always a first time, though. It shouldn’t matter as there are two other “real” photographers there with their huge cameras, lenses, and flashes. My pictures turned out pretty good though.

Mike Peich, the conference director, is retiring this year. It was he and Dana Gioia who started it 16 years ago, and it is definitely unique. I got to thinking about it later and I realized that it had a big impact on my work as well. The first year I went I bought Diane Thiel’s book, “Writing Your Rhythm” and took it to the shore a few weeks later where I read her chapter entitled “Hoppergrass.” Quite natural that I would start to play with words like jellyfish (fishjelly) and seashore (shoresea). I came home with a line, “By Down the Shoresea”, and tried to turn it into a poem but it just wouldn’t cooperate.  Not long afterward I read Billy Collins’ chapter on the Paradelle in “An Exaltation of Forms” (which I had also picked up that year) and the rest is history.

I believe it was that same year during a panel session on “An Exaltation of Forms” that Jan Hodge read a poem. I had no clue what a Carmen Figuratum was, so I just sat there and listened, enjoying the poem immensely. When he was done, he turned it around and I think my eyes must have popped out of my head. It was in the shape of a carousel horse! I was instantly hooked. I spoke with him afterward and we started corresponding. Despite his obvious success and talent in that form especially, I learned just how much prejudice there is against it. They’re very difficult to get published but I’m a glutton for punishment, lol. A few years and 50+ pages of drafts and notes later, mine was published in Rattle’s sonnet edition (it just happened to be a sonnet, too).

Those are just two examples of the impact the conference has had on my life. But even more important than the publishing (to me anyway) are the people I’ve met and the relationships which have been formed. It’s taken seven years, but I am (finally) beginning to feel as if I belong (and isn’t that what we all secretly crave?). Confidence is a beautiful thing.

I always come back from West Chester fired up and this year is no exception (and I just went to the banquet—imagine if I’d stayed for the whole thing!). One of the lessons I took from the first books panel was that most of the panelists’ work which appeared in their respective books had already been published (three of the four said 75% had been), so I think I need to find a home for some of my better poems. Guess I need to get on the stick and get organized, easier said than done considering we’re doing major renovations in the house and the den has become a repository for numerous and sundry items. Hopefully I’ll be able to stay focused and stick to my goal this time.


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