Notes From the Swamp: AWP 2018
by Vidhu Aggarwal
There was talk at AWP: why Tampa, Florida? Driving down from Orlando, I am part of the I-4 corridor–a strip of freeway connecting terraformed vacation spots. And yet, despite all the energies spent on draining, Disneyfying, master-planning this bit of artificial paradise, the swamp is always encroaching. Poetry and innovation happen in these resistant spaces, in the swamp, not just in artistic centers like NYC or Boston. And when AWP descends upon a town, it also brings a certain concentration of writing energies into the everyday spaces of a city—the cafés, the bars, the pizza joints.
For me, these “offsite” moments reel me in: they are porous, open to passersby, integrated intimately with place, the people who live there. How does this sudden intensity alter if only briefly these spaces in a state that’s been in the news most often recently for horrific gun violence, Trayvon Martin, Pulse, Parkland?
Just last week, we underwent an active shooter alert in my college in Orlando (fortunately a false alarm). Everyone around asking: what world is this? In Tampa’s Floridian Hotel, Kore Press hosted an event for a new anthology edited and presented by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin, Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN / Radical WRITING, with a gathering of some of the most innovative poets of our moment calling a more expansive world into being. Evie Shockley, Giovanni Singleton, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Duriel Harris, Tracie Morris, Latasha Nevada Diggs, r. erica doyle in just one venue. All around town, there were multiple eruptions and interventions. In the Attic Café, I hear Patricia Spears Jones read while having a burger—a happy accident. In the Burrow: Amber di Pietra and Sabrina Dalle Valle, wild poets from Tampa/St. Pete. At Fly Restaurant, regulars ask me: who is this Ronaldo V. Wilson and Sawako Nakayasu declaiming in the cold? (It was oddly cold in Tampa). A huge friendly loving group sang hit songs along with karaoke-performing poets (Rajiv Mohabir, Ching-In Chen, Samiyah Bashir, Soham Patel and others) at Literaoke, a regular AWP offsite event hosted by Kaya Press, Asian American Literary Review, and Kundiman, now here in the I-4 corridor.
It was not necessarily in the convention center, but in these boisterous, noisy, interactive spaces that I felt resistance was happening: to white supremacy, to gun culture, to the structural violence embedded in institutional bodies, like AWP itself.
There was Tim Jones-Yelvington, Cathleen Bota, J.D. Scott, Steve Halle, some of them who live in Florida, too. If I cannot focus on one encounter, one space, one performance, it’s because the streets of this vacation hotspot were swamped—with poets.
Vidhu Aggarwal grew up in the Southern U.S. A Kundiman fellow, her poetry appeared in the top 2016 poems in The Boston Review. Her poems have recently appeared in The Black Warrior Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Orlando Museum of Art’s “Baggage Claims” exhibition, and are forthcoming in Saturnalia’s Electric Gurlesque anthology. A chapbook about gaming worlds and A.I., Avatara, is coming out with Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. Her book of poems The Trouble with Humpadori (2016) received the Editor’s Choice Prize from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, and was selected by Sundress Publications as a favorite collection of 2016. She is on executive board of Thinking Its Presences: Race, Advocacy, and Solidarity in the Arts.