On Listening to Virgil Suarez and Watching AWP Squirm

Last night I went to hear Virgil Suarez read on a panel with two other poets at #AWP18. The other two poets were good and all, but not ones I knew well. They first poet was Ishion Hutchinson a Jamaican poet who combined surreal meditations with literary allusions to Wordsworth and Keats. Then came Maggie Smith who read very nice poems about raising a young daughter (and one about her son) in the suburban Midwest. Then came Suarez, who read highly political and angry poems about Trump, guns, and Marco Rubio.

Now, let me say that Suarez reminded me a lot of David Hernandez who I used to work with in Chicago or Marc Kelly Smith for that matter. His cadences were familiar, and his politics were comfortable for me, and I felt the crowd was with him, laughing at his jokes and responding to the message. There were only two rough moments: One was the end of a long poem about teachers bringing guns to school when he wanted the crowd to say the last line, but everyone was either uncomfortable with that role or like me had forgotten how the line was supposed to go. There was a pause, while Suarez held a middle finger in the air (that was supposed to be our cue), and then he helped us out by saying the line — about half the crowd joined in. The other awkward moment was in the last poem, when Suarez couldn’t find the last page for a second. But he recovered, and the applause was great.

I want to note that everyone applauded because of the way things went in Q&A with the moderator, another apparently well-known poet whose name is not listed in the program. Oh well. He started out by asking the panel what they are thankful for. When it came to Suarez, he said he was thankful for children, but then went into a longer answer about Trump and the politics of today. He might have avoided the question, but then again, the question was clearly trying to avoid his politics. Thus began the sparring between Suarez and the moderator, who at one point seemed to lecture Suarez about the need to be positive or find the sublime even in our dark times. The poor other poets were sandwiched in the middle and didn’t seem to have a political bone in their bodies. It got uncomfortable.

Probably the problem stemmed from the selection of who to put on one panel together and who to moderate. It was an odd mix, and any of the four would have come across better with more like-minded poets. My sympathies were with Suarez, so the other poets, but mostly the moderator, came across as pretentious and even a little vapid. I wouldn’t have thought that, had the Q&A not devolved into the young moderator lecturing the old guard on his politics. Throughout, Suarez never backed down. I respect him for that, but it made me sad that AWP or at least its representative moderator has become so averse to conflict that he had to squirm in the presence of a Cuban revolutionary poet. Especially in 2018. Especially in Florida.

So thank you Virgil for Making America Strange Again, as I think your T-shirt read. And thank you for making AWP uncomfortable. We need to squirm a little or maybe a lot in 2018.

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