Tag Archives: conference

Making Sense of the Things We Love

books 3

It’s early on a Saturday morning in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and scholars wander around with free coffee in their hands to one of a dozen panels in one of many sessions in the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference. Topics range from The Grateful Dead to Motor Culture to Film and History. I attend one on Sci-Fi and Fantasy during this session.

The two papers presented are on Jim Henson’s fantasy films (such as Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie) and the television program Ancient Aliens. The second speaker states that he loves Ancient Aliens, and though he refrains from using the phrase “guilty pleasure,” it’s clear from his analysis that he agrees with none of the theories put forward on the program. Instead, he critiques the faulty logic and Euro-centric rhetoric while simultaneously praising the show for trying to subvert the idea that hard-fixed academia is the only source of knowledge. The speaker also points out that the show is outside his academic field. His paper is simply an attempt to make sense of something he loves, and that the whole conference is about people making sense of things they love.

I find that sentiment reassuring. It proves to me something I’d suspected, that pleasure and criticism are not mutually exclusive. Speakers stepped out of their fields of immediate interest to talk about their favorite movies, books, TV shows, music, and the pop culture they love, not to ridicule it but to analyze it.

Almost entirely absent from the conference is a kind of academic elitism that I’ve encountered more and more lately, a hierarchy placing scholars above fans. Obviously, scholars do not need to enjoy everything we analyze (I’m looking at you, James Fenimore Cooper), and maybe we do not need to analyze everything we enjoy (though for an academic, that is very hard to do). Nevertheless, there are many academics who believe that the ability to criticize makes them superior to others.

The conference proved fans and academics can inhabit the same space equally. There were very few moments when scholars looked down on anybody for enjoying pop culture. There was no status involved in the academia; it was communal, friendly, positive, constructive, and creative, qualities I’ve found myself missing in academia lately.

Being critical does not make me better than others. It may give me a more nuanced perspective, but more accurately, I think, it gives me a differently nuanced perspective. With few exceptions, nobody is better than anybody for anything; the rigid hierarchies I’ve encountered so often separating students from faculty, graduate from undergraduate, critic from fan, are unnecessary and unhealthy. I’m pleased to have found a space where fans and critics are on equal footing, where people can be both at the same time. I’m glad to find a place where the egotism that drives much of academia is suspended, and criticism and enjoyment work hand-in-hand.


Reading at the Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference

In other news, I read some poetry at a big fancy academic conference.


This week, scholars, musicians, writers, film critics, professors, fans of The Grateful Dead, zombie fanatics, pop culture critics and lovers (one in the same, here) flocked to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to discuss their ideas, share their theses, their creative works, their analysis of other people’s creative works, and generally enjoy the spirit of popular culture.

In one day alone, I’ve heard scholar/fans discuss the relationship between Rick and Morty in Rick and Morty, compare Jurassic World and the TV series Zoo, analyze countless horror movies (from Poltergeist to The Babadook), explore various media’s fixation with underage serial killers, give two different interpretations of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, explore the role of nature as a setting in The Walking Dead, critique consumer culture in prepper magazines and the capitalist frenzy to buy things before the coming apocalypse, and read a variety of poetry.


Reading my own work for an audience was not entirely new to me; I’ve made use of open-mic nights and poetry slams now and again. This venue certainly was new to me, though, but I don’t want readers to assume that I think a conference is somehow better than a slam. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and all venues are equally worthy and professional; poetry slams are just as important as big fancy academic conferences. But here, my audience differs, and the tone is more critical, more focused on poetry within popular culture rather than poetry alone. Where else can I backup a poem about the end of the world with information I’d heard half an hour before?

I’m centered in the academic world, and this is an academic pilgrimage that I’m honored to take. Reading in front of a live audience, of course, is terrifying, but also thrilling, and I hope to enjoy that thrill again soon.

There are still plenty of days left in the conference, and there is more to come.



A Brief Note About the Best Weekend of the Year*

*or, That Time I Went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2015 Conference in Minneapolis

Conference 1

“Listen to the language you start with in the first paragraphs. That will shape the rest of the story more than you are aware.” –Pamela Painter on first drafts.

Every year, thousands of writing programs, small presses and literary magazines, publishing companies, writers new and old, writing teachers, and students flock together to share their books, writing programs, new releases, and innovations in the literary community. Thanks to the NAU Honors Program, I joined several friends in attending the conference, and it was one of the most beneficial experiences of my academic life.

“The MFA program is useful because it’s a break from the capitalist shitstorm. It lets you work without giving you black lung, and lets you focus on writing. The problem is that it doesn’t prepare you for life back in the capitalist shitstorm after it’s over.” –Claire Vaye Watkins.

Conference 2

Despite our travel plans going wrong, we made it. Because Arizona does not acknowledge daylight savings time  (but Greyhound does), we missed our bus by an hour. We decided to take a shuttle to Phoenix and ended up taking two different shuttles an hour apart, but eventually gathered in Sky Harbor with enough time to bankrupt ourselves from airport food. By late afternoon and with much applause, we landed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, amidst rain and snow.

“One of the hardest things for an Arab to accomplish is to live apolitically.” –Hayan Charara on whether or not writing should be political.

The conference has two features, an exhaustive list of panels and a colossal book fair. I spent most of my time in the less popular conferences, and tried to explore as rich and diverse a selection of topics as possible:

conference swagLiterature from communities in diaspora, featuring Vietnamese-, Korean-, and Arab-American writers; a reading of flash fiction, from six-word memoirs to 1,000-word short-shorts; a reading from Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and a signing of his newest collection With a Strange Scent of World; a set of memoir readings from U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; a discussion on translating Brazilian minority poets; a lengthy discussion from MFA teachers about the usefulness of seeking an MFA in Creative Writing in the first place; a panel on the usefulness of historical fiction and the rules one can break with it; a beautiful poetry reading from Iranian Farzaneh Milani, Syrian Mohja Khaf, and Iraqi Dunya Mikhail plus a list of historical women poets in the Arab-speaking world; a panel on writing as advocacy; and a reading of creative nonfiction about the value of speculation in nonfiction works.

“The ‘other’ for the writer is simply everyone.” –Elizabeth Kadetsky on the relationship between writers and the world.

The conference reinvigorated my love of writing, but unmasked a great many myths and expectations upon which I had previously built my understanding of the writing life. I now understand that the MFA racket is not all it’s cracked up to be; though certainly useful if applied correctly, MFAs are neither necessary nor financially sustainable if one wants to be a writer. I now have a greater appreciation for the need for good translators, and how deeply politicized translations can become when meaning and identity are at stake crossing the thresholds between languages. Flash fiction is more than an exercise in economizing language but a growing form of art itself.

Lastly, and most importantly, being a lone writer, while romantic, is terrible; good writing can only ever come from the experiences a writer internalizes and interprets, so I must accumulate as many experiences as possible, good, unpleasant, awkward, funny, humiliating, beautiful, terrifying, or calming. Time is not what I need as a writer; a community of friends, loved ones, people who inspire me, are what I really need. This trip generated more ideas for stories than anything I’ve done inside a classroom, and it is to my friends that I owe my ability to write, if I can say I possess such an ability in the first place.