#AWP20 Featured Presenter Q&A with Marie Mockett
AWP | December 2019
Event Title: American Harvest & White Flights: Marie Mockett and Jess Row in Conversation, Sponsored by Graywolf Press
Description: Join acclaimed authors Marie Mutsuki Mockett (American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland) and Jess Row (White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination) as they read from and discuss their latest works of nonfiction. Engaging with race, religion, agriculture, and contemporary fiction, these two authors are at the center of ongoing conversations of vital importance to us all. Introduced and moderated by Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae.
Participants: Marie Mockett, Jess Row, Fiona McCrae
Location: HemisFair Ballroom C1, Henry B. González Center, Ballroom Level
Date & Time: Friday, March 6, 1:45 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Q: What are some of the conference events or Bookfair exhibitors you look forward to seeing at AWP?
AWP is where I binge buy poetry. Throughout the year, a few prose writers and I will exchange poems before we start working a part of the way we start the day. Sometimes the exchange will be daily. We just screenshot a poem that moves us that morning and send it over via text. I like to visit Copper Canyon, Sarabande, my beloved Graywolf, BOA, Night Boat, and other publishers to purchase new collections. Often, my friend, the poet Tomás Morín, acts as my personal shopper and emphasizes which books I should not miss.
Q: What do you remember most about your first AWP? What advice would you give to an AWP first-timer?
My first AWP was in Vancouver. I had been published in three journals: Fugue, North Dakota Quarterly, and something else. I was on no panels. I had no MFA. I knew no one in real life, except for the poet Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, whom I had met online on the Poets and Writers Message Board which was called the “Speakeasy.” That was also where I “met” Cheryl Strayed and Rebecca Makkai. In Vancouver, Lisa and I met in person and decided we liked each other; I'm a huge fan of her poems, and she was not only in my wedding, but read one of her poems during the ceremony. But back to AWP—I was adopted by Francine Ringold, then the editor of Nimrod magazine. She took me under her wing and talked to me about writing and publishing and introduced me to as many writers as she could, including W.S. Merwin. The way she talked about writing to me made me feel that a writing life was possible, and not a fantasy. On the flight back to New York, I was seated next to Jeffrey Lependorf, the multi-hyphenate artist and composer and then the director of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP). He is still one of my best friends, and in the years I lived in New York, we saw each other often, usually because we were going to the opera or theater together.
People complain about the stress of AWP, and I do get that. But I have also always seen AWP as a place to meet other creative people who care about the same things I do. As my own writing life has grown, I have met more and more writers and artists and now I frequently see friends at AWP when I am walking down the hall. I have gone from feeling intimidated by the minute, to excited about which of my friends will be at the conference. I have gone from assiduously attending a panel per time slot, to actually participating on panels and struggling to choose which one to attend because I have too many friends appearing at the same time. I am grateful for everything that I got out of AWP, and I would say to a younger writer, try to focus on what can be constructive about the experience and trying to meet people who may be your lifelong friends. Yes, it is crowded and people aren't always nice and parties may seem exclusive. I have been there! I promise! Get what you can out of the experience; if you meet one or two people who become part of your community, then this is a tremendous boon to you and your creative work. And each AWP is a chance to build on the last one—just like the process of writing.
Q: What is your favorite AWP conference memory?
Aside from the first AWP which gave me so many friends, I would say (1) running into Tayari Jones while riding Amtrak with my four-month-old son and Jeffrey Lependorf on our way to AWP DC. Tayari gave me advice I still quote: “What kind of a life do you want? Use writing to give you that life.” (2) Posing at the top of the escalator for a candid shot with Porochista Khakpour, Marlon James, Alexander Chee, Sunil Yapa, and Garnette Cadogan. I look at this photo now, and at all the incredible things these writers have done and are doing, and it reminds me to keep working, to keep trying to express something new an authentic and how incredibly blessed I am by the friends I have. I would also say to other writers: try to be as kind and open to as many people as you can. You have no idea who is going through a rough time which will pass, or who will suddenly become your ally. (3) The panels! I can't pick just one panel! Do I choose the one where we discussed how to write a love scene and Marlon quoted Colum McCann, who told him “Risk sentimentality”? Or where Marlon, Sunil, and Peter and I tried to talk new global literature in LA and how we ambitiously wanted to break genre and geography and point of view? Or the one where Joanna Rakoff coolly told me she had put her kids in day care for six months and worked like hell to finish her second book, which then it a fire under me to do the same and write my second book in the same amount of time? This is a story I often tell women who wonder how to write while raising children. Joanna's advice was exactly what I needed to hear at the time—and I heard it at AWP Boston.
Q: What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
It really does depend on reading taste and why one is reading. Due to time constraints, I tend to read to support my writing. But in no particular order:
White Flights, Jess Row. These Truths, Jill Lepore. Lakota Nation, Pekka Hämäläinen. An Underachiever’s Diary, Benjamin Anastas. The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, Melani McAlister. The Vegetarian, Han Kang. Virgin and Other Stories, April Lawson. Night Angler, Geffrey Davis. Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Q: If you’ve been to San Antonio before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
This will be my first time, and I would like recommendations. What and where to eat. Any galleries? Favorite sights? Museums? Historical locations?
Marie Mutsuki Mockett is the author of American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, as well as a novel, Picking Bones from Ash, and a memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, which was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award.
(Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)