Sebastian Matthews, Writing the AWP Poem

18 Mar

It’s embarrassing to admit, but every time I go to AWP not only do I write a long narrative-lyric poem, I expect to write one! It has become a ritual, of sorts: a challenge I give myself in order to take advantage of the free time.

Part of the inspiration comes from the site of the conference, the city itself—Chicago, New York, Denver. Just being out in the world, a citizen among citizens—camera in hand, notebook in pocket—evokes the Sandburg in me, coaxes out my inner Lorca. And it’s not just the city, but traveling to the city, that gets me going: there’s something about the open spaces of the airport, the cramped cab rides, the bustle of the hotel lobby… Not even the hectic craziness of the book fair can dampen this welling up sense of possibility!

Of course, a good portion of the whole gestalt is being able to step away from family for a few days, and the classroom; though it’s hard to extricate oneself from the routine of daily life, we all know the importance of passing out of the familiar into a little fresh experience. Lewis Hyde says it well in Trickster Makes this World:

At times, you need engagement with the world in order to have something to write about. The encounter sparks. And, of course, a large part of the fun is being among old friends, fellow scribes. (First the anticipation of seeing them, then the bear hug of hello.) How wonderful to meet your crew for a fantastic meal! To join a friend at the bar for a drink and talk of the next project! But all of the above merely fun and games if missing the key ingredient of any successful AWP experience—that one panel or reading that truly knocks your socks off, that gets you to put pen to paper.

For nothing creative can come of an AWP conference without this influx of new ideas and fresh language: you must experience firsthand the brilliance of writers and thinkers at the top of their game. You might feel a flash of jealousy, not being the one at the podium, but quickly the flush recedes, the pen comes out, and you’re taking notes, associations popping up left and right. The wild talk the night before begins to ground itself in the language you’re capturing in air and pinning to the page. If you’re lucky, the opening of a poem rises up in your mind and, before you know it, you begin stitching together borrowed ideas, images off the street, pithy lines, a charged moment….


I have just returned from the most recent AWP, held early this month in Chicago. Dickinson at Home was the lecture that opened everything up for me. (My first thought: Where else would she be?) I knew it would be good because of the poets on the panel. After nearly a decade of exploring the many manifestations of the lyric, Stanley Plumly, Ann Townsend, Carl Phillips and David Baker were sure to entertain and edify. I arrived early to secure a seat. Looking back on my notes, it was Townsend’s use of “liminality” that got me started. I love that word. At the same time, it’s been overused. Same for “interiority,” which showed up in at least two of the talks. Of course, they all worked perfectly in a discussion of Dickinson; and something about writing those words down on the page got me worked up.

Seven months before the conference my family got in a horrible car accident. A man, in the throes of a heart attack, crossed the centerline and hit us head on. My son was in the backseat, so luckily he came out without a scratch; my wife and I ended up in the hospital with a variety of broken bones and bruised interiorities. (The man died.) I mention this here to say that coming to this year’s conference was more difficult than usual—just walking around still challenges—and loaded higher with emotional baggage. More than ever, I needed to be out among my colleagues, my poetry pals.

The night before, at the back of a large crowd at Buddy Guy’s (exhausted from a long day on my feet and in some pain) I listened enraptured to my friend Ross Gay read a new poem. It was the first and only poem I could concentrate on, and for a few minutes I stood rooted in my spot, swaying slightly, caught up in Ross’ soulful and playful rhythms. Upon returning to the hotel, a little drunk after an ill-advised “nightcap” with friends, I decided on a whim to walk down a dark alley between two, long Chicago blocks. It wasn’t a smart idea. But something about having lived through the accident, and having made it to Chicago, and something about fighting pain every day and worrying about my wife and her struggles, welled up and expressed itself as an angry defiance. I couldn’t have explained it, but as I walked through that alley I was almost daring someone to come out of the shadows and attack me. I looked straight ahead the whole way, cool as a turned shoulder, and shouted up the street in anger when I came out of its mouth. I’m alive!


Back to Emily Dickinson. Townsend was talking about how Dickinson was so housebound that she came out the other side with a kind of radicalized domesticity. And Baker talked about the way that Dickinson kept Death close at hand (right there on the windowsill even). I don’t know exactly when exactly it began, but all of a sudden I was writing a poem, and it sounded a lot like Ross’ poem. The anger and defiance I felt echoed the shout on the street. And I knew I had my epigraph when Baker quoted Emily D.:

As I wrote I appropriated as much of the language from the Dickinson lecture as I could, focusing on the goofy, brilliant academicese they employed so deftly— throwing their quotations into my poem—quoting as a kind of collage move, place holder as trope.

I didn’t get the poem finished. Baker, the closer, was too smart and preacher-like for me to stay with my own thoughts. I went back to frantic note-taking. I did get to return to it while sitting at the Q Ave Press table then managed to finish a draft on the plane back to Asheville. (Something about fatigue and lack of sleep pushed the poem to its despairing conclusion reaching for bravura.)

The next morning, at our kitchen table, I typed it up—titling it, drum roll please, “Caution in the Windy City, Thrown”—and, draft in pocket, spend a day working the draft along my routine dog walks. I sent it off to friends, waiting to hear back. In the meantime, I have shared it with my students.

For better or worse, I have my new AWP poem.

Sebastian Matthews is the author of the poetry collections Miracle Day: Mid-Life Songs (Red Hen Press, 2012) and We Generous (Red Hen Press, 2007), along with the memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps (W. W. Norton, 2004). He co-edited, with Stanley Plumly, Search Party: Collected Poems of William Matthews  (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) and New Hope from the Dead: Uncollected Matthews (Red Hen Press, 2010). Matthews teaches undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, & for the Great Smokies Writing Program. He also serves on the faculty at Queens University Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry & prose has appeared in many journals, including Forklift, Ohio, Cave Wall, 32 Poems, American Poetry Review & Georgia Review. He serves on the board of Q Ave Press, creators of handmade chapbooks & broadsides. Check out his collages and snapshots at


One Response to “Sebastian Matthews, Writing the AWP Poem”


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