Reflections on the 2018 Ocean State Writing Conference

This October 25, 26, and 27 marked the 12th annual Ocean State Writing Conference at URI. This event is the work of many hands, including graduate student students. The new cohort features several creative writers and below are some reflections on the conference.

A. H. Jerriod Avant: Getting settled into the first year of a PhD in English can be full of unpredictables. I walk through the world, incessantly mumbling over poems every chance I get. For six of the most recent seven years of my life, I’ve had the joy of being immersed in environments that pride themselves on how well they foster the development of creative writing practices. It was either an MFA program, a conference, a workshop, a summer writing program, a fellowship, or a residency in which I dedicated the majority of my time and energy. So when it came time in August of this year to plunge into the dense experience of pursuing a PhD in English, I couldn’t’ve anticipated the coming shock. Writing critically every day for myself and for others, doing this critical writing in multiple capacities, and trying to hold onto any morsel of time for creative writing has become a skill.

When the Ocean State Writing Conference came last month, I was thrilled. It was a breath of fresh air to get to gather around a table with other poets to talk about, write, and share poems. It came nearly halfway in the semester when much of my coursework had started to pile up. I participated in Dorianne Laux’s workshop and we had a wonderful time. Everyone shared amazing poems we wrote during the conference and it felt like Dorianne Laux challenged us creatively. With her vast and passionate approach to poetry, we were all, it felt, dialed into the conversations that were happening around the table. To have the conference come at the time it did was absolutely perfect for me.

Afua Ansong: I often attend writing conferences with a spontaneous agenda, but OSWC was different. I had 3 days to write a 12 page story that mimicked one of the writers we studied in our fiction writing seminar. I had already missed the first day of the conference, recovering from a severe backache. So here I was, with 2 days left and not even a paragraph or a title into a meaningful story.

On day 2, I arrived at the Alumni Center and scrambled to get my name tag and folder. I walked to the back for coffee and knew I should have chosen tea instead because no matter how sleepy I am, I am always disgusted by coffee’s bitterness and never entirely awakened by the magic caffeine. I contemplated the possibilities of actually completing the story in my head as I sipped my coffee. My thoughts were interrupted by a very excited compliment “That’s a nice pumpkin sweater. You should take a picture next to that tree.” I followed the woman’s index finger to a tree that matched the hue of my sweater. How had I not noticed? I said thank you and then squinted at the woman’s name tag. It was Dorianne Laux. I cringed and forgot all about my story. For once, I had networked, made a great connection with a poet (because I consider myself currently to be a poet first)  without pulling words through my teeth about how I had wanted to be a poet ever since I was born. All this was too good to be true.

I detested this reverse order of nature because I had chosen a fiction workshop instead of the poetry workshop. It was a necessary compromise for my fiction class and I would be working with Martha Southgate for my first fiction workshop at a conference. I knew I had made a difficult decision to forgo poetry. However, I don’t regret attending the fiction writing workshop, not because of my story but because I actually learned to how to be a better storyteller. Southgate spoke about Hamilton, the play and its essence in storytelling. She brought to my attention the invitation that each first paragraph brings to readers. And most importantly she dared me to try revision through rewriting and not simply copying and pasting.

It was really the bacon wrapped scallops at the President’s House that made the whole conference memorable. Sitting on that flower coated couch and drinking coke in a fancy glass, I looked through the windows to the streets and wondered how I would finish that story. By Saturday night, I had about six handwritten pages, but that was nothing. I walked away thinking about Laux’s reading about the moon and how it moved inches away from us each year. I looked at it as I stayed up late Sunday night to write and rewrite stories about deers being hunted in Ghana.

The Ocean State Writing Conference is planned and coordinated yearly by the creative writing faculty Mary Cappello, Peter Covino, Derek Nikitas, Jody Lisberger, the conference director Tina Egnoski, and the conference administrative director Michelle Caraccia. Additionally, many volunteers help the three day event to run smoothly.

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