A week ago, I attended the inaugural Poetry Camp at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
This one-day conference changed me.
But before I get into how and why it did, let me back up a bit.
I’ve been taking writing classes and attending literary workshops and conferences since 2003; so, for the last 13 years. Before every class or workshop or conference, I’ve been excited and a little anxious, sometimes very anxious. I used to wonder why, and after a bunch of years of going through this, I realized that I get nervous about things that I’m very scared of and/or very excited about.
I was looking forward to attending Poetry Camp but I wasn’t nervous because I hadn’t signed up for it in the first place.
Huh? I know. Let me explain.
My friend and critique partner Brenda Olson had asked me if I wanted to go to Poetry Camp something like six months ago. I said, no, since I hardly ever write poetry (even though I love it) and figured I needed to focus on writing my novel, not on going to another conference. But Brenda signed up, as well as our mutual friend and former classmate Amy.
Then, the week of Poetry Camp, Amy contacted me to see if I might want to go in her place. You see, Amy’s in a MFA program and she needed time to catch up with her studies–she didn’t have time to spend a whole day in Bellingham. I looked at the program online, saw that the amazing poet and children’s book author Janet Wong was one of the keynote speakers, and realized that I HAD TO GO.
The first sign that I was on the right path was seeing this hand-painted cat bus right outside the Air BnB Brenda and I were staying at the day before the conference.
The second sign I was on the right path was attending Robin Hood Black‘s Found Poem Workshop at Village Books the night before the conference, and having the most fun I’ve had with a group of strangers in a long time. At one point, I took a breath, looked around, and realized I was completely surrounded by poets and authors all cutting, pasting, stamping, talking, and laughing. It was heaven.
Here’s a pic of the found poetry art we created.
That night, Brenda and I met two poets at our table: Greg Pincus and Bob Raczka. They cracked us up! They were so funny bantering with each other that we thought they were old friends. Turns out, they had exchanged some emails in the past but had only met that day for the first time. These two and their camaraderie were an indication of what was to come the next day.
Here’s Brenda and Bob with his funny and whimsical book, Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys.
Here’s me, Greg, and Brenda, with Greg’s debut novel, The 14 Fibs of Gregory K, a great book for kids who struggle with math.
So, that’s two great signs already that I was on the right path, but it wasn’t all unicorns and roses.
That night, even though I went to bed early, I could not sleep. I had racing thoughts. I felt jittery due to the antibiotics I was taking for a chronic gut issue. My stomach was bloated and gurgling for hours. I was in a strange room in a strange (but cute) little house. I was lying next to Brenda instead of my husband Marcus. I love Brenda, but still, it felt weird trying to sleep next to someone I’m not used to sleeping next to. In the end, I got zero sleep.
The next morning, my stomach was still bloated and messed up and I felt like a walking zombie. You’re thinking, just drink some coffee! I can’t. I know it’s abnormal and practically unorthodox to be a writer who doesn’t drink coffee, but I’m one of those strange birds. Drinking caffeine makes me a quivering mess. And I was already messed up enough.
So, we went off to Poetry Camp and I tried to stay awake.
But it wasn’t the space that made the conference magical.
What made it magical was the people.
You see, after attending all kinds of literary events for the past 13 years, I’ve never been to one where every single person I encountered smiled at me and said, “Hi.”
Do you know how it feels to be acknowledged, seen, and welcomed by everyone you meet?
If you don’t know how this feels because you’re used to it, let me tell you my experience.
At past writing events and conferences I’ve been to, 9 times out of 10, and often 10 times out of 10, I’m the one that says, “Hi,” and I’m the one that introduces herself and asks the other person what’s their name and what brings them here. Most writing events I’ve been to, including all the ones for children’s book authors, have felt cold-ish, clique-y, and somewhat elitist. Even when the content is good, and I learn some great tips from the instructors, people in general seem more intent on talking to people they already know than talking to someone new.
Often when I go to a writing class, workshop, or conference, I might know one, perhaps two people there. Sometimes, I don’t know anyone. But I still try to make an effort to get to know people.
But so many times, I feel like the only one.
The only person of color in the room.
The only woman of color in the room.
And one of the only people trying to be open and friendly.
I’ll talk to friends who go to the same workshop or conference and they don’t feel this way. They feel welcomed, acknowledged, and encouraged. Sometimes, I’ll notice this dichotomy happening right in front of me. Someone will sit down and introduce themselves to my friend or colleague sitting right next to me, but they won’t extend their hand to me.
I’m not going to get into my theories behind why this happens. Believe me, I have my theories. But I’m not going to get into it right now. I just want to tell you how it feels and how it’s felt for many years.
But I didn’t feel that way at Poetry Camp.
I felt welcomed.
I felt acknowledged.
I felt seen.
Was it because so many people there were poets?
Was it because so many people there loved poetry?
I don’t know.
I just know that it happened.
I felt it.
I’ll never forget it.
It changed me. For the better.
Thanks to the wondrous masterminds and Camp Directors Nancy Johnson and Sylvia Tag for coordinating this wonderful conference. Here’s Nancy with her cute blue “Camp Director” bandana. Sorry, I don’t have a pic of you, Sylvia. Next year!
Thanks to keynote speaker, poet, professor, and publisher Sylvia Vardell (love your Share Poetry! dress) for leading us through the day with Janet Wong, and to instructor, poet, and author Irene Latham for being so friendly and open (you were one of the first people Brenda and I talked to at camp and you just blew us away!).
Thanks to keynote speaker, poet, author, and publisher Janet Wong for making the day extra special for me. You are a pioneer and trailblazer for the Asian American creative community. I admire you and I love your poetry. Also, you called me out in one of the workshops and I’ll never forget it.
Thanks to all the poets, teachers, librarians, and writers I met that made Poetry Camp such a joyful and life-affirming experience–Kathi Appelt, Joan Bransfield Graham, and so many others–there’s too many of you to name but I remember your faces and I remember how you made me feel.
Thanks to Mattie for the wonderful dinner the night before and for driving us to the Found Poetry workshop.
Thanks to Brenda for driving me to Poetry Camp, letting me crash at your Air BnB, and being such an awesome friend and writing comrade.
Last but not least, HUGE thanks to Amy Poffenbarger for giving me her spot at the conference. You never know how saying NO to one thing will become a life-changing YES for someone else. Thank you, Amy.
ps. By the way, in case you’re wondering, once I got into the flow of Poetry Camp, my stomach settled down, my shoulders relaxed, I got my second wind, and my energy was sustained for the rest of the day. That’s what poetry will do for you.
Peg Cheng is the author of The Contenders, a middle-grade novel centered on the question, can enemies become friends? She is currently writing another novel that is a re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale set in 1980s Seattle.
All photos by me except the Poetry Camp booklet, the found poetry art, and the one of me and Janet Wong are by Brenda Olson.