I fly away from Boston a day early to escape the oncoming winter whiteout to attend AWP18 (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, March 7-11, 2018). The first thing I love, on landing, is the location: tropical winter sun in Tampa, and the convention center’s water view and easy access to Tampa Bay. Which means, late afternoons, after sitting all day in artificially lit and cooled rooms, I can be outdoors under cloudless blue, breathing in miles of fresh air walking the Bayshore Boulevard sidewalk.
Choosing among dozens of AWP panels, I’m most attracted to what my favorite poets have to say. And I’m sharing what I see and hear on social media for the International Women's Writing Guild on @wearewomenwriting, Instagram, and @IWWG on Twitter. One of the first panels I go to involves Aimee Nezhukumatathil on a panel, “Poetry, Myth and the Natural World." When she steps out from behind the podium to show us her glow-in-the-dark glitter skirt, I share a picture on @wearewomenwriting. She's wearing the fun skirt, she says, because “I never heard an Asian woman writer talk about joy before.” And she writes about joy, because, “joy is an act of resistance.”
Walking Bayshore, I wonder if I’ll be fantastically lucky and spot a dolphin in Hillsborough Bay. I don’t have an expectation, but I have a longing. Because seeing a wild dolphin suddenly breach is a quick, momentous splash of delight. And sadly, the last dolphin I saw on one of my daily walks was dead, washed ashore, an early August morning last summer on the beach of Vineyard Sound, Martha’s Vineyard. I wrote a short essay inspired by a picture I took of this dead dolphin, (recently published in Storm Cellar). Finding its beautiful, lifeless, body on the beach brought a stab of horror and grief – what I called “the enormity of lifeless.”
The last afternoon of AWP18, I walk the long stretch of sidewalk, busy with bikes and strollers. The boulevard is famous for its length and stunning white balustrade edging the bay. Beside me, saltwater laps, calmly, against the white cement. Ahead, I notice a subtle rippling of water, something disturbing the surface from just below, and I hope and I wonder –
Earlier, during lunch this day, on a panel called “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got,” I listened to another favorite poet make a point of the importance of writing about joy. Ada Limón shared her own experience about giving herself permission: “I didn’t think you were allowed to write about joy,” she said. But she realized, “I can write whatever I want.”
I catch sight of a fin, walk faster, chasing it. I’m already smiling, hoping for another surfacing, a better view. I see the dolphin breach – her, or him – ahead in the distance, then submerge in quick flashes, too quick to catch with my camera. When I’ve walked as far as I can for today, I turn around, heading back to the conference center.
I hear a loud splash beside me – but it's gone before I see it. Still, I scan the surface, see the rippling, hold my camera ready. There’s the dolphin! Next to the balustrade up ahead, breaching and swimming, and I catch only a flash of fin here and there. Until, suddenly, the dolphin is leaping up out of the water with its fresh catch in its jaws! and the fish, still alive, thrashing it's bright yellow fins.
I’m struck and stunned by this moment of aesthetic awe – like experiencing a perfectly wrought, arresting image in a poem – and I realize, yes, a poem is like a dolphin, a dolphin is like a poem - as Ada says, "a singular animal call that contains multiple layers of both mystery and joy."
– leaving, yes, but not only a wake of mystery and longing. A moment that leaves me with a fresh image to write from:
Dolphin, alive and thriving; fish, alive and thrashing.