16th Annual Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference succeeds in sharing diverse voices despite record rains

Story and photos by Jeff Kronenfeld

There’s nothing like a good book on a rainy day. That said,

outdoor literary fairs are more sensitive to weather. The sixteenth Desert

Nights Rising Stars Conference (DNRS) took place on February 21 and 22 at ASU. Phoenix

received 1.04 inches of rain on Feb. 22, breaking the previous daily record set

in 1913 according to the National Weather Service. Luckily, the Virginia G. Piper

Center for Creative Writing at ASU has a big umbrella both in terms of

precipitation and representation.

One of the state’s largest literary events, the conference has educational sessions taught by professional authors and poets. Mystery, romance and most other literary forms are covered. This year’s faculty included over a dozen LGBTQ+ identifying individuals and several workshops specifically addressing LGBTQ+ issues. Rain may have complicated the multi-day literary extravaganza, but it never stopped the diverse parade of authors, performance artists, and other storytellers.

Award-winning author Rya Aoki leads a conference session titled A Question of Dialect.

The Piper Center has become an anchor of the local literary

community since its establishment in 2003. It offers classes and hosts events year-round,

in addition to the annual conference. The center lives in the President’s

House, a 1907 building on ASU’s Tempe campus listed on the National Register of

Historic Places. Despite this, the Piper Center is a non-academic university

center, meaning anyone can take classes or attend the conference, not just ASU


Kay Ulanday Barrett brought their stylish dynamic stage presence to two of the sessions on LGBTQ+ issues. Barrett is a disabled Pilipinx poet, performer, and educator currently teaching at the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City. Their first poetry collection, When the Chant Comes, was published in 2016. Sibling Rivalry Press published More Than Organ, Barrett’s second book, on March 20. For a session called Creative Writing is Queer, Barret was joined by Piper J. Daniels, whose 2018 essay collection Ladies Lazarus won the Tarpaulin Sky Book Award, and Raquel Gutiérrez, an essayist, art critic, and poet based out of Tucson.

Kay Ulanday Barrett is a presenter at the conference who is a poet, performer and educator currently teaching at the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City.

Barrett was the sole presenter for a Saturday morning session called Theater Poetics and Unpacking, which looked at how people of color and queer people preserved their memories while excluded from the literary canon. It explored how to be successful in including different experiences of disability, race, gender, sexual orientation and class across a variety of media. They interspersed funny but pointed deconstructions with practical performance tips. Growing up in Chicago, Barrett was so hungry for poetics they used a fake ID to sneak into poetry slams before coming of age. This same unstoppable energy fuels Barrett’s writing and performances today. Now they combine the flourish of a slam poet with the delivery of a stand-up comedian. “I will study comedians,” Barrett explained. “For example, Eddie Izzard has this really great understanding of pause and like, ‘ooh, awkward.’ And, you notice, I don't shy away from mistakes or vulnerability.”

Fargo Tbakhi is another conference presenter not afraid of the limelight. The Phoenix-native of Palestinian descent developed his one-person — My Father, My Martyr and Me — while a theater student at ASU. It combines performance and poetry. He was touring the piece at the time of the conference, having just come from a show in Austin, Texas. It explores the intertwining identities of himself, his father and Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian who assassinated presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968. “That's a show that asks audiences to unlearn this sense of criminality that's always layered on to Palestinians,” Tbakhi explained.

Tbakhi led a Saturday morning session titled Unarcheology: Anticolonial Queer Aesthetics, Re-Purposing, and Putting Things Back in the Ground. Unarcheology explores how texts, artifacts, bodies, and histories have been excavated and reconstructed in the service of oppressive ideologies. Tbakhi covered techniques such as autoethnography, theater, collage and poetry. His own work in combining experimental theater and poetry was a prime example. “It’s a lot more grounded in theory. It gave me a way of thinking about performance, just the relationship between words and what your body does, aesthetics and spectacle,” Tbakhi said.

Author Bill Konigsberg was another presenter and a veteran one at that. He has published five novels, including The Porcupine of Truth, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 2016. It may be his eighth DNRS, but he said interacting with the young authors keep it fresh every time. “For me, the reason I come is to see that moment where the lightbulb goes off for somebody,” Konigsberg said. 

Bill Konigsberg is an award-winning novelist who was a presenter at the conference.

Before becoming an author, Konigsberg gained prominence as a

sports journalist at ESPN. He came out in 2001 in a widely disseminated essay

published on ESPN.com. His first novel, Out of Pocket, won the Lambda

Literary Award in 2009. This year, he was not on any panels explicitly

addressing LGBTQ+ issues. “That’s not a snub,” Konigsberg explained in his

gentle baritone as rain clattered down outside. “It's such a different

world than when I started in this business. I wrote a book that came out

in 2008 with a gay high school quarterback and that was barely published

because it was so risque at that time. I don't think that book would be

published today because I think it would be too passé. The world has just

changed in 12 years so massively. It's been so cool to watch it.”

Konigsberg led a session on how writers can use their own traumas to enrich their work while maintaining their own mental health. Trigger Warning: Writing Trauma took place Friday afternoon.  His sixth novel, The Bridge, is due out in September. The story follows a boy and girl who meet as they are both about to jump off a bridge. It explores four possible outcomes, a format chosen to address deficits in how suicide has been portrayed in popular works. It represents somewhat of a shift in focus towards mental health issues and suicide for the author. “I wanted to change the conversation to really talk about impact and options because I do think that actually we could as a society talk more about that,” Konigsberg said. “I sure would have liked to read something when I was younger."

Conference attendees in their seats before a session.

The conference closed on the evening of Feb. 22 with City, State, Nation, a panel featuring five poet laureates from across the Southwest. Phoenix’s poet laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski and the city’s youth poet laureate Sareya Taylor both took part. On the panel were also Tucson Poet Laureate TC Tolbert, Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Álvaro Ríos, and Laura Tohe, the former poet laureate for the Navajo Nation.

An exterior shot of Old Main at ASU after the rains had stopped late Saturday afternoon.

Even though the event’s literary fair was canceled for a second year running due to heavy rains, the conference succeeded in bringing together hundreds of writers from diverse backgrounds to help each other share their stories with the world. “Queer people are moving in the ways of media that have never been witnessed before. I think poetry is so intrinsic to that,” said Barrett. “I just think that conferences like this can really open up opportunities and honestly new platforms where writing can be exhilarating, especially for queer, non-binary and trans people of color. I'm excited about what's happening in poetry and I'm excited to teach, facilitate and witness it."

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