Every other Facebook post from every journal you follow is plugging their bookfair table. You’ve been invited to more offsite readings than it would be humanly possible to attend. #BadAWPAdvice keeps popping up in your Twitter feed. Friends of friends are looking for roomies in Minneapolis.
Yup, it’s AWP season.
Expressing your world-weariness about AWP is a badge of honor in this literary community of ours. The panels are lame, the bookfair is too big, the hotel elevators are slow, and there are just. So. Many Hipsters. Everyone is going but no one wants to be there; people who are staying home this year take to social media to proclaim their relief to have avoided the chaos. People who are actually happy to be attending occasionally, apologetically, stick out their heads to say, “I know, I know, but it’s not that bad,” like the earnest kids in high school who kind of enjoyed eleventh-grade English but knew saying so would make them a target.
But wasn’t that most of us? Aren’t we those bookish, sincere kids? When did 80 percent of us turn into the too-cool-for-school crowd?
Sure, of course there’s truth in all the snark. I certainly am not above complaining. For example, it very much irks me that no one—not one time, ever—has approached me at the bookfair to offer me a substantial check in exchange for the screenplay rights to that prose poem I published in Los Angeles Review. And, my goodness, all the talk about drinking. We’re like 10,000 freshmen out of the house for the first time with newly minted fake IDs dangling on lanyards around our necks.
The Sundress ladies out on the town at AWP Seattle.
The whole experience can be anxiety-inducing. It gets at our inner fear that everyone else has this writing thing figured out more than we do. Everyone else will seem busier than you are, with more places to go, more obligations, more connections. “Lunch? Oh, sorry, my panel’s at 1, and then I told [famous writer] we could meet for tea after her reading, and then I’m doing an offsite reading for [magazine that keeps rejecting you], and tomorrow I’m blowing off the conference and spending all day at [secret cool-sounding artsy place or distant-but-lovely nature spot] with [people you’ve heard of, though you may not know exactly what they do].”
Going to AWP will not get you published in that one journal, nor get your manuscript picked up by that other press. The odds are good that no one will come up to tell you how awesome your writing is. You’re unlikely to strike up a lifelong friendship with this super-famous writer, or that editor, or the other agent.
But, in the end, you know what? I love AWP. I look forward to it all year.
The bookfair is amazing. Just crazy awesome. The best part. I spend way too much money there every year. (All those people complaining about how poets don’t support the biz by buying books or subscribing to journals are NOT talking about me.) And yet there’s some inherent awkwardness in the whole thing. The people behind the tables want to sell their books and journals, while the people on the other side of tables are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping to be recognized and told, “Hey, I was hoping to see you. Can we publish your [novel, poem, story, 10-minute play, hybrid-lyric-language-experimental-fragment]? I have a contract right here with your name on it, just in case you came by.” (I can tell you from experience, this rarely happens.)
At the Sundress table at AWP Seattle.
Most of the readings are great. The audiences are generous, the readers are happy to be heard. However, it is almost inevitable that someone whose work you have long loved will turn out to be a giant douchebag. So be prepared to have at least one illusion shattered. What will make up for it is discovering someone else you didn’t know whose work is a joy and who turns out to be quite lovely in person.
It’s always fun to spot writers who wouldn’t be celebrities in basically any other context, but walking past them at AWP is like walking past Brad Pitt: “Did you see that guy? That’s Kevin Prufer!” “And look, over there, it’s Allison Joseph!”
(A bit of advice: If you do happen to walk by someone whose work you admire, stop and say so. It’ll make their day. Unless they’re the one fated to be your giant douchebag for the year.)
Some of the panels can be underwhelming, or overly specific. (“A Biomedical Science Approach to Teaching the Lyric Essay to the Students in the Third Row of an Introductory Multi-Genre Classroom at a Regional Teaching University in One of the Dakotas” got accepted and my brilliant panel proposal was rejected? Who’s in charge of this thing?) Other panels sound great, but when you get there, it quickly becomes clear no one has prepared a thing, and everyone’s just going to talk off the top of their head about whatever until the 75 minutes are up. But you pick and choose your spots, and find some good moments all over the place. Plus, as I tell my students, you’ll learn more if you go in looking for what you can learn rather than what you can make fun of on Twitter (#AWP15) or in next year’s blog post. Attitude matters.
Every year I leave AWP knowing I learned something—something that will help my writing, something that will help my teaching. I come home with new books and journals and having discovered new authors whose work I want to swim around in. I feel like I am part of a community, and like there are others out there who value what I value, who are working at the same things I’m working at.
And this: I come home eager to write. For me, that is exactly enough.
Amorak Huey, a former newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His chapbook, The Insomniac Circus, (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014) and Ha Ha Ha Thump, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2015. His poems appear in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2012, The Poetry of Sex, and Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, as well as journals such as Rattle, The Collagist, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, Menacing Hedge, and others.