NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.
So I woke up this morning to a rainy Minneapolis that looked more like Seattle allegedly looks than Seattle did last year. As I got out of bed, I still felt weary, but at the same time, my blood pumped with exhilaration as I pondered another day full of writers, books, pedagogical panels, and craft talks. I love the free exchange of ideas you find at conferences, the passionate way that people voice their beliefs and philosophies combined with their open acceptance of others’ methods and thoughts.
It sure as hell beat Facebook this afternoon, where I saw more “If you don’t agree with ___________ in all cases and all circumstances, I’ll unfriend you” posts. My response is always, “You’d probably better unfriend me, then, because I tend to think about complexities and variations and shadings, and I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with or supported anything 100% of the time.” Meh.
A quick breakfast bar and shower, and off to our first session, walking fast enough to work up a good sweat inside my aptly named sweatshirt, you could already feel the city’s balance tip as more and more writers poured into it. More people walked the skyway from our hotel to the Convention Center, and over near the registration kiosks, the handlers had opened up the gated labyrinths that you might recognize at Disneyland or Six Flags. All around us, a steady thrum, the sound of several thousand voices muttering and shouting at once.
My first session of the day was titled, “How to Write and Publish a Book while Teaching Five Classes,” a panel of note for anyone in the two-year college system, not to mention all the underpaid and overworked adjuncts out there. Advice ranged from letting yourself off the hook for not producing as much as your peers with two-two loads to teaching summer courses exactly never to taking unpaid leaves to attending writing retreats. Some advice seemed more practical if, say, you’re pretty sure you have enough savings or other sources of income to take a year off without pay, but I appreciated the perspectives. The session also led Kalene and I to have a serious conversation about how much pressure I put on myself to produce, publish, and grade so thoroughly that my students could never possibly have any questions. Basically, we decided that I’m driving myself into an early grave and that I need to accept that it’s okay for me to write and not teach during at least some summers, that it’s okay for me not to spend forty-five minutes on each student paper, and so forth. Now all I have to do is implement all that advice.
Next, our first stop at the Book Fair. We spent some time at the LSU Press and Southern Review table, where we learned that James Olney had passed away. We hadn’t heard. James co-edited the Review with Dave Smith while we were in graduate school, so the news saddened us.
Next, we stopped by the tables of some publications from which I got fairly recent personalized rejections—One Story, Pleiades, Gulf Stream, Ploughshares. I wanted to thank the personnel for their kind words. Hopefully some of those near misses will see the light elsewhere, and these staff members will remember me in the future.
We made sure to stop by the Crab Orchard Review table and say hi to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble—great editors and poets, excellent people with generous hearts.
I spoke to one editor who publishes books that he hand-stitches personally. All proceeds go directly to maintaining his press or to his authors. Take that, world of corporate publishing. There are still those who love the art more than the profit. I plan to say more about this at a later date.
We ate lunch inside the Fair—burgers and fries, passable but unspectacular.
My second session was titled, “More Than Luck: How Publishers Select Literary Manuscripts.” Somehow I missed the fact that it was concentrating on poetry contests, but I was struck by how the advice often ran to what I tell my first-semester creative writers—follow the guidelines, make sure you know what your press publishes and that you want to be affiliated with it, etc. Meanwhile, Kalene ducked upstairs for a session on crafting literary page-turners and came back with a bunch of advice for me. I’m already excited to try some of it out.
Back to the hotel room for a quick nap, and then it was on to supper in the North 45 bar and restaurant downstairs, where we were joined by the incomparable Ash Bowen. I hadn’t seen Ash since 1997, and ye gods, how I missed him. We spoke about writing and music and family and our shared past and where our lives have taken us. We talked so much that we both only drank two beers, which I can usually pour in my eyeball without ill effect. Outside the restaurant and before the meal, we ran into BJ Hollars and Lucas Southworth, two writers we knew from our time in Alabama. All three of these gentlemen have produced work that is very much worth your time and money. Buy their stuff, right after you pick up a copy of my book. (Heh heh)
From there, we hoofed it back to the Center in time for Karen Russell’s keynote address, which touched on dolphins and Melville and playground equipment and poetry and about a million other artifacts that, on the surface, might have seemed unrelated, but part of her point was that you should allow yourself to play instead of “just getting to the point” as if that were the goal of all art. Another point was that things that seem unrelated on the surface often reveal connections when we examine them with open minds and hearts. She sometimes read a lot of complex stuff pretty fast, but it was a fun talk. I get the feeling she’d be fun to have a cocktail with and spitball ideas for stories. In fact, a lot of her quirky tales remind me of what I’ve tried to do in some of my own work.
I have to make that comparison, because right now, nobody else is. See what I mean about how you need to buy The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light? (Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and other fine online retailers!)
This dispatch is nowhere near profound or insightful—it’s more summative than analytical—but it’s 11:15 pm CST and I still need to write, grade six papers, and get up at 7 am. Somehow, I get the feeling that not everything will get done.
Where are those “Teach Five Classes” people when you need them? Maybe they can give me advice about working and attending conferences, too.
Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.
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