As anyone who was at the conference can probably appreciate, my feet hurt, my brain is a little sore, and hydration is of the utmost importance. I’m going to write this one as a list because that’s how my mind appears to be working for the time being.
Things I Probably Should Have Considered More Deeply Before Complaining About the AWP Conference:
The quality of my mother’s oatmeal cookies: As suspected, my mom came through with a good-sized bag of a couple-dozen or so cookies. I had to split them with my brother, but I did the splitting, so I wound up with the baker’s share. They have been my favorite cookie for as long as I’ve had hands with which to shove cookies into my mouth, and more accurately could be my grandmother’s oatmeal cookies because this is where they originated. Light and buttery, they just sort of melt on the tongue while also being agreeably crunchy. I could, no joke, eat 30 of them without pause. My entire share was gone before my plane finished taxiing for takeoff.
Cookies, definitely better than advertised.
Crowds: The crowds in the hotel were overwhelming. Multiple panels I was interested in required standing outside beyond the amplification power of the hotel P.A systems. Writers were scattered across the stairs and hallways, a diaspora of poets, and then there was the book fair. The crowds at the book fair were completely stifling. In my original list of complaints I recommended bringing it above ground. I’m now thinking Solider Field so we can actually have some room to move up and down the aisles. All props to the publishers and exhibitors for having such delectable wares, but man, after managing a quick blow through the first day, on day two I stood a half-stair level above the crowd, surveyed the scene and quickly retreated toward safety.
Crowds, definitely worse than advertised.
Re-striking of old friendships: I am, by nature, not nostalgic. I am far more wired to look forward than back, but I spent one evening in the company of some old friends from two different eras of my life who have now connected with each other in pleasing and productive ways, and after a dinner with all of them followed by a couple of Maker’s Marks in hotel water glasses, I think I grinned my whole way home. Though we spent plenty of time reminiscing, because this is what old friends do, I believe I was much more pleased thinking about the future, how these old friends are going to go forward and kick the crap out of whatever they set out to do, while I get to cheer them on, feeling good about the small part I played in putting them together.
Re-striking of friendships: Better than advertised.
Fresh ideas exchanged: I went to a panel on “voice.” “Voice” is one of those words that gets knocked around creative writing classrooms ad infinitum, and I pretty much figured there was nothing new anyone had to say to me about voice be it finding it, making sure it’s authentic, or making sure you don’t hide it under a bushel.
I was wrong. The panel was great, with little nuggets of insight dropping from the presenters like rhymes at an Eminem show. Even as a cynic, I still felt literally recharged by the presentation. I imagine that these epiphanies were happening all across the conference center, and I was more than a bit of a turd to downplay the importance of such things.
Fresh ideas: abundant.
Involvement of alcohol: We all know that drinking alcohol can lead to impaired decision making. In one case, it may or may not have been a direct contributor to five writers standing outside of The Original Harold’s Chicken Shack eating a mouth-burningly hot sixteen piece bucket and double order of hush puppies in 32-degree weather.
Alcohol: Present and accounted for.
Expenditure of writerly energy: My chief complaint in my litany of complaints was the direction in which the energy flows at the conference, namely toward each other. This is, if anything, worse than I’d feared. Yes, I am an eavesdropper -- find me a writer who isn’t -- and time and again I heard the thrust and parry of status-dropping, as the hierarchy of importance was established within each grouping. I was guilty of it myself more than once.
Like every other writer, I’m also insecure.
There is a lot of, for lack of a better word, “pitching” that goes on at AWP. This “pitching” reminded me very much of my experiences at Book Expo America, which is a sales conference, which means “pitching” is pretty much what you’re expected to do there. That “pitching” oneself or one’s book or one’s press or one’s university is the dominant mode of discourse (outside of the panels) at an academic conference is, quite frankly, depressing, but I suppose shouldn’t be surprising.
This “pitching” is nothing more than a quest for attention, for affirmation, for advancement, all things that are in short supply for writers, and when presented with a potentially receptive audience of like-minded souls, it’s hard not to give in to the urge.
But “pitching” oneself to other writers isn’t really going to advance the cause all that much. Logrolling ourselves into oblivion isn’t the answer to what ails literary writing of the prose and poetry variety. It’s actually kind of gross and once or twice left me feeling greasier than the hands of someone eating fried chicken on the street outside in 32 degree weather.
I hope that in AWP 2013 in Boston we can find a way to channel all that desperation toward finding more readers, rather than trying so hard to impress each other.
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