I Went to AWP and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next
I’ve got to publish this now before it gets old. At the AWP conference, everything is pregnant—if not pregnant, then immediately postpartum—timely, anyway. The typical slowness of writing and publishing vanishes into a state of emergency. And now I’m beginning to feel the stale adrenaline. So here we go. Quick!
I felt very, very behind the eight ball getting ready for AWP. I didn’t tweet or post responsibly to let anyone know I would be there. I was editing, printing, cutting, stapling right until the very last moment—talking homeschooling with a stranger at Staples’ Self-Service Copy Center with my son kicking his feet and pounding on the long-arm stapler shouting about Super Mario Bros.
I soothed myself with the idea that, being a nobody, it was fine to arrive quietly—like how Jonathan Richman, a fabulous nobody himself, walks unceremoniously onto the stage from the audience where he was talking to high school kids about whatever.
This was my first AWP, and I wasn’t sure it was for me. I was never in a writing program, and I don’t teach at one. Oh well. I was already committed. I had one reading via Queen Mob’s Teahouse; one Johnny-Carson-style hosting thing via Real Pants, Submittable, and Curbside Splendor; and a chapbook of Guru Nanak translations to explain to anyone who would listen.
I drove from my home in Henderson, N.Y., to Chicago on Tuesday (13 hours) to break up the trip.
I woke up as early as I could in Chicago, which wasn’t that early, did some telecommuting and left for Minneapolis. I tried unsuccessfully to avoid tolls, which in the Midwest are of the death-by-a-thousand-cuts variety. Every so many miles you pay $1.90 or $2.80 or $3.50—what a bunch of cowards! Most of the booths were automated. You could pay with cash or card. Like they were too ashamed to look me in the eye.
I got to Minneapolis 4 p.m.-ish which stressed me out at first, but was actually no big deal. Nothing was actually happening on Wednesday, which I would have realized if I had taken a moment to look at the schedule (too overwhelming). They call it Day One, but it’s really like Day Zero. The bookfair isn’t open yet. There’s only like one panel, and it’s only for people who are part of some kind of club. So whatever. Cool. I had a veggie burger at some point.
Before heading out I had made arrangements with a friend of a friend for a place to stay. So before I got way too tired, I got directions to his house and crashed.
+ Meeting up with Adam Robinson and Amy McDaniel. They brought bookmarks, business cards, and inscrutable Venn diagrams.
+ The wi-fi password at the house where I stayed. If I live to be very old, my tell-all book will be of all the great wi-fi passwords I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
I went to bed too late and woke up just on time. I was very tired. I picked up Amy and Adam, went to the bookfair, and dutifully stapled chapbooks. There were a gazillion tables and booths that I knew nothing of, so I went through the directory and marked the ones I wanted to learn more about.
I guess some people like to be cool and say that the panels at AWP are a waste of time. This was not my experience. I saw two on Thursday, and they were awesome.
+ Panel: The Making of Originals: Translation as a Form of Editing. Translators Karen Emmerich and Bill Johnston and moderator Susan Harris discussed the issue of choosing and occasionally editing an original text for translation. It was equal parts big picture and shop-talky.
+ Panel: Let’s Not Start From Scratch: How to Talk About Race in Poetry. My fear about this panel was that it would be too broad and tentative. Which is silly because it’s that tendency to treat race superficially that this panel was fighting. Everyone had something interesting and complicated to say on a topic, which is really many topics, that can never get complicated enough.
+ Reading at Dulono’s Pizza with Reb Livingston, Rachel Milligan, Russell Jaffe, Kirsten Kaschock, and three bands. I met Russell Bennetts, the guy who runs Berfrois (which, if you haven’t checked it out, please do) and who does Queen Mob’s Teahouse with Livingston and Rauan Klassnik. He says reassuringly English things like “rubbish” and “chap” and “pub.” he rhymes Nanak with “manic.” Everyone was great. The pizza was great.
+ Walking up to poet Danez Smith and saying, “Hi, pardon me while I assault you for a second, I mean, accost you for a second.” He was cool, though. He was like, “Yeah, that sounds better.”
+ Getting locked out of the bookfair room without my necessaries. The bookfair closed for the day before the last panels let out. A bunch of us, maybe 20 or so, had keys and coats and things to retrieve. AWP staff were not psyched about letting anyone back in, which they insisted on doing one at a time. Eventually, they mellowed out and everything was fine. Also, my friend darted in against their orders, and that was mildly thrilling. A small highlight.
I think this is the day I met a guy who sneaked in with half of someone else’s name badge (they’re double-sided). I think this is the day that I went late to the Coffee House Press party, which I kept thinking was some nameless party at a coffee house (not that I didn’t know CHP—I will never forget that they published Bob Kaufman’s Cranial Guitar), and met the novelist Shanthi Sekaran with whom I had a really useful conversation about religion.
+ Eating a “sausage” made from pinto beans at a restaurant that also served head cheese.
I was so tired by Saturday I probably came off stoned to the people who came to the Real Pants booth. I couldn’t remember anyone’s name and I could barely understand what I was being told. I couldn’t find the square reader and I didn’t feel confident to use the app anyway. I wrote down people’s email addresses on the backs of our business cards and promised to email them later to remind them to paypal Amy or Adam the money.
Saturday felt completely nuts. We were missing Amy at the Real Pants booth because she was cooking all kinds of food—pork belly, chicken, beans, tater tots, etc.—for the Scrollbar party that night. It was going to be talk-show style, and I was hosting. I still had to finalize the monologue and assemble the post-monologue “bit.” I hadn’t yet worked out the interviews with Michael Czyzniejewski and Madeline ffitch. But I also hadn’t checked in at all the tables I had meant to yet. Boo-hoo.
Woe to anyone who asked me what Real Pants was on this day. “Look deep inside you. No wait, look on the Internet. Anyway, it’s a website. Do you know what that is?” I kept apologizing as I was speaking — which is what stoned people do. I said, “I promise you: I’m just tired.” I kept my face as stretched out as I could, smiling.
+ Three-minute conversation with poet Mairéad Byrne. It was one of those rare, real conversations you have with someone you don’t know. She asked about the table and then my chapbooks. I told her about my cancer “battle” (with myself as battlefield, not soldier) — she understood immediately exactly what chemotherapy had done to my writing. Or, she was receptive enough to mercy and absurdity that she instantly normalized the whole thing. And then, in a flash, she was gone.
+ Slightly longer conversation with fiction writer Neil Singh about growing up Sikh.
+ Sharing emails from late Baltimore poet Chris Toll at Scrollbar. This was my desk bit. Chris was very, very funny and very, very for real. I was far from being his best friend, but he was generous with email. He was always brilliant, and I think it came through. Laughter and tears.
+ John Mortara gathering ephemera (which lived in monstrous piles) to make a found poem.
+ Buying a T-shirt from Kundiman (“Dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature”). It’s got picture of a little girl and a honey badger and a beehive and it says “dear honey badger, teach me to be fearless.”
I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was surprised at just how sincere everyone was at all times. People were there to meet people, yes, but I can’t recall one person giving me some kind of cynical sales pitch about anything. At one point someone handed me a magnet I didn’t ask for, but even that was more cute than anything.
I think I had more conversations about religion and culture than I did about people’s projects. In fact, if I were to ask what they were working on, they were barely interested. Now, maybe that’s because they knew better than to waste their breath explaining their thing to me, given that I have nothing anybody could want. But I think rather it’s that people go to AWP seeking something genuine, lanyards and all.
Adam asked that I maybe point out groups that had cool tables or an interesting setup, and I tried to think of that, but the people at the tables are what really made the impression. So I can tell you I liked the people at the tables and booths for Wave Books, New Directions, The Sheep Meadow Press, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, Kundiman, Deep Vellum, Forklift, Ohio / H_NGM_N, Magic Helicopter / Big Lucks, and on and on.
What I would do differently next time:
+ Figure out exactly which panels I wanted to see and work it out with my booth mates ahead of time.
+ Use maps instead of GPS. After three days I still had no idea where anything was.
+ Abstain from skyways. Same reason.
+ Keep a journal. I’ve forgotten more than I remember.
+ Take pictures with everyone I meet, ideally with the other person’s name tag visible.