Tuesday, February 8, 2011

AWP: Wrap Up

I've returned from the AWP--what a great conference! In the coming weeks, I might write the occasional blog post that talks about some of the sessions I attended in more depth, but for now, let me record some impressions and memories.

People I Met or Didn't Meet:

I've never attended a conference of this size--almost 7000 participants. HUGE. I foolishly thought that I might run into people, and so I didn't make as many pre-arranged meet-ups as I hope to next year. I wanted to have time in the schedule for serendipitous connections, but I didn't realize that the vast size meant that I was unlikely to just randomly bump into people I knew.

At least that's what I told myself as I watched other attendees fling themselves into each other's arms. At times, it was a bit too much like high school, where everyone else seemed to know each other, and everyone seemed to be having a fabulous time together, while I was having a fabulous time mostly by myself.

I did have a lovely dinner with Lynn Domina, editor of Poets on the Psalms, one of the first books I reviewed on my then-newly-created blog (go here to read that review). When I wrote that review, she and I became Facebook friends, and she asked if I was going to AWP. I couldn't that year, but when I knew I was going this year, I let her know, and finally, we met in person. We ate at an Indian restaurant and talked about our writing and our academic lives. What a treat!

Sandy Longhorn's travel woes meant that our plans for Thursday dinner were not to be--insert heavy sigh of sadness here. Hopefully, we'll meet in person next year. I'm already looking forward to it!

I did see Leslie Pietrzyk in the book fair on Saturday, the only serendipitous meeting I had. Her sister was staffing the Carolina Wren Press table, and I peered at her nametag, thinking, surely she's related to Leslie. So, I asked, and she said yes, and then she said, "There she is now." And happily, Leslie remembered me (we met years ago when my sister and Leslie worked together, and we've seen each other occasionally through the years), and we chatted.

While we were chatting, a man walked by, and then he whipped around and peered at my nametag. Then he whirled back around and marched off. Happily, Leslie and I were able to laugh about it. I said, "Nope, I'm no one famous. Keep walking." Still, I'd never quite had that experience before. It made me wonder who that man was hoping to see when he whirled around. Or do I just look lovely from the back and hideous from the front?

No, it doesn't do to think too deeply about these things. These kind of overpacked conventions bring out my inner 16 year old in the most unattractive ways, the ways that make me say, "Wait, I thought I got to graduate from high school at some point! Why am I still stuck in this high school mental place?" If I'm not careful, I become convinced that everyone is cooler than me, more popular than me, having a better social life than I am. And the older I get, the more convinced I am that no one is leading a charmed life.

One of my favorite memories happened Thursday night. I had decided that I wanted to go to the White Pine reading at the Busboys and Poets location near Chinatown. I was taking the Metro because I was staying with my parents in the suburbs. I figured out how to get there, and then I was big and brave and did it. While there, I saw the authors of three of my favorite 2010 books: January Gill O'Neil, Susan Rich, and Kelli Russell Agodon--and Susan and Kelli were also reading. I had good food, a lovely glass of wine, a bracing cup of coffee, and wonderful poetry, all in a great location. I'll post some pictures tomorrow. And then, I successfully navigated the Metro home. When I walked through Chinatown on the way back, I saw two people in Chinese New Year's Costumes, making their creatures move and dance--hard to explain, and impossible to capture on film. But it was certainly something I don't see in South Florida.

Poets I saw read:

Stephen Dunn, Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Gary Jackson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Susan Rich, Kelli Russell Agodon, Elisabeth Frost, Holly Iglesias, Shin Yu Pai, Carolyn Forche, and Linda Pastan.

Overarching Themes:

I went to lots of panels on the impact of the Internet and online communities on our writing. Some of them made me brim with hope, and many of them made me wish that I had studied computer coding in addition to English. I was intrigued by all the commenters who declared that they would never write for free--these were usually fiction writers who seemed convinced that people are making money off our writing, and that those of us who write for less than top dollar are fools. Plenty of people countered with the idea of writing that leads to opportunities we'd have never had if we had insisted on getting top dollar for that writing. And there was lots of talk about building our online platforms. I don't tweet, but I'm already doing some of the things that panelists talked about, like having a website and a blog and commenting on the blogs of others and being involved in a literary life.

Biggest Surprises:

--So many very young people, undergrads and people who weren't done with their MFAs. When I was in my 20's and in grad school, a conference like this one would have been furthest from my mind. Of course, it was a very different time, and we were all desperately poor.

--I didn't expect the session on making a living as a writer without a full-time academic gig to be so funny; Steve Almond is a riot, and the other panelists were just as determined to make the presentation lively. The panelists were refreshingly honest about their economic lives.

--I went to a caucus for people who teach writing in art schools. I almost didn't go, but I'm glad I did. I met some really wonderful people with whom I hope to stay in touch. It was such a relief to talk to people who had some of the same concerns as I do, even though we're teaching at very different places.

--At a variety of panels, I heard from panelists and commenters about what's being expected of them: heavier teaching loads, larger classes (including one woman who will be expected to teach a writing workshop of 60 students--yikes). I tend to believe that people who teach in Creative Writing departments have a much better work life than I do. Some of them certainly do (and they are older than me, usually, and with much more impressive publications). But many of them are facing stresses and uncertainties that I wouldn't like to be facing.

Best Quotes:

--Someone asked Carolyn Forche how she does everything, how she balances her poetry writing and her teaching and her social justice work. Carolyn Forche gave us a wise, arch look and said, "There's no such thing as balance!" What a relief to hear someone say that out loud!

--Stephen Dunn was asked about prose poetry and formal poetry. He said, "I suspect if you took great prose and broke it into lines, people would be only too happy to call it poetry."

--One of the panelists in the Thursday session that had first time authors discussing the nitty gritty of publishing noted, "I'm not going to be Philip Roth. I've only got a few shots at this." He encouraged those of us who had opportunities to read, but opportunities that we'd have to pay for, to do it if we possibly could. The panelist said, "If you have a chance to go promote your book, you should probably do it. Even if you have to spend a hundred bucks, do it. You'd spend 5 bucks on a latte." And another panelist reminded us that we should be saving money for promoting our books so that we don't have to miss out on these kind of opportunities.

--Lots of good quotes from the Transmedia panel on Friday afternoon. I think it was Kevin Smokler who gave us his cheese cube theory. He said that people pay for coffee because they know what coffee tastes like. He mentioned grocery stores that give you cheese cubes so that you know you'll like the cheese, so that you'll be willing to pay $15.99 for the cheese. He suggested writers do the same. Give away a taste of your work that will hopefully encourage people to pay for the whole thing.

--Smokler also said that writers deserve to be compensated, but that doesn't mean they should be compensated at a middle class pay scale. He talked about dancers who crowded into rat-infested warehouses in the Bronx where it rained on them at night, but they were willing to go through that for their art. Why do we feel like we should be making a living from our writing right from our earliest work?

--Annie Finch talked about administration work as being the way that she builds community and creates ways for the community to listen to each other on a soul level.

Boots and Hats:

I expected everybody to be wearing cool boots, and they were (note to self: buy some boots at the end of season sales; my boots are about at the end of their lives).

I didn't expect so many people to be wearing hats. On Thursday, I saw a woman wearing a Russian style fur hat with a big diamond broach--all day and inside. On Saturday, I saw a woman wearing one of those Jackie Kennedy style hats: a small circle with netting. I saw a variety of scarves and shawls wound around heads. I saw a variety of jaunty chapeaux worn on the heads of students too young to have experienced their 80's clothing the first go-round. Lots of people wore hats with visors pulled low over their eyes.

Alas, I will not be investing in hats. I feel daring when I wear a scarf draped around my neck. I am not fashion-forward enough for hats.

Book Fair:

The most overwhelming part of the AWP for me was the Book Fair. I never did grasp the layout, and the map didn't help. By Saturday, however, I was able to wander around and actually talk to some people. I was able to ask whether or not to submit a manuscript that hadn't won previous contests (yes, do).

And yes, I got lots of deals on Saturday (more on that in a later post). And yes, my suitcase was over the pound limit, but happily, the Jet Blue check in person didn't notice or didn't feel like making an example out of me.

To Sum Up:

None of the panels disappointed me, except that I often wished we had had more time--how often do you sit through 75 minutes and wish for more. I learned a lot and came away inspired. I'm sure that other people were doing the networking gig better than I did--it's not a skill of mine, but I'd like to do better at making connections during the next 45 years than I've done in my first 45. I'd like to get over my inner 16 year old self who claims her aloneness as a badge of honor and uniqueness. And happily, this conference has made me feel that I might be able to do that, to finally graduate from the worst aspects of high school dynamics.


Terry Lucas said...

Thanks for this terrific summary. Sorry I missed this year--hope to attend Chicago in 2012.

Kathleen said...

Thanks so much for this wrap up. I'm sure you were not the only inner 16-year-old in attendance. And thanks so much for talking about the sessions on teaching concerns, as half the conference is on teaching, right? The other half on writing!! And the whole on both, balance or no!!

Shefali Shah Choksi said...

What a great post! I really want to see if i can't make it next year; it sounds simply wonderful.This kind of affirmation could switch on many lights in the center of my being, where it gets really dark if I let it.
Thank you, Kristin!

Karen J. Weyant said...

Great summary! I am often told that those of us in the community college system are in the trenches and have way too much to do -- yet I find that my colleagues in other college systems have bigger classes and serve on more committees -- people all over are just working more, I think.

Sandy Longhorn said...

GREAT POST! Still so sorry to have missed you.

This was my 5th AWP in 6 years and I finally felt like I put my inner 16-year-old to rest. It does help to pre-arrange a few plans, so I'm doubly sorry we missed our dinner.

Definitely in Chicago!

Kristin said...

Thanks everyone, for taking time to comment.

Let's start planning now for next year in Chicago! I know, I know, Chicago in February. Maybe us Florida folks can bring some heat and humidity with us, and it won't be so unbearable. Or we'll just stay inside and watch it snow while headed off to yet another great panel.

Diane Lockward said...

Thanks for your wonderful summary. How about you Florida folks start campaigning for AWP in your state? It would make so much more sense than Chicago in February!

Kristin said...

Great idea, Diane. I can only assume it must be ghastly expensive to bring the AWP to a place like Miami. And I'll be the first to admit that Miami isn't exactly a central location--but of course, Seattle is on the other end of the country, and they get to host the AWP.

I'm not complaining, mind you. I'm happy for the chance to go to Seattle.

But Chicago in February? Well, it will make me appreciate our warm weather here--our highs today will be in the mid-80's and it's already beastly humid.