As we all know, the AWP is the biggest writer event happening every year where all writers can attend, from the wanna-bes, to the have-beens, and every variety in-between. So, I’m not sure what the message is in scheduling this 12,000 people, 750 fair tables event in the most glacial cities in the US, and always in the dead of winter. True enough, it’s March, but can you say (sotto voce) climate change?
The weather report assured me that climate would be favorable, but it has been snowing, and snowing hard, pretty much nonstop since I got here, with no sign of slowing down, except maybe now. Which goes to show in the words of one favorite former student of mine, that the weather report is nothing but “voodoo mojo.” There are six inches of snow on the ground, friends, and it doesn’t look like it has any intention of melting for the convenience of our literal minded friends. Apparently, God hates literature (if you think that God likes to spite us with bad weather).
But let’s speak about the conference:
Getting to the Registration from the Westin felt like the pilgrimage to the mecca of retail, through the long corridors of the skymall complete with a Catholic Church of St. Francis for a restful stop on the way to the sacrificial shrine of the literati, conveniently located across from Dunkin’ Donuts in case you should hanker for cappuccino with your holy host– but at least we didn’t have to trek outside, through the snow.
Several miles of Skywalk indoor mall later, I have my badge, and my signature AWP tote, and the 2lb catalog. There’s chocolate everywhere, and bakeries, and a yogurt place. Off we are to a good start.
The first panel I had carefully culled out of the dozen listed for every hour of this precious 4-day writing intensive, one on fiction and fairytales, is saturated and trailing out the door well before the panel even had a chance to introduce the speakers.
Even Hollywood has caught on to the trend, folks. All you have to do is look at the billings: Snow White, Hansel Gretel…fairy tales = IN!!!! Book an auditorium! Oh shame! But where are the helpers that might redirect the panel session to one of the many unoccupied and much larger rooms surrounding this event? Perhaps they are hiding in the walls, waiting for all of us to go to sleep so they can mend our shoes and greet us with magical cookies in the morning.
Here is a picture of the line of hopefuls that hung around well after the panel started, looking to scavenge seats.
Twenty minutes into the hour I gave up hope and moved on to choice number 2: not much better there: clearly the theme of this year’s AWP is early bird gets the seat. No wonder by mid-day masses move mid-panels out the door eager to line up for the next choice.
But, then, choice number 3, a cavernous room occupied to less than a third capacity, not yet started because, well, panelist #3 is nowhere to be seen and the two remaining panelists couldn’t say why. (Can you say “text your colleagues?” Can you say “Prepare for weather contingencies?”)
Panelist #2 managed to make mention of her PhD at least three times before panelist #3 rushes into the room out of breath. Panelist #2 does not acknowledge the head shaking, but rather lowers her gaze to read her paper (rough draft of dissertation?) on the “fresh” topic of differentiating literature-driven pedagogy from workshop-driven pedagogy.
Hark! Fire your dissertation advisor! Catch up on comp theory, then come back and try to talk to a conference were 80% of 12,000 attendees are comp professors, or have been one for the first 5 years of their career. (And when have you ever walked into a classroom where your professors read off of a paper? Lame!) Buzz. False start. Try again.
The agent panel later that same day: cramped in a tight shack, standing room only. 12,000 writers who make a living by teaching writing are lectured on the virtues of making the first five pages “great!” Fabulous advice. I thought I could get away with at least 50 pages of crap before an agent gives up on me! (If only I had a chair to sit on – blisters on the onset).
I’m texting my location to friends who have promised drinks, lunch, dinners, but so far everyone is too busy or held up by snow. I head to lunch by my lonely and get a choice seat between one of the AWP rarities, a hopeful writer not yet associated with the rat race of academia, and an AWP common site, a hopeful-for-tenure catching up with his tenured colleague. The tables are so crammed tight that I can’t help but overhear: “My students don’t want to incorporate feedback. They’re afraid to take chances.”
I have my check and am ready to propel myself out for another panel, but I can’t resist it. I butt in with the premise, “I hate to burst in on a conversation like this, but I couldn’t help but hear what you said, and my I just offer a suggestion?”
The hopeful, interrupted mid-schmooze, throws me an evil glare. “You can make your suggestion but that doesn’t mean I’ll listen.”
It’s my clue to get up and leave without another word, but no, I forget what it’s like to be young and jettisoned out of an MFA or a PhD with the fuel of false hope burning a bright halo behind me. I forget that a writer who has been shouting his moderate successes in a relatively quiet restaurant doesn’t really want to hear any advice except “Where can I read your work?” I have to go on with it with the disclaimer, “I’ve been teaching undergraduates for fifteen years. Do you grade their stories?”
I make my suggestion (don’t grade their stories; grade only their revisions). The writer chews angrily, like he’s eating raw hide rather than a crab cake. I tell him to enjoy his meal and he says, “Yeah.”
The rest of the day is shit: more panels filled to capacity. I spend more time rushing from room to room, trying to secure a seat, than I do learning and being inspired. I don’t get to see the panels I want to see; only what’s open.
Finally, the keynote. Thank God for Derek Walcott, who is so gracious with Seamus Heaney that he restores my faith in the inherent purity of literature. His noble soul reminds me: always be generous, not just to your masters and colleagues, but also to those who read you and support you and want to hep you not because they hope to get something out of you (a rec. letter, a blurb, a shortcut in the slush pile) but simply and only because you’re making art.