AWP: A Convention For the Bookish
“He is, at heart, a formalist.”
“They often say when you get stuck in a story, throw an alligator in.”
“Omigod. I just saw Alice McDermott in the hall.”
To walk any part of the eight miles of skyway that connect much of downtown Minneapolis this past weekend was to hear snatches of dialogue endemic to writers. The forty-eighth annual Associated Writing Programs Conference—the largest gathering of poets, writers, writing students, creative-writing-program faculty, literary-journal editors, arts organizations, small presses, and literary entrepreneurs in the country—was under way, and it was snowing. Outside the glass walls of the cavernous Minneapolis Convention Center, big, fluffy, wet flakes were floating down.
But the fourteen thousand literary folks in attendance weren’t paying much attention to the weather. As a whole, they did not seem to be outdoorsy people. They spend most of their days, after all, staring into the blue glow of their computer screens, or sitting around workshop tables beneath florescent lights, or poring over piles and piles of manuscripts in windowless rooms. Their work, whether writing or reading, necessitates solitude, and they had travelled from all over the country to participate, to network, to party. They were here to be with their people, weather be damned. In the weeks leading up to the four-day conference, the literary community on Twitter swelled with excitement, and #AWP15 began to trend. It did not trend in a Kanye and Kardashian kind of way, obviously. It trended the way literary writers and poets trend, which is to say not very much.
But tell that to the throngs walking the wide aisles of the convention center, filling their tote bags with conference swag: pencils from The London Review of Books, Lindt chocolates from Blue Flower Arts, sunglasses from the Otis College of Art and Design. The Duotrope booth offered a “What Author Are You?” quiz. My first night in town, I attended a party thrown by Grove Atlantic, which was celebrating Literary Hub, a new online venture. To mark the occasion, the company had produced a sturdy tote bag bearing an iconic photograph of a young Joan Didion. “We asked her a year and a half ago—before Céline,” said the editor Morgan Entrekin.
If every industry has its trade show, and if writing can possibly be described as an industry, A.W.P. has become a thriving nexus of all things literary. Founded in 1967, its first conference was held in 1972, at the Library of Congress, with six events and sixteen presenters including George Garrett, Wallace Stegner, and Ralph Ellison. This year’s conference was host to five hundred and fifty events, two thousand presenters, and over seven hundred small presses, journals, and literary organizations. If Book Expo America, or B.E.A., which is held each spring, is the convention for book publishing, then A.W.P. is the convention for the bookish.
The panel offerings ranged from the pedagogical (“Teaching Experimentation: The Freedom in Constraints”) to the political (“Making Diversity Happen: Editors Can Change the Literary Landscape”) to the practical (“But I Need My Day Job: Creating a Kick-Ass Writing Education in Your Own Community”). At a well-attended panel on handling rejection, the crowd hungrily took notes as the novelist Heidi Durrow spoke self-deprecatingly about becoming an overnight success after her first novel was rejected forty-eight times. The novelist Tod Goldberg described his writing process as “terror management.”
In an age-old literary method for managing terror—though arguably one with diminishing returns—the parties around A.W.P. were booze-fests. (A Monday morning tweet: “Are you a writer? My truck driving husband/AWP escort: No, but I drink like one.”) On Friday afternoon, Electric Literature, The Paris Review, and the National Book Foundation hosted an invitation-only liquid lunch—one martini per guest. One Story magazine held a superhero-themed party, at the Walker Museum, where the editors wore colorful Lone Ranger-style masks emblazoned with lightning bolts and the wine flowed freely. At the Sarabande Books booth, every purchase was accompanied by a shot of Jim Beam. Each night during the conference, the bar at the Hilton was packed three-deep with poets, writers, and those who love them. At breakfast, these same writers wore sunglasses and croaked out orders for lattes and dry scrambled eggs before heading off to a morning panel on, say, “The Bump and Grind of Meaning: Intuition and Formal Play in Hybrid Nonfiction.”
It’s a familiar lament that books are dying—that the fast-paced and attention-starved digital age is killing our impulse to read and write the old-fashioned way—but it was impossible to feel anything but buoyant optimism about the future of letters when traversing the streets and skyways of Minneapolis. Small presses and literary journals are multiplying. Arts organizations are working hard to support them. A couple of entrepreneurs from Detroit raised $342,471 on Kickstarter to create the Hemingwrite, a minimalist digital typewriter designed for distraction-free composition—no e-mail, Facebook, browser, or menus—and were taking pre-orders. The Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press offered a panel with four of its star authors—Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss, and Claudia Rankine—in an auditorium so packed with a standing-room-only crowd that security guards were stationed outside the doors. No one’s making much money, but at least for the four-day stretch of A.W.P., no one seemed to care.
By the conference’s end, the wheels were starting to come off the bus. After all, fourteen thousand solitary, introverted people can only keep up an investment-banker-style social pace for so long. The head of one M.F.A. program confessed his fantasy of getting on a Segway and mowing down all the poets in his path. The moderator at a large featured reading fumbled his introduction and forgot the title of the presenter’s book, turning to her onstage: “What was it called, again?”
Exhibitors broke down their displays in the conference hall, and attendees collected their packed and bulging roller bags from the coat check. Late-afternoon sunlight poured into the convention center’s lobby, illuminating a large poster announcing A.W.P. 2016, which will be held in Los Angeles. Claudia Rankine will be the keynote speaker, and the deadline for panel submissions is fast approaching. An after-party melancholy filtered through the crowd. Again and again, I heard the refrain: “Next year in Los Angeles.”