The Various Joys of Attending the AWP Conference

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference was held in Boston last week. In addition to the snowstorm, the city was piled high with literary types — a heavenly if exhausting experience for poets and writers of all stripes. Below we have the responses of four attendees: January O’Neil, Alice Kociemba, Michelle Gillett, and Liz Janik.

January O’Neil

AWP Boston was fantastic! Despite a surprise snowstorm, word is that the conference brought 13,000

January O'Neil

January O’Neil

people to the Hines Convention Center. With 500 events, 1,900 presenters, and 600 exhibitors, this was the largest showing at AWP yet. Mass Poetry shared a booth space with Salem State University—which was a terrific opportunity to get the word out about our festival, and to talk to people firsthand about the exciting things happening at Mass Poetry.

My experience at AWP was definitely different than in previous conferences. Having a small hand in the selection process, it was nice to see all of that hard work come to fruition. I went to as many panels, readings and offsites as time would allow, but the most valuable time to me was spent chatting it up with friends old and new. My favorite moments happened when I get a tap on the shoulder from a friend I haven’t seen in 20 years.  Also, I did not do the book fair justice—it’s just too big for me to possibly get around to every table. Nice to see so many new publications and projects happening in the writing community.

Alice Kociemba

Alice Kociemba

Alice Kociemba

This is my first time at AWP.  Because it was in Boston.  Because Seamus Heaney & Derek Walcott were there.  Because Jorie Graham & Terrance Hayes would read together.  I couldn’t pass it up.  I decided it would be my “winter vacation.”  A trip of a lifetime, better than seeking warmth and sun.  Yet it had warmth and sun indoors in a snowstorm, celebrating writers of all stripes.

I had a selfish reason for going – to look for a possible fit for my first book of poems and a publisher.  I wanted to meet them, touch their books, meet their authors, get a personal feel for who they are, and whether my work would find a good home.

I also wanted to go to some panels.  I go to a lot of readings, so I mainly wanted to get a larger perspective on the tensions and possibilities in the field of poetry, as a whole.

So my “game plan” worked.  I went to a panel on “The Book Launch.”  Learned a lot.

I ended Saturday with a panel “A Fly on the Wall:  Four Prestigious Poetry Publishers Share Their Insights.”  Again, I was impressed by how challenging it is (and will be) to craft a manuscript that gets selected by a press in a scarce and competitive environment.  I left with great respect for all the poets who have met and passed these tests – to write well, to revise, and revise, and submit and persist in getting a book published.  And for the publishers who have a vision and commitment to providing a place for the poetry of emerging writers.

I wasn’t discouraged.  It felt like a challenge that had some substance to it.

But it was certain moments that have stayed with me.  Hearing Derek Walcott say, “Poetry comes from silence.  Not the phony silence that produces bad poems, but the way silence arrives in a poem.”  And then hearing Seamus Heaney comment that “We also dwell in clamor, as well as silence.”  Referring to writing about our troubled world.  The next night, Jorie Graham was asked about integrating her experience as a filmmaker with her poetry.  She commented that even in the laying down of tracks of silence in a film, there is a sound to silence.  My impression of hearing both Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham read back-to-back is that they are archetypal poets.  Both read with their bodies, both use vivid images, musical pacing.  I wrote lists of words they used from lines of their poems, and found how the vowels carried the emotional tune they were singing.  Both these experiences were profoundly moving.

I went to a wonderful panel on Nazim Hikmet’s work.  I happened to be sitting next to a young woman, and asked her where she was from.  She said, “Cairo.”  And that her family was in Lynn.  At the end of the session, she asked about a poem of Hikmet’s “Light of my eye, my darling” which had not been included in his translated work.  She spoke about its importance during the Arab Spring uprising.  Again, I was so taken with how poetry saves us all.  Again, I was reminded of Seamus Heaney’s point about dwelling in both silence and clamor.

Michelle Gillett

Michelle Gillett

Michelle Gillett

I am sitting at my desk, preparing for the writing workshop I teach tomorrow.  There is much to glean and share from the panels and readings  I attended for three days at the AWP conference. But of all them,  one remains particularly distinct–Knowing Nothing, What Novelists Figure Out Before Page One.

Alix Ohlin talked about her inability to outline, how she thinks of her novels’ structure as houses to furnish.  Michael Lowenthal talked about doing so much research for his book, Charity Girl, he struggled to start imagining his story.  Tom Perrotta gets his ideas from his surroundings—taking his children to the local pool gave him his inspiration for Little Children.

“Your idea just needs to be good enough to get you started,”  Lauren Groff said. “And then you make a problem. “ But, she said at the end of her talk,  the most important thing to know about writing is to “come to the work with joy and love….with gratitude.” The AWP conference is about sharing and expressing that joy and love  and gratitude, and of everything I learned there, it is the best advice I can pass on to my students.

Liz Janik

As a poet who’s close to completing her first manuscript, I decided to take some time off from my proposal

Liz Janik

Liz Janik

writing job to check out the AWP Conference this past week in Boston.  Having never gone, I didn’t know what to expect outside of the initial comparison I had in my head to conferences I’ve attended for my day job.  And although that comparison was pretty accurate (outside of the fact that big business has bigger booth displays), I was heartened that there were more tables of presses, magazines and programs than any human could possibly get to.

But after recently writing in the woods for a week, alone, with no TV or distractions—AWP was also a jolt to my system.  Where did all these people come from?  People from my usual workshop and from my virtual writing group, people I had previously studied with, people I had met through other people—lots of people I was very happy to see whether it was just for a minute or much longer—and those were just the people I knew.  And all the new people I met and had interesting conversations with.  Woods?  Alone?  What woods?

And the program—thicker than anything I’ve ever seen at any conference—ever.  Do the people that plan these things sleep?  Do they even believe in sleep or eating even?  It was difficult to decide what to go to and what to skip—so much so that my AWP diet consisted of venti Americanos and scones and fruit cups strategically grabbed on the go from Starbucks when I knew the lines would be shortest.  My diet served me well.  In addition to poetry, I also got to explore narrative medicine, translation, memoir, a few choice readings, and even a little fiction.

So thanks AWP for a good all‑around time and for helping me to lose five pounds in the process.  I can’t say that’s ever happened at any other conference I’ve ever attended.

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