Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Berets and Turtlenecks and Intellectuals, Oh My!

In which two intrepid MFA alumni, Courtney Watson and Gloria Panzera, recap the experience of AWP Chicago, 2012:
Courtney and I have been on the front lines at AWP for the past few years and are finally ready to report on some of our adventures.

Gloria: How would you describe AWP?

Courtney: If there is one word to describe the madness that is AWP, it is overwhelming. It is a very different experience from most other conferences for several reasons, the foremost among them being the sheer size of the gathering. The schedule is also unforgiving, so first-timers should feel free to take it slow. If you get a chance, look at the panel schedule online prior to coming to the conference and figure what you really, really want to see. If you don’t adhere to some sort of schedule, you’ll miss a lot. Also, it’s easy to forget that AWP hosts many off-site events and readings as well, and those are certainly worth checking out.

Gloria: Oh God, yes. AWP was overwhelming the first time and three years later, I still feel like an over stimulated baby who needs to just cry it out.

Courtney: As an MFA student, what made you decide to go to AWP for the first time?

 Gloria: I don’t remember why I went to AWP the first year, maybe it was to see what all the talk was about, or maybe I just needed an excuse to leave Florida for the weekend. I don’t know. I just remember the first month into my MFA I realized I wasn’t doing anything right. I wasn’t a member of any fancy shcmansy professional organization; I wasn’t writing enough; I wasn’t published. I might as well kiss that tenure track position goodbye. I would have to go back into a time machine and start my freshman year of college all over again. I think I went to AWP to get nice kick in the butt, and take a well-deserved break.

So Court, why did you start going to AWP?

Courtney:  I remember thinking that it just sounded like the most awesome thing, and it was in New York City the first year that I went. I remember being so excited. I got to see John Irving and Joyce Carol Oates and Billy Collins and Frank McCourt, and that experience sort of cemented my devotion. It was the first time that I realized that there’s a community of writers.

Gloria: What do you remember about your first time at AWP?

Courtney: I remember being completely overwhelmed, and feeling like I needed to see everything. Like, look! there’s Joyce Carol Oates. Or, over there! Steve Almond’s in line at Starbucks. I also saw four panels a day, and I remember being completely exhausted. I think I went through the bookfair four or five times.

Gloria: The only thing I remember about the first time was that the bookfair blew my mind. I loved the panels I observed and I remembered feeling that I had chosen the right profession. There was something awesome about being around so many people who loved writing, literature, and were nerds just like me. I felt this all while feeling like a loser who wasn’t good enough at writing. Oh, and that I finally had an excuse to travel somewhere pretty cool once a year.

Courtney: The opportunity for travel is one of my favorite things about AWP. It’s always awesome to get to hang out in a city for a few days, and for some reason the conference format seems to lend itself to being in a city.

Gloria: As my AWP buddy, you know I love to sightsee. Where should you go when you’re at AWP?

Courtney: If you’re like us, the answer is everywhere. One of the best things about AWP is that it is usually (sorry, Minneapolis, but I have my doubts) hosted by an awesome city with a lot to offer. Be sure to take full advantage of the host city, and don’t feel guilty for skipping panels. The host city is always replete with great shopping and amazing bookstores like Powell’s and the Tattered Cover, and it would be a shame to miss them. AWP is also a great opportunity to buy books from small or independent presses, and it’s great to support them. You come home with all of this great stuff, and I find that having that experience really kick-starts my own work.

Courtney: What about you, Gloria? How does AWP effect the way that you view your work once you get home?

Gloria: I truly love going to AWP. When I get home, I am so energized and excited to get my writing in order. My somewhat lackadaisical writing schedule is tightened. I’m back on track. It’s great. Although at times, it seems as if all the energy that is being put forth at the conference makes me think it’s time to go dig myself a hole, and reconsider the profession that I’ve chosen. Maybe I’m not worthy of the people that are panelists and attendees. You meet grad students whose mentors are top notch writers and you think, why?

Courtney:  AWP gets under your skin. Being around so many people who love what you love and dream what you dream (and some of them are really good at it) is overwhelming, exhilarating, validating, and sometimes really annoying. Seeing so many accomplished writers who possess careers we would all kill for, getting close enough to your idols to touch them, is a strange experience. The worst part of it is feeling like you’ll never be good enough. The best part is the creative energy that you absorb and take home with you, the burning desire to get back home and throw yourself into the frustrating, impossible thing that is so easy to forget you love.

Gloria: So this is the first year we’ve ever come to AWP together and while we were adventuring I would say we saw quite a few characters and overheard some ridiculous conversations. It was pretty much an ego-fest and a smorgasbord of hair and fashion styles. While I know we were there to conference, it is hard not to notice a woman old enough to be my grandmother rocking out with a tri-color hair coloring and the absurdist hats and tights that were running around the Hilton were hard to miss.

Courtney: Never is the diversity of our literary community more apparent than on the floor of AWP. A few years ago, in Denver, I participated in one of the oddest conversations of my life. It took place in a nearly-full panel about haunting in literature.  A young woman squeezed down the aisle and into the seat next to me a few minutes before the panel started. Observing the excited din of nerd-on-nerd conversation that spreads like wildfire at AWP, she turned to me and said, “I just love the energy of AWP.”
            “I know, me too,” I said, “It’s awesome to be around so many people who love this kind of stuff as much as I do.”
            She shivered. “It’s irresistible. I really can’t get enough of this great energy.”
            “Right, yeah, me too.”
            “No, really. I come from a long line of psychic vampires. We thrive on this. We need it to survive.”
            “Really. How about that.”

Another beauty, this one overheard at the book fair, by two people discussing the AWP dance party:

“Do you want to go?”
“An AWP dance party? Is that really a good idea? Will there be enough shadows and dark corners for everyone?”

Gloria: I wish I could make a Tag Cloud for the top words you hear at AWP. The few off the top my head are: publish, book, professor, tenure-track, coffee, and mentor. Are there any you can think of?

Courtney: Process, exercise, write

 Gloria: We also overheard some ridiculous conversations. Here’s where it gets interesting. From elevator chats to rants broadcast from makeshift soapboxes, we’ve been listening and we’ve heard it all.

“Do you know so-and-so?”
“Why yes, we published a book together last year.”
“Why yes, we share a publisher.”
“Why yes, he blurbed my book.”
And on and on.

Gloria: Oh sweet lord. We had a ridiculous amount of conversations with our eyes in Chicago. Some of our good-ole fashion talk, especially in Little Italy, included how we had finally dodged the AWP crowd. As wonderful as the experience is, it can really exhausting.

Courtney: This brings us to the downside of AWP. As great as the conference is, there are definite drawbacks. Gloria, what are some things that you wish you had known prior to attending your first AWP conference?

Gloria: I think AWP is one of those events that every professional writer should experience, but I do wish I had gotten some advice before I went.  So for those of you interested, a word of warning: Do NOT go to any panel with the words first, novel, publishing, and agent. They always put these panels in the smallest rooms and there are tons of obnoxious people standing outside of the door. They listen, sure that they too can have the same luck as the panelists. Move on, spend that time writing.

The first time you go you will attend a ridiculous amount of panels. You might take notes. You’ll be exhausted and God-willing you’ll process some of it. You might get lucky and find a panel that inspires you. You’ll be reminded why you are torturing yourself as a Grad student grading lame sauce comp-rhet papers and working on that collection of short stories.

Any advice Court?

Courtney: The crowds: As you cruise the floors of the AWP conference, prepare to duck and cover when panels end and a stampede of people pour from the ballrooms, racing to hit the bookfair, the bar, and the bathroom before their next panel. Ladies, a word to the wise: the day is short and the lines are long, so pace yourselves with your beverage intake.

No matter how well-organized a conference is, any event catering to 10,000 people is bound for pandemonium, even amongst our generally well-behaved tribe.

Gloria: I’m glad you brought up the Bookfair. This year I found it especially overwhelming. Every time we stopped by there were so many people. I did think we handled it well, and I would recommend doing as we did. We looked in the AWP conference guide and picked out the tables we were interested in and went directly to those tables. While we did want to adventure and check it all out, I do think next year we’ll have to try a new method. Also, be warned, the popular magazines sell out, so if you’re interested don’t wait until the last day, go early on. We totally scored on the fairytale cookbooks! They only brought two. What were they thinking?

Courtney: The crowds are definitely a pain, though there are other, far more egregious things that can potentially sour your AWP experience. There’s one panel in particular that comes to mind. Take it away, G.

Gloria: This year we went to several “privileged” panels. The Marilynne Robinson panel about representations of evil in literature was one of those panels we were so pumped about but the moderator was the epitome of AWP elitism. I think we should have known we were doomed when she said the idea for the panel came when she’d stayed awake watching French philosophers on Youtube until three AM. That was a red flag.

Courtney: It only got worse from there. The moderator had these fantastic authors, and she didn’t let them speak! The conversation always came back to her. When Marilynne Robinson and Ha Jin want to talk, let them. The audience is there for them, not a stuffy moderator who laughs at her own jokes. It was appalling. People were falling asleep.

So there you have it. We’re home, we’re surrounded by all of the fabulous books and free literary journals that somehow found their way into our carry-ons, and while we may be physically exhausted, our muses are ready to get back to work. Next up, Boston 2013. See you there!! 

Gloria Panzera currently lives in Charlotte with her husband. Her writing has appeared in The Inquisitive Eater, Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles.    
Courtney Watson received her MFA in Fiction at FAU in 2009, and her Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi in May 2012. She loves to travel, and her writing has appeared in Black Lantern, The Key West Citizen and more.

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