As I slipped the mask of the Swamp Ape over my head, the mild-mannered poet who says “Excuse me” in crowded bars, nervously checked Waze every five feet between the Air BnB and the Washington Convention Center, and smiled at each visitor who asked, “What the hell is a Swamp Ape?” at our book fair table – that person disappeared. For 15 minutes, I swaggered, photo-bombed, entered literary magazine raffles by signing “SWAMP APE” to the small yellow tickets, and sat down to lunch with strangers who tried not to appear startled at my swampish ghillie suit and gorilla mask.
This is a convenient anecdote, because it also works as a metaphor for the transformative power large groups can have on an internal perspective. I would never don the Swamp Ape costume in my home (or admit it if I did), but with an audience, it seems natural. Similarly, writing alone can feel self-indulgent. If you write as I do, balancing your laptop on your ripped sweatpants at 2 p.m. with a piece of stale cake on the nightstand, you may see yourself from the outside and wonder if you’re delusional. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the hordes of literary magazines publishing work you admire and wonder whether anyone needs your voice.
The imposter syndrome is common and shared. Thousands of writers, who are stereotyped as being highly sensitive, solitary creatures, trekked again this year to AWP to brave crowded terminals where there are never enough free phone chargers, planes where free snacks are no longer complimentary and one can catch a virus from just unbuckling the seatbelt, trains that make too many stops, Ubers, too-small hotels - these writers walked half a mile through the chilly and strange streets of DC to a convention center full of strangers and projectors that fail just before each panel presentation begins.
But we went anyway. We went because walking by the brick buildings and art galleries of DC reminded us what it’s like to be in the honeymoon phase of a romance with a city. And we went to the mixer because while writers are terrible dancers, the lack of inhibition by the flailers on the dance floor was inspiring. We saw that thousands of other writers also prioritized their writing enough to make the same trek and don a lanyard.
AWP was a reminder that while the fact that so many writers exist means the market is flooded, it also gives us permission to value writing in our own lives as well. It’s both humbling and energizing to realize that writing, while done in isolation, can also take place in a larger community. And so, though I will likely not don the Swamp Ape costume again, when feeling inadequate or foolish, I can put on the metaphorical costume of a writer making the awkward trek to AWP, remember that far away, others are doing the same with their lanyards tucked in drawers, and for a moment, it seems we do this together.
Kathleen Martin is a second-year MFA and is on staff at Swamp Ape Review. Her digital literacy creation, Between Memories (betweenmemories.com), explores the relationship between memory and memory loss through interviews, surveys, art, and erasure poetry.