AWP 2013 | Lots of authors, a little heartbreak at writers' conference
Every year, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) hosts a conference in a major U.S. city to bring together professional writers, publishers, educators, M.F.A. students and anyone else willing to shell out to attend panels and readings featuring some famous authors and lots of aspiring ones. Chicago has hosted AWP twice in the last five years (2009 and 2012), but this year Boston had the honor. I was curious to see how many Windy City writers would be willing to make the trip up north for the conference, which happened March 6–9. Unfortunately, the snow storm that hit the Midwest early last week caused problems on the East Coast right as everyone was trying to arrive, resulting in an unprecedented number of no-shows at events. Still, Chicago was well represented and hey, I got a sweet tote bag!
The classic mistake an AWP rookie makes is not allotting enough time at the book fair. With more than 600 exhibitors, the book fair is overwhelming, but also the liveliest part of the conference. Literary journals, presses, writing orgs and schools with M.F.A. programs try to lure you to their tables with free pens, candy, bookmarks and other swag with little to no monetary value. (For instance, the guys manning the University of Chicago table offered me a “Fuck Poems” sticker.) Authors are on hand for signings. I ran into outgoing Poetry Foundation president John Barr as he was promoting his latest book, The Adventures of Ibn Opcit, and spoke briefly with the lovely CM Burroughs, the current Elma Stuckey Poet in Residence at Columbia College Chicago, after getting her to inscribe a copy of her first collection, The Vital System. I also chatted with S’Marie Clay, an experimental poet currently studying with Burroughs at Columbia, who told me she spotted Amber Tamblyn and David Cross at an off-site reading for Thrush Poetry Journal and the Barn Owl Review. And to think I was starstruck seeing Don DeLillo!
In terms of panels, I went to one celebrating the work of Edith Pearlman, where fiction writer and SAIC professor Rosellen Brown gave a glowing tribute. Brown chose Pearlman’s first story collection for the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1996 and considers herself her “first fairy godmother.” Samuel Park, author of 2011’s critically acclaimed This Burns My Heart, spoke on a panel about surviving as a writer without an M.F.A. that was so well-attended I couldn’t even get into the room. To compensate, I showed up 20 minutes early to ensure a seat at “A Conversation with ZZ Packer” only to learn that the Chicago native had not been able to make it. But a little heartbreak at AWP is to be expected, what with so many people carting their unpublished manuscripts to the awkward evening dance parties featuring not enough drink tickets and DJs who think “Here Comes the Hotstepper” is still a hot song.
While I didn’t emerge from this year’s conference with a book deal, I did see some bona fide literary legends and bought a ton of chapbooks that I can’t wait to read.