In just a couple of weeks, thousands from the literary world will descend upon hotels, bookstores, and eateries in Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. For the uninitiated, the notion of navigating a crowd of 8000 writers, selecting from 350 concurrent sessions over the course of several days, and possibly riding in the conference elevator with one of 500 publishers is, well, more than a little daunting. Whether they create pure pleasure, complete agony, or something in between for those who attend, professional conferences of this magnitude warrant a user guide to put new attendees at ease. To help guide the conference neophytes among us, I’ve invited three friends to shed light on the panels, the people, and the parties: Geeta Kothari, Fiction Editor at The Kenyon Review and Writing Center Director and Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh; Justin Bigos, a poet and alumni of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers; and Neela Banerjee, co-editor of Indivisible, journalist, and activist.
With “book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings” for its thousands of attendees, the conference, commonly called “AWP,” is indisputably one of the largest American literary gatherings. Geeta, Justin, and Neela have not only survived the madness during previous conferences, they plan to go back in February 2011 for more. Geeta has attended AWP several times, and Justin and Neela attended for the first time last year, in Denver.
What did you expect when you first attended the conference?
NB: I was pretty nervous since so many people said it was overwhelming and they couldn’t hack it again/anymore, etc. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
JB: I went to my first AWP last year, in Denver. I didn’t know what to expect beyond a mass of creative writers packed into some fancy hotel. I had downloaded the schedule and circled panels and readings I wanted to go to, but wasn’t sure what they’d be like. I’d been to a fancy hotel conference for developmental education when I worked as a full-time tutor in NYC, and it was BORING. So I guess I had bad associations with conference rooms in hotels, which are one of the uglier manmade inventions. Poetry didn’t seem to belong near faux-wood paneling and soul-dimming lighting. (But, of course, poetry belongs everywhere.)
Did your AWP experiences meet your expectations? How were the panels?
GK: It’s very cool to pooh-pooh the panels, but I actually find some of them interesting and informative. The key is to be selective and know when to cut your losses–just leave if it’s a waste of time.
JB: The conference was much, much better than I thought it would be. I was worried about sycophantic displays and bad breath, but there was only some of that. The panels were fantastic, especially the ones on applying to PhD programs (very useful), translating erotic poetry (thrilling), and writing anti-war poetry (disturbing, in the best sense of the word). I loved, too, seeing Tony Hoagland and Donald Revell verbally spar over what poetry is and could or should be in our present moment and beyond. I thought it was a nice mixture of affectionate and contentious, theater and real sit-down man-to-man talk. (I seem to be the only one who thinks Tony won, but whatever.)
NB: My expectations were WAY exceeded because it was so fun to be actually launching our poetry anthology there, so I was able to network around that — as well as meet anthology contributors we had never met before. I also really scoured the Bookfair in order to try and interact with editors who I felt like my work might resonate with. I also was excited to see quite a few panels on teaching writing in community settings– I have some experience teaching writing to incarcerated youth– and wasn’t expecting this other part of my writing life to be fulfilled. Plus, the scene at the hotel bar at all hours of the day and night was just hilarious.
What was it like to participate in a panel?
NB: The co-editors and I launched Indivisible there in Denver last year. We had heard that you need to make a splash in order to get people to your events, and so we decided to play up the cultural stereotypes and don saris and play some “ethnic” music, while handing out flyers for our book and our panel. Well, we chickened out a bit about the saris, but we wore kurtas and I had a little pocket, clip-on speaker blasting MIA (ethnic-enough)–and Pireeni, Summi and I hit the registration lines about 15 minutes before our event to drum up excitement. We got an interesting mixed reaction, with about 30 people enthusiastically taking the cards, 30 percent looking at us semi-amused, and 30 percent ignoring us. There were about 10 percent or less who seemed disgusted at our abashed self-promotion, which is a kind of a funny mix of the make-up of what you get at AWP anyway–the literary journal booth with a print out mailing list and the one giving away free shots of Patron and cowboy hats. All in all, it was a good experience and I definitely saw some of the people in our panel reading where we were able to successfully launch our book, and that’s all that mattered in the end.
Any general advice about how to approach the conference? Any DOs or DON’Ts for first time attendees?
GK: There’s a lot of networking and star gazing that goes on, and for someone who is coming in without a posse or pack, the experience can be alienating. So be prepared and don’t put pressure on yourself to meet important people and “make connections.” I have one friend who is so anxious about meeting the right people that going out with her becomes a chore; she can’t commit to anything, and then once she’s out with you, she spends so much time looking around and wondering if she should be sitting with that other group, it just isn’t fun. When I used to go to AWP and didn’t know anyone, I just went to panels and talked to people I met randomly. I sometimes went up to panelists and thanked them. I also spent (and still do) time at the Bookfair, not trying to meet editors but just looking and chatting to whoever crossed my path.
JB: I guess, DO have fun, and do plan your time since there’s so much to participate in. It’s inevitable that you’ll have to skip things because they’re planned at the same time as other events, or because you’re exhausted, or you end up losing track of time, etc.
Any thoughts on where to stay? At the main conference hotels, or off site?
GK: Despite the convenience of staying at the main hotel, I usually prefer off-site accommodation because it forces me to get fresh air and see a bit of the city. The main conference hotel is often noisy, understaffed, and uncomfortable. This year, the conference is in DC, so make time to go to a museum. Find a good Ethiopian or Indian restaurant. Get on the metro and go to a different neighborhood for dinner.
What were some of the best aspects of the conference? Worst?
JB: The best aspects were the seriousness and pleasure of the panels, the terrific readings, and the chance to meet up with friends from around the country. Also, seeing Denver for the first time was fun. The worst part was the unavoidable social anxiety; for example, running into someone you already caught up with, and then feeling like you needed to say something else.
NB: I think the best aspects are the huge amount of information, panels, etc — this also can be bad since it can be overwhelming to try and get to anything, everything you want to. Of course, it is schmoozey, but not in a terrible way and it can be avoided by sticking with friends.
Why go back?
JB: I’m going back this year because it’s close(ish), and I can stay with friends in DC. Money is very tight, so that was a big consideration. Also, the schedule promises many wonderful panels and readings. I’m particularly excited about a panel on the influence of Hitchcock on poets. I’ve already put eight Hitchcock films at the top of my Netflix list to prepare.
I’d say give it a shot, try it out. For me, it was a great experience. If it sucks, you at least get to see some friends and perhaps a new city.
Get the AWP Dance Party pass, or not?
JB: Didn’t go. Not a dancer. I’ve heard they’re fun. If I were single and raving drunk, I might go.
NB: A bunch of us ended up at the dance party on the last night of the conference, and it was like being at a big nerdy writer wedding. The dance floor was a small paneled square in the middle of a conference room and the DJ was playing “Shout” and then “Baby Got Back,” but everyone–20-year-old hipsters to 75-year-old couples–was unabashedly cutting the proverbial rug. I am actually sad that I only made it for 10 minutes.
Any other advice about how to make like a pro at AWP?
*Thanks to Geeta, Justin, and Neela for sharing their thoughts and experiences. (Now, go check out their related events at AWP and beyond! Details below.)
FOR WRITERS HEADED TO AWP/DC…
Thursday, February 3, 2011, Noon-1:15 p.m.
Curating Literature: Five Editors of Literary Anthologies Discuss their Process. (Ravi Shankar, Cole Swensen, Indivisible co-editor Pireeni Sundaralingam, Jeffrey Thomson, Jen Hofer)
Friday, February 4, 2011, 10:30 a.m.-11:45 a.m.
The Art of Rejection: Giving and Receiving. (Diana Raab, Wendy Call, Kevin Morgan Watson, Geeta Kothari, Molly Peacock, Philip F. Deaver)
Friday, February 4, 2011, 4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Don’t Call Me Mother. (Ellen Placey Wadey, Jan Beatty, Miki Howald, Geeta Kothari)
An Unroofed Church: Mountain Poems from Appalachia to Ancient China. A poetry workshop in Asheville, NC, with Justin Bigos and Lucy Tobin. 10-week class starting February 15, Tuesday evenings, 6:00-8:30. (PDF description)