A Retrospective from a (Former) AWP Virgin
By Jeremy Benson
1. Is this happening?
To condense the entire three-day conference into a single word: gelatinous. I mean my experience. I mean, between winter weather jet-lag and the morning-aftertaste of PBR, there was a state of hazy shock very much like walking through Jell-O.
I first entered the Wardman Park Marriot from its rear entrance, the Omni Shoreham side, so perhaps the mental fog started when I had to take the elevator up to get to the lobby. And there I found just a casual amount of people walking around. It was Thursday afternoon already, and although the registration line was long and getting longer, I had no real idea of the size of the conference.
…That is, until I stepped into the exhibition hall lobby, with escalators churning upwards and down, and people people people pouring from every door and hallway, walking, talking, laughing—I swallowed a breath. Like a too-long montage in an epic film, I stumbled through the bustling room, dizzy and out-of-it, full of slack-jawed wonder and fear.
Sure, the weekend sported enough hair-of-the-dog and hotel room coffee to replace Four Loko’s market share—but mostly, there was before me a staggering amount of concepts to consider, people to schmooze (people to watch), books to browse. It was sensory overload.
It reminds me of the first weeks of college, when all I could answer to "how are you?" was "I don't know." Indeed, "are you okay?" was also frequently asked. The answer:
So, this is AWP.
2. What do you write?
When I’m not editing mag reviews, I work in retail, where I manage to stay self-amused, if not sane, by turning small-talk into a creative writing game. Can I go a whole shift without using the battered phrase "Can I help you find anything?" or mentioning the weather? (I've said some pretty ridiculous things as people walk in the door.) But I got to say, having the exact same conversation with 142 writers over a period of three days really knocks the wind out of my creative conversing abilities.
I forget what it is I write, exactly. The times I do remember, the answer is too complex for a thirty-second meet-&-greet outside the men's restroom.
Sometime Friday afternoon Margaret von Steinen from the Prague Summer Program asked me, "How's your writing going since Prague?" I relayed the idea that although I've always described myself as a poet, recently my prose has been much better. She said, maybe you should stop worrying about what you call yourself and just write.
3. What will happen to print?
I think I heard something about this during every panel I listened to. My notes are filled with doomsday doodles.
Are we really still having this conversation? As Ned Stuckey-French put it during his panel on digital essays, "I think the cow's out of the barn." And if I may extend his metaphor into the organic food movement, the cow is loving every minute of it: no longer needing daily injections of steroids and antibiotics, now free to feed on living matter rather than the brains of dead cows.
Feel free to tack on whatever political meaning you'd like to that—what I mean is that writers are thriving in the new environment, without dismantling too much of the old. Discussing the 25-word story, Michael Martone reminded the room that what we now know as the typical story was first experimental. His co-panelist Daniel Olivas pointed out that haiku, and its formal rules, was once avant garde.
Video killed the radio star, and Gutenberg killed the troubadours. Yet we still listen to the radio, and the formalists among us still attempt to write and recite sestinas. Every technological, philosophical, or cultural advancement has somehow revolutionized how we interact with our craft, adding newer dimensions without stripping any.
Though the revolution is rarely peaceful, language goes on. And on. And on.
4. Did you see that guy with the mullet wearing the women’s pants
ripped Harley-Davison shirt?
Dude, I know!
My friends and I showed up minutes too late for the Flatmancrooked with Dzanc/Featherproof/Barrelhouse/Hobart off-site reading, “the Literati Gong Show,” and found, as we took a seat anyway, condoms littered across the wood floors of Madam’s Organ. I’m pretty sure one of those organizations was distributing the condoms at the book fair, too, which was a great, necessary service to conference attendees:
As with any species, if you have a large enough population of poets in the wild—that is, at least two, or one with a dirty mind—then sooner or later they will get the idea to spawn.
This idea is actually why most of us write in the first place, and why about a fourth of us attend the conference at all.
The late Jack Myers met Thea Temple at the 1993 conference (so she told, as we gathered to remember Jack’s poetry and life in the Thurgood Marshall room on Saturday afternoon); six months later they were married, and together they happily gamboled (and gambled) until his passing in November 2009.
Of course, not all AWP romances have that happy of an ending, nor are meant to. Sometimes an essayist approaches a poet only to say, "let's do this" and they write a piece of flash fiction behind a well-used door-hanger. Sometimes it's just enough to flirt, to slip your wedding ring into your back pocket, take a swig of G&T and tell that PYT she has the best hair on a writer since Robert Olen Butler. She will laugh, because it's a good ironic joke, and because she's noticed your ring has gone missing.
Just remember: it's a fool who puts stock into looks and whispers traded in a dark corner of a dark bar. The market on stolen bisous is a fragile bubble.
6. What are you up to tonight?
I was flattered that such-and-such magazine had sent their private messenger to the NewPages table to invite me, humble me, to their super secret off-site reading, until I saw the guy stopping at every single table and booth, and on to that counter in the registration lobby where everyone was dumping their swag.
Gina Myers, my NewPages co-editor, friend, and personal AWP cultural liaison, put conference nightlife to me like this: “Some people have a plan, but I like to just wait and see where I end up.”
We ended up breaking fire codes with Annalema, PANK and Mud Luscious (kind of a lie. We opened the door, got a taste of claustrophobia, grimaced and turned), before blocking the view and sweating buckets while hearing great poetry at the Cleveland State reading, and then, finally, watching some old guy karaoke to an unfamiliar Lady Gaga tune, which was exactly as surreal and nightmarish as you’d think.
There is nothing quite like drowning yourself in aural verse with a Budweiser chaser. Three hours of off-site readings and soon your brain starts to compose all its thought with well-enjambed line breaks and allusions to Yeats and the Power Rangers. It’s a beautiful space to be in at the end of the night.
Maybe it’s my romanticization of American Graffiti, Rebel Without a Cause and other films where the night never ends, but honestly, my favorite AWP evenings were the ones that didn’t involve a reading. Instead, I found myself at a townie bar with a group of strangers who were quickly becoming good friends, the dark streets rolling out before us like a good idea.
7. a and b. Jeremy? You!?
I apologize to Peter, Matt, and anyone else whom I ran into unexpectedly and told that I’d meet up with later but did not follow through. It boggles my mind that I only saw you once, or, never saw you at all. It wasn’t that big of a place, was it?
8. How was your conference…experience?
(…asked the woman in the van on the way to BWI Sunday morning. Not 10 minutes prior, I had led our geriatric shuttle-driver through the Marriott-Wardman’s many lobbies and circle drives, to find the van he had misplaced. He wasn’t much better on the road; observing him shake his head from mirror to GPS and back was muscle-clenching. Did he ever look at the actual road? No wonder he still missed his turns.)
9. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
My advice to writers? Go to AWP at least once.
There are the usual fringe benefits. You get this expensive-looking lanyard that you could reuse again and again. You have an excuse to visit somewhere new, and an opportunity to wear your “I’m Famous at AWP” shirt you ordered from Barrelhouse. Did I mention the magnets and bags, and the deeply discounted books and magazines on Saturday afternoon? And afterward, you can get into arguments with your writer friends who think AWP’s not worth it, which they say because they feel left out and envious—obviously.
You can tell them that besides juicy gossip about your favorite literary stars and the chance to hear Kay Ryan live, AWP offers a core sample of the greater writing strata beyond anything your desk or Wikipedia can provide.
It’s curious how things—whether a flock of turkeys, Flatland, the world of model trains, or whatever—deepen and fill out the more you study them. There are whole groups of people committing their lives to hobbies that you’ve never heard of, each with vast lexicons and intricate physics. Worlds within worlds within worlds.
Despite running into long lost workshop buddies as I strolled down “Table X,” the world is not so small. Even writing, although we all generally know how to talk and write about it, opens up. At 8:45 Saturday, as I sat on the mezzanine, waiting for my panel to start, I met a woman who writes a lot of war poetry—a world on its own—and a lot of poetry about her Acadian ancestry. Acadian-American poetry! She’s just about carving out her own niche market.
Robert Bly wrote, “That’s alright, but there’s another way as well.” For the glimpse outside of your immediate walls and network, to notice how other writers approach our craft with its many Ways, the AWP conference is worth every penny.
On Sunday, after sleeping for 2 hours, traveling 6, working 5, and eating for 1, I slept, finally, for 14, my mind busily creating the entire time, and ever since.
Jeremy Benson writes stories, poems, criticism and letters. Some have appeared in H_NGM_N, 360 Main Street, Right Hand Waving, and The Collagist. He is the Literary Magazine Review Editor for NewPages.com.
Posted February 23, 2011