Sunday, February 13, 2011

There Will Be Canvas Bags: AWP 2011 in DC

We brought four civilians to AWP in DC. We stood outside the doors of the Marriott and prepped them. "Now, we just want you to be prepared for what's inside. You are going to see a lot of glasses. About a 3 to 1 ratio. Mostly thick, black-rimmed glasses. RayBan preferred. You are going to see so many pashminas, you're going to feel like a New York City street vendor cart blew up and its merchandise landed on everybody's neck. There will be book bags and canvas bags and messenger bags and they all will be full of books. These people are awkward, always staring at their bookfair map or their AWP programs or the man with the corduroy suit with patches on his elbows--is that Robert Bly? So you are going to get hit with these maps (ouch! papercuts), these programs, and the sour smell of sweaty armpits because all these kids hate crowds.

"Why would your put yourself through all that torture?" the civilians ask.

And we, MFA candidates, answer, "Duh, because it's AW-fricken-P."

AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, hosts an annual conference filled with readings, panels, and the infamous bookfair. Every year, thousands of word lovers trek the country to attend this four day event. West Virginia University is one of the sponsors and sent some lucky MFAers to represent. We asked these lucky MFAers what their AWP experience was like beyond the initial shock of thousands of writers emerging from hermitage. These are their responses:

Kelly Sundberg on the book fair and rubbing elbows: "I brought home 2 bags full of books, and I don't regret a dime of it . . . Personal Highlights? Well, buying my friend, Alan Heathcock's book, Volt, from the Graywolf booth at the bookfair, talking to Pam Houston about living in the West, meeting Benjamin Percy in line at the coffee shop, [and] talking to editors (and fellow MFA students) from the Black Warrior Review at the Black Squirrel over a pint."

Heather Frese on panels and pimping her working book: "I . . . went to some great panels on first-time publishing, travel writing, and fashion writing, because, yes, I'm just that girly . . . I also got to meet with an agent for 10 minutes, and I'm eternally grateful to Shane [Stricker], Ben [Bishop], and Micah [Holmes], who calmed me down beforehand by telling me anecdotes of goats on the highway."

Shane Stricker on maintaining and forging friendships with people in high places: "I would say the highlights of my trip were catching up with my editor from BkMk Press in Kansas City, meeting Kelly Cherry whose book, Girl in a Library, I worked so hard on (even extending my internship to try and finish it), officially meeting Jim Clark from Greensboro (who has been so very nice to me over the last few years for reasons I can't explain), [and] spending too much money at the bookfair . . . All in all, I had a wonderful time."

And we, too, had a wonderful time, Shane! We got the chance to attend the Keynote Address by Jhumpa Lahiri (Jhumpa Lahiri!). She reminded us to ignore the statistics and the familial urges to get a "real job" and to write, write, write ourselves into being writers. We also attended Junot Diaz's reading. The man, Junot Diaz, kept it real with a "snuggie draft" (a draft that you know is cute but unfinished) and a short story, "Alma," which is in the second person. Man, we love the "you" perspective!

All in all, we all had a great time and if we scared you too much with tales of armies of canvas bags and anxiety bursting out of skinny jeans, you at least have to join us in Chicago next year to get yourself a "Write like a Motherf*er" coffee (or tea) mug--whichever your poison.

PS Kelly Sundberg attended a panel, "Agents and Authors Share Strategies for Falling in Literary Love." She took notes on finding the agent that's right for your book. She has offered up her notes for anyone who is interested. Thanks, Kelly!

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