Saturday, March 1, 2014

Days Two and Three at AWP Seattle: A Hallucinatory Experience

With The Story Prize event just days away, we're unable to attend this year's AWP Conference—the Association of Writers & Writing Programs' annual gathering. So we've enlisted Molly Reid, a Portland-based writer, to report from the goings on in Seattle. 

AWP Conference, Seattle, 2014: Days Two and Three

Writing advice with a smile at the One Story booth (P34)
(L-R: author Marie-Helene Bertino, someone else)
It’s morning, day three of the conference, and I am hung over. But not in the traditional sense. New ideas, old friends, epiphanies, readings, and okay a little alcohol—combine to create a brand new kind of vertigo. There is a zombie quality now to the escalator throngs. The sort of daze that arrives after so much engagement. Everyone is ruffled at this point. Only Chang-rae Lee still looks dapper (at least as far as I could tell—he was on the other side of the bar surrounded by friends and fans).
After listening to people talk about novel structure and character-driven plot and the pure messy magic of ink, I realize I trust them, these panelists: They choose their words with such care. They say what I’ve thought but haven’t been able to articulate and also what I’ve never thought but is so true it’s accompanied by ache. Sure there are duds in the bunch, and standing-room only out the door at some panels (I was squeezed out of “Magic and the Intellect” with Rikki Ducornet, which I have a feeling would have changed my life), but I for one still feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. There is a genuine attempt to gather failure and success and impart something.    

One thing that’s great about AWP is that people don’t come to bag an agent or impress an editor, which makes it easier to see that there is such authentic warmth and support. People spend all day going to panels and manning tables at the book fair, and then they spend all night going to readings to hear people they love and those they admire and some they’ve never heard of read their work. Voluntarily. Exhausted. Hungry. They go, and they listen intently, and they clap and holler.

Literary journals host readings of the coolest writers you’ve never heard of, and their juxtaposition—these writers who live all over the country and are rarely in the same place at the same time—creates a lovely hallucinatory experience. At The Southern Humanities Review/Carolina Wren Press reading last night, a woman read an essay about a lucky dress worn to her husband’s surgery. This was immediately followed by a poet’s image of a man giving CPR to a lady gorilla. Another poet talked about the cities we build inside ourselves. Someone read from a novel about a Cuban-American family’s struggle with dreams and expectations.

As the night goes on, there is an exodus, as writers are kicked out of one place and move onto another, searching for one last piece of goodness, brilliance, laughter—from the bar to the Elliott Bay Book Company to the Hugo House, back to the bar. The Hugo House is so crowded the reading is piped in to the other rooms like commands from a submarine captain you can’t see.

Hint: His name rhymes with AWP
But it’s our submarine. We are the ones manning this ship—is it heading to the rocks, or open water? (Sorry about that metaphor, but I went to a panel yesterday called “From Sea to Sea: Poets on the Power of Water” and everything’s running together, in a good way.)
     —Molly Reid