AWP – that annual mega writing conference that some abhor and others adore, or at least like well enough to attend when they can and feel a pang of regret when they can’t. I last attended in 2019 in Portland, canceled my plans for 2020 in San Antonio as the pandemic loomed, and tuned in to a few sessions when the conference went virtual in 2021. For 2022, with the possibility that the conference would be an in-person, masked, vaccination-required event, I submitted two proposals and both were accepted. The show did go on, with hybrid panels allowed for speakers who preferred to appear virtually rather than in person. A three-day conference is bound to yield its moments. Here are some from my AWP 2022.
Poets have the best ideas
I sat next to poet Katharine Whitcomb while waiting to board the Seattle writer plane to Philadelphia. As we watched the first-class passengers line up for their big, plushy seats, Kathy grimly commented on the capitalist hierarchy of plane travel. She proposed a different hierarchy: writers first. I’m on board for that. Who else would like to hear this announcement from the gate agent on their next flight? “We would like to invite the creative-class passengers to board first for the best seats. All other passengers please step aside.”
Thursday, Conference Day 1
I love it when impostor syndrome means one well-known writer offers her identity in support of another well-known writer. The inimitable and (recognizable) Sam Chang arrived for our Thursday morning panel wearing the name tag of another writer. Sam’s plane had landed past midnight and with two early back-to-back panels, she had no time to register and receive her proper nametag. So the notable writer and director of the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop came wearing the loaned name tag of notable writer Jean Kwok.
The real deal
Sam Chang was the marquee name on my panel called “Writing Young Protagonists: YA or A and Who Decides?” and, wow, she was good. But so were Jessica Barksdale Inclán, Amanda Floresca, and Leslie Pietrzyk. All these women were articulate, thoughtful, and informative in their contributions to the conversation, which was natural and easy-flowing and laced with humor and goodwill. We were in a big, double room with lots and lots of chairs, and most of those chairs were filled. The energy was real, folks. We were real.
How to lose your publisher
Look in the wrong place at the book fair. Try again later and look in the wrong place again. Finally, recheck the exhibitor list and accompanying map and realize you were doggedly looking on the wrong side of the concourse.
It was great to meet (in person!) Elizabeth Earley of Jaded Ibis Press, publisher of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. I also found the Blair/Carolina Wren Press table, publisher of my previous book Hola and Goodbye. Thank you, Robin Miura! Yay for small presses!
How to get lost with a poet
Poet Claudia Castro Luna and I were going to get food. It was simple to get to the restaurant. We each had our phones out, map on the screen, the arrows directing our steps, and we held them in front of us like a diving rod. And yet as we talked and walked, we would suddenly stop and wonder if we were going the right way and we would turn ourselves around and retrace our steps and do this a second time, making an incomplete loop as we turned left instead of right until our wandering seemed in error, so we about-faced and we heartily congratulated ourselves when we finally arrived. If poets have the best ideas (see above) for travel, do they also have a non-linear sense of direction?
The hotel on the wrong side of the convention center
After dinner, Claudia and I parted ways at her fancy conference hotel on vibrant Market Street, and I made my way through the tunnel past the homeless setting out their sleeping bags to the other side of the convention center to my not-even-close-to-fancy, serviceable conference hotel on the corner of Sketchy and Dark.
Note to self: Read the Yelp reviews. This one sums it up: “Just kinda sad.”
Note to AWP: This “conference hotel with AWP discount” was a total rip-off.
Friday, Conference Day 2
Beware of the single history
The sun beckoned, so I skipped the morning sessions and headed down Market Street toward 6th Street for a cursory look at our nation’s history. On the way, I passed Declaration House where Jefferson drafted that famous document. Those lofty ideals do stir the emotions. But how does one think of Jefferson without also thinking of Sally Hemings and the other slaves he owned? What is the history behind the history?
One of the afternoon sessions I attended was called “Wanting a Seat at the Table without Being Eaten Alive: The Elusivity of Success” with panelists Lee Ann Roripaugh, Nana-Ama Danquah, Jan Beatty, Allison Adele Hedge Coke who talked about how the mainstream marketplace “fetishizes, tokenizes, sexualizes, and centralizes certain writers while erasing/overlooking others.” Do I need to tell you which writers are in the first category and which are in the second? No? Didn’t think so. They talked about how the table needs to be reset or changed altogether. Roripaugh said the table is “ill-prepared for us (the marginalized).” For the mid-to-late career female writer, she drew comparisons to Amy Schumer’s “the last fuckable day” sketch about the media’s role in determining when an actress is not believably fuckable anymore. She called its literary equivalent “the last publishable day.” Funny, huh? Nah. But that was the point.
Dinner with the smart and charming
It was fun running into people I hadn’t seen in ages or meeting them for the first time in real life as we stumbled upon each other in the bookfair and in the convention center corridors for brief hugs and hellos. But it was a special treat to spend time catching up as I did with the smart and charming Angie Chuang whom I met over ten years ago at VCCA. When you can walk a mile to the restaurant, leisurely eat a delicious meal, and walk the mile back to your hotel without a break in the conversation, that’s some delightful evening.
Angie’s work appears most recently in A Harp in the Stars, a collection of lyric essays written in four different forms—flash, segmented, braided, and hermit crab. Get it here.
Saturday, Conference Day 3
A room full of writers of color
Saturday was the last day of the conference when energy lags and attendance at sessions falls off a cliff. Luckily, the panel I organized on “Writing Our Whole Selves: Mixed Writers Challenge the Narrow Literary Landscape” took place mid-morning when die-hards were still game for more discourse. We had a full room and that gave us full hearts. What a thrill to see so many writers of color in one place. What an honor it was to be on a panel with Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, Aliah Lavonne Tigh, Jeni McFarland, and Dawn Pichón Barron. These women bring their own brand of fire to the table – our table. Not to burn it down as some ought to be (see Table scraps above), but to illuminate who we are and what we have to say. It was inspirational without ignoring the reality that the publishing industry often doesn’t know what to do with us, which can be infuriating and demoralizing. But Aliah reminded us, “Our culture is our medicine.” And in that room, we were a community and that’s medicine, too.
This panel was the best part of my day. Maybe the best part of my AWP 2022.
Just beer it
On my 7 am, five hour and forty-five-minute flight back to Seattle, the young woman next to me drank three beers, climbed over me three times to pee, then settled back for a nap with her elbow hanging over the armrest inches from my ribs. There is no way to nudge back an elbow when it’s connected to a three-beer-infused body. Just rolled my tired eyes and muttered beneath my mask. I’m ready for that writers-go-first-class boarding policy now.