What I Did at AWP

Two and a Half Panels are More Than Enough

Well, the annual conference for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) is over, and 15,000 of us are returning home to detox and hide in pillow forts. This week, thousands and thousands of emails will go out with the phrase “remember me?” in them. In a few months, articles, essays, and stories will pour into the world as a consequence of AWP connections. Lives and careers will change. Presses and magazines will enjoy an injection of cash and submissions. Writers will sigh in relief that it’s not yet time to propose panels for next year.

My own good news is that Vulture beat me to the byline on an AWP wrap-up. I’m glad they did, because they covered panels I kind of wanted to see but avoided because I guessed they’d be packed. That was kind of how I did AWP this year: avoiding things I ought to have done. Mainly, I walked between and around the hundreds of tables set up in the enormous, exceedingly dry, badly wifi-ed exhibition hall at the Oregon Convention Center, AKA “the book fair.” I greeted writers and editors and publicists. I picked up books and put them down again. I refrained many times from saying “I reviewed that,” and “I don’t have time to review that.” I gave and got a thousand hugs, passed out thirty-five business cards, finally met Michael J. Seidlinger, and said the most awkward possible sentence to Joanna C. Valente.

In 2016, I attended my first AWP, when it occurred in Los Angeles (where I live). I met friends who live in other cities, drank too much at a dance party, wrote an essay out of a ridiculous experience at the Standard Hotel, and felt no pressure to do anything in particular. Though I had big goals for attending panels, I attended only two and a half.

I really wanted to do AWP like that again in 2019. Consultation with other writers told me that wandering around the book fair is a great deal more fun, and constitutes a lot more useful networking and information-gathering, than attending panels. But I have a book coming next year, and my career has totally changed shape since 2016, so I felt a lot more pressure. Plus, my editor asked me to do this write-up about the conference, the one you’re reading right now, so I felt bad about avoiding panels altogether.

There were hundreds. The list took me hours to weed through, and I still wound up with three per time slot, on average, that interested me. This is too many panels, AWP. Way, way too many. Ultimately I went to two, and sat outside another. The two I attended took place on Wednesday morning and Saturday afternoon, bookending the days of the conference.

The Wednesday one regarded books in translation, and included my friend Chad Post of Open Letter Books, Rachael Small of Europa Editions, Milena Deleva of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, Elisabeth Jaquette of the American Literary Translators Association, and a man I couldn’t identify (panels need name cards, AWP!). Chad talked about the ever-dismal statistics on translated books and proposed a specifically translation-oriented bestseller list, which would help translated works turn a new corner in the US in terms of publicity and marketing. The panelists also talked about activism, popularizing books from diasporas and areas other than Europe already, the pain of a breakout author who jumps ship for a larger press, and the lack of a cohesive database of translation statistics aside from the one Chad created basically by himself. The panel, useful and lively, justified my critical interest in books in translation.

The other was about book criticism. It included Jane Ciabattari, a powerhouse in the world of book criticism; Ismail Muhammad and Hope Wabuke, two alumni of the National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics program; and Oscar Villalon, a very experienced critic and an entertaining speaker. Kate Tuttle, the former president of the NBCC, moderated.

Instead of having a conversation, each panelist spoke a little bit about their perspective on the current state of book criticism and where they see it going in the future. Christian Lorentzen’s piece on book reviews at Harper’s (which I found incomprehensible, but which has generated a lot of conversation among book critics) came up. Audience questions were unfortunately narcissistic and off-topic, except the one I asked. It was a good panel, but kind of uneventful.

Vulture covered the one I sat outside of: Saturday’s memoir panel with Sophia Shalmiyev, Chris Kraus, Melissa Febos, Nastashia Minto (in for Kiese Laymon), and Lacy Johnson. The room was jam-packed, demonstrating the one lesson I found most heartening at this AWP: there is absolutely no shortage of interest in women’s writing, particularly women’s memoir.

I also noted that after a series of public failures, AWP seems intent on making the conference easier to navigate for disabled folks, writers of color, and writers with nontraditional gender presentation. As I’m in none of those categories, I don’t know if AWP succeeded at this goal. But I definitely got a lot of emails about accessibility, and the panels appeared to be diverse without leaning on tokenism. However, although the OCC had a lactation room, AWP did not make childcare available. This meant lots of kids wandering around and babes in arms, and it prevented a lot of attendance (in my circles, anyway).

It was immediately obvious which booths were prepared for the AWP experience and which were not. Some organizations had attention-getting displays, designed to make people interact with the table (Barrelhouse had a spin-the-wheel-and-win-a-prize setup), while others just piled their books up and hoped for the best. California College of the Arts’s booth had a small carpet in its center, which soothed tired feet just a bit. A group for poets decked its booth out like a fortune-teller’s. But I never saw a person behind Ninebark Press’s table, and other magazines sent strangely unfriendly representatives to man their booths.

Still, almost everyone I talked to was enthusiastic and friendly. And the sense pervaded the conference that, as a writer, AWP is the time and place to let out your weirdest, most passionate self. It’s hard to write alone, though it’s how most writing takes place. AWP is proof that although we’re all alone in the task, we are legion in accomplishing it.

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Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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