On Saturday, I caught an early-morning train up to Boston and spent a lovely afternoon and evening at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. I was not a conference presenter; I was not a Bookfair exhibitor; I did not even register for the conference this year. But a wonderful (and generous) writer friend offered me a place to crash, so I decided to take advantage the event’s relative proximity to New York (and the complimentary Bookfair access granted to the public for Saturday only).
As always, the time I spent catching up with friends–including folks I’ve met through previous AWP conferences and typically see only in those settings–was the absolute best part of being there. But here are five other highlights from my whirlwind visit:
1) Strolling by the University of Pittsburgh Press booth in the Bookfair, I noticed a familiar face. This visage belonged Richard Blanco, Inaugural Poet extraordinaire, who was seated at a table signing a pile of chapbook editions of the poem he wrote for and read at President Obama’s second inauguration in January. I stopped and bought a copy, and, as you can see, Mr. Blanco graciously signed it.
2) I tried to exercise more restraint than usual in my purchases–never an easy feat at the Bookfair. But another impulse buy followed the Blanco chapbook: a (discounted) subscription to The Southern Review, a journal I’ve long admired but never previously subscribed to. (Bonus gift: a t-shirt.) I was able to take a copy of the current issue with me right away, and I’m eager to dig in and savor it.
3) Thanks to the excellent Bookfair map and exhibitor listings, I was able to plan a number of more purposeful booth and table stops as well. Early in the afternoon, I visited the SixOneSeven table, where I knew I was likely to find Douglas Trevor (SixOneSeven is publishing his new novel this spring). Now we won’t be strangers when we (and Sheri Joseph) meet again in May, at Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace conference. Our session, “The Grubbie Guide to Writing Contests, Conferences and Residencies,” still has some spaces left, so if you’d like to join us in Boston on May 5, please do!
4) Also on my priority list: an in-person conversation with Wayne Ude, who directs the Whidbey Writers Workshop Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA). And that meeting, too, took place in the Bookfair, at the NILA table. We’ll meet again this summer, when I’ll be a visiting instructor for the MFA program’s August residency. (No, I wasn’t hired on the spot! We’ve been corresponding for quite some time. I’m already looking forward to my August sessions–more on this to come in due course.)
5) My agenda for the afternoon also included a meeting with Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Online Editor, Jane Friedman. Like many of you, I’ve been following Jane’s sage commentary on writing and publishing for quite awhile. So I noticed when she offered to schedule “speed dates” with writers to discuss possible assignments. Despite the fact that our meeting was one of the last few that she’d arranged, she was unflaggingly welcoming and interested in everything that I had to say. (And yes, you can expect a piece with my byline to appear on the VQR site later in the spring.)
As you can see, it was time spent both productively and pleasantly. I’m so glad that I made the (quick) trip. But the conference has received some criticism, too. To wit: Porter Anderson’s critique. Some valid points there. Overcrowded session rooms have long been a problem at this conference (note that I didn’t attend a single session this go-round; I, too, am far less enthused these days about the typical roster of session offerings and the typical under-preparation of too many panelists). But we’ve come a long way since AWP’s smoke-filled, claustrophobic conference hotels and bars (cough, New Orleans in 2002; cough, Chicago in 2004), baby. Smoke-free settings in comparatively spacious conference/convention centers (maybe it was the fact that I was there on the conference’s last day, but I faced NO restroom lines whatsoever) will make me grateful to AWP for quite some time to come.