Letters from AWP: The Writer’s Life in Portland

March 29, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 3 min read

Attending the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference is like holding your wedding reception in the middle of your bar or bat mitzvah.  Everyone you have ever known—perhaps everyone you have ever met—is here, and they do not belong together.  Your ex from your MFA program is here.  So is that weird kid who never once talked during workshop.  Also here are the two children that the two of them have had together during their 15 years of happy marriage.  Also here is the person with whom you ceaselessly chat on Google Hangouts to pass the long hours of the workday at the job you have had for the 15 years since your MFA program ended.  It is nice to see that person, though it’s weird that they are corporeal.

Also present are 12,000 to 15,000 other people who self-identify as “writers,” some of them so young it’s impossible to imagine that they have yet learned how to ride a bike (though, with a smart phone, who needs a bike—why go anywhere?); some of them so old that it would make much more sense to see them on an isolated hilltop, wind blowing poetry through the few remaining wisps of their hair, than at the Portland Convention Center. This unfathomable population gives the lie to the long and preciously held idea that we, having chosen literature, are unique.

And yet, we share a practice—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, lyric essay, the serially composed poetic sequence, the novel in stories, the novel in verse, the braided essay, the stout and ridiculous prose poem—and that is undeniably beautiful.  Lined up end to and, the walkway made of our collective pages could lead us to the moons of Saturn, except that they are all PDFs; no one has printed them out, and no one ever will.

This is probably my sixth or seventh AWP since I began going a little more than a decade ago.  That first year, I was one among the throngs of eager new writers, clamoring for a glimpse of Nick Flynn, desperate to shake hands with the editor of the literary journal Pleiades, which had just published my first poem.  I was wide-eyed and hopeful, peering around the book fair in search of my future.

Indeed, I found it here.  This year, I come with several books to my name, with much less hair, grouchy, poignantly at the mercy of my skewed internal clock, which is still on East Coast time. It is basically dawn, and I am standing beside a smoker’s pole while my wife and daughter, who have been on the West Coast for 10 days, sleep soundly in our hotel room.  I am dictating this into my phone, swatting away the emails from coworkers that threaten to terminate this post prematurely and get me stressed about a bunch of problems I am too far away to help solve.  Later, I will desperately hunt down my writer friends who have also brought their children, in the hope that our children can play, so that we may have a few minutes of adult conversation before being asked for snacks. This, I fear, is the writer’s life.

Which is also to say, it is a good life, a surprisingly normal one.  Literature finds its place in the cracks of time between a job and a family, and I come here, rather than to that windswept hilltop, to commune with my fellow practitioners, visitors to the temple erected between pages of books.

I think I had more hilltops in mind when I first imagined my life “as a part of literature,” as my wife likes to say, but this is good too. Later this morning, we will have breakfast with a poet friend, then go have another breakfast with a couple, writers of fiction and middle grade books, and my daughter will play with their daughters, and we will talk about literature—maybe—between requests for snacks.

coverThen, on to the book fair, the wedding-bar mitzvah, where my eyes will grow puffy with a kind of soul-sucking joy.  Tomorrow morning, I will present on a panel on the theme of my recent book of essays: poetic development, how poets change.  Then, back to the book fair, followed by several dinners in quick succession, maybe a party or three, and then an early flight home Sunday morning, my soul retreating back to the margins of my life.

It’s weird, it’s overwhelming, and it is what I wished for: I live amongst writers, buried in books that I binge-buy once a year at AWP.  If you are here, I hope to see you.  I also hope you are wearing your conference name badge. If I cannot recall your name, please forgive me; I can barely remember my own.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jeff Hintzman.

is the author of several books of poem and the essay collection We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress.

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