Letters from AWP: Re-Entry Is Hard

April 1, 2019 | 3 min read

AWP 2019 is done.  The tweets tell the tales, from a fish that got into the hotel minibar, to many pictures of people I don’t know posing together, to the surest evidence that a literary conference has just taken place: tote bags.  There are also, of course, many photos of many people’s book fair spoils, books splayed out before a smartphone’s eager eye.  I search these photos for evidence that someone has purchased my books and find none.  But the sort of reader that buys my books doesn’t take pictures, I’m sure. “My hope is vague,” as Richard Hugo wrote, but also strong.

There are also many photographs featuring donuts, for which Portland is apparently famous.  I ate one.  It was really good.

I bought a bunch of awesome books at the book fair. Here is a picture of them. I’m thinking of posting a tweet with the same picture that says, “Here are the awesome books I bought at the book fair.“  I wish I had also taken a picture of some of the food that I ate so that I could tweet a picture of that too. But I forgot. Anyway, here are the results of a Google image search for “Food”; feel free to imagine me eating any of this in Portland.

This year’s conference was much mellower than any I have ever attended. The book fair, which is usually as hectic and pushy as a New York City subway station, was relaxed, even friendly.  People seemed to be really into the panels, concentrating hard. The hotel bars, which have always been packed, writers smashed up against the bar like the superfans pressed against the stage at a concert, weren’t crowded at night. All of this may have had something to do with the fact that recreational marijuana is legal in Portland.

Do I sound bleary and confused?  Does this report sort of fail, in Ezra Pound’s famous figuration, to “cohere”?  Well, after years as an AWP-goer, I’ve come to think that this is the quintessence of the AWP experience, a kind of soul-deep sense of overwhelm, a splash of images and sounds, half-yelled how-are-you’s, thousands of colorful rectangles, and more emotions than anyone has the bandwidth to feel.

As I walked around the book fair—my brain filling with fog, the bags under my eyes growing heavy with whatever it is that fills up eye-bags—I kept thinking to myself, and saying to friends I bumped into, “I became a poet because I like to stay home. This is the opposite of that.”  And it now strikes me that this is the contradiction at the heart of AWP: we gather together once a year to celebrate a series of wholly interior art forms.  We read books in order to commune with the voices of those with whom we cannot actually commune. We nestle deep under the covers or bury our faces behind books on our commutes.  We sit in comfy chairs and pretend that time isn’t passing all around us.  We are, many of us, the kind of people who are exhausted by people.  We read in order to recharge from the hours we spend not reading.  We would rather be alone, and we come to AWP to hang out with other people who would also rather be alone.

And yet, we are also the kind of people who started spending so much time reading because we couldn’t find people we enjoyed talking to in our families, our schools, our hometowns, our hemispheres, our languages.  We went to MFA programs because we were mostly bored talking about anything but novels, poems, or the mechanics of braided essays.  And it turns out that, as is the case with many varieties of weirdos, there is a conference for us, a place where only the kind of people we like are gathering.

And so, reentry is difficult.  It’s back to spreadsheets, curriculum committees, submitting expense reports, crafting memos no one will read, and retreating at the end of the day to our comfy chairs to recharge as well as we can before it all starts again tomorrow.

I would not call AWP a vacation—it’s so tiring, but perhaps that is the nature of vacations.  It is a pilgrimage, a journey to the best and worst of what it means to a contemporary American writer, where ambition and community collide and eat donuts; where writers sit at tables and attend panels until their eyes liquify, and then talk books until dawn; where tote bags are born.  Every year I tell myself I’ll never go again; every year, I go.

Image Credit: Pexles.

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

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