Letters from AWP: Re-Entry Is Hard

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.

Letters from AWP: The Writer’s Life in Portland


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.

Then, 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.