The Secret Lives of Poets: Dispatches from AWP

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The first time I attended AWP — the annual conference of creative writing programs, literary magazines, pale-skinned mole people (here on out referred to colloquially as “writers”), and, at least this year, a surprising number of people who appeared to have been left over from a plushy convention — it was by accident. It was 2001 and the conference was being held in Palm Springs, my hometown, at a hotel where as a teenager in the 1980s I’d worked by the pool handing out towels and stealing things, and which also hosted my high school’s Senior Prom (theme: Forever Young) and Career Day (theme: Why The Military Might Be a Good Option!). A friend of mine was presenting at the conference, so I figured what the hell, I’d pop in. There was a book fair in the Grand Ballroom — where I’d drunkenly slow-danced to “Eternal Flame” and where I learned about how I might make a damn fine Marine — but by the time I got there, it was half-filled with a bunch of tables representing literary magazines and universities and maybe 200 people were milling about. It had rained earlier in the day and everyone was complaining about that and the small earthquake that had hit. An earthquake in California. Who could imagine?

I hadn’t registered for the conference, because I didn’t know what the hell it was, and because I was just meeting my friend, but no one seemed to notice or care, so I milled around the ballroom until I got bored, which happened swiftly, and then slipped into a mostly empty conference room where people were discussing the latest tech innovations in the literary world, which at the time basically meant people were talking about Eventually I wandered out to the pool area, partially in vain hope of running into my old boss, a gentleman named Tan Man who’d skipped town owing me $167 in suntan lotion sales commission 15 years earlier, and partially to avoid talking any further to a woman who kept trying to get me to buy her chapbook of poetry, and found it completely empty. I went back to the conference center, located the spot where I’d thrown up an entire strawberry wine cooler on a painting some years previous, located my friend and then learned that there was some kind of dance that night and that I could attend if I wanted to. I was informed of the following things: There would be dancing poets. They would likely play “It Takes Two” by Rob Base. A literary lion would end up having regrettable sex with someone half their age.

I opted to go home.

This year, the conference was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, a complex that apparently was designed to remind people of what it might be like if a SuperMax prison and a Chico’s had a baby, and the book fair was held in three cavernous exhibit halls which were packed, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. each day, with well over 10,000 people. There were something like 932 different panels — my favorites: “P.U.P: Poets in Unexpected Places,” which truly is filled with possibilities, but which usually ends up with “not in bed with an undergrad,” and the oddly specific “1963: 50 Years Later”– and there was no wandering into anything if you were unregistered, not with the phalanx of stone-faced security goons who stood guard over the entrances to everything checking lanyards. No roaming bands of thugs were going to walk out of the book fair with a stack of back issues of Brain, Child. Not with their teeth still in their mouth, anyway.

I had a booth at the conference this year, as I have for the last several years, promoting the graduate school in creative writing I’m in charge of, which gave me an excellent chance to interact with the masses. (I also was forced to attend several off-site events with said masses, because once you become a professional writer, and then all of your friends become writers, you’re expected to both give readings and attend other people’s readings, even though not a single person over the age of five likes to be read to for more than about four minutes, and even then it’s a fucking stretch, but the social convention of being a writer suggests that we all are supposed to like these fucking things, and so we all go, and we all complain, and we all text while people are reading, even the people we like, but mostly when the people we don’t know start to read their bad mother poetry [which is any poem that contains the word “mother” in it, because no poem with the word “mother” in it is about how much they love their mothers, because if they loved their mothers, god, they wouldn’t be so fucking sad all the time], well, that’s when it gets vicious.) During these interactions, I was able to glean some important information about the American literary landscape, human behavior, and the secret lives of poets, which I provide to you now as a public service:

1. Whereas last year the young asexual crowd was lousy with bowties and handlebar mustaches, this year it was as if they were all LARPing a cross-over episode of Dr. Who and The Grapes of Wrath: dusty old cardigans, scraggly beards, suspenders, hats, old sport coats, long stares into the great middle distance, a general countenance that suggested the color brown, the far off wisdom that time is just a social construct, a tendency to clutch one’s messenger bag to one’s chest with the lost kind of forlornness that only arrives when one begins to see the raw truth that one’s thesis isn’t going to get approved. The preponderance of strange beards — it was difficult to ascertain if they were countryman beards, hipster beards, or sexual reassignment beards, which complicated the issue — suggested that the Grapes of Wrath were morphing into more of a Game of Thrones vibe in many cases, but also gave the attendees a feral appearance, as if they were already firmly entrenched in the midlist like the rest of us.

2. Apparently in Boston, it’s okay if a reading takes place in a subterranean bar that smells like human fecal matter. I feel this is true because I attended a reading at a subterranean bar that smelled of human fecal matter called the Cantab Lounge. To be fair, it also smelled like an animal of some size — like, maybe a bison — had also died somewhere inside the lounge and then human fecal matter was dumped on top of the poor beast. Oddly, in a room filled with highly perceptive people — if you’re attending a reading, you’re highly perceptive, because dull people wouldn’t even attempt to attend a reading — no one seemed all that concerned by the fact that we were literally standing inside of a toilet, which may have been because some excellent people were actually reading (my friends Rob Roberge and Jillian Lauren both read great, short pieces that involved grave robbing and sex, respectively, which is what readings should always contain: some stuff you’re interested in, delivered in an entertaining fashion, and with haste) or because they were just happy to be inside, since there was a blizzard outside. This also wasn’t a surprise: there’s always a blizzard or some other weather calamity at AWP, and yet every year people are surprised. It doesn’t help that most years the conference is held in a city prone to dreadful weather — Chicago and Washington, D.C. most recently, and soon in Minnesota and, if we’re lucky, maybe Medicine Hat. Frozen climes one can deal with. Hearing someone read an essay that uses the term “I digress” more than once, and each time with too much irony, while being suffocated by the fumes of a rotting animal and human shit, well, it’s a tough pill to swallow.

3. Writers, when forced together in a giant mob of anxiety, tend to act oddly. Like the man named Dan, who looked like a more professorial Gene Wilder, who accosted me about some graduate program that, he wanted me to know, was run by a “real asshole.” I tried to tell him that the program he was talking about had nothing to do with me, nor was it even at the same university, but he didn’t seem to care (or perhaps believe), and instead just continued to rant until I asked him if he recognized that he was acting particularly strange. He said yes. (It should be noted: I didn’t know his name at the time of this interaction, because when he came to accost me, he hid his nametag and when I asked him his name, he refused to tell me. Thankfully, my friend Sean witnessed the whole thing and spent the next several hours tracking the man through the conference and finally was able to procure his business card by using a third party as a decoy. Dan’s business card was even more unusual than he was, since it listed the names of authors he was shepherding toward publishing fame. I’m not even entirely sure it was a real card. I mean, the card was real. I have it here in front of me. But I don’t know if anything else about it was.)

4. If you offer food at your booth, weird people will come and talk to you.

Exhibit A:
Man: [piling through a bowl of candy] Do you have any bigger candy bars?
Me: No, just the miniatures.
Man: I’d like something to bring home to my children.
Me: So you’re going to bring home a candy bar?
Man: They’ll be excited I got it in Boston.
Me: But you could get a candy bar anywhere.
Man: [still piling through the candy] They love Hershey’s Kisses. Do you mind if I take some Kisses?
Me: I guess.
Man: [starts shoving Hershey’s Kisses into his pockets]
Me: They’re going to melt.
Man: What?
Me: The Kisses. They won’t make it home in your pockets. They’ll melt.
Man: Those aren’t for them. They love Kisses and that reminds me of them. These are for me.
Me: Oh. Okay. That makes perfect sense.
Man: Will you have different candy tomorrow?
Me: We’ll have meats and cheeses tomorrow. Come back. Make a sandwich for your kids.
Man: Oh, I will! Thanks!

Exhibit B:
Woman: [grabbing a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups] Where is this college?
Me: California.
Woman: Oh. I like California. I’ve never heard of this school. How would I get a job here?
Me: Where?
Woman: This school of yours.
Me: It’s not mine.
Woman: I’d love to work there.
Me: Fifteen seconds ago, you didn’t even know the school existed.
Woman: Just because I didn’t know it existed doesn’t mean I don’t want to work there.

5. There comes a time at every AWP conference where you realize that poets are just…different. This time, it was when I stumbled across what appeared to be a Bedouin poetry tent parked adjacent to the booth of the magazines A Public Space and Bomb and the publisher Soho Press. I poked my head into the tent, expecting one of those Bugs Bunny moments where an entire mansion would be hidden inside, but instead I found a darkened room where a man with a suspicious looking mustache was reading poetry to two women. There was a haunted-looking doll in one corner, several pillows that looked to have been stolen from the Sheraton in another, a battered suitcase, some blankets, and a smell that reminded me of dorm sex in the Bay Area circa 1992. The following conversation ensued between me and the gentleman with the mustache:

Me: Hey.
Mustache: Hi.
Me: What are you doing in here?
Mustache: Just reading some poetry to each other.
Me: Oh. Ah. Okay.
Mustache: [silence]
Me: [staring, trying to figure out how I’d aged so quickly, how time had become my enemy, how the idea of building a tent sounded pretty cool, actually, but not something I could conceive doing without irony, and then thinking how perhaps these fine people had no need for irony, that I was clearly the fucktard in this equation and that they were doing what made them happy and that my desire to mock was born out of my own shallow sense of self and, fuck, man, I needed to get back home to see a professional about these things]: Well, cool.

It was undeniably…odd…but you know what? It was also awesome. They’d come to a giant conference filled with people so fraught with professional jealousy that they can hardly enter a Barnes & Noble without a handful of Xanax (or, you know, will have professional jealousy in the near future if everything works according to plan) and they’d built a strange tent where they did their thing. It didn’t smell like fecal matter. No one seemed all that concerned about anything other than what they were reading. Not a bad place to hang out, really, with 10,000 of their closest friends.

Image courtesy of the author.