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AWP is Burning Man for Writers
By Leah Mueller
“Oh, you’re going to AWP!” my friends said excitedly when I told them about my upcoming literary pilgrimage.
“Yeah, it’s like Burning Man for writers,” I responded. I was exaggerating a bit. Unlike Burning Man, AWP doesn’t happen in a dry lakebed filled with sand fleas. The conference is held in a different city every year, within the semi-posh confines of convention centers and upscale chain hotels.
Writers of all disciplines roam from workshop to workshop, then drink their brains out at after-hours parties. The purpose of this madness is to jump-start creativity and get folks to sign up for pricey retreats and MFA programs. Not necessarily in that order, of course.
I’m an outsider in every sense of the word—a 60-year-old female, without an advanced educational degree. At age 41, I finally earned my BA in Liberal Arts from Evergreen State College, where I took a few literary classes. We spent a lot of time reading Cormac McCarthy during the rainiest, most depressing winter Washington state had experienced in years. None of it added up to a degree that would impress a crew of academic writers. Besides, MFAs are goddamn expensive.
AWP still excites me. The best part is the chance to listen to folks read their work. The cadence of their voices gets inside my head and sets my own juices flowing. This year, at my second AWP, I felt like I was just hitting my stride, both as a writer and a conference participant. Here are some of my scribbled notes from AWP Portland.
DAY ONE: Sex, Anger, Yoga and Politics
World’s longest registration line. At least 200 people fidget in front of me. Some make small talk (“Oh, you write MEMOIR? How difficult that must be!”) while others stare straight ahead. You’d think a group of academic, computer-literate folks would figure out a way to register participants online. Eventually, the queue snakes around to a cluster of computers. I print out a badge and secure it inside its plastic holder. So. Fucking. Much. Plastic. Just so I can look like a conference nerd with a nametag around my neck.
I sit through two different panel discussions about sex and anger. The sex panel is comprised of women of various ages and backgrounds. They take turns reading their steamiest work. Lots of appreciative laughter from the mostly female audience. Afterward, the anger panel is dull by comparison, and I leave before the Q and A portion begins.
Next stop is the writing and yoga workshop, the first of a 3-part series. We do some remedial stretches and get to work. Writing in longhand is not my forte, though I brought a gorgeous, handmade notebook with me. For months, I’ve been afraid to besmirch its pages. Today, someone else is telling me to go ahead, so I dive in with my pen. The time passes with surprising speed, but I accidentally forget my new sweater when I leave.
By the time I get to my chosen after-hours offsite event, it’s too late to reclaim my sweater. Hana, my 23-year-old daughter, and I head to Ford’s Food and Drink to watch poets read from publisher Josh Gaines’ recently released “Not My President” anthology. After years of being dragged to spoken word events by her parents, Hana has decided she really likes the literary scene. For three hours, we sit, riveted, while various authors read their pieces. People of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender persuasions express their passionate disdain for the current regime. Finally, inspired but exhausted, I return to my hotel.
DAY TWO: Erica Jong, the Tarot, and Southern Hospitality
I spend the first hour looking for my sweater. There are two different lost and founds, both staffed by friendly folks who have not seen my lost item. Finally, I return to the room where the yoga and writing workshops are held. Nobody’s there, but my sweater is draped against the back of a chair. I add it to my handbag, which already bulges with Bookfair swag. Score!
I’m excited to discover that Erica Jong will be speaking at the conference today, along with two other writers, Lidia Yuknavitch and Raymond Luczak. Erica is dignified and pleasant, and Raymond is witty, eloquent and charming. He’s also deaf, so he uses sign language while another man speaks his words over a loudspeaker. Lidia is riveting. She reads a story about having wild sex with two other women in a place called the Seaview Motel. It’s a seedy joint with themed rooms, located on the Oregon coast. The tale is graphic and hilarious, yet poignant. Afterward, I google the Seaview Motel on my phone, to see if it still exists. Sadly, it’s long gone.
The tarot and writing panel is packed, a fact that shocks the organizers. The room is much too small for the number of bodies. I’m both a professional tarot reader and a writer, so I’ve been looking forward to this event. We spend the first 45 minutes discussing the travails of Pamela Colman Smith, the woman who designed the Rider-Waite deck. Since she was female, she received no credit. Poor most of her life, she died in obscurity, then was buried in a pauper’s grave. One of the panelists passes around two of the decks and asks each of us to pick a card at random. I pull the “Devil” card. “Nice going!” the woman next to me laughs.
What the hell does it mean? I ought to know, but I don’t. I grab a quick dinner and head out to my offsite event, an open mic with a deejay and a full open bar. It’s being hosted by a small press named, intriguingly, Southern Fried Karma.
As the alcohol flows, the open mic becomes progressively more ribald. I’ve never seen so many women take so much delight in reading smut aloud. I approve of this trend but feel concern about my own work. I like to think my writing pushes the boundaries of common decency, but it seems tame compared to what I’m hearing.
I choose a poem I haven’t read aloud in over a decade, involving a steamy, ill-advised affair I had with a man at a New Orleans rescue camp, right after Hurricane Katrina. The guy had a drug problem and spent much time in jail and rehab. We kept in sporadic contact for several years, but eventually he unfriended me on Facebook. He even blocked me for a while, then unblocked me without explanation. The two of us haven’t communicated in over five years. I don’t think about him much.
My poem brings the house down. One of the editors gives me her card and asks me to submit. I return to my seat and listen to the next couple of performers. Twenty minutes later, I glance at my phone.
To my utter astonishment, I discover that the subject of my poem sent me an instant message while I was reading about him. My mouth falls open. It’s especially weird, because there are no words in the message, just one of those yellow, wavy hands that Facebook rolled out a couple of years ago. The poor fellow probably didn’t even know what possessed him to get in touch.
Well, speak of the devil. I stuff the phone back into my purse, have another drink, and hit the dance floor.
Day Three: Prison, the Bookfair, More Yoga, and Hipster Central
I’m quite tired the next morning, so I decide to just walk into a panel at random. The topic is “Poetry in Prisons”, and it’s a fascinating one. The panelists are ex-cons that have published work in magazines like the Sun. One of them did a year in prison for possessing a small amount of cannabis. The others are more close-mouthed about the nature of their crimes. Towards the end, a panelist who is serving life in prison calls in on the moderator’s cell phone. His nonchalant, confident voice fills the room. The man is doing his best to publish his work, despite overwhelming obstacles.
Once the panel ends, I’m not certain how to process my emotions. I’ve promised to help the folks at the Madville Publishing booth, so I scurry off to the Bookfair. The cavernous room is a rogue’s gallery of publications that have rejected my work. I pass one table after another, all staffed by various folks who’ve sent me form letters that began, “Unfortunately….”
Madville, however, recently published one of my pieces in their new anthology, “Under the Neon Moon”, which features poems about dance halls. The publisher, Kim Davis, is delighted to see me, since she and her daughter have been tethered to the booth all weekend. They skip off to sightsee Portland for a couple of hours. I’m relieved to be in charge of a task, rather than drifting from room to room in search of knowledge. The time passes quickly, and soon I’m back in the fray.
The yoga and writing workshop begins with legs-up-the-wall pose, and I sure need it. I don’t ever want to pry my legs from the wall, but I can’t write otherwise. I scribble a few unintelligible sentences in my now thoroughly besmirched journal, then pack up and call it a day. There is no fucking way I can attend another workshop. I feel as though someone drained every thought from my brain, leaving a hollow log in its place.
I’ve already checked out of my hotel, so it’s time to go home. After a bit of deliberation, I decided to hit up one more off-site event. The nearby Star theater is featuring a two-hour extravaganza—readers, live music, and other revelry. I figure I can slurp down a beer, watch the performance for an hour, and then hit the road.
A woman meets me at the door. “Wanna hang out?” she asks. “The organizer is a good friend of mine from college in Kansas.” She pulls me inside, introduces me to a tall man named Ed. He’s wearing huge glasses and looks like an aging hipster college professor.
A man at the outdoor counter is selling craft cocktails named after poets. I order a Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a concoction that features plenty of cherry vodka. It’s as strong as three drinks. This amuses me. Lawrence was never much of a drinker, unlike many of his cohorts. He recently celebrated his 100th birthday.
Meanwhile, my new friend leads me to one of the garden booths. “I brought some cannabis on the plane from Michigan,” she announces. “Want some?”
I won’t be going back to Tacoma, at least not tonight. For the next four hours, I mill around the event in a daze. There are both indoor and outdoor readings, a roaring outdoor gas firepit, and slews of bands—Americana, punk, you name it.
This is, beyond a doubt, the most hipsterrific event I’ve attended in years. I can’t imagine why the organizers thought it would only last two hours. Though I feel like a babbling dork, I still manage to have a good time. Eventually, my friend and I decide to split the cost of a nearby air bnb room. The party is still in full swing when we leave.
It took several days for me to recover from AWP, but I have to say it was worth it. I don’t know if I made any meaningful connections with publishers, and I won’t be searching for an MFA program any time soon. All in all, I had a great time. I still feel creeped out by that Devil card, however.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.