Here I am at the biggest AWP ever, a scary thought given what a monster the conference always is. This year we've completely taken over not one but two landmark hotels in downtown Chicago, to say nothing of all the conference goers who are staying in other hotels throughout the city or with friends--and that's a considerable number, at least based on one idiosyncratic sample: the people I've talked to. You know AWP is in town when poetry is being broadcast in the elevators, when wine is flowing like tap water, when not businessmen but creative writing teachers occupy the fancy end-of-hallway suites at the Hilton Chicago (yes, we actually got one, by some strange turns of events), when almost everyone you pass in the street looks between 25 and 35 years old and is carrying the signature white canvas bag with red straps as well as a look of quiet, elevated intensity. True story. I was walking down the sidewalk to a breakfast place yesterday morning and happened to pass two women. One woman clearly had the other pinned, talking in a loud, aggressive voice only inches from her face, her hands cutting arcs through the air for emphasis. I came closer, close enough to hear. What was the first woman yelling about? City corruption? The price of gas? The job situation? Hardly. She was describing an exercise she uses in her poetry writing class! How many times do you hear that walking down a city street at 8:00 in the morning?
Welcome to my updates from AWP 2012. It's a different conference for me this year. Normally, my university extends some (rather limited) travel funds with the idea that I go to sessions that will inform my teaching. And I do. Some years my head is so full of session talk there's barely room for a stray thought. This year, however, I received funds to present in a session and to man UCA's bookfair table. We're promoting both our new MFA program, the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop, and Toad Suck Review, our national literary magazine. This is just to say that I won't be wandering the session hallways as much this year and any report I offer from AWP can't pretend to be comprehensive, just one conference goer's conference story. One of 10,000 such stories being written this weekend.
Yesterday I went to two sessions. My own session, about the value of undergraduate creative writing exchanges, was put in an unncessarily large room, but the crowd was respectable and very interested in the subject. A few of them came up to us afterward and said how thoroughly they enjoyed the session, which was very gratifying. I know how thoroughly unenjoyable some AWP sessions can be, and so as we were talking I kept wondering how we and what we were saying was being received. The other session I attended was about novel writing workshops in MFA programs: how many are actually taught, how they are taught, how they might be better taught. It was a very crowded session with a passionately interested audience. Clearly the subject mattered greatly to them: graduate students who would love to write novels for their MFA theses but currently get very little support for doing so from their workshop classes. Run by Cathy Day, that invaluable agitator for allowing longer forms in workshop classes, it was a fasicnating session, both pragmatic and inspiring. It's fascinating to see the extent to which the idea of a novel writing class has caught on recently. I remember attending a session on the novel writing workshop at the 2005 AWP in Vancouver. The session was run by a British writing program, the one at Bath Spa University, and it seemed like such a novelty. I know most of the American audience members for the session were completely befuddled by the idea. Now, seven years later, novel writing workshops are popping up everywhere, and taught in drastically different ways, and not always in beneficial ways. (I heard some really bizarre anecdotes in the session yesterday.) It's a fertile, exciting time for the Novel Writing Workshop. There's no one fixed pedagogy and there's an awful lot of experimenting going on, mostly by committed, inventive teachers who simply want to give their students a chance to work on novel inside the program curriculum not outside it, as if almost always the case.
The rest of the day I hung out in the bookfair. I saw many of the magazines and programs profiled that I always see profiled at AWP, along with some quirky new ones. I bought the new book of poems by Megan Kaminski, a writer who teaches at the University of Kansas and who introduced UCA to the idea of the undergraduate creative writing exchange. Her book is called Desiring Map (Coconut Books). I also happened upon an enthusiastic indie press called Write Bloody. Among the books they were selling was a volume of zombie poetry. I had to
laugh--and I had to buy it. I know so many people--students, former students, colleagues--who truly get a kick out of all things zombie. Not sure what that says about our times. The book, by the way, features some very serious poems. It was a fun time chatting with folks who came by our table and visiting with folks at other tables. We sold some TSRs and talked up our new MFA. I also ran into several old friends and colleagues, which always happens at AWP, but I will have to talk about that phenomenon in another post, as this one has already gone on too long.