Panic! At the AWP Disco
It's safe to say that I'm fully entrenched in the creative writing subculture. I've done the entire CWP gauntlet: undergrad, MFA, PhD. I submit to journals. I edit journals. I give people advice on how to submit to journals. I've started a failed reading series in my living room. I've started a failed press and drunkenly agreed to start another one. I've published chapbooks with tiny presses. I own a bone folder and an awl. I used to have a t-shirt that said "Garamond" in Helvetica font. I used to have a shirt that said "Poetry Slut." I think both these shirts were stolen at AWP.
AWP! The only place where writers can still succumb to the the literary debauchery of yore and not be judged too harshly for it. The dancing, the day-drinking, the late-night hotel-room-hopping and unabashedly hungover brunches. It's carnival time for creative writers--an annual outlet for our bohemian predilections in an increasingly conservative era, when even creative writing program parties can feel like office mixers.
AWP is in two weeks and apparently everyone wants to know whether everybody else is going. Starting in January, AWP queries begin appearing at the bottom of every e-mail: "See you in Chicago?" "You're going to Denver, right?" "Sorry about misspelling your name in our last issue--I owe you at least 3 cocktails at AWP! Woot!"
So I can't wait to go, right? Er, well...
I used to go every year. Now I only go on even-numbered years. That means this year I'm going, and I've only half-committed to it. I don't even have a badge. I hemmed and hawed until, suddenly, the badges were sold out. I'm convinced it was self-sabotage.
The truth is, the mere mention of AWP makes me panic. Most people are surprised when I admit this. Socially, I'm pretty outgoing, but there's something about AWP that peppers me with anxieties--some of which I haven't felt since high school, and many of which I never had a name for.
I don't think I'm alone in this. Here's a handy checklist of the most pernicious AWP anxieties.
Roommate Roulette: This one starts before you even arrive at AWP. You realize you can't afford a room at the conference hotel. Then you realize the conference hotel is booked solid anyway. Then you realize that you can't afford a room at the Best Western six blocks away because you're a grad student and get paid about $6/hour. You need a roommate, or roommates. So you start asking around--only, everybody already has a roommate, as of months ago. "Oh my god, you don't have a room yet?" You thought you were fairly well-liked. How come nobody asked you to be their roommate? Now you're on that weird AWP "roommate search" message board exchanging e-mails with a woman from Arkansas who needs "absolute silence after 10pm."
Lunch Table Syndrome: How is it that every writer you've ever met is milling around in a 5 block radius and you have no one to sit with? There you are, cruising through the hotel bar, looking for someone (anyone) you know. You're adopting the air of someone who has a specific mission--don't mind me...just rushing to meet up with my friends Lucy & Ed before the bookmaking roundtable--lest anyone think you're a lone dork with nothing to do. Do you feel like you're back in high school yet?
Acquaintance Leeching: Did you find someone you sort of know? Good! Now attach yourself to their side and never let go. Where are they going? Who are they going to see? Have they had lunch yet? Oh, the grant writing panel? Yeah, you were totally going to that too. Take your new BFF to the book-fair. Ignore any indication that they may be trying to shake you.
Badge Gandering: Assuming you have a badge of your own, you've got a difficult decision to make: do you keep your badge in plain sight so all the badge-ganderers can see who you are (or aren't)? Or do casually flip your badge backwards, tuck it in your shirt, attach it to your bag, or toss the badge over your shoulder so it hangs down your back? These latter options are understandable, if it a bit douchey. It foils the initial "are-you-someone-worth-talking-to?" assessment of the badge-ganderers, but it can also make you look the writer equivalent of the celebrity who wears big sunglasses and a baseball cap out in public. Either way you flip it, you're going to feel bad about yourself and suspect all the reasons people do or don't want to talk to you. And if they do talk to you (and even if they leech onto you) you will always sense their wandering eye, scanning badges over your shoulder. The worst part is this: despite your best intentions, you too will become a god-awful badge-ganderer. You will nod your head at the would-be memoir writer standing in front of you and think "Is this the best I can do? Oh, look! Kevin Young!"
What's-Your-Name? Paralysis: You have a terrible memory for names and everyone has now coolly tossed their lanyards over their shoulders and under their sweaters. Suddenly, someone recognizes you! Maybe you recognize them and maybe you don't, but you sure as hell don't remember their name. You read together at that place in Kalamazoo that time, remember? Suddenly, they are stuck to your side and the book-fair is a landmine of people that you should politely introduce this person to, but you can't because you don't know anyone's name and you have to awkwardly pretend like you assumed everyone already knew everyone else.
Trade Malaise: You can't afford AWP in the first place, but now that you're here you might as well try to self-promote and sling some product, right? Maybe you'll make a little spending cash. So you throw a bunch of your books/chapbooks/journals in your bag and haul them around stupidly for three days until there are welts on your right shoulder. Your bag keeps getting heavier as your wallet gets lighter. And why? Because AWP is a big book swap. It sounds nice, but mostly you end up trading away all the books you still owe your publisher money for in exchange for a stack of homemade chapbooks you'll never read. And you can't refuse to swap without looking like an asshole. If you've ever been swap-blocked, you know this to be true. What? You think your book is better than mine?
Hot Crop Despondency: Gosh, there are a lot of good-looking, fashionable people at AWP. You thought you packed cute stuff...that is, until you walked into the book fair and witnessed the newest crop of MFAs on parade with their cowboy boots, and their intricately wrapped scarves, and their Zooey Deschanel bangs. Suddenly, you think "I should have gone on a pre-AWP diet." Followed by "But I don't have anything to wear to the dance!" You feel petty and old, and right back in high school. You end up ditching the keynote address to buy some seasonally inappropriate shoes.
Off-site Uncertainty: There is a plethora of off-site parties and readings going on each night and you are almost certain to pick the wrong one. Unfortunately, you won't realize this until it's too late, when you're sitting in some pub, eating bad fish and chips with people you don't know from VCU, who you are seemingly stuck with after agreeing to split a cab. Because of this likely outcome you will find yourself loitering around the enigmatic 'Table X' area asking the same stupid question over and over: "Where's everybody going tonight? Where's everybody going?"
Existential Collapse: This is probably the most pervasive and elusive form of AWP anxiety: Why are you here? Are you promoting a new book? No. Are you doing a panel? No. Do you have a line-up of off-site reading engagements with sexy little magazines? Probably not. Do you earnestly desire advice on teaching with technology in the two-year college? No. Is your lifelong dream to watch Joyce Carol Oates read for the second time? Eh. So what in the hell are you doing here? What is your raison d'être? Left unchecked, these questions will lead to poor decision-making and/or utter collapse, resulting in barricading yourself in the hotel room with Hulu, or getting drunk on Irish Car Bombs and deciding it's a good idea to ask C.D. Wright whether Frank Stanford was a good kisser.
So, see you all at AWP? Where's everybody going? Can I come too? We could split a cab. I don't have any cash but I could pay you in chapbooks.