You write a book, or two, and because of this people sometimes invite you to go to a place outside your apartment to talk about the words you have written. This is what you hope for, secretly and not so secretly, when you write a book—that it will give you occasion to talk to other people about the things that matter, the things that haunt us. Even though you know that you will never have these conversations as often as you think you will, they happen just enough to send you back to the keyboard, attempting to write sentences that draw people together. It is a residual impulse from your religious youth, to commune around a book, around words. So of course you will travel to a literary conference in Boston to speak on a panel. You are thrilled when a writer friend generously puts your name forward to do so. You’ll get to be public! There will be mingle!
There are so many panels at this conference. Reading the schedule of talks is not unlike scanning menus at certain New Jersey diners, feeling the same exhilarated bafflement when confronted by the long tall list of choices, the tempting possibilities. These kinds of schedules often give you pleasant flashbacks to youth group retreats, summer camp jobs, course catalogs. They can also give you narcolepsy.
On your way into the conference center the morning of your panel, you are surprised to see something resembling hordes ascending the escalators and streaming into the conference center’s carpeted corridors. Are other humans still this much of a draw?
You are amused and moved by the number of times women spy each other from across these carpeted corridors, throw up their hands, and shriek “Oh my God!” because this is the first time they’ve seen each other in—well, maybe ever, because some of them have only ever met online.
The panel. It is even better than you hoped. Speaking on a panel allows you to wheel out your inner Elaine Stritch, who is usually lying dormant under a bathrobe from Target. During this panel, having a conversation with three other writers, you find that each of you is so excited by something the other has just said that you’re all reaching for the microphones placed on the tables to elaborate. Afterward you wonder if that isn’t—ideally—what being in a band is like, each of you picking up what the other is laying down, creating a resonant sound. Occasionally you look out into the audience and see that the faces are serious—people are paying attention. The student in you, the teacher in you, the reader in you, and the writer in you are all jostling each other in excitement. This produces some elation. Ideas have been circulated, affirmed, and expanded on. Is this what collegiality is? You think: I should come to this thing every year! Your inner Elaine Stritch is holding a scotch aloft and intoning “Everybody riiiiiiiiiiiiiise!”
When you tally up what you spent on registration fees, train tickets, a hotel room, and chicken caesar wraps, you’re not sure it made financial sense to attend. But it did make some psychological sense. Lately, you have been wondering whether staring into your laptop for hours on end, struggling to find the right words, doesn’t make you sociopathic. It helps, then, to think of writing as just another job whose practitioners can fill a conference center. You’re wearing a lanyard with a nametag, which means you’re not Jacob wrestling with the angel that is Art.
Then you go to a party. You are a people-person until around 11:07 pm, when you overhear something that turns you back into a people-hater. Ugh, people. Or is it writers? Your soul has gone hoarse, and it’s time to pack it in. You want to go back to your hotel room and watch snow fall over the spires and bay windows of Boston. There are no people in that picture other than the ones you imagine. It is a screen onto which you can project many narratives, just like the one on your laptop.
AWP is the conference for writers and writing programs. I’m not a writer. Thursday morning, in the ladies bathroom, a petite, middle-aged woman in a scarf came at me with her arms open, ready to lock me in an embrace. “Congratulations on your reading this morning, it was absolutely wonderful!” My eyes got wide and I stared at the woman as it dawned on her that I was not the person she had seen reading earlier in the day. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were someone else,” she explained as I sidestepped her into a stall. Lots of people who approached the table asked if I was a writer, or an intern. “Oh, you just look so young,” they’d respond after hearing I wasn’t an intern. “You must be the ideal employee,” said someone else after hearing I had no secret writerly ambitions.
A man came to my table and said that he thought he’d had a story published in the magazine sometime last year—he wasn’t entirely sure, but he was pretty sure. He came back to the table frequently over the course of the conference, more and more convinced with each visit that we’d published his story. There was a typo on his nametag, and his name read “Jim Friedman Friedman.” Jim Friedman Friedman’s story that we’d published, he explained, was about a man floating above the sea who experiences some sort of revelation. Another man overheard this description and said it sounded just like a movie he’d seen. “Yes, yes, they’re very similar,” said Jim Friedman Friedman.
I took a quick walk around once to see the other tables at the book fair. Someone had set up a tent in the area with the bigger booths, so I went inside. It was the Poetry Brothel. Two men and a woman were lying on pillows and blankets. There may have been candles. There was definitely whiskey. Another table I’d passed earlier served small cups of white wine. My table only had chocolate-covered Bing cherries, which I hate, but which older ladies who wear scarves and read poetry and attend book fairs love.
A woman stopped in front of the table and immediately whispered something to her friend. They giggled, and the friend walked away, embarrassed, as the first woman looked at me and spoke. I couldn’t hear her. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh, I shouldn’t tell you this,” she told me, “but I said to my friend earlier when we walked by the Tin House table, ‘Whose dick do you have to suck to get published here?’ And now I just told her that this is the place where you really have to give a good bj to get published.” She took a chocolate-covered Bing cherry and popped it into her mouth. I don’t remember what I said to this woman.
As a teenager, I spent many weekends visiting my aunt’s post-hippie condo in Cambridge, every corner of it crammed with art gathered on her world travels. My favorite was a black and white photograph from the Sixties of my aunt naked, arms outstretched (displaying impressive thatches of armpit hair), in a field of tall grass on Point Reyes. By the time I knew her, she had become a prominent psychiatrist and basically kept her clothes on in public, but she would still throw paella parties frequented by friends with wild salt-and-pepper hair, who would talk feminist theory while we drank sangria into the night. Cambridge was the antidote to my staid suburban home in Jersey. While my aunt was at work, I’d wander Harvard Square and fantasize I’d someday go to college in that same city. I imagined it would be one big continuation of a dinner party with my aunt.
I never did go to school there. Or to college at all, really, until much later. I have since buried my favorite uncle in Mount Auburn Cemetery, and fallen out of touch with my family entirely. Boston has come to seem more a place where a door closed behind me than a place of promise.
This past weekend I flew back on a whim, to attend my first AWP. I don’t have a new book out. I don’t have anything I’m actively selling, or asking for. Well, I do—I’d like a life doing this, just this, just being and listening and writing. But in spite of the slew of “What To Do With Yourself After Your MFA” panels, no conference can give you that. The best thing these conferences and book festivals offer in terms of coping with career anxiety is the chance to step so deeply into it that you reach the other side. Really I went because Other Voices Books asked me to do a reading with two writers I adore. Plus, I was curious.
Here is what I did officially at the conference: almost nothing at all. My first afternoon there, I heard Samuel Delaney describe a character as someone who “fucked like it was the last hour of his life” and thought: I don’t need to walk around in a tizzy, worrying about what panels or parties I didn’t attend; I just need to drink mochaccinos like it’s the last hour of my life. And so I did exactly that, with friends who used to be teachers of mine and friends who used to be students of mine. It resembled the phenomenon of running into casual acquaintances from home in some European city and immediately becoming best friends.
I didn’t make it to the Barer Literary Agency party, featuring every literary darling who likes free booze and great conversation. I didn’t make it to the VIDA prom, at which two infamous blondes were rumored to have been throwing cash at a dancing Stephen Elliot by the end of the night. For my money, the best time to be had was scoring free peanut butter cups from Tod Goldberg at the UCR Palm Desert booth, while promising him drinks in exchange for his Michael Silverberg impersonation.
Don DeLillo was impressive and cranky. Jeanette Winterson was like a sinewy Tony Robbins of poets, entreating us not to live a half-life. I cried when Anne Carson read, because the day had been long and God I love her and there she was. I was touched to run into former students, one of whom told me she quoted a lecture of mine in a recent paper. I had to decide whether or not to tell her I steal all my good stuff from Vivian Gornick.
On day two all the chatter and the nametags and the convention center carpet drove me away, and I took the train over to the Harvard Natural History Museum to see the famous glass flowers. The snow was melting, the air crisp and college-y clean. I passed clusters of students in parkas, with bad skin and knapsacks, like some past I never had. And from across the river, I looked back at Boston and realized that even so, I had come back and found my version of my aunt’s dinner parties.
The snow whirled merrily outside the full-wall windows, but inside the room was airless and stuffed for the AWP panel on gender perceptions in literary writing, reviewing, and publishing. From the back row, where I sat, the audience appeared a vibrant confusion of hairstyles and hair colors: blond bobs, red buns, brown birds’ nests, silver waterfalls, purple nebulae, black dreads. At the podium, the panel’s moderator, Christine Gelineau, had sad news to convey: “I’m afraid that Julia Glass had to cancel,” she said, and from the crowd emerged disappointed groans.
“But!” she added. “I’m very pleased that we have a wonderful replacement who has so much to add. Bobbie Ann Mason has agreed to”—but here Gelineau was drowned out by the collective gasp that filled the room. In the row in front of me, a woman turned to her seatmate, her mouth a perfect O of surprise, her hand fluttering at her breast.
I walked the floor of AWP for about four hours, and in that time ran into a solid dozen people I know: students at creative writing programs where I’ve given talks; journal editors I’ve only met over email; the friend I used to perform improv comedy with who now publishes a teensy poetry magazine. I ran into a writer whose first novel comes out shortly who apologetically declined to review another first novel she hadn’t liked: “I just don’t want to mess up my writer karma.” I met the bearded grad student who oversees Carolina Quarterly, the literary journal I worked for in college, and his smile at my boring stories of afternoons spent in Greenlaw Hall reading submissions faded only when I broke the news of Pepper’s Pizza’s closing. “You didn’t know?” I asked. “He basically never leaves Greenlaw,” someone explained to me later, and the evidence is in the issue I bought, lively and gorgeous to look at.
A day later I flew to Austin for SXSW, where my first stop was a screening of Joss Whedon’s new movie, Much Ado About Nothing. Before the screening the actors sauntered out from backstage to the joyous screams of 600 spectators, who got even louder when Joss Himself emerged. He told us how excited he was for us to see the movie. I could barely hear him, as the nebulous, ubiquitous SXSW concept of “buzz” became literally true all around me.
I don’t want this comparison to become too schematic. I love Joss Whedon. It’s certain that Joss Whedon’s work—from his superhero blockbusters to a low-budget Shakespeare adaptation—influences American culture more (and more positively) than Bobbie Ann Mason. There’s no shortage of grim commerce and starfucking at AWP, and you can find plenty of idealism at SXSW. More to the point, while SXSW is at times an exaltation of douchebags, I can’t pretend I don’t have just as much in common with those douchebags as I do with the bearded grad student running Carolina Quarterly. They’re both my people, for better and for worse.
But I will say that I was so happy to be in a place where Bobbie Ann Mason’s name provoked gasps of shock. I spent a day at AWP and four days at SXSW, and I only wish those numbers were reversed.
The solitary nature of writing has always seemed to me to breed particularly interesting collective rituals, whenever writers get together.
While the various tribes I’ve observed are marked by distinct habits (humanities grad students order Chinese at the end of a party, fiction writers go for big bags of pretzels or nuts at the bodega), I will be focusing my analysis here on poets. Full disclosure: I am one of them. This past weekend, I participated in the “Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference.” Or, as the AWP website has it, “the largest literary conference in America.” Or, as a friend of mine doing a PhD at MIT said after attending one of my readings, “There’s a whole conference about this?”
Yes, my analytic Welsh friend, there is. AWP had been described to me, at various times by various people, as “exhausting,” “not worth it,” “crazy-ass orgy,” “a free-for-all,” “a hot mess,” “stopped being cool years ago,” “horrifying,” and “so fucking boring.” The official website says it “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” So, of course, when I was invited to read this year, as a young unwed person concerned with her literary future, I determined to attend.
Last Thursday afternoon, I arrived in Boston, (30°F, sleeting snow) from Chicago (34°F, sunny and clear). The Athens of America was truly at her worst, weather-wise. On the way to my first reading, I went down hard on the ice/sleet combo that plastered the sidewalk. The poet Dorothea Lasky informed me she too had fallen right on her tailbone. Over the course of the weekend I observed many emotional expressions re: Boston’s sidewalks, particularly from New Yorkers, those provincial things.
Now, my perspective on the conference is limited, or, one might say, totally myopic and shallow. I acknowledge that there were many more legitimate events on offer than those I describe here. Panels concerning how to get a “poetry agent” for example, or how to write a cover letter when submitting to McSweeney’s. I participated in the more informal “off-site” readings. For example, on Thursday night I read with a number (what number, I couldn’t possibly say) of other poets in a large warehouse space with art on the walls. This reading, like all readings I attended, was a conflagration of multiple small presses, throwing their writers together to create a truly endless, er, epic literary marathon. I read my piece fairly early, and stayed until the end, observing things, such as the uneasy peace observed between messy-haired people and other kinds of people. One of the other poets had visited my college when I was a sophomore, more than a couple years ago now, and read, is it my imagination, or was it the exact same poems about turtles and birds she read back then?
The main event of the conference is supposed to be the Book Fair. The AWP Book Fair is somewhere where candy is free but books cost money, a reversal of traditional values that I found entirely agreeable. No one had mentioned the candy to me before, when I’d asked about AWP. I would love to know how that tradition got started, which press was the first to offer candy at its table, or whether it was an unspoken decision the first AWPers made as one, the candy just being assumed.
One night I found myself at the Harvard Advocate, attending a reading organized by same. After almost not getting in (“seating is limited and will be first come first served”), I got in, and the reading started. They had the most amazing chicken wings I think I’ve ever had. The chain they ordered them from must be Boston-only, because otherwise I would have heard about it—I hope! The wings had just the right amount of crispiness on the outside, and the meat inside was tender and perfectly cooked. The skin was spicy, salty, and sweet, in the perfect combination. I went to Penn and always thought Harvard was sort of uppity, but after those wings, I concede defeat. Harvard is the best.
The Advocate has a little kitchen, connected to the main room by an open bar. I was standing in the kitchen with Dana Ward and some others, watching the reading over the bar, which framed our faces like a television. Dana, a famous poet from the middle of the country, was making a number of comments during the readings, and all his comments were accurate. “That’s great!” he said of one reader, “she was working with what she had, and I respect that!” Or “That fucker can write.” Or, re: the audience during K Silem Mohammed’s reading, “They have no idea what’s going on!”
The final night of AWP I ended up at a party in the Sheraton, in a set of rooms with the conjoining door left open. There was generally poor behavior on display and it was lots of fun. Two mysterious people in one room were watching either Road to Perdition or The Green Mile and trying to ignore everything going on around them. Perhaps their room had been invaded and they were too polite to kick everyone out. Toward the end of the party, I met a well-preserved man who teaches poetry in Pennsylvania. I met him because he was holding a dog.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Ryan” said the well-preserved man.
“Hello, Ryan,” I said, holding Ryan. The dog was a gorgeous little dachshund, and when I remarked this, the man corrected my pronunciation. And I realized that the conference had borne literary fruit after all. All my life, I’d been mispronouncing the name of Ryan’s breed, and it was thanks to my internment in the literary hotbed of America that my embarrassing mistake was corrected, once and for all.
In conclusion, the conference was fun, many of the readers were excellent, with lyrical talents matched only by their personal style, and I managed not to get sick or break any bones, while at the same time bettering my pronunciation and stocking up on candy, gratis. Next year in Seattle.