For those not in the know, let me explain that AWP is shorthand for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, which this year takes place in Washington, D.C. And every year at about this time, the writers who are going to AWP start chattering wildly about it, listing off all the book signings they've arranged, the parties they're planning to attend, the pals they can't wait to go drinking with, the panels they'll be hosting, the choral readings they'll be giving, etc., etc. I might imagine, from these accounts, that AWP is a heaven on earth for lonely novelists and poets, an Elysian Field dotted with like-minded readers and word-players, all of whom already adore my poems.
Alas, I fear this is not the case. Like any academic conference, the real AWP is no doubt packed with anxious seekers who are desperate to sell books, tout manuscripts, have their photos taken with famous people, and find jobs. Yet, as in years past, numbers of attendees will come back overflowing with Facebook joy about the experience. Something good, or something disguised as good, seems to take place at these events. I'll probably never know what that something is.
The reason I don't go to AWP is because I can't afford to. With neither a full-time job, nor academic backing, nor a publisher who can pay my expenses, I cannot justify spending a chunk of the family budget on the more or less vain hope of selling my books, touting my manuscripts, and shaking hands with famous people. And really, I'm not complaining. For the most part I've come to terms with the parameters of my writing life, and I'm more than happy to sacrifice an annual AWP binge for the far larger gift of having the time, space, will, and stamina to read and to write.
Nonetheless, the thought of AWP can occasionally rankle. Closeted up here in the subzero hinterlands of the north, I often feel like the only serious poet in America who won't be gaily packing her dancing shoes for the ball. Moreover, this year, for the first time, I was actually invited to attend the conference: to take part in my own book signing, at my own publisher's table, alongside poets who are also my friends. The idea had its intoxications, and I toyed with saying yes. But in the end I said no.
I still have pangs, small pangs, about that decision and the sense that I've sealed my fate as a nobody. That may or may not be true in the factual scheme of things, but symbolically the conference equals professionalism and I?--well, I'm the woman who trudges through the barnyard at minus-12 degrees, with the goal of beating frozen chicken shit out of a water dish. No dancing shoes required.
But, then again, writing a poem doesn't require dancing shoes either.