Brett Foster

The Creative Writer's Big Show

A report from the 2012 AWP conference.

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Last Thursday morning my commuter train arrived in Chicago's Ogilvie Station, and within a half an hour I was part of a second depot-like configuration—another set of serpentine lines converging into long, orderly rows. But these were not rails but human lines, and they were alphabetized. I was in line to register for the AWP Conference and Bookfair, this year's meeting of the exponentially growing national creative-writing gathering run by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. (One of my colleagues, upon hearing of my plans earlier in the week, said that "AWP" sounded like a "large multinational corporation that is dumping chemicals in rivers," but what does he know?) Jeffrey Levine, author and founder of Tupelo Press, described the event in a pre-conference blog as a "simultaneous tragedy of the spirit and comedy of the flesh in the way Chekhov's 'Cherry Orchard' was both."

More precisely, I was picking up materials after registering several months ago, and a good thing, too: I imagine many area writing students, who were counting on rolling in on this first day and registering on site, were disappointed a few weeks ago when AWP abruptly shut down pre-registration. The reason? The conference already had received roughly ten thousand sign-ups, and was close to the Hilton Chicago's event-hosting capacity. When AWP was in Chicago eight years ago, the attendance of 4,100 was less than half of this year's. I had also reserved a hotel room several months ago, but, with these crowds, it almost didn't matter: being told that the hotel was "overbooked" since it had not received the usual number of cancellations that was expected, I was dismayed to learn that I might need to be relocated a few miles away. Apparently those early registrants had experienced no later change of mind, but at least one person decided not to attend, since eventually a room became available. It surprised me that my reservation hadn't in fact reserved anything, but the hotel's predicament didn't surprise me: many writers, young and old, unknown and established, poets and prose writers alike, look ahead all year to these dizzying, crowded, festive, opportunistic three days. Donning my badge, it was time to see what I could see.

At AWP you're likely to see and hear many a curious thing. Really, it is any anthropologist's dream. Waiting in the registration line, I noticed a group of MFA students across from me, and each one seemed edgy—excited to be there, but also made nervous by the scene. "If you make eye contact, you're screwed," one young woman declared. Her friend: "Yes, I should've worn sunglasses!" You'll encounter, walking from the registration area, people come to a dead stop trying to orient themselves, or cheerier folks walking briskly with a cup of coffee in each hand, running an errand for classmates still waiting in line. On the first floor, a group of young men were engaged in an intense conversation: "I swear I think he thinks I'm gay," said one. "Well …" Amid this sea of people, I noticed on a couple of different occasions a platinum-haired older woman. She seemed to float through the crowded corridors with a mix of confidence and serenity. Each day, she wore a lavender headband, pure cotton and elaborately braided, like something out of Xanadu. Ah, she made me think, writers are so fun, so funny. Always part shaken, part shazam. She was mainly shazam, in my humble, admiring opinion.

A quick count of the conference sessions yielded a grand if approximate total of four hundred over the three days. This amounted to sixteen or so concurrent panels at the main hotel every two hours or so, with another half-dozen occurring at The Palmer House Hilton, the overflow site nearby. Each night boasted a dozen or so events, too, from receptions sponsored by writing programs to book launches and literary journals' publication parties, usually including readings by contributors. Margaret Atwood gave Friday night's keynote address at Roosevelt University's Auditorium Theatre, and on Saturday night the United States and United Kingdom poets laureate, Philip Levine and Carol Ann Duffy respectively, gave a joint reading. A dance party was held each night, as were collegiate poetry slams and open-mic gatherings. Upon hearing about the dances, my spouse said, "Who? Writers are having a dance party? That's something I actually would want to see."

Additionally, AWP host cities for the past five years have seen an increasingly active literary nightlife during the entire week of the conference, as journals and other organizations team up with bars or local theaters to host parties and readings. These offsite events were legion, and took place in diverse Chicago neighborhoods. On the first night of the conference, I attended a reading on Belmont Avenue featuring poets published in the journals Seven Corners and Spoon River Poetry Review, and by Penguin Books. Especially memorable was Jamaal May, a student in Warren Wilson's MFA program and a Cave Canem Fellow. He recited, or rather performed, a sestina that made the intricate form of repeating end words less predictable than it often sounds when read aloud. Another reading elsewhere, touting "cacophony," featured multiple authors reading simultaneously. Special events of this sort included a Literary Death Match, featuring writers such as Jane Smiley and Mark Doty and held one block from the hotel at Buddy Guy's Legends, and a screening of the new film Being Flynn, directed by Paul Weitz and starring Robert DeNiro and Paul Dano. The film is based on Nick Flynn's intense memoir of fathers and sons and addictions, which was on sale at the book fair, rebranded with the film's title.

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