Fond Memories in the Belly of the AWP Whale

AWP Recap by Liz Axelrod

Every year thousands of writers, professors, school teachers, students, Ph.D. candidates, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, posers, and other assorted literary peddlers and pushers convene en masse in a chosen locale for the annual Association of Writer and Writing Programs Conference—a locale most definitely not ready or even aware of the magnitude of this population’s thirst for words, wishes, deals, dollars, companionship and alternative states of wordly being. That said, Patrick Hipp—our 12th Street Interview Editor—noted the very best Tweet of the conference: “Dear Marriott, next time 8000 writers descend upon your premises, it might be a good idea to have more than two bartenders.” I add to that that it also might be good if those bartenders were able to move at a pace a bit above that of a leisurely slug. If you’re going to charge us twelve bucks for a rum and Coke, it would be nice if we could get it before the ice melts. Thanks.

This year’s conference was held in Washington, DC, just a short hop, skip and Amtrak away from New York City. Optimal for me. I arrived a day before my crew to help set up our table at the Book Fair and in hopes of a private night of fun and debauchery. Unfortunately, my wishful candidate for said night opted for a younger, thinner, taller, more Asian version than me. Without warning I was thrust upon the two of them at the hotel bar after spending the earlier hours at Busboys & Poets watching the Word for Word readers make Mindmeld graphs on a wall—don’t ask, I have no idea. I was fortunate though to hear Brittany Perham read some sexy poems right up my alley, and not fortunate to hear an editor read his poet’s work. Note to editors: even if your poets are snowed in, it might be better to have them phone into the reading. This way you won’t get tangled in their line breaks and the poem won’t end up sounding like Forrest Gump with a mouthful of chocolate.

I left Busboys & Poets and got back to the hotel in need of a Pinot noir. The bartender handed me my glass, I turned around and there they were, sitting on the wing-backed chairs against the oak panelling, right in front of me. No hasty exit at hand, and as they were with other friends and comrades, I forced myself to ask ”Mind if I join you?” I then went on to maneuver my way through a tangled mess of body language that said, “I offered you nothing, we made no actual plans, I gave you no warning, you didn’t really think we would be together so soon, after all, just three weeks ago we were inside each other, and our norm is four months, and… we’re still friends, yes?”

She must have known something about me because she hastily put her sweater back on, so as not to flash me with her perfectly toned shoulders angled directly at his smug and worried chin. I think I handled it well, though. I smiled, smoked, and then went back to my room alone, drank a third of a bottle of spiced rum, took a hot bubble bath and puked my sad sorry guts out. Yes – that first night was a winner.

Happily, I did not have another run in with my “friend” and his tall exotica with her freckles and her tiny little pert diamond nose chip.

I did however have two or three near fatal taxi cab run-ins, particularly that morning with Luis Jaramillo as we transported the boxes of journals and fliers to the Marriott from The Omni. Now, I’m a New Yorker, I know taxi drivers don’t like to take you three blocks, but we had five heavy boxes to carry! Our taxi driver showed his displeasure by making a wide U-turn into traffic and not stopping as cars came careening toward the passenger side of the taxi. Twice, I saw my daughter standing alone at her high school graduation—and Luis’s beautiful, strategically placed spikes were in need of no hair gel after that short trip.

The next morning, I made my way shakily through the Book Fair.  To describe it as an overwhelming mass of sensory overload doesn’t come close to doing it justice.  Hundreds upon hundreds of white tables, blue curtains, heaping piles of literature and wordsmiths; hagglers hashing out the very best deal on a subscription to Tin House in order to get the latest issue, or musing over a McSweeney’s Anthology, or in line for an author signing. Lines, layers, and aisle upon aisle I wandered until I found our table, conveniently placed upon the wall—the very last wall of the very last room! All week long I got lost trying to get there in order to woman the table.  Each wrong turn brought me fortune though—submission guidelines, contest notices, free books of poetry, free past issues of magazines. I even got a 1977 American Poetry Review with five John Ashbery Poems and eight by Norman Dubie. Across from me, a small press from Montana was crying, saying no one will ever be able to find them. I thought about how horrible it must be to travel from conference to conference in hopes of selling and signing, and was thankful to the New School for letting us display and give out our journal, without worries or sales quotas.  This year, as I had done an interview with Mary Gaitskill for our most recent issue and she was attending the conference and set to read on Friday, I had asked them to ship three boxes of 12th Street to my hotel. OMG! And we were stuck in AWP Siberia!  However, right down the aisle from us at the corner, two rows ahead, was The Rumpus table.  I introduced myself to Stephen Elliott and Isaac Fitzgerald. Two hot men with hot words to back them up, and a hot interview by Jennifer Sky on 12thstreetonline too.

I was looking forward to showing Mary Gaitskill my support as she went up against Sapphire the next day.  She had told me she was worried Sapphire would “mop up the floor with her.” Not for a minute did I believe this to be true. And thankfully, after my personal let-down, the beautiful and talented MG gave me the lift I absolutely needed. At the hotel bar the night before her reading—yes, most everything happens at the bar—we’re writers after all, I walked up to say hi.  She was thronged by admirers and agents and hangers-on. I waited patiently for a window to open and approached her gently. I said “Hi Mary,” and she looked at me and said, “Do I know you?” I told her my name and she smiled and, unprompted by me, replied, “Oh… Liz, I really liked that 12th Street interview, that was a really good one.” Then she spoke to me for a bit about her life and her work and the reading the next day and introduced me to all the folks that came up to worship her. Eric Marsh—our fiction editor—and I went to her reading. She read from a novel in progress, a chilling tale of homosexual sex, lust, lost mother love, aging, and evil. Her quiet tone and soft inflections worked to increase the power and intensity of the tale. We could not get our jaws closed for half an hour.

Mario Zambrano—our Editor-In-Chief—had arrived with Eric after making a slight wrong turn out of Union Station. I picked up my phone, relieved to have my friends on their way, because, quite frankly I was still a bit raw and worried about running into my “friend and his friend.” Mario’s happy voice was just the tonic I needed. “Hey, hun, we just got in. We’re going to walk on over to the hotel.” Now I know those boys like to get their exercise, but I was like “Dude, it’s five miles away, take a cab.” Apparently they were under the impression that like last year in Denver, AWP was at the convention center.  I can only imagine the look on their faces as they realized it was holding an Auto Sales Convention, then the frantic search and query on their iPhones. Next call: “Okay, guess we’ll be taking a cab.”

Rebecca Melnyk—our poetry editor—arrived with our friend and poet, Leah Umansky, who had the cutest red nose I’ve ever seen. Poor Leah was sick and sick to death that she was sick, and I was sick that she was sharing our room, and I just got over being sick, and I was still heart-sick, but in the end, it all worked out fine. Then Jennifer Sky—our reader and interviewer—came in and we had a fearsome foursome going. Jennifer took me to a house party where we hung with the likes of Rob Spillman and his fabulous Tin House staff, Stephen Elliott and his peeps, and many more poets, writers and publishers drinking red wine and chatting on the white leather couches in the many rooms of a beautiful Georgetown Brick Colonial.  Around midnight we decided to go to Black Cat and dance.  Once inside, I ran into Seth Graves and his New School MFA crew. Now, those Poets know how to party! They ruled the dance floor in their tight circle, entwined with each other trying not to spill beer and singing along to the Violent Femmes “Add it Up.” Of course I knew the words. Grew up on that one.

Another great, or poor, perk of AWP in Washington, DC was that everywhere you went they asked for ID. Me? Come on. Seriously?  I kind of laughed it off and felt flattered until I told Leigh Stein about it on the last night and she was like, “Really, they carded you?” Way to let a girl down easy, Leigh. Kiss kiss. Poor Pat—his driver’s license expired and he had the hardest time of all, though even with the big black X’s on his hands he still managed to get served. He’s one of the best writers I know.

I suppose you’re thinking it was all a big party and schmooze fest. Well, if so, you’d probably be right, but it was also filled with panels, some of which had names you might not be able to stomach – “Does School Kill Poetry, Can School be Poetry’s BFF.” I kid you not. And some you would be remiss to miss like “Unembarrassed Poets,” with Brenda Shaughnessy reading my favorite moon poem and me feeling it deep under my bra straps. I took Luke Sirinides—our Editor-at-Large—to the panel and he was stricken. I bet he’s already bought her books.

Tears welled up in my eyes as staff and students from St. Mary’s College talked of their experiences at the “Lucille Clifton Memorial Panel.” They showed films of Lucille reading her work on a big screen, and then opened the audience up to speak of their personal experiences with the great Ms. Clifton. Her daughters sat next to me and were gracious, beautiful and blessed. “Wishes For Sons” ran in a loop through my head.

The New School’s Robert Lopez kept the “Teaching the Unconventional Creative Writing Student” panel alive with his witticisms. I’m still laughing over his comment about those students who remained deadpan and unengaged in class—“Come on, a tornado went through Brooklyn, BROOKLYN, you have to have some feelings about that??!!”

And all over DC there were off-site readings, way too many to name names and link links, but here’s a minuscule sample: Nick Flynn, Carolyn Forché, Dilruba Ahmed, Rae Armantrout, Victoria Chang, Erica Dawson, and so many, many more, and sometimes triple that amount in one venue in one night. But unfortunately, Mark Bibbons did not make his DC DJ appearance. Yes, another wonderful man disappoints yours truly again. But we writers are made of tough stuff and when all else fails we can drink, commiserate and craft. My “friend” told me to put my passions on the page. Yes. Easily done. And when all else fails, sweating it out on the dance floor with a bunch of writers isn’t a bad idea either.