My Survival Guide to AWP

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Last week, I went to my very first AWP Conference & Bookfair—the annual gathering of writers, writing programs, publishers, presses, magazines, journals, and basically word nerds from all over. 

Everyone warned me: “It’s overwhelming.”

More than 12,000 people attend this conference (eek!), and over 2,000 people present, plus there are over 500 readings, panels, and lectures on the craft of writing. Them’s a lot o’ numbers! But the conference was in Tampa, which, when I booked my plane ticket many months ago, didn’t seem that hard to navigate. Right? I got a hotel down the street from the convention center, paid my conference registration and relaxed until about two months ago. Then I got overwhelmed, not at anything in particular, but just the idea of it all. Which is basically the root of a lot of my anxiety: Don’t have anything specific to worry about? That’s okay. You can worry about it all!

Okay, I did have a few particular concerns, which my husband made me list off so he could dismantle each one. I am gratefut to be married to someone logical and level-headed. I relaxed enough that I was actually looking forward to it by the time I started packing (two and a half days before my flight). I decided I needed a strategy not to get overwhelmed once there: Instead of trying to race to a bunch of panels throughout the day, I would focus on the bookfair, talk to presses and magazines and find out what I didn’t know.

I’m happy to report that this strategy served me well, and I got to see and meet people I never would have if I hadn’t spent that time. 

Here are a few highlights:

First up, the editor at Press 53: Kevin Morgan Watson. Two years ago, when I was trying to find a publisher for my memoir, I contacted him for advice. Years before, I had heard him speak at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, and even though he didn’t remember me (he couldn’t have—I was just one small face in a big audience), he gave me great advice, looked over the contract of a prospective publisher, and basically made a big difference to my book’s future. I wanted to thank Kevin again in person for his generosity and time, and I did that. I also knew some of his writers already (I've read their books!), so I got to talk to them, and I met some new ones, including an author who runs a website (Bookfox) with tons of writer resources. Yay!

Next, the booth for The Ohio State University, the school where I slogged my way through a journalism master’s degree (and only made it through by taking as many electives as I could in creative writing). The OSU Press has a literary trade imprint, Mad Creek Books, and I loved talking to the editor about the press and all the new initiatives, and about my hometown, and my beloved state of Ohio. It made me nostalgic but proud. 

I spent quite a bit of time talking to staff members of Superstition Review, an online literary magazine I had never heard of until then, but their enthusiasm got me excited. Maybe I could have my poems published there, too, I thought. “What kind of poetry do you like?” I asked. They talked about what they liked, and what they didn’t like: narrative poetry, which is pretty much what I write. Undeterred, I researched the magazine later, read a bunch of what they published (and found many poets I admire), and decided to go for it even though my work doesn’t fit perfectly with what they love. Thats what AWP does! It makes you gutsy!

I also had a long conversation with the managing editor of CavanKerry Press and learned about Poetry Out Loud, a program for high school students in which they compete for the best recitation of a poem. (And oh serendipity—on my flight home, I read a feature article about Poetry Out Loud that just happened to be in the magazine I had brought with me. I felt like the universe was telling me, pay attention, chica!) I’ve already contacted the organization to see if I can get something going in my local high school (though the high school doesn’t know it yet).

And last but not least: I spent a bit of time gabbing with Southern Fried Karma, a new press that has begun with a bang. The publisher, Steve McCondichie, and his associate publisher, April Ford, both went to the same creative writing master's program where I went, and their weekly zine, New Southern Fugitives, published two of my poems this year and a review of my memoir. I wanted to say hello, but mostly I wanted to go to their table because I just really like them both. Good people, as they say in these parts.

And my friends, my dear writing friends! They were the best part of the conference. On my last night, Robert McCready made us go traipsing around downtown in search of ice cream. (None of us were exactly protesting.) I made them stop outside the Taco Bus to snap a pic.

These people keep me sane in the writing world. They make me laugh. They make this word nerd feel like when she’s with them, she’s found a writerly home. I can't thank them enough for making my first AWP a great one.

Next month is National Poetry Month! I’ve lined up some great poems from some great poets to share with you on my blog. I've also partnered with Robert McCready, who will be reciting them on YouTube. If you haven’t checked out his poetry series on YouTube, you must. (Here is Robert reading one of my poems published in New Southern Fugitives.

Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy life.