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.

Cold Feet on a Hot June Morning


What’s a wedding without cold feet? Some stories did not make into my memoir, but sometimes an interview will bring one out, which is what happened in the interview I did with Michael Brantley.

Michael was one of the first people I met in my MFA program at Queens University. He was in his fourth and last semester when I was just beginning, and he was one of two peers I studied with at the start of the two-year program. I learned not only from Michael's critiques of my work but also from his strategies and successes of becoming a published author soon after he graduated. (Here’s a link to his first book.)

Thank you, Michael, for this interview, and for being a part of my Queens family.

Here is the first part of the interview: 

MB: How did your book come about?

SC: When I was 29, on a June Sunday morning in a hotel in Cincinnati, I said goodbye to my college friends at the end of my bridal shower weekend. I was standing in the lobby, and as each of my friends left to drive away and back to their own lives, I made my way to a payphone to call my  fiancé—my own future life. That’s when I felt a panic wash over me. The feeling didn't leave me for a couple of hours, but I chose to ignore it the entire time that it stained my mood and thoughts. It took me many years (and a wedding and a divorce) to understand what my body had been trying to tell me that I dismissed. (Back then, I was good at dismissing.) My memoir doesn't really begin there, but that's one of the first things I wrote down. Eventually, the memoir became much bigger than that part of my life, and it forced me to explore what I believed about love, destiny, fear, and faith and how those things had informed the many choices I made and shaped who I am today.

MB: How long have you been writing and publishing and what brought you to it?

You can read my answer and the rest of the interview here.

A List of Favorites, Richard Wilbur, the Importance of Memory, and Rejection

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Christmas came early for me this year: I am so grateful and humbled that my memoir made it into the Dayton Daily News list of 2017 favorite nonfiction books. Thank you, Vick Mickunas.

The other big gift: I had the great privilege of reflecting on writing memoir and rejection and a whole host of other things when the editor of Southern Literary Review interviewed me. He started out asking me about Richard Wilbur, and if you haven't read any of Wilbur's poems, I'll link to my favorite of his here: "The Writer."

This poem has a long history in my life, and I chose the poem's end as the epigraph to my memoir. This was a choice I made long ago, before the memoir was even complete. Here is what the editor, Allen Mendenhall, asked me, and my answer.

AM: Shuly, thanks for this interview about your memoir, The Going and Goodbye. I want to start by asking you about the epigraph by Richard Wilbur, in part because he passed away just about the time your book was released. I find that intriguing because you quote him on the subject of life and death, which you grapple with in the book.

SC: I was lucky enough to meet Richard Wilbur when he came to my undergraduate university not long after he had served as poet laureate. Because I was one of the editors of the literary magazine, I had the privilege of having lunch and spending some hours with him, along with other students. A few years later, while in graduate school for journalism, I took some poetry writing classes as a way to get through my journalism degree (not that the journalism program was bad—I just longed to be studying creative writing). In one poetry class, my professor, David Citino, asked that we all memorize and recite a poem, and I chose “The Writer,” which is where the epigraph comes from. To this day, I cherish the poem for what it did for me then—help propel me through a master’s degree I didn’t love but that served me well—but also for the story the poem tells: of someone needing to write in order to, in essence, live.

AM: Could you live without writing? 

SC: Yes, but I think I would suffer now without writing. It has helped me grapple with and understand a great many things in life, and it has served as a steady companion. That being said, I can imagine that it’s possible that one day I won’t turn to it anymore. I journaled from when I was a child until about ten years ago—journaling was a constant in my life. One day I just stopped for no apparent reason, and I haven’t journaled since. I think things can run their course.

AM: As I read your book, I felt a tugging, aching longing for people and places of my past, even as the story was yours. With every gain in life, it seems, there’s a corresponding loss, just as there’s a loss with every gain. Most of these involve relationships, romantic or otherwise, and the remarkable way in which our emotional state at any given moment is bound up in the feelings and desires of others. 

SC: One of the things I wrote in the book was that I like beginnings, before I’ve had to pick one thing over another—because with every decision, there is one thing that gets chosen and another that isn’t, sometimes many others. And those others have always been hard for me—I am capable of grieving deeply for them. It’s taken me a long time to realize that those choices might not have turned out as I used to imagine them. What’s that saying? Something about how unhappiness comes from focusing on what isn’t rather than what is. I believe that.

To read the rest of the interview at Southern Literary Review, click here.

Thanks, as always, to all of my blog subscribers. Two of you just subscribed in the last week—a warm welcome to you both. 

And I hope everyone reading this has a peaceful holiday season.