February 24, 2012

A Personal Blueprint for AWP Chicago

Next week is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference and bookfair. Which is a mouthful. Most people just say AWP. It’s in Chicago this year, and sadly for those of us here in Columbia, it’s at the exact same time as the True/False film festival. But duty calls, so our entire senior staff, graduate editors, and a health dose of our office staff and interns are all headed north. At our table, we will be giving a way issues of The Missouri Review (that’s right: for free!), rolling out our new iPad app, subscription deals, offering the chance to meet three of our favorite authors, and generally talking about any and every thing that you might want to know about our magazine and writing in general. Please come by and say “Yo!”

In this space, we’ve written about AWP before. Michael Kardos wrote about how overwhelming it can feel. Michael Petrik wrote about last year’s conference in Washington D.C. before we went, and I did a roundup after we got back. The year before, I wrote about AWP Denver. And if you keep picking through our blog archives, you’ll find that everyone has different responses: former managing editor Richard Sowienski wrote about AWP 2007 (held in Atlanta). Officially, AWP has its own useful series of questions and answers, and the good folks at Tin House can help you identify poets.

The other day, I ran into one of my friends who is a first year MFA candidate at a Big University. He said that he too was headed up to Chicago, and asked what it was like and what he should do up there. Which got me thinking about my last couple of AWP experiences and how they’ve shaped my current plans. Here’s a quick rundown:

2004: Chicago. I went with my graduate program. Our program didn’t have a table at the book fair for the program or our literary journal, so we went as a wandering pack of about two dozen people. The first year I went to a lot of panels and picked up a ton of free merchandise and cheap sample copies. Back home, I dumped my back of thirty some odd journals and a weird mixture of Things I Do Not Need (rulers, bookmarks, shot glasses, pens, etc.) on the floor of my apartment and wondered what I was supposed to do with all of this stuff.

2009: Chicago. Went representing River Styx, though we couldn’t afford a table. Out of graduate school, none of my old workshop buddies were there. Went to less panels. Spent more time at the book fair and at the bars. Randomly ran into Richard Bausch again (I’d met him in St. Louis the year before), and he actually remembered me! Brought home less stuff.

2010: Denver. My first year with The Missouri Review. Nice to be behind a table. Went looking for, and found, lots of other editors to ask them questions about their magazines and what made them great. Wonk-ier. Lots more off-site readings. Saw many old friends this time. Warmer weather. “It’s the altitude!” was the running not so funny joke. Bummed I missed the Nuggets game.

2011. Washington D.C. Nightmare trying to get there due to 20 inches of snow (!!!) in Missouri. Half our staff didn’t make it. On a panel about print journals with online content. Otherwise, didn’t go to any panels. Tons of friends to see for catchup drinks and dinner (read: more drinks). Hotel room was awesome. Refused all free gifts at tables. Missed about a hundred people that I wanted to talk to. Exhausted by Saturday night. Did not bother seeing if there was a Wizards game.

Based on this experience, here’s my current loose rules of thumbs—subject to change at any time—for this year’s AWP.

Skip the panels. Controversal advice, I’m sure. A regular criticism of AWP panels is that they are not particularly good and poorly organized, and that panels are selected for name recognition rather than the quality of the presentation. I wish I could disagree. Most of the panels were far more interesting to me as a grad student than they were once I was working at a literary journal, but even then, the rooms were cramped, the panels started late, and mostly, I wanted to have a conversation with a particular panelist rather than hear what all of them had to say. I usually just looked for said panelists over the course of four days. Remember, everyone wears badges.

Hit the bookfair hard. The bookfair, to me, is where it’s at. I’m completely and totally biased: I work on a literary magazine, and love it. So, of course, I go to the tables and want to hear about what they are doing and what they are up to. I love talking shop. And when you find a table, and the editors are really interesting? You learn a ton about publishing. I highly recommend it.

Do not drink at the hotel bar. Last time I was in Chicago, I ordered two mixed drinks: whiskey and Coke, and a gin and tonic. This cost me $22. Really. And I waited fifteen minutes to get these drinks. You’re in Chicago. Go find another place to hang out.

Do not plan to go to any readings. This will make people mad, but, so be it. If you ask me about a reading, I will say “I’ll do my best.” And I really will. But I go to a lot of readings already. Readings are cool. But I can do that anywhere. There are sixty billion readings in Columbia alone. What’s another reading? This does not mean that I don’t go to readings; in Denver, Christina Hutchins said “Have you ever heard Forrest Gander read?” with such awe that I thought: Gotta go. Plus, I got to hang out with Christina Hutchins. Sold! But that wasn’t planned. My reading attendance is more of the standing in a pack of people variety, someone asks what we’re up to, someone else answers “There’s a reading across the street!” and we say, “All right, let’s do that!” So, I go to readings. I just don’t pre-plan to go.

Smart Water. When I get to town, I find a convenience store and buy as much Smart Water as I can. I drink an entire liter before I go out, and when I come back, I drink an entire liter before I go to bed. You really should not need an explanation why.

Eyes up. It’s aggravating how people look at your lanyard before deciding whether or not you are worth talking to. Remember that you are with other writers, and we’re all really eager to say Hello to a wide-range of people: politeness and dignity can go a long way in making good impressions. Don’t be that person (though, at AWP, we are all that person). Keep your eyes above the neck. It’s much appreciated by all.

Above all, enjoy it. That’s the biggest thing. It sounds like the kind of advice your parents give you, but AWP is really what you make of it. It really is a wonderful time. Do come talk to us: we’d love put a face to a name, see old friends again, and make lots of new ones.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and New South, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com