Dispatches | March 18, 2013

Should undergraduate students be encouraged or even permitted to attend the AWP Conference?

Last week, post-AWP Boston, my friend Andrew Scott (author of Naked Summer, Ball State professor, senior editor at Engine Books, and all-around champion of good things in contemporary literature) posted this conversation starter question on his Facebook wall.

He received comments—chimed in on by a range of authors, editors, and educators—that touched on a range of important questions, with legitimate concerns about the direction of AWP and its current goals. If you’r interested, you can read about AWP’s goals in their strategic plan, some of which you might find are problematic as aggressive expansion seems to be a crucial component of the ten-year plan (I doubt they would phrase it this way). But I want to focus on Andrew’s original question: to undergrad, or not to undergrad?But for the sake of keeping this blog post under thirty thousand words, I’m going to focus on the original question of undergraduate involvement, especially since I have a small advantage here: four undergraduates affiliated with The Missouri Review went to AWP Boston. Why don’t we ask them what happened?

The Missouri Review, like most established organizations, has a mission statement, and along with producing a quarterly literary magazine, we also have a strong educational component. Our internship program, for undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Missouri, is a significant part of what we do. And a large part of that education is being a mentor to emerging writers and young editors. I’ve always felt that the most satisfying part of being a teacher is seeing your students’ success, the ones that kept at It, whatever It may be, long after your classes are over.

This year, we had four undergraduates who, on their own, attended the AWP Conference. They are all in different stages of their college career, and I asked them individually for their thoughts on this year’s AWP conference.

Jordan Durham, a second semester TMR intern who has been accepted into an MFA program for next year, was guided by John Nieves, one of her poetry professors here at Mizzou. Nieves, who will be an assistant professor of poetry at Salisbury University in the fall, showed Jordan and a fellow poetry student around the book fair the first day. He made introductions to poets and editors, not really holding their hand, just giving his MU students a little grounding to the conference experience. After that, Jordan and her friend(s) were off and running, but they were eased into their first day.

Olivia Aguilar, one of three TMR office assistants who went to AWP Boston, attended last year’s conference in Chicago. At the time, it was her final semester at Stephens College, and she found the experience overwhelming (certainly the layout in Chicago of the book fair and the narrow hallways to the panels didn’t help). This year, Olivia said, she was looking for three things: journals where she could submit her poetry, a job in literary publishing or a small press, and information on graduate schools. She went with a plan. Her lanyard identified her as a TMR employee. “Most people asked us about that,” she said. “They saw our tags. That’s why my experience was so different this year. I was more likely to be asked questions and have a longer discussion.”

Maura Lammers, another office assistant, is a graduating senior. She had never been to the conference before, but friends of hers at Mizzou had gone to AWP Chicago and had a blast. “For me, it was just a great opportunity to immerse myself in a community that I very much want to become a part of within the next few years.  Although I’m not going to grad school for at least a year and I probably won’t be able to find a job in publishing immediately, it was still enormously helpful for me to mingle and talk to editors from journals I admire and grad schools I’m interested in. It’s always nice to be surrounded by like-minded people and to know that there are literally thousands of people who still believe in the power of storytelling, like I do.”

Kaulie Lewis is the only one of the four who still has a year left toward her undergraduate degree. Like Olivia and Maura, she volunteered to work the TMR booth and talked to people that came by to visit our journal. From this experience, she had different expectations when she was speaking to graduate students and magazine editors at the book fair tables. “I had one of the most awkward human social interactions EVER. But then other tables were super friendly. Or looking at some MFA programs, some people were like ‘Here’s a card.’ But another introduced me to the director of the program and I talked to her for fifteen minutes. It makes an impression on you when people are friendly and actually talk to you.”

All four students talked about their panel experiences which, as is typical, was a mixed bag. Olivia liked one in particular: “The Steve Almond one about turning essays into a collection. No pretentiousness.” Maura said, “At about half the panels I went to that had lesser-known writers, those writers were always referencing their own work or trying to promote it in some way. So I would just be sitting in the audience thinking: Okay, I want you to tell me about travel writing in general and how to do it–not tell me all the details about your book and try to get me to buy it. I guess I expected the panels to be more instructive (like mini lectures).’ In any case, though, if the moderator was prepared and had good questions to ask, the panels were almost always great. I do think the moderator can make or break a panel.” Kaulie added, “I was struck by how not helpful the panels were. There were very few things that I thought ‘I will take that home and use it.” The best of the panels and readings, all agreed, was the Cheryl Strayed and Augusten Burroughs reading.

For our three office assistants, they also unanimously agreed that working the TMR table was their favorite part of the conference. Olivia said “that was all of our favorite parts. We thought we were gonna like the panels but it turned out we only liked one or two of them of the eight we saw. Talking with everyone was the best part.” Kaulie agreed: “All of us enjoyed (working the table) way more than we thought we would.” Because of their experience on the other side of the table as part of a staff, all three women approached other journals and writing programs with confidence. They knew how to approach editors not just as curious submitters and avid readers, but as colleagues, treating both the exhibitors and themselves like they belonged. Which, of course, they did.

Further, all three agreed that going with writer-friends that were motivated and had similar writing goals made a tremendous difference. This is critical. All three women want to pursue a life in writing, creating or publishing it and reading it and everything else in between. They are in similar stages in their lives, working in different genres but generally in the same area of contemporary literature, and supportive as friends and writers. Maura said it best: “Being with Kaulie and Olivia is like sliding down a gigantic rainbow on the back of a unicorn while eating ice cream and petting a box full of puppies.”

When I asked them what they would tell an undergraduate planning on going to next year’s AWP Conference, they’re suggestions were similar. Olivia said, “Learn as much as you can. Everyone that goes comes away with something. Basically soaking it all in reaffirms why you are in this industry. This experience has made me want to keep going. See my favorite writers read, it was reaffirming.” Maura suggests an attendee “spend less time in panels and more time talking to editors or reps from grad schools or whoever you need to talk to. If I had to do something over, I would have spent more time on the floor talking to people from tables and taking my time instead of rushing through it over the course of a few hours in one afternoon.” Kaulie said it best about panels: sit in the back. Also, you should borrow a sweater from Austin Segrest (inside joke). And, she said you should not bring homework.

Also, all four students had fun but no stories of public drunkenness will be shared here. None of these women treated AWP like an academic Cancun.

For editors, writers, and teachers like myself, taking an active mentorship role matters. If this is a professional conference, introductions and connections and guiding our young writers should be a critical component of these four days. If we encourage our students to attend—AWP thinks we should, and I agree—we should also do so responsibly, with a willingness to show our students the ropes and when they come to our booth or table, treat them with the respect we would give any other writer. Attending AWP is expensive for individual writers, for MFA programs, for literary journals, for small presses. We need to make the most of it for those we are mentoring.

For undergraduates, keep in mind that it’s a professional conference. Yes, it’s absolutely a terrific time, tons of fun, and you won’t mind the fact that you will get no sleep whatsoever. Still. Attend with serious, like-minded emerging writers. Be courteous at the tables. Come with a plan. In the contemporary literary scene, there is nothing else out there like the AWP conference. It’s not an experience you want to miss.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye