Dispatches | January 26, 2011

It’s that time of the year again—AWP season. When next Wednesday rolls around multitudes of writers, readers, editors, students, professors will flock to Washington D. C. and pack the Marriot to the brim for a few days. I think back to my first AWP three years ago, and it is clear to me that I was utterly unprepared. This is likely still the case, and I am far from a veteran, but I think my proximity to that first overwhelming experience might help me provide some advice for first-timers, and maybe I can even provide more experienced conference-goers a few useful tips.

First, register ahead of time. It will save you some money and long lines. Once you have your tres fashionable AWP tote, dig into your massive schedule of events. Now, prepare for disappointment. It isn’t that the folks at AWP put together a lackluster schedule—just the opposite. You’ll undoubtedly thumb through the first day of panels and readings only to discover that your esteemed former mentor who you haven’t seen in years, favorite poet/personal muse, and closest friend desperately in need of your presence in the crowd for moral support will all be speaking at 9:00 in far apart corners of the hotel. You will miss things that days before you would have sworn were impossible to pass up. At first missing these events will seem blasphemous, but by the end of the weekend you’ll be skipping them for a catnap.  There is a lot to see and do.  So see what you can, and save the rest for the AWP’s to come.

One other tip regarding daytime events: go to readings.  They are nice break from the panels whether you are hearing Sharon Olds or the latest batch of MFA candidates from (fill in the blank) University.  It’s nice to hear some of the product that is being discussed in such detail throughout the conference.

On the rare hours where there are no panels or readings that pique your interest, you’ll likely head down to the Bookfair. Prepare yourself.  If you are charismatic, self-assured, and a natural but gentle self-marketer, enjoy yourself.  If however, you react as I did (and, okay I admit, still do), you walk swiftly down the aisles, eyes straight ahead and slightly down—using only peripheral vision to take in the stalls and their wares.  It takes me as many as three laps of the various halls before I feel confident enough for interaction.

Of course, the experience does not need to be this traumatic.  One thing that I have found helpful is having a home base.  If you are at all associated with a journal, press, or program, volunteer to help out at their booth.  It seems significantly easier to have people come to you than to approach a booth.  And, once you’ve done it, you realize that the people at the booth are hoping for people to come talk to them.  A shocking notion, I know.  When you do head up to booths—talk.  Maybe you can get a free copy of a journal, or a discounted contest entry, or just a better idea of what it is they do.  Try to avoid awkward jokes about the recent rejection you’ve received.  It seemed funny at the time, but I now realize that they hear that joke about a dozen times a day.  I promise to stop using it this year.

Above all else, don’t forget the SWAG (or stuff we all get!).  The tote will come in handy here.  If mine isn’t full of magnets, pens, coasters, bookmarks, and all other manner of bauble, I’ve had an unsuccessful weekend.

Once the day of panels is over, you’ll have your pick of a number of hosted nighttime readings and parties to attend.  Do attend them.  There is no better opportunity to bump into and socialize with “favorite poet/personal muse” or “National Book Award winner.”  Plus, most of these events are a decidedly good time.  My advice for these parties, avoid the subject of writing and writers when you can.  With this crowd, the subject will inevitably and constantly pop-up, and after a long day of sitting on and listening to panels, it can be nice to come up for air.  You will know you are doing this right when you find yourself discussing recent events on The Jersey Shore with some esteemed literary figure whose three latest novels are on your bookshelf.

“I agree,” said literary figure might reply, “Snooki’s recent antics at Club Karma were tragically Falstaffian.”

Another popular nighttime event is the AWP dance party, hosted in the host-hotel.  This year, a fifty-dollar donation is required to attend the open bar event on Friday and Saturday night.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the price is worth the chance to “Electric Slide” or “Cupid Shuffle” along with your fellow literati.  The scene seems to invite a David Attenborough voice-over narration on the “joyous and instinctive dance of these typically bashful creatures.”  Did you read that with a British accent?

Even if this has been completely unhelpful and you still find yourself being snowed under, remember, you are surrounded by people who love to read and write as much as you do.  It’s a truly comforting thought.

Mike Petrik is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Missouri and a Fiction Intern at the Missouri Review.