Keeping the oars in the water- AWP edition

posted in: The Journey | 1
2016 AWP Book Fair

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I’ve been attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference for the last ten years. Established in the seventies, this is one of the conferences that brings together writers, publishers, lit magazines, professors, and students in writing programs. It’s huge. Recently, attendance has topped 12,000 people.

I want you to close your eyes for a minute and imagine that. 12,000 writers in one place. And there, if you zoom in, likely lurking in the back of the book fair, is me. If you could zoom in even further, through my eyes and deep into my skull, you’d see a brain in overdrive. Or you might have to pull out far enough to see me hiding in my hotel room with a new book clenched in my hand, staring vacantly out the window, while my brain whirs.

Like most writers, I have a love/hate relationship with the event. Even though I find the whole thing incredibly overwhelming, exhausting, and expensive, I go every year that I can scrape together the cash. Why? Well, I live in Alaska. I’m a poet that lives in Alaska.

I’m lucky enough to live in a small town in Alaska with a lot of other writers. Some professional folks who make their living writing books and teaching writing. Many folks with MFAs in writing. Lots more who take it seriously and toil in the trenches. But, I live in Alaska. It’s not easy to get here. We have some incredible writers come through for the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference each year. A few more tour the state through the university system and 49 Writers. But, it’s not like living in Portland or Seattle or Austin or New York.

So, every year I go wherever AWP takes me. I completely max out my check-on bag coming home with new books. I go to panels and watch brilliant people talk about poetry. I go to readings and see my heroes bring their poetry to life. I get books signed, and I drink too much, and I exhaust myself. It’s like eating a fifty-layer chocolate cake with a side of chocolate.

Is it perfect? No. There are so many things we could all be doing better to make the experience more equitable, easier. But it does seem to me that every year it is a little better than the last. And every year, I return to my little desk in Alaska feeling buoyed by a tribe that contains writers I admire, friends from grad school, acquaintances that have passed through Homer, people I would only know through Facebook and Twitter.

This year I’m flying over 3,800 miles to Tampa, Florida, for AWP. It’ll take me two days to get there. Two days (if all the flights go as scheduled). One very full flying day and a four hour time change on the day of Daylight Savings Time switching back to get home. But in Tampa, at the Red Hen Press booth, will be my newest book. I haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t held it. I have a panel, an offsite reading, and three signing slots, all in the space of three days. I’m flying for two days to meet my newest baby. To show her to folks. To see their new babies and listen to their words.

It’s a miracle, really. Every time. An exhausting miracle, but let’s keep our eyes on the smudge of stardust. People go into their heads, pull out words, craft them, send them into the big world, and then we read those words and they live in our hearts. If that isn’t a miracle, I can’t imagine what one looks like.

Hope to see some of you in Tampa! I’ll be the one trying to keep my oars in the water.

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  1. Karen A. Tschannen

    Erin, I can only imagine your trip! I went to one writers conference with workshops (in Port Townsend, with Carolyn Kizer, Sahid Ali, etc etc) some years back. A week of what felt like 36 hour days and evenings, readings and meeting other writers, books, and words words words. It was exhilarating and exhausting. Too exhausting. I broke the wheels on my suitcase packed with other writers’ words. I went to get stimulated. I was that. I wrote nothing for 6 months after falling onto a ferry and then a plane and then home. I was physically and mentally fried. One conference. I’ve not been to another since. I applaud you, but cannot picture myself in such a setting as you described. Last night at the new Writers’ Block, and at age 80, and through Cirque Press, I had the “launch” of “Apportioning the Light”– a slim volume of 96 poems of my collected works that I felt could be worthy of paper and print. There will be no other. Yet I follow you in your quest for the perfect word, the perfect phrase, the perfect line. My quest is over, but my world of poetry is not. With admiration, Karen T.

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