My reflections on AWP.

Over twenty people from MSU’s MFA program attended the Associated Writer’s Programs (AWP) conference in NYC this weekend. I’ve returned home owning twenty pounds of new books, a few new brain cells of knowledge, and one deliciously nasty cold. I’m also home light several hearty belly laughs and a few hundred bucks, but that’s the price one pays for a whirlwind weekend in the Big Apple. The miserable cold I picked up my first night at AWP is the main factor which kept me away from several of the panels I tentatively scheduled for myself last Tuesday (Who’s the fool who missed John Irving? Me. The coughing, sneezing, head-aching, sleeping fool). Rather than critique programs I attended, I’m concentrating on the highlights my time in NYC.

Best times with my MSU peers…

Part of making AWP succeed on a personal level is the networking and connecting. I had a chance to spend time with many of my peers – of which I can point you to the blogs of Danielle Starkey and, once again, Bryan Johnson – as well as see old pal Charlie Jensen from the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and English undergrads and professors from Southwest Minnesota State University I met last fall at Beth Ann Fennelly‘s Good Thunder Reading at MSU. Highlights with my MSU peers include a trek through Time Square with the gang, a too-late night in Greenwich Village with the guys, ridiculous text messaging, nocturnal activities in a hotel room in which all occupants have wildly varying sleeping schedules, tossing tunes on the jukebox the crowd actually enjoyed, David Clisbee playing a violin at the request of a subway busker, and a trip to the Upright Citizens Brigade theater. Thanks for the great times, gang.

Most unexpected person I saw at AWP…

While on my way to have Blue Hour signed by Carolyn Forché, I ran into Kurt Caswell; he was teaching English at Laramie County Community College while I was there serving as the Residence Life Coordinator, and he’s since moved on an assistant professorship at Texas Tech University. It seems Kurt’s had plenty of success during his time at TTU and I wish him the best. Seeing him at AWP is yet another bit of evidence that it is indeed a small world.

Best AWP Book Fair Promos…

My favorite three were all at the AWP Book Fair last year, too, and perhaps I’m just excited to get my hands on a few more. The aforementioned Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing handed out slap bracelets, Roger Magazine handed out Roger mini-frisbees (I made up a new game with these frisbees; every time you throw or catch the Roger frisbee, you say, “Roger!” with a faux-British accent for hours of fun), and thank you, thank you, thank you to the Poetry Foundation for digging up a few more black-on-white buttons featuring the fantastic first line of Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” which begins: “I, too, dislike it.” Yeah, plenty of booths had free candy and even free publication issues, but the three items mentioned above are guaranteed conversation pieces.

Best NYC alone time…

Sneaking away for a little solo R & R never hurt anybody, especially when the alternative is a hotel filled with thousands of people. I spent time walking through Time Square for gift shopping, strolled through Rockefeller Plaza to see the ice skating rink, wound up in the background of the Today Show’s outdoor segments, ate highly-addictive gyros from a cart vendor, and usually spent my panel time alone, preferring to catch what drew my attention rather than following the group. To this end, I saw…

My three favorite AWP panels…

Like I said, a cold made me miss many of the panels I intended to see. However, here’s what I saw and really enjoyed:

Show and Tell: Collaborations of the Verbal and Visual.

I met panelist and favorite playwright Christopher Durang after the panel, something I never imagined happening in my lifetime, as well as excellent cartoonist Jules Feifer. The panel spoke on ways of approaching writing which will be accompanied by visual representation, and spoke with fond nostalgia of foregone days of cartooning and its writer / artist approach. Feifer gave a particularly poignant capsule of wisdom: the artist’s responsibility is to visually represent the text to partner with it, not to overplay it or to downplay it. That’s a professional who loves his craft.

Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Sweet Valley High: The New Young Adult Literature.

While I can’t say I gained extraordinary insight into YA craft or publishing strategies, it was inspiring to hear YA writers speak of the craft with as much enthusiasm and passion as any other literary writing. I was disheartened to hear many academic settings don’t consider a YA publishing credit as legitimate, yet the panel posited we’re perhaps seeing the dawn of something new in the YA world: more and more prestigious awards that matter, and those awards and recognitions add up to something respectable.

Dramatic Writing For Stage, Screen & Digital Media: The Need for a New Kind of Interdisciplinary Writing Program. The MA in Professional Writing program at Kinnesaw State University is an enviable one, allowing student writers to collaborate with student actors, filmmakers, and creative artists to combine their writing with staged plays, short films, and other digital media content which combines the verbal and visual. Jeffery Stepakoff, a writer for Dawson’s Creek, Major Dad, and The Wonder Years, gave some great perspective on how new writers trained in new writing outlets are going to get jobs, and Aaron Levy presented a formula I dig: IDEA + FORCE + FORM = IDEA REALIZED. In other words, one’s creativity plus the drive to work on it, combined with the right presentation method equals the idea reaching its highest potential. The main argument of the KSU program is writers need to study the classic methods of writing but instead of fearing new forms of output, they should embrace them. This is a progressive idea I can get behind. I should see if they’re hiring – it sounds like a brilliant environment to teach within.

Carolyn Forché, Tao Lin, and Frank McCourt, oh my…

I brought my copy of Blue Hour for Carolyn Forché to sign. Her reading was delightful and it was nice to meet a professor of one of my professors (Rick Robbins worked with her during his college days). I did chicken out, however, and decided not to tell her I’ve nicknamed her sweeping, forty-five-page long poem “On Earth” as her “LMN-Opus.”

I picked up a copy of Tao Lin’s You Are a Bit Happier Than I Am poetry collection at last year’s AWP bookfair and made my way to the Action Books table to see what new work they had from him. Turns out they had none, but recommended going to Melville Press for his new novel and short story collection. At Melville, I was informed I had missed Tao Lin by five minutes. I stalked my way through all three floors of the book fair, Tao’s books held in front of me, hoping I’d catch a glimpse of him or he’d catch a glimpse of his books. Finally, a thin, quiet-voiced young man approached me and said, “Hi, um, those are my books.” I smiled and pointed a finger at him, proclaiming, “I’ve been looking for you.” He took a noticeable step back and then I told him the whole story and he was happy to sign my books (with doodles) and talk about his future work (more on the way, soon!). Tao Lin is a young talent who’s writing is indeed worth your time.

Frank McCourt and Billy Collins gave thousands of AWP attendees the most-entertaining hour of the week. The two men told jokes, spoke casually with the crowd, razzed each other a bit from the stage while the other was seated, and gave readings that really clicked with this attendee. My only regret? I forgot to bring my digital voice recorder. If AWP didn’t think to record that reading to release as a podcast, their regret should be at least mine tenfold.

And while my time in NYC and at AWP were for the most part wonderful, I can’t help but present two sour notes…

My biggest missed opportunity in NYC…

I should have visited MAD Magazine. I love MAD, nay, I lurve it, as Woody Allen might say. It only occurred to me on Friday evening to see about getting a tour and, while my hotel was only two blocks away from the MAD offices, I found out the hard way that MAD is not open to the public on Saturdays. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, but that’s something I’ll be kicking myself for quite some time.

AWP and it’s big missed opportunity…

Getting panel slots at AWP is a competitive and quick prcoess: submit a proposal by May, receive notice by August, present in January. What this way of doing things doesn’t allow is for incidental moments in writing which occur in-between that time, and while there were several tribute panels and readings to long-gone writers, the passing of one great writer this year wasn’t officially mentioned even once…

For AWP to not acknowledge the loss of Kurt Vonnegut in any official way is a missed opportunity and frankly, a clear fumble. It’s my hope that as we lose great writer, space is set aside in which a panel may pay tribute. Can you imagine getting high-profile writers to do public readings of Vonnegut’s work? I’m belaboring the point, but for as much praise as I’ve heaped on AWP in this blog post, surely I can dwell on one of their greatest mistakes.

And with that, I’m on far too few hours of sleep to continue writing and shall call it a night. If you were at AWP, dear reader, I’m interested in hearing about your favorite highlights, so send us a comment or link.


[tags]AWP, AWP conference, Kurt Vonnegut, Hilton, Carolyn Forche, Kinnesaw State University, Rick Robbins, Associated Writers Programs, Jeffery Stepakoff, Frank McCourt, Billy Collins reading, gyro[/tags]

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