13 Bests of AWP 2013

AWP can deliver on some of its promises. If you can keep calm and carry on, if you can acknowledge the hysteria without becoming hysterical yourself, if you can avoid eye-contact with the thousands, yet have conversations with the few, AWP can be magical.
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The behemoth has gone home, dragging its entrails - disguised as a purple velvet coat - behind it. Boston has waved goodbye to the AWP conference best described by Steve Almond, in his piece for The New Republic, as "the vast roving capital of American literary anxiety," and the Hynes Convention Center has breathed a sigh of relief. People learned things, apparently, things such as the fact that writers cannot hold their booze, and that the response to everything can be "it depends." If you want to get a sense of the bitter-wry way in which we can look at all things AWP, look no further than David Duhr, who blogged for Publishing Perspectives from the quiet recesses of the "forgotten ballroom," seated at table z-29. Choice morsels:

Day #1: So what do they get in exchange for four hours of their lives and 40-230 of their dollars? A badge, for one thing, which NOBODY is checking. And for the right to ignore "500 events and 1900 presenters," and to wander dazed through three giant ballrooms'-worth of "more than 600 exhibitors."

Day #2: "If there are 8,000 writers here," said one bleary-eyed AWPer here on Day 2, "7,000 of them are delusional. And AWP doesn't try to end their delusions." The reported number of attendees this year is 11,000, so using the same math, there are actually 9,625 delusional people here. I think I've talked to them all. I've also talked to the other 1,375. I'm not sure which group I'm in, but I do know one thing: Both are equally miserable.

Day #3: ...we'll wander from bar to bar, physically and emotionally exhausted, carting around books and magazines and business cards and our dead souls, firmly entrenched in the knowledge, the absolute without-a-doubt certainty, that this is our last AWP, that we'll never return to this event, ever, that AWP 2014 in Seattle can go f*** itself, and so can the probably 12,000+ hosers who will show up to do it all again for little-to-no personal or financial or professional enrichment whatsoever.

But AWP can also deliver on some of its promises. If you can keep calm and carry on, if you can acknowledge the hysteria without becoming hysterical yourself, if you can avoid eye-contact with the thousands, yet have conversations with the few (usually good friends who can and will see you through life), AWP can be magical. Here, then, a scant 13 "bests" from the 2013 conference.

1. Best Moderator: Stephen Burt, moderating the panel 'What is Criticism' with NBCC winners and finalists, Vivian Gornick, James Wood, Clare Cavanagh, and Parul Sehgal. All moderators should be so erudite, charming, and energetic. Particularly at 1.30pm on the last day of AWP.

2. Best Panelists: All the smart, relaxed, happy-to-contradict people on the 'What is Criticsm' (see above), session. Highlights included Sehgal's assertion that ideas make regionalism irrelevant, Gornick quoting Auden on never writing about bad art (i.e. don't review bad work, it will sink on its own lack of merit), and her discussion of the long-road taken to her essay on Israel and the necessity to temper criticism with affection or risk an "yes-but" story, and Woods speaking about writing as a zone of honesty. Kwame Dawes on the 'Baring/Bearing Race in the Creative Writing Classroom' panel, who reminded us that the only barrier we face is the failure of the imagination.

3. Best Wild-Card: Thomas Sayers Ellis performing "Or" to the accompaniment of music.

4. Best Found-Poet by Attending a Panel on a Whim: Nazim Hikmet. The call to arms made by David Wojahn, on the necessity of being involved in changing the tenor of relationships between human beings so divided by class, was particularly of the moment.

5. Best Tribute to the Legacy of a Teacher: Derek Walcott. Nothing can beat the stories told by a students - even those in absentia, as Melissa Green was, while the teacher is still around to hear them. Bonus? Yusef Komunyakaa leaning forward to listen, hard.

6. Best Worst-Moment: a bouncer appearing at the bar of a hotel hosting 11,000 writers, and trying to prevent them from getting a drink. Not cool.

7. Best Booth: Grub Street's set complete with couch, table, and the always dapper Chris Castellani.

8. Best WTF Booth: A tent for psychic readings. Don't ask.

9. Best Addition to AWP: wine bar inside the book fair. Why kid ourselves. In the glare of that florescence we could all use a little help dimming our eyesight.

10. Best Off-Site Event: Super-agent Julie Barer's party across from the hotel. Full disclosure: Julie is my agent. Still, you can't beat the most entertaining guests (Ben Percy? Check), and free drinks, and the fact that the Barer shindig has become a must-go-to for the literati.

11. Best Sales: The Rumpus selling out their several hundred 'Write like a Motherfucker' mugs for a second year in a row.

12. Best Panels Dealing With Real-World Issues (American, International): First, 'Reduced to I: Israeli and Iranian Poets.' How refreshing to hear writers speak of politics openly, to hear them apply their art directly to the practical matter of peace. Ofer Ziv in particular, who spoke in his remarks about the difficulty of writing about his time of service in the Israel Defense Force. Also, 'Looking Out: American Journals on the World,' with the editors of World Literature Today (Daniel Simon), VQR (Paul Reyes), and Prairie Schoonerr (Kwame Dawes), moderated by Glenna Luschei. John Freeman (Granta) was missing and missed. It was heartening to hear these editors speak to the matter of introducing America to the existence of the world, and even more gratifying to see that they could turn the early morning attendance rate (on the last day of a conference), into a dynamic discussion of priorities and perspectives.

13. Best Non-Participant: Chris Abani, who observed the entire conference (save for a minor journey or two to perform writerly duties), and by his own admission, from the comfort of a couch in the lobby.

So, yes, AWP 2014 in Seattle? You bet.

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