My AWP: 2011

The National Christmas Tree, with the Washington Monument in the background.

So the giant writers, editors, and publishers trade show, otherwise known as AWP, was last week in Washington D.C. It’s kind of hard to pull together anything too coherent regarding a constant stream of cocktails, skipped lunches, reunions, readings, casual encounters, and events, so I’ll go after this in bullet point fashion.

-I really had no idea that DC was such a fun city. My preconception was mostly made up of tour groups, packs of roving lobbyists, and motorcades. (I did see two motorcades, which was kind of exciting.) However, the Adams Morgan neighborhood was pretty awesome, as nights at Madam’s Organ Blues Bar and the Black Squirrel proved. Elijah Jenkins and Flatmancrooked put on an awesome event with the Literati Gong Show at Madam’s Organ on Thursday night. The place was absolutely packed and the attention was warranted. Here’s hoping the LGS becomes a mainstay. It’s a great twist on literary readings.

-It was somewhat curious how many street people accused me of “running game.” So that means I look like an easy mark, right?

Detail from the World War II Memorial.

-I heard the Jhumpa Lahiri keynote was kind of disappointing—I couldn’t make it back for it—but the Junot Díaz reading on Friday night was really something special. He spoke with lucidity and freshness about so many writerly issues that it kind of felt like an important, albeit informal, commencement address. His comments on Robert Smithson’s Somewheres and Elsewheres and the essay “The Monuments of Passaic” made it clear to me why—as a writer from a backwaters—Díaz’ work resonates with me. And his response to the question about profanity was really heartfelt and fascinating as well.

-The Benjamin Percy, Rick Moody, Joshua Ferris, Jennifer Egan reading was a highlight as well. You would expect a reading with such big names to be good, but this was as mind-blowing awesome as something can be right after lunch on a Saturday afternoon. It exceeded high expectations.

-There were only a few panels I made it to, and none of those were all that interesting. Much of the problem is that I pigeon-holed myself a little too much, picking panels that were similar to those I’ve seen in the past. That was pretty much the problem. It was too much of an echo from last year. Going outside the box will be important for next year.

-The Book Fair was pretty good though. It seemed really crowded, which is a good thing. More than that, most everyone was pretty enthusiastic and friendly, and only a few people came up to the Prairie Schooner table to sell us something. Awkward. It was great to meet some new people, to animate some Facebook faces, and to reconnect with a few friends. All of which is pretty much how it’s supposed to be. It was especially nice to meet the journal editors I’ve been working with over the past year.

Madam's Organ Blues Bar, host to the Literati Gong Show, Episode 1.

-The conference can be kind of exhausting, particularly in that you’re constantly talking about your own writing and reading and thinking. For someone who doesn’t get that much stimulation along these lines, it takes a bit of stretching out. This, however, was one of the best parts of the week. After all, you can’t feel too bad about being asked to talk about yourself. Anyway, it’s a great self-reflective exercise, as you’re forced to distill the components that express what your work is about down to a few cogent sentences. If you’re not sure what your book is about, or what the core conflict is, or what the basis of your main characters are, trying to explain these things a dozen times a day is a great way to find out if you have something going, or if you’re full of shit. (It’s okay to be full of shit, of course. But you should know you are, and then be able to do something about it.) It helped refresh my conception of my own work and showed me what ideas had dropped by the wayside. These kinds of oral exams can be painful to go through, but I think they’re important.

-Look out Chicago 2012!

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