Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 AWP Conference in Chicago

It’s amazing to think that the annual conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Chicago from February 29 to March 3, 2012 was attended by 11,000 souls. The number of attendees easily exceeded the population of Montpelier, the capital city of the state of Vermont. The sheer number of writers, editors, and publishers who attended was eye-popping.
Seeing so many literary people in one place—exchanging thoughts in the hotel lobbies, crowding panel discussions, attending off-site events in bars—it was exhilarating. After a couple of days of rubbing elbows only with writers, though, I longed to see a plumber. I suppose that’s partly because the vast number of writers raises vast questions, not the least of which is: How can one writer make an impact in an artistic community that large?
I do feel extremely hopeful when I see so many literary publishers persisting and even thriving in a stormy economic climate, and in a culture in which publishing and literature can sometimes seem totally invisible or irrelevant. Hundreds of publishers filled four exhibition halls, each as large as a city block. It was impossible to visit every table, even in four days. I salute all the exhibitors who spent that long weekend in the innards of the Chicago Hilton.
There were many high points for me. I loved the celebration of Tia Chucha Press, a Chicago institution that has given us so many fabulous authors. Luis Rodriguez, the publisher, in typical fashion, turned the podium over to the poets. Michael Warr’s poem with the refrain “When Ella starts scatting” really resonated for me.
The offsite reading for upstreet magazine was terrific. Three poets, three prose writers, each excellent. Hats off to editor Vivian Dorsel. Bill Zavatsky’s new poems were fantastic, especially his elegy for his mom. Promising younger poet Hannah Fries also impressed.
At the panel discussion on the ghazal, Ravi Shankar’s tribute to the late, great Agha Shahid Ali was moving, bringing back memories of that brilliant and mischievous poet.
Mark Doty was, as always, a standout. He read in the Page Meets Stage event in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, one of the few examples of Rococo-revival design, a school I didn’t know existed. I loved Mark’s poem about walking his dog in a graveyard.
Chicago was an amazing setting for the conference. It’s a city that has kept many of its architectural gems, and added new ones. I got to take a walking tour (in a hailstorm) of some of the downtown highlights, sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The tour included the Chicago Cultural Foundation building, one of the most incredible structures in the entire country. Not one but two domes made of exquisite stained glass. Irish marble inlaid with iridescent tile. Sipping soup in the Atwood Restaurant in the historic Reliance Building—also a one-of-a-kind moment.
I asked many of the people I met what their favorite part of the AWP conference was. The last person I asked was wheeling his carry-on out of the Palmer House Hilton elevator on the last day of the conference. His comment: “The bar.”

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