AWP 2018: Among My Own – For a Few Days, Anyway

27 April 2018 on Blog, Storystorm  

The flight left Boston on the billowing forefront of a Nor'easter that would shut down the Eastern Seaboard the following week. We touched down in Tampa’s breezy 65 degrees. It was a Wednesday.

From the hotel it was a short walk along a paved riverside path to the gigantic convention center. Inside, the Barnstorm editorial staff took a moment to set up the bookfair table. There were four of us. We were nearly alone in the big room. It was more like a blimp hangar, sprawling and empty, with rows on rows of tables filling some of the space, but it was otherwise empty and calm. Over the next three days, 13,000 attendees would make their rotations past the tables of 800 presses and journals on the bookfair floor. Every hour hundreds of people would pass the Barnstorm table.

Outside was downtown Tampa, and I saw people moving place to place, hurriedly, distractedly, purposefully. Everyone seemed to belong. Nobody had the look of an outsider. There were those who belonged for the week, our people, and those who belonged long-term, mostly service workers and maintenance people in bright, reflective clothing, and the occasional suited, cell-phoned, business-type who carried the air of annoyance through the whole scene. Our people were easy to recognize by the baby blue AWP lanyard with an attached name tag and collections of bulging tote bags under their arms.

The conference began at 9 a.m. on Thursday with the energy of a heavy metal music festival. I entered the conference center that morning to attend the first of several panels ranging from Ethnic Voices in the North East to Writing After Prison. I was thrashed around by swarming schools of panel-goers. A man accosted me, begging to know where to find a restroom. I didn’t know.

Suddenly the hall was empty. I saw the restroom down the carpeted hallway and sent the man on his way. I found my room, 17.

The discussion was light; I expected a lot of heated talking points and instead discovered a discussion on craft. I listened while accomplished writers, academics, and one outspoken activist shared their work and philosophies on life and art. They discussed a creative truth that each had found in a layering of macaronic work, socially active language, and anecdotal occasions that place the reader in a white landscape with non-white guides. The center of the conversation was New England landscapes viewed by poets from ethnic communities, but I found that the discussion was rooted in craft and artfulness. The consensus in the room was that writing artfully generally meant tapping an invisible source of creative truth. This is something with which readers of this blog will know I am in total agreement.

At 10 minutes after 10:00, I stepped out of panel room 17, a few minutes before the panel's end, and took a spot against the wall. At once, all 30 panels let out and what seemed like thousands of writers, publishers, designers, and all varieties of creative persons buzzed outward. The chaos was fast. The next panels were set to begin, and lunch was still far off. The people found pathways into new rooms. Then the hall was empty again. This would happen every hour and 15 minutes between 9 and 5 for three days. Every panel I attended, Using Sound in Poetry, Writing after Prison, and even George Saunders’ keynote speech, carried with it the message that the artful writer accepts that a creative truth exists outside of themselves, and that sitting to do art, in our case writing, is the best way to access it.

The convention was a lot of activity to take in, especially being my first AWP. But, to my pleasure, I discovered that AWP 2018 was plugged into the creative consciousness. The people in attendance also seemed plugged in. In that setting it’s like a creative hive mind. I have called it the creative truth, one I look to access when I write, one that informs our time, and one that is informed by our time. That is to say, AWP 2018 spoke directly to the current moment in writing, and it spoke directly to me and my writing in the moment.

Monday morning at breakfast, in the little bakery by the river, I realized that 13,000 people had checked out of their hotels and boarded planes, cars, busses, and trains. Our people – the baby blue conference lanyard wearers, the tote bag carriers – had been replaced by young people wearing Father John Misty T-shirts. A music festival called Gasparilla had snuck in over night.

Dan Haislet is Barnstorm's Poetry Editor. 

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