Misadventures in Publishing: AWP Edition

I spent three days in Portland this past week, attending the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference. It’s only the second time I’ve been. The first time was five years ago, in Seattle. My kids were small and my mother came with me to help, and we stayed in a bed and breakfast on Capitol Hill, and the kids and my mom went to the Pacific Science Center while I attended panels, and I felt the whole time like I was missing out on the good stuff, no matter where I was.


It felt pretty different this time.


The conference is enormous. 12,000 writers and publishers attend. It takes a phone book size book to list all the panels and talks and readings that happen, as part of the official event, in the conference center. I couldn’t even begin to keep track of the readings and talks and parties that happen off site. There’s a book fair with what feels like at least a thousand booths hosted by literary journals, and creative writing programs, and small presses, and even some large presses. You wander around the conference center and there, chatting with a friend, is Kelly Link—who you recognize immediately because of her lipstick. Or David Shields. Or your long lost favorite poet friend from graduate school, Becka Mara McKay, who you’ve wished you could reconnect with for years but, even in the age of internet sleuthing, and even though she has an obvious contact form on her website, hadn’t been able to figure out how to do it. It’s very exciting. And it’s very overwhelming.


How can there be so many writers? How is it that the thousands and thousands of writers at the conference all seem so socially graceful? Unbelievably, and whether it's true or not, they all look like they're having fun.


I’m not going to write about everything I did, but here are the highlights:


  1. I attended some of an off-site reading on Thursday night called “Strange Theater.” While there, I heard a brutal, funny, but then really brutal again, short story by Jennifer Pullen about Leda, pregnant, wanting to eat nothing but swan meat.


  1. Red Hen (my publisher) held a marketing meeting for the writers it will be publishing in the next two years. We met at a high table in the lobby of the Double Tree Hotel, and it was pretty amazing to meet the folks who I’m hoping will turn into a kind of literary family. I’ll write more about each of their books later, but for now, Elizabeth Earley has a novel coming out in October, just around the time that Pigs will be published. I love its title: Like Wings, Your Hands. Fingers crossed that she and I will end up reading together when our books both come out in the world.


  1. The book fair! As Rob Schlegel, my colleague at Whitman (who has a new book of poems that came out on April 1st), said when I ran into him, the lighting at the book fair felt just like basement lighting. He was exactly right: a constant glare, but never quite light enough. Even with the bad lighting, though, and even with the never-ending rows of tables stocked with literary journals that all sort of blend together but that also each look beautiful in its own way, it was amazing. When you submit work to journals, it can feel like the work isn’t read by real people. How incredible to be reminded that the feeling is wrong. I was so glad to meet the folks who work at journals where I’ve been published, and also to meet the folks who haven’t published me, but where I’ve come close.



  1. Ramen. I was in Portland with a friend from Walla Walla, and we ate unbelievably delicious ramen on Friday night. Enough said.


  1. My graduate school advisor. I haven’t seen Maya Sonenberg in a number of years, and I was so glad to have the opportunity to spend time with her. She is an incredible writer and an incredibly creative thinker. Not only did I get a chance to chat with her, I also got to stop by the PANK table and pick up a copy of her chapbook. You should, too.


  1. Cai Emmons. I said earlier that Red Hen makes its authors feel like they are part of a family, and Cai Emmons has been a big part of that for me. Her novel, Weather Woman, came out this past October. What a treat to finally meet the generous, funny, thoughtful person who created heroic Bronwyn, and who writes so imaginatively and movingly and with such urgency about our shared, fragile environment.

And guess what? Right after we had coffee, Cai headed over to the Red Hen table to sign copies of Weather Woman. Soon enough, she sent a text: someone had just come by and pre-ordered Pigs!

Driving back home from Portland, watching the landscape along the Columbia go from lush to dry to a soft, furred green, I tried to find a way to match the landscape to my weekend: a kind of lush overabundance of writers circling around the city? The worry of impending drought upon departure? The reminder of the green of private imagination and generation that happens at home? The metaphors don’t quite work, but AWP will be working on me for a long time to come.