AWP: notes from Minneapolis

by Jeff Oaks

I’m waking up on Saturday morning thinking about what this AWP has meant.  The quick things are these:

1. Of course seeing old friends I never see otherwise. 

2. Of course seeing and hugging former students who have gone on to grad schools, who are editing journals, publishing books, starting jobs and families. It still surprises me every year to see them, mostly because I treat the world as a place where I’m going to vanish from any second, I think. 

3. So many books. And every one of them wants to be read. Who among them gets chosen and brought back home with me? Right now, there are seven I bought, six poetry, one prose. When will I read actually them? What about that backlog at home I still have to do something with? 

4. I need to seriously reduce the number of books I have at home. 

5. In the space between 4 and 5, I’ve gotten up, showered, dressed, gone out to breakfast with friends Noah, Liz, and Ann (an annual sanity function), gone back to the book fair, checked on the Pitt table, talked to a few old friends, left the convention center having decided not to go to the one panel today I thought I might go to, gone to Caribou coffee and ordered a tea, was given a coffee, then given my tea, sat down and started typing again. The whole convention is like that, always in motion.  You have to remind yourself to find quiet and to stop stop stop every so often.

6. It’s the last day, so what do I remember?  I didn’t go to any of the big readings (I hardly ever do anymore). Instead I did my regular routine, which is to run around checking in with old friends, former students, some of the presses that regularly publish work I like. I ask people what they’re working on; I talk about our program. This time, I had a brilliant moment with Marshall Warfield, who is a Pitt alum now working at Drexel and who has developed a writing class that involves research and digital publishing. I made him promise to send me his syllabus so we might see if we can adapt it to our program in some way; we are getting considerable pressure to think about digital publishing and have been tossing around ideas about how to set up classes that will be both writing intensive and sensitive to the new publishing opportunities available. 

7. I’m more tired at this AWP than I have been for a while.  We had a number of events at Pitt this year, just before AWP. I’d already taken to calling this one a “vacation AWP”, by which I meant I was mostly going to do one-on-one networking. I might better have stayed home if I wanted to rest, though.  This convention is always work, even if mostly of the pleasant kind. 

8. The writers and editors are younger-looking every year.  I’m grateful that they are still taking work of mine.  I’ve always hoped that like Merlin, I might grow younger every year, at least in spirit. Sometimes I think that the reason I wrote when I was 16 was to keep myself from growing too old too quickly, the poem as non-violent horcrux. To keep myself from dying into a life I might not control. At this point, though, I’ve written out a lot of the anger and confusion of the past. I actually feel more free now as a writer than I ever did. I see the young-looking editors and writers with their impressive beards or dangerous shoes or hardened faces, their bodies full of ambition, and I remember the early AWPs, where I felt so strongly that I needed to prove myself worthy of the tribe. I needed to show I was serious. It can come with terrible costs–especially if your work doesn’t get you the results you expected. I wish them well; some of us bloom early and then never are heard of again; some of us bloom late; some bloom but in small places only a handful of people ever see. 

9. Oh my god, there are a thousand thousand places to submit work. Don’t ever think there aren’t places to send out work. The one regret I have of my writing life is that I didn’t send out more work when I was younger. Also, that I waited until I had what I thought were serious credentials (publications, awards, positions) to feel good about myself. My god, I beat myself up for every rejection! I stopped sending things out for years because of my despair. Dear reader, if you are in that position now, I urge you to begin again.

10. Occasionally I feel overwhelmed by the new literary world, which has such beings in it, to mashup Shakespeare. I’ll never be able to read everyone. What does that even mean, though? Nothing. There’s no everyone and there never will be. Everyone is a fiction of sorts, a labyrinth that’s hard to escape once you enter it.   What is it you want out of a poem, out of a story, out of writing things down? You find a fellowship of people you can count on, who might be models for a way to be in the world, and you follow them trying to absorb as much as you can. When those models fail you, you move on, sometimes taking your former models’ models, sometimes striking out in a new direction.