February 08, 2011

AWP in DC: The Aftermath

That'll do, DC, that'll do. 

We managed to not bombard the conference-goers with ice or snow. The connection between the Marriott and Omni was labyrinthine, and some panels in obscure locations, but at least you didn't have the claustrophobia of overcrowded elevators struggling to reach both programs and participant rooms. The totes were good; the guides were helpful. Water was in supply. The Marriott hotel bar's open layout made it a worthy place to meet up. (I can't vouch for the speed of their service, because that's what flasks are for.) The bookfair lacked flow but from this point onward that's going to be an issue every time we don't host in a conference center. 

The Omni was the redheaded stepchild of the two hotels. That's a shame; from the velvet-swagged windows to the opulent foyer, its style is much more distinct (if throwback) to DC than the Marriott, which has scrubbed away identifying elements of the Langston Hughes/Vachel Lindsay days. Did you know that when the Shoreham first opened, it had an ice rink in the lobby? And a furniture factory in the basement, to provide custom pieces? FDR had his first inaugural ball there. Helen Hayes used to bring her kids to their Easter Egg hunts. The Beatles stayed there the first time they came to DC--they were given an entire floor to themselves. I hated hearing people dismiss it as the lesser hotel. Sure, the Omni bar was a ghost town, but therefore ideally suited for discreet AWP hook-ups. There's a fine & honorable tradition of those.  

It's impossible to wrap my head around the conference in a narrative way, so I'll just mention some highlights. Apologies in advance for the gratuitous name dropping...

Most moving moment: Hearing Sonia Sanchez read Langston Hughes' work and reflect on his legacy. I got the shivers. Afterwards she told me that the first time she ever met Hughes, she waited for an hour in line at one of his readings--only to panic when she finally got up there, leaving without saying anything of substance. We've all been there!

Best fiction readings: Alix Ohlin ("Fiction and the American Scholar"), Jennine Capó Crucet ("Potomac Review Celebrates Best of 50"), and Jessica Francis Kane ("Greywolf Press Reading"). These readings weren't particularly edgy or bombastic; they didn't have the buzz attached to readings from Mary Gaitskill or Junot Diaz. But they were captivating pieces with funny, memorable voices--from authors I might otherwise have not known about, but whose work I will now look for. That, in my mind, is the main purpose of an AWP reading. 

Best poetry readings: Brian Teare (Blackbird/Diode Offsite Reading), Nick Flynn ("Greywolf Press Reading") and Eric McHenry (Waywiser/Entasis press Offsite Reception). My motives are different when listening to fellow poets, whose work I already know and love. In these cases I heard new poems that are going to get a LOT of praise in the coming days. Brian's long poem was bracing, brave, sophisticated in its thematic execution; Nick deserves major credit for clambering back from the world of memoir; Eric's poems, based on observations from his "Evan Said It" blog, are going to draw flattering comparisons to Ogden Nash.

Book I was most excited to hold in my hot little hand: Maureen Thorson's Applies to Oranges, a gorgeous new release from Ugly Duckling Presse. Watch out, world! 

Personal pride: Watching Richard McCann being a consistently thoughtful, witty presence on panels. Being able to say, "He was my teacher." 

Personal joy: Having Ed Skoog call me his "Virgil", i.e., his poet-guide to DC in the time spent here as a Jenny McKean Moore resident. Any time, Ed, any time. (I must have missed the part in the Inferno where Virgil divines the location of good beer on draft.) 

Personal mortification: Bumping into a poet-friend and realizing, at last year's conference, I'd had a foot-in-mouth moment--upon learning of an honor she'd received, assuming aloud that it was another, lesser opportunity--and she had carried that moment around as a hurt ever since. You know who you are. I'm really sorry. 

Best conversation of importance: Being counseled by the amazing Jessica Handler on a bad run-in with a big magazine (versus her awesome and well-deserved run-in with Vanity Fair). 

Best conversation of no importance: Helping Brian Turner plan how to better accessorize his black velvet sport coat (we settled on a paisley shirt and some purple-tinted glasses, possibly with an amping up of the facial hair).

Jaw-dropping moment: Having Carolyn Forche come up and start asking a series of intent questions on how my memoir was coming along, with her premising comment of "ever since we met and you told me about it, it's been on my mind." 

Lesson learned: That red heart-shaped lollipop may look like a good idea at the time, but you'll regret it as you're trying to have a serious conversation with Sven Birkerts at the AGNI table and it's still in your hand, half-licked. 

Funniest panel: "The Road Less Traveled: How to be a Writer Without a Full-time Academic Gig," in large part because of Steve Almond's totally unfiltered contributions, which at one point characterized Ru Freeman as "humping on the bare floor" because she and her husband were a few years into marriage before being able to afford a proper bed. As Ru was quick to point out (indignantly), there are plenty of places to have sex that aren't on a bed. This was a packed session, but I'm glad I insisted on hunkering down in the aisle. 

Most rewarding Q&A of a panel: "Women on Wanderlust: Travel Writing," when people gave very honest (and not entirely harmonious) answers and offered the audience editorial connections for the future. At so many panels, the Q&A marks the end of meaningful content. This one was great. Another full house. 

Most awkward politic: Every year AWP has a thriving and visible community of African-American writers paneling, reading, representing. DC has a thriving community of local writers (of all ethnicities) who devote their energies to furthering the literary culture of their city. DC has a thriving community of people who love Busboys & Poets as a venue. These groups, while certainly not being mutually exclusive, don't entirely overlap either. 

Best non-book item in the bookfair: The Rumpus's "Write Like a Motherfucker" mugs. 

Best perk: Realizing my apartment building shares a zone number with the conference, meaning I could park my DC-registered car on the street for unlimited stretches. 

Best getaways: Chicken soup at Nam Viet with Erika Meitner on the eve of the conference (my ONE meal out); a bloody mary in the hotel bar with Jehanne Dubrow instead of the not one, not two, but three panels I'd meant to attend in that same time slot; a pint of Smithwick's with John Griswold when all was nearly said and done. That last one involved, oddly enough, a story about putting Jennifer Egan in WW-II-era diving suit. 

Event I was sorriest to miss: Claudia Rankine's exchange/confrontation with Tony Hoagland as presented at her featured reading, in part following up on an incident involving Hoagland's appearance at last year's AWP. I can't say more because I wasn't there. But I hope someone else does because from what I hear, she was on point. 

Table I was sorriest to miss: New Issues, where wert thou? 

Who I was sorriest to miss: Mary Biddinger. That girl is just walking sunshine to me. 

Most silly fun: The dance floor at the Black Cat, during the party to support 826DC. I was coming off a fantastic Copper Nickel reading in the back room below (thanks to all who made that). I had found some Ole Miss friends to dance with. The DJ was doing some inventive transitions; people were wandering around in costume. That's what I like to see--writers getting down with their creative, shy, arrogant, dorky, seductive selves. Rock on. 


Anonymous said...

This is the fourth blog I have read about the AWP. But, most importantly, I must have one of those mugs!

-Barry Napier

Martha Silano said...

Dang, Sandra, I really wished I read your "What to Know" post before the conference, not two days after my return to Seattle. You were a dear to post that.

As for this post, I'm wishing I'd been there to hear Almond, Sanchez, and McHenry (we all know and love him in Seattle), but at least I heard Teare.

The hardest thing about AWP is not being able to do it all. And come to think of it, I missed seeing Biddinger too. Wahhh.

One last thing: I bet to differ about the Omni. I thought it was the far superior hotel, and I loved that bar. Am so glad I roomed there instead of Marriott. I loved that it was where Clinton played his sax, and when I found out about the Beatles it suddenly got waaaay better. But the stuff you shared about it makes it the classiest hotel in the USA.

xo m

PS thanks so much for making to the Saturnalia booth and buying my book. It was so, so great to see you!!!!

Jeannine said...

Great rundown! I'm so sorry to miss this year's, but hopefully I'll catch you at next year's...

lionlady said...

I missed this year's AWP so really appreciate your lively recap. Thank you!

RuThless said...

Hi Sandra - The trailer is really well done and the book sounds fascinating. I enjoyed your round up of AWP. Thanks for making it to the panel and crouching on the floor.

jessica handler said...

I wish I'd stayed at the Omni, too. So much calmer. The Rumpus Write Like A Motherfucker mugs are indeed outstanding. I will from now on carry a flask to AWP, inspired by you. You got so much more DONE than I did. I'll lament the glam-industrial complex with you anytime.

Erika M. said...

still dreaming about the nam viet pho 99 bun I had with you! xxoo

marybid said...

Sandra, I am so sorry I didn't see you! You were with me the whole time, though, as I carried my well-loved printout of your blog post with me everywhere (even after it got some crayfish spatter on it). Your post got me to the museums on the metro! And so much more!

I am glad at least my boyz got to see you, but so sad to miss you. I LOVED DC and will definitely be back. Hugs!