What to Look Out for at Your First AWP*
I’m not going to AWP this year. In a lot of ways, it’s a relief. But many other people will be going to AWP, and some of them for the very first time. What can they expect from the massive conference?
There are a lot of resources online about the annual AWP conference that aspiring writers and conference attendees can turn to if they need to find out about the big event. Unfortunately—and possibly by design—a lot of that information can be totally misleading. In order to really help first-time AWP goers, I present this list of things to look out for at your first AWP.
Snacks are some of the most important things to have on hand when you venture into the huge conference. There will be hundreds of rooms spread out over miles and miles of hotel floor space, so expect to burn a lot of calories getting around. If you’re not properly snacking, you may run out of energy fast. The same goes for staying hydrated. That tote they give you is not just for books—fill it with a big bottle of water and lots of things for you to nibble while you're on the go. This won’t just be good for you, it will also give you a way to help others. As the day goes on, you'll find the hallways of the conference hotel strewn with the exhausted bodies of conference attendees in need of hydration and sustenance. The hotel and conference staff will not help these folks, they'll just stand there shaking their heads and insisting: “You pay for the ticket, you stay on the ride.”
It’s a fact: not all the panelists are going to show up. While this can be disappointing, you should still be able to get some value from the remaining speakers. In some cases, you may even be approached to help discover the whereabouts of the missing panelist. Don’t be shy. This is what’s referred to as a “rabbit hole,” the entry point into the elaborate alternate reality game where clues, hidden messages, and puzzles will have to be solved in order to complete the full panel and reveal all of its secrets.
It’s an annoying fact of AWP: you’re going to look at people’s name tags. Maybe you never knew their name, forgot it, or maybe you’re trying to decide if they’re worth talking to. Whether involuntary or on purpose, it can be insulting. Some attendees have responded by slipping other things into their plastic badge holders: mirrors, lewd messages, NSFW images, gross dead bugs, and most worrisome of all, red light laser pointers. The latter can make the practice of name tag reading seriously dangerous. If you look directly into a laser pointer you could cause permanent damage to your cornea. Best to be safe and keep your eyes up.
With over 700 exhibitors at the bookfair, it's time to shop! It's a good thing there are so many choices: entry to the bookfair requires you to buy a certain weight amount of books per day. You report your purchases at the weigh stations near the exits, where the conference staff can help you load your books onto the scales. If you haven’t hit the day’s weight limit (and these limits vary depending on a number of arcane factors), you’ll be offered a selection of books on display at the weigh station to purchase from. WARNING: these titles are uniformly bland novels from last year supplied by the major publishing houses to move stock. Savvy shoppers will look for big, bargain, 1500-page doorstops before they exit the bookfair to make sure they get over the limit in a pinch.
Here’s another thing to worry about at the bookfair: If you’re browsing through the wares on display at a table and suddenly find someone shouting verse at you, be ready with some lines of your own to fire back—you’ve just been challenged to a poetry battle. This isn’t just about bragging rights. The loser must stop browsing, leave the bookfair, and never return for the duration of the conference. Many an unsuspecting poet has had their time at the bookfair cut short by being unprepared for a sheer verbal onslaught of a rival poet. Sorry, fiction and CNF writers.
There aren’t just dangers to watch out for at the conference itself. Off-site events give residents of the host city a chance to prey upon writers and editors while they are far away from the protective aegis of the conference center. Off-sites are frequently outfitted with traps—keep an eye open and you should be able to spot pressure plates and trip wires before you activate the swinging logs, trap doors, and flame jets. And this year in Portland, be on the lookout for the city’s Roustie Boys, an infamous gang of street toughs you’ll be able to spot by their neon-colored 90’s-style ski jackets.
Approaching Your Favorite Writers
There are famous writers all over AWP. Many of them will gladly speak with you, if you can approach them the right way. The most important thing is to know the person you want to talk to. What kind of offerings do they like to receive? While the proper offering will grant you the writer's favor, the wrong gift will only get you sent away running. Don't even think about approaching Lydia Davis unless you bring her a platter of red licorice in a nest of dry angel hair pasta. Unclean offerings are also likely to anger your favorite writer, so be sure all of the proper purification rites have been performed before you decide to walk up and tell your idol how much you liked their last book.
Of course, the real reason for the annual conference is the ritual sacrifice of a young writer, preferably a poet, on the stroke of midnight on Saturday. You will notice that until that point, the entire conference building up in anticipation. Fridays at the conference there is a palpable tension and a sense of events hurtling violently to a cumulative event.
While most people are unaware of it, that night, somewhere in secret, the AWP conference board along with the heads of all the major publishing houses, MFA programs, and literary agencies gather together at a predetermined location to perform the dark rite. The victim must be a willing participant, unpublished, and enrolled at one of the top-tier programs in the country. Through this act, the conference organizers believe that the rules of metaphor, and syntax, and words themselves are renewed for another year, making all literary art possible. By 9:00am on Saturday, when the last day’s events begin, a sense of calm will have spread throughout the conference, a sense that yes, everything is going to be alright again. Our art will endure.
So now that you know what to look out for, it’s time to pack your bag and hit the road! Happy conferencing!
*This list is a joke, but let me make one thing clear: the conference really can be a dangerous space. It is difficult to access and participate in for anyone who isn’t abled, exclusionary, full of toxic people, and there is little care or assistance presented when it’s needed. The sad fact is, a lot of the items on this list are eerily close to actual harmful events that have taken place at the conference. So, if you are going to AWP this year, whether it’s your first time or not, please take care.
[Title image: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.]