The Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP) is less than a month away. As my friend Hafizah Geter (Poetry MFA alum) says, “AWP is my favorite holiday.” For the up-and-coming MFA candidate, AWP is quite an experience, or rather, it was for me and I know it to be for many of my peers. Imagine an entire space filled with close to ten-thousand writers gathering together to sell books, discuss writer-related topics, and attend readings for three to four days straight. It’s overwhelming, but in such a good way.
I’ve been attending AWP since 2009 and can attribute part of my decision to come to Columbia to having attended the conference here in Chicago that year. I’ve since attended the conferences in Denver and in Washington D.C., and this year the conference returns to Chicago. And this time I’m living here. This time the conference is on my turf. I am thrilled.
My first experience at AWP was during my last year as an undergraduate at CSU San Marcos, and I had managed to apply for and receive enough funding to pay for a little over half of my room and airfare cost. I stayed with two of my classmates at the Hilton (conference headquarters) in a room far fancier than we could afford. In recent years, I have either stayed with a friend who lived in the city or opted for something more economical, like Days Inn or Travelodge, but this was my first time attending the conference and my first time visiting a large city by myself, so it made sense at the time.[flickr id=”6794268527″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]
I remember when I first walked into the book fair room and how incredibly excited I felt. I had never seen so many anthologies and books and presses dedicated to the kind of books that I like to read. I went around the room stopping at every table, picking up every brochure and every piece of swag that I could get my hands on. And, on Saturday, when everything was discounted (nobody wants to have to ship back the books) or free, I slipped into a gluttonous coma, scrambling to collect every free thing I could find. This gluttony became apparent on Sunday when I attempted to close my suitcase and had to use the bag that AWP provides as a carry-on, right out in the open, on the plane, for all to witness the gluttony that was me—an undergrad, new to the world of small presses and literary journals, full bag of books and MFA program pamphlets, smuggling my finds and trying to squeeze them under the under-the-seat stowaway in front of me.
For my second adventure to AWP, I wised up and brought a larger suitcase, though it ended up being too large to be a carry-on. I am not good with math, never have been, and miscalculated the depth of my suitcase by an inch or two. Though, at the ticket counter and at security nobody brought this to my attention. As I boarded the plane, none of the flight attendants said anything to me. It wasn’t until I attempted to place the bag in the overhead compartment, when the bag was teetering on the ledge of the compartment and balanced on my head and hands that a flight attendant said “Ma’am, your bag is too big. You’re going to have to check it.” Mortified. I just can’t help myself, though, and in years since I have just resigned myself to an obscene amount of luggage in order to accommodate my gluttony.[flickr id=”6794268313″ thumbnail=”medium” overlay=”true” size=”original” group=”” align=”center”]
When I attended AWP in Denver, I had the chance to meet a poet who had inspired and influenced my writing while I was an undergrad—Kate Greenstreet. Kate was so gracious and so humble, and I really felt like she was genuinely interested in meeting me. She actually asked me to send her a sample of my work. A few months later, I received a hand-written card from her telling me she “loved what I had created, “ in regards to my undergraduate final thesis, a piece that I had been working on while reading her book, case sensitive. Her attention to my work and simply taking the time to personally respond was and is so special to me and something that I will take with me, wherever I end up and wherever my writing ends up. And, AWP was the place where I was able to meet her and to establish that face-to-face bond between writers.
I have a fondness, too, for AWP, because it brings the people who I have the most in common with all together in the same space. As a writer in a family (and mostly surrounded by friends) who are non-writers, I am always so excited when I meet someone and they “get it.” Most of the people at AWP get what you’re doing, and they’re talking about it. For an undergraduate or someone who is interested in getting an MFA in Nonfiction (or Poetry, or Fiction), AWP is a way to immerse yourself in the community that you wish to be a part of and also a good tool for researching writing programs, as nearly every MFA program in the US is in some way represented at the conference.
If you’re in Chicago between February 29th and March 3rd or close enough to drive on in, I would suggest doing so. I recently heard that registration was sold out, which is crazy, but, if you find yourself in the area, there are so many off-site events that you don’t have to be registered for the conference to attend. I guarantee, even attending one of the off-site events will be a memorable experience and one that will add to the application and MFA program selection experience.