Notes From the Field: Day 1 of AWP

Correspondant Rachel Kessler agreed to be our eyes-on-the-ground at the AWP festival this year. Join us for her daily updates as the conference unfolds

The AWP, which stands for Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is the big annual literary conference that takes place in a different city each year. This year it is happening in downtown LA, right next to the Lakers home court. The three-day conference includes readings, panel discussions, pedagogy talks, educator caucuses, and countless offsite events, like poetry pool parties, as well as a sprawling bookfair with hundred of authors signing. It is where writers go to geek out on the cognitive science of story, the poetry of comics, intersectional queer poetics, and formal prosody.

When I attended the conference in Seattle two years ago, I experienced the usual dread of an introvert in airless conference rooms and questioned what the hell I was doing there. (This year, there is a panel for that: “In Case You Think You Don’t Belong Here: Imposter Syndrome and AWP” at 10:30 a.m. on opening day). But I found I enjoyed dipping into the crush of 10,000+ writers arrayed in their spectrum of eyeglasses and disappearing in the crowd. Riding down the three-story span of escalators with thousands of writers and watching thousands of writers riding up next to me, I understood in a profoundly physical way that my writing didn’t matter. I felt like an ant marching forth from the colony in formation with my multitudinous fellows. Smiling, or grimacing in claustrophobia-induced panic, gossiping and arguing about rhyme, gripping our tote bags or obsessively thumbing our thick conference program books, we were all there because we write and read and teach and care about literature.

This year I arrived in Los Angeles and realized I brought all the wrong clothes — it is colder than Seattle right now and quite windy. Angelenos on the street are wrapped in wool hats, scarves and puffy jackets. En route to the bunker-like conference center, I ducked into H&M to panic shop, and I think I saw Claudia Rankine doing the same. She had several fun print dresses picked out and that look in her eyes. (She’s giving the keynote address tonight, opening night.) After picking up my badge and 250 page program, I ran into Liz Bradfield, poet and naturalist from Cape Cod, on the street. I got invited to eat steak with Stanley Plumly in a revolving rooftop bar, which seemed impossibly far away, but not as far as the DJ-ed dance party with hot tubbing some associates invited me to. After all the long blocks of walking and cacophony of 20-story video screens, I am exhausted and return to my shopping mall hotel that appears to be modeled on a nuclear reactor, radiating concrete and confusion like the Death Star.