BY BARRIE JEAN BORICH
I’m never ready for the end of AWP. Is there a loudspeaker announcement? A closing bell? A group whoop and ritual extinguishing of the flame? If so, I’ve never heard it. I always want ceremonious closure, like the end of the Catholic mass of my childhood—some holy admonishment to go forth to love and serve the word. But no.
Instead the end is marked by books and flurry. The book fair resounds with the rip of packing tape as exhibitors tear down their tables and booths. The exhibition is busier than ever, as it’s always open to the public on Saturday, but now exhibitors are giving books and journals away, just as the conferees, loaded down with more than they can carry home on planes, turn down the gifts with equal glee.
I start to see journals left spread across abandoned tables. When I meet with my VIDA editorial committee to discuss some coming changes to our Web journal we find ourselves sweeping aside a pile of beautiful abandoned literary magazines just to make room at the table, commenting on that late AWP denial logic allowing us to believe that if we leave our beloved creations here, where surely someone will claim them, then we aren’t actually throwing them away.
Still, despite all this jettisoning and departing, the last panel I attend is packed, the Q + A turning into a minor brawl. The panelists, responding to a current brouhaha in the creative nonfiction world, have led us all into the tender zone where we disagree on whether nonfiction writers are allowed to make things up.
One young woman stands up to speak out with a wavering voice, referencing a famous writer by his first name; the essayist sitting next to me and I surmise she is one of the famous writer’s students.
Another speaks, then another, and response applause becomes competitive, though the panelists are conciliatory, and most of us present know we will not live or die at the hands of this debate– because where but AWP would anyone take trouble to argue about the lyric essay?
As the final panels disperse the lobby bar is again runneth over. The noise is what I notice in these final hours, in the book fair and now in the hotel lobbies and corridors, the undulating roar of the collective human voice, rising and falling waves of indistinct sound. Words no longer carry discernable meaning. Words are merely a force of nature, a wind tunnel of indistinct syllables, stoppering our ears, disheveling our hair. No wonder we all leave AWP feeling as if we’ve survived a tsunami.
My own last conference activity is dinner with the same poet I’ve had dinner with for years now, every Saturday night of every AWP. Brian Teare and I take a cab to an undisclosed non-conference location. We lean into each other, this year over gluten-free pizza, and we break down our careers, our marriages, our friendships, our strategies for keeping the work alive, everyone we know in the literary world.
We see each other just once a year, in the city of the AWP, a mystical metropolis that reappears and dissolves again, this year Chicago, next year Boston. We are both the sorts incapable of casual friendship, with each other or with anyone, and so aren’t afraid to love one another, though we’ve never lived in the same city.
We’ve taken long after-dinner walks in Denver, in Washington DC, in Chicago, down streets on the cusp of settling back to themselves as the conference packs for the coming evacuation. Brian and I finish our conference with a long walk down Michigan Avenue, arm-in-arm, the skyscrapers rising before us, looming sentries of the lives we make within vocation.
Go forth now, is what we’ve been saying to each other for the past five hours. Go forth now to praise and love the word.
Barrie Jean Borich is an assistant professor at Hamline University, an editor at Water-Stone Review, and a board member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
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