Imagine a writing conference so huge that the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis offered a class in how to navigate it.
So huge that more than 11,000 writers, editors, agents, publishers, professors, students and literary hopefuls will take part in more than 500 sessions and slams over 3½ days. So huge that every night it will spill out into museums, bars, libraries, bookstores and restaurants, raking an estimated $28 million into the local economy.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, known as AWP, begins Wednesday at the Minneapolis Convention Center. It is attracting some of modern literature’s brightest stars, including Stuart Dybek, Francine Prose, Joshua Ferris, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Dani Shapiro, Charles Baxter, Ted Kooser, Karen Russell, Dinaw Mengestu and T.C. Boyle.
“It is the best writing conference anywhere,” said Jerod Santek, executive director of the Write On, Door County literary center in Fish Creek, Wis. He previously worked at the Loft and is chairman of the AWP conference committee. “There’s just an amazing wealth of talent and information, and amazing readings. And, it’s fun.”
Twin Citians who want to take part will find 150 free events in public venues. Walk-up registration for the conference ranges from $190 to $285. There are also Saturday-only passes for $40.
Conference sessions run from the practical to the quirky: There are panels on how writers can navigate social media, how to write and publish while working full time, how to write long-form narrative for the Web. There’s even a panel on how to propose a panel for next year’s AWP.
And then there are the Pink Tuxedoes.
“They’re a group of women poets, including Rita Dove, who take poems that pretty much everybody knows and perform them as doo-wop songs,” Santek said. “I think that alone is worth the registration fee.”
A rapid growth
AWP began as a professional organization for teachers of creative writing. Its first conference, held in 1973 at the Library of Congress, featured six events and 16 speakers.
But as college creative-writing and master of fine arts (M.F.A.) programs began to grow, AWP grew too, embracing not just teachers but also people involved in every aspect of writing and publishing. It is now the largest literary conference in the country. This year, more than 2,000 presenters will speak at 550 scheduled events, with more than 700 vendors at the companion book fair .
“Writing is a solitary business, but that whets everyone’s desire for society,” said David Fenza, executive director of AWP (and himself a poet). “A lot of our members are writers who teach, and so they have professional development needs outside of their artistic development needs. Having everyone come together to share ideas for the classroom and ideas for shaping their next books — that’s a wonderful, wonderful experience for everyone.”
Visitors to AWP should add about $28 million to the local economy, said Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of the Meet Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association. “That’s a very large convention for Minneapolis,” he said. “I would definitely say AWP is in the top tier.”
Showing off the Twin Cities
Members of the local literary community hope to show off the richness of the state’s arts scene — not just the Loft, the nonprofit publishers (Graywolf, Milkweed and Coffee House), and the many journals (Rain Taxi, Great River Review, Revolver, Paper Darts and Water-Stone, among others), but also the Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Weisman Art Museum, the Minnesota Orchestra, the bookstores.
“I think within the publishing world there is an awareness” of the Twin Cities literary community, said Chris Jones, marketing director of the Loft. “But I think we’re going to be doing a lot of educating. This area has such a mix of funding, interest and support — it is stronger than most communities. There’s an energy to this town that’s really special. This is a really good chance to show that off.”
Said Eric Lorberer, editor of Rain Taxi: “I think it is going to confirm for so many people the buzz about the Twin Cities.”
The off-sites are where it’s at
Local organizers are counting on the 150 public, off-site events to fuel that buzz.
The Loft will host Roxane Gay and Amber Tamblyn one night, Cave Canem, an organization of African-American poets, another night.
The Minneapolis Central Library will host a reading on Thursday to raise awareness of homeless young people with Gay, Marlon James, Saeed Jones and Nick Flynn.
Bookstores are happily scooping up authors who will be in town for AWP — Gay will be at Common Good Books on Saturday; Barnes & Noble Edina will host T.C. Boyle on Saturday and National Book Award winner Phil Klay on Sunday; Magers & Quinn will host a roundtable of Algonquin Books authors on Friday, and writers from Bellevue Literary Press will be at SubText in St. Paul on Friday.
Rain Taxi will throw a 20th anniversary party at the Walker on Thursday and a literary tribute to the band Hüsker Dü at Patrick’s Cabaret Friday, with a musical performance by Grant Hart.
On Friday, Think Piece Publishing will host National Book Award nominee Janet Burroway and Honeydogs lead singer Adam Levy, who will perform songs from his new album, “Naubinway,” at Kieran’s Irish Pub.
Baxter, Julie Schumacher and Patricia Hampl will be at the Weisman on Friday evening for a cocktail party celebrating the University of Minnesota’s M.F.A. program.
On Saturday, the Minnesota Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Victoria Vargas will perform operatic songs based on the poems of Pablo Neruda.
The list of off-site events “is as overwhelming as the session list,” Jones said. “It typically takes over a city. You could basically wander around neighborhoods and stumble into readings you didn’t know about.”
Most of the off-site events are free and open to the public. (Some, such as the orchestra performance of Neruda, carry modest admission fees).
Twin Cities writer and professor Kathryn Kysar has been attending AWP since her mid-1980s grad-school days, when “we all stuffed ourselves into a station wagon and drove there, seven or eight people in a hotel room,” she said.
In late March, she led a discussion at the Loft on how to navigate a conference of this magnitude. She also wrote an essay for Rain Taxi, giving practical advice: Wear comfortable shoes, remember to eat lunch, sit by the aisle so you can tiptoe out if a session is a dud.
“Pace yourself,” she advised. “It’s really easy to get overwhelmed, especially in the book fair. Plan ahead. Don’t do everything. Take water bottles. Take breaks.”
Next year, AWP moves to Los Angeles. And if all goes well this week, it’ll be back in the Twin Cities in 2020.