So much happened last weekend at AWP. So much. I can’t tell you it all. I didn’t see it all. I was there nonstop for three days and I only saw a tiny fraction of what went on. I’m talking, of course, about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, that traveling show of writers, teachers and literary people that took over the Minneapolis Convention Center — as well as the Loft Literary Center, the Walker Art Museum, Central Library, and a whole lot of bars — for three days last week.
Some things I do know. Graywolf Press was named Small Press Publisher of the Year. Poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marlon James cooked dinner for some people (not me) at James’ house. Essayist Roxane Gay was everywhere, delighting fans, sending her cult status soaring, without even trying. (There are now Roxane Gay for President bumper stickers available.) Poet laureate Rita Dove sang.
People won totebags. They played Bookfair Bingo. They played “Name That Author.” They picked up literary journals they had never heard of and pondered writing for them some day. They reunited with their MFA classes, even if they had just graduated last semester. They had a drink. Or two. They bought books. (Let’s say that again, slowly, with emphasis, because it’s important: They bought books.)
They listened, raptly, to T.C. Boyle and Jayne Anne Phillips and Carolyn Forché (“Carolyn Forché you wreck me” one person tweeted) and Cheryl Strayed and Karen Russell. There were so many prominent writers on panels and doing readings that nobody could keep track.
I stopped to chat with memoirist Rebecca McClanahan, who mentioned she had just been on a panel with Phillip Lopate, and the person next to me squealed, actually squealed: “Phillip Lopate is here?”
Robert Bly was honored at a tribute that included other poets, music, singing, and a magician who made flames shoot from the pages of a book. And then Bly, 88, read, and it was he who wowed the room.
Some AV stuff didn’t work. Some presenters were delayed due to weather and others stepped up and took their place. Glitches were handled with aplomb.
Hundreds, thousands, maybe million of tweets were sent. Some of the tweets were displayed on the big screens at the Bookfair. People stood and stared at the screen and then lifted their phones to take pictures. Did they then tweet a picture of their tweet?
They took pictures of everything — writers, stacks of magazines, dinner, frosty delicious beers, the view from the stage, themselves.
It snowed. It rained. The sun came out. It snowed. The sun came out for good.
People wandered away from the Convention Center and took pictures of Spoonbridge and Cherry and the musical-note wall of the old Schmitt Music. They bought T-shirts and books from Birchbark Books. (But Louise! where was the owner, Louise Erdrich? Back at the Convention Center, on stage with Charles Baxter.)
Central Connecticut State University came out with its annual rating of most literate cities, and Minneapolis had moved back into first place. Tweets galore! “Perfect timing,” said one.
The final tally was close to 12,000 attendees — 11,800, said AWP executive director David Fenza, and he was happy with that. “Registration above 11,000 people is a great victory for us,” he said.
Baxter, who was there every day,on panels, in conversation, being honored, likes the excitement of AWP, which he notes is not just a convention of writers, but a convention of readers.
“That’s an important distinction,” he said. “And it’s a place where poetry is still discussed without apology, and where it is assumed that poetry is still a living force on our culture.”