Lest you think that AWP is only about parties and networking, let me assure you that it is only partly about parties and networking. There are also, at any given time, a dozen or more panel discussions and lectures on the craft of writing going on in the Convention Center.
It's not possible to be in two places at the same time, so people often sit or stand in the back or at the end of a row so they can sneak out after a while and go sample something else. It is not considered rude to leave in the middle, though of course speakers don't particularly enjoy losing their audience. (Some have more audience to lose than others, of course.)
And so I have done this. I dropped in on a tribute to Charles Baxter (with Baxter himself, sort of abashed and shy, sitting in the middle, while panelists in the front of the room praised his "capacious mind" and "Wile E. Coyote skills"). And I took part in a panel comparing the benefits of small publishers to the big guys in New York. Said writer Chantel Acevedo, who has been published by both, smaller publishers give a writer more attention, meaning that a writer who would be firmly mid-list at a big house might lead the list at a smaller place.
She paused, though, when Europa Editions publisher Michael Reynolds (and Acevedo's publisher) asked what she would counsel a writer who was being offered a million dollars from the big guys, or a few thousand from the little guys. "That's not fair," she said, while the audience chuckled.
In between, I took time to check out the Pink Tuxedos, a band of poets led by Rita Dove, who had set serious famous poems to music. I missed hearing them sing Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" to the tune of Bobby Darin's "Dream Lover," but I did get to hear "Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau," by William Blake, sung to the tune of "The Book of Love." It was great. They can sing.
(The other Pink Tuxedos are Marilyn Nelson, Sophie Cabot Black, and Carol Muske-Dukes.)
I have listened to panel discussions on regional literature (and heard the Midwest compared, by writer Mardi Jo Link, to a deep-fried sandwich--the best part is in the middle); and on the University of Minnesota Press at 90, where I listened to compelling readings from Sarah Stonich, Karen Babine and Kate Hopper.
I listened to Guggenheim fellow and memoirist Emily Fox Gordon talk about the tricky business of writing about people you love. Her panel, which also included Robin Hemley, Debra Monroe, Marcia Aldrich and John Price, was packed--so many memoirists out there!--and the angst in the room was palpable. How does one write about other people? Without destroying friendships, that is, or alienating family?
The advice was not always encouraging. Write with empathy and respect. Make sure your book contains context. Beware the "gratuitous, small hurt," Fox Gordon said. And, said Hemley, "It's important that we don't kid ourselves. We're going to write things that definitely will hurt other people."
Up next, Charles Baxter and Louise Erdrich in conversation. And there's another day tomorrow.