First, a love letter
This was the best AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference) I have ever attended.
Sure, I sold books.
Sure, I had two successful planned readings and a third impromptu reading that was also good.
Sure, I sat on a panel and talked about writing in spite of the aphasia that MS gives me.
Sure, I saw so so many peers, colleagues, and friends that I haven’t seen in so so long because PANDEMIC.
Sure, it hardly rained or, at least when it did rain, I was always inside doing literary things.
But Seattle showed up in a way I have not seen or felt at other AWPs. I’ve been to multiple ones in NYC, Chicago, Vancouver, Portland, Boston… maybe some others I have since forgotten.
I’ll never forget AWP 23 SEA.
Our communities SHOWED UP. Queer writers and publishers were unapologetically out and celebratory in what amounted to a citywide safe space. BIPOC and AAPI/Indigenous writers were represented at all the readings I went to, were highly visible in the bookfair and in the audience. And disabled/deaf writers held real space on and off site in panels, bookseller booths, and readings.
(The new convention center was also far and away the best site in terms of accessibility that I’ve ever experienced at an AWP. It was great to be exhausted merely by the experience of AWP itself and not simply because the venue was difficult to navigate… I’m looking at you, PDX.)
Seattle writers and publishers and other literati clearly saw 2023 as the year to embrace everyone in equal measure, to move beyond the Old Normal from BC (before COVID) toward a sparkling new, Emerald City-styled New Normal that’s inclusive and demanding of more and better, laying out a blueprint for future AWPs to strive to achieve.
And if this wasn’t enough, the mayor of Seattle proclaimed March 11 as both the official City of Literature Day in Seattle as well as Seattle Civic Poet Day. (Click the arrow in the image to see what I posted on Insta.)
Am I surprised the Seattle Times characterized AWP SEA the “Woodstock for Writers”? Nope, not at all. If this is the last AWP I ever attend, it will mean I have quit while I’m ahead, and that’s just fine with me.
About that playlist
I have a funny relationship with crowds.
Because of my underlying empathic tendencies, I go into packs of people craving connection while at the same time fearing what I might “pick up” while I’m rubbing elbows. When I mean “pick up,” I don’t mean COVID-19 or some other physical ailment.
What I mean is this. For me, people are basically meat suits filled with energy. If the energy is vibrant and positive, I’m absolutely energized and can sustain that shared energy (and thank you so much for sharing! I hope I am able to buoy up others with my own good energy).
But when those meat suits carry emotional baggage, I can feel it. So much so that I can sometimes absorb it if I’m not careful. Trust me, this is not a gift, this ability to absorb the deep dark pain of another person and cradle it in my solar plexus. So I try to armor myself to prevent the assault on my senses by those who carry their toxicity around with them. No, it’s not perfectly acceptable to embody jealousy, disrespect, extreme competitiveness, a need to one-up, and so forth, and then broadcast that vibe to everyone around you.
How I armor myself is mostly a discussion to be had in person over a tasty beverage, too personal to get into here. But one thing I now do that has been a bit of a lifesaver is sticking Airpods in and cranking up one of my energizing music playlists.
The tunes I listened to at AWP are mostly off my Gym Playlist, which is inherently high energy, so it’s like a quick battery recharge for me when I drop those AirPods into my ears and turn on the “toonage.”
The music creates for me a kind of forcefield I can move inside as I navigate between panels and readings and the bookfair. Certainly it is antisocial, but sometimes, that is the only way to survive a giant conference like AWP.
This year, I noted the music that was playing at certain moments throughout my AWP experience, which I share below (just Day One only, but you’ll get my point).
If you’re introverted and struggle with the energy stew that is an exhausting-while-satisfying event like AWP, you might consider keeping your tunes on hand for recharging between panels, readings, and the like. I found that, as I drilled down into song titles and lyrics, I found an eerie connectivity and synchronicity with what was playing in my Airpods and what was happening around me in those same moments.
Click the song citations to be redirected to YouTube videos (those with explicit images and/or lyrics have been indicated below).
Day One: Wednesday March 8
12:05pm — “The Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson [explicit]
I walk up to the new Seattle convention center, where a mass of humanity has formed a long line out into the sunny courtyard. I’m nervous because who isn’t intimidated and feeling huge amounts of self-doubt in the moments prior to entering such an experience?
Did I wear the right clothes? Will I go to the right events? Will anyone even know who I am with this mask on? Will anyone care? Do I think I will be able to pull off my readings this week? My panel? Am I going to regret wearing these shoes later?
I often tell others in my literary circles that I have never been one of the “cool kids.” I definitely did not feel like a cool kid at this moment, and Marilyn Manson captured that anxiety, suspicion, and defensiveness roiling through me as I approached the line, bag full of copies of Intention Tremor for the book fair hanging heavy from my hand.
12:10pm — “Be Yourself” by Audioslave
I turn around to take in the sun because I’m here at AWP and I don’t want to be so anxious… and who is standing behind me but the friendly Simmons Buntin of Terrain.
I had previously published a short piece with Terrain, a “backward” narrative that is now part of my forthcoming collection, Trust Fall.
What great energy to stand next to in line for registration! I follow Simmons on Insta where he posts daily photos of flowers from his home base in Arizona.
He informed me this year marks Terrain’s 25th anniversary… where has the time gone??? I remember first learning about Terrain back in the early 2000s. Congratulations to Simmons for sustaining such a wonderful, important magazine.
1:00pm — “Gravity Zero” by Formal One & DoubleV
My heart is racing as I walk against an incoming tide of people, some faces masked, all of their necks encircled by swinging lanyards that won’t remain still enough for me to read the names on them.
Already, I am tired.
I need a strategy. I need water. I need food. I need quiet.
I turn up the tunes, switch over to my dubstep/EDM playlist because the energy is amazing and it makes me feel confident… as I leave the building and seek out a place for lunch where I can shore myself up for an afternoon and evening filled with offsite events.
2:00pm — “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco
With my belly full of chicken pad thai, I breathe easy again, restored, and head out from the parking garage beneath the old convention center (where I have the first of many fiascos that involve losing, then finding things, all linked to disconnects with technology).
Onward, I say when I finally get past the lot gate, and I head up the hill to Optimism Brewing where I will participate in a marathon of poetry readings slated for between 4 and 10pm.
The perfect solution is to drink some of their sparkling lemonade while finishing up a project for my improvisational creativity group (which meets on Sunday nights): it’s a colored pencil drawing inspired by a letter written on the back of a random postcard by one of my group peers, their letter sharing a memory that the card image inspired for them.
While I shade in the drawing I’ve made, of a panda on a playground merry-go-round, poets begin to file into the brewery, with tables set aside, robed in linens and topped in signage, for hosting the long slate of writers coming in to share their work.
3:45pm — “BOOM” by Tiësto & Sevenn [explicit]
My peers finally arrive and we set up our books in a showcase for browsers and potential buyers, re-upping our beverages for the next couple of hours, preparing for a kind of poetry-does-speed-dating event. I plug in my Airpods before the marathon begins, just to get a quick blast of energy from this song, feel my heart beat, see so many friendly and familiar faces, get ready for my first performance of the conference.
The reading goes well! It’s a packed house, perhaps a hundred people with eyes trained on all of us readers in spite of the background noise coming from the other side of the brewery.
People are LISTENING.
That means everything to me as a poet… if the audience is listening, then I am even more empowered to give more and better. I chat with peer Elizabeth Wilson about sleep disorder stuff before heading out for a different reading.
6:30pm — “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes
My next stop is Capitol Cider, just around the corner from Optimism, to find a decent seat for the off-site reading, “Sly, Witchy, Twisted, Free: Writing Women Beyond the Literary Gaze.” It features some of my Centrum-linked sisters: Sayantani Dasgupta, Maya Jewell Zeller, and Kristen Millares Young as well as their/our contemporaries Laura Read, Sonora Jha, and Alexandra Teague.
Before a full house, they deliver feminist badassery that sets the tone for me for the rest of the conference, truly: women unapologetically truthtelling about what it means to be a woman in post-Roe America.
8:30pm — “HandClap” by Fitz and The Tantrums
(It’s here that I also want to say “Thank you, rain” in a style a la Jimmy Fallon’s Thank You Notes skit, because it had been raining off and on all day but kept away during my hikes in the city.)
I return to Optimism to see my lovely friend, Kristy Webster, read from her gorgeous and devastating collection, Heretic. The crowd has dwindled a bit, with so many off site readings to choose from, so I am glad to be part of the audience for the readers from Beyond The Veil Press.
Kristy is amazing! Her poems detail her childhood being raised by Jehovah’s Witnesses and how she fought to find ways to live through constant dehumanization, misogyny, and outright abuse to become the strong woman she is today.
I stick around until 10pm, gather up my books, and head out for the night with my head humming.
I am not making this up: This is the first song from my playlist as I’m climbing into my car to head back to my AirBnB in Greenlake while thinking about friends of mine unable to come to AWP this year.
More to come re: AWP, but for now, I must rest my brain. Too many thinks to think and not enough sleeps, thanks to the untimely time change.