If you notice a slight uptick in the number of verbose, bedraggled, and socially inept people in downtown and Capitol Hill this week, it's because about 13,000 aspiring and no-longer-aspiring writers are collecting at the convention center for the 2014 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference (February 26–March 1). As someone with an MFA degree (Master of Fuck All), and an attendee of most of the last decade's AWPs, I'm here to tell you that this should be fun if you like reading and writing. Actually, even if you don't care about reading and writing, it should be at least amusing.
So where's the action?
The hotel bars closest to the conference center will be a constant seething humid throng of acne-afflicted nerds with low-grade alcoholism. These bars are the main attraction for most.
Off-site events are listed on the AWP website and The Stranger's readings calendar, and there are scores of these. At their best, off-site events are fucked-up, inspiring, and brilliant (see page 17 for prospects). At their worst, you walk out with only minor injuries to your opinion of the human animal. Either way, they're free. Sometimes it might feel like the Mardi Gras of literary nerds, which is annoying, but you're less likely to have a jock vomit into your hair than at the actual Mardi Gras.
Should I pay for a pass?
I might anger the AWP gods by saying this, but no, probably not. Most of the fun happens outside the conference itself (see above), and at $285 for the tote bag and a lanyard that grants you access to the conference proper, you have to REALLY want to spend a few days walking the book fair, and also you need to REALLY want to see some of the official events/panels/readings.
Also, if you're a writer, AWP is just not a great place to advance your writing career. It's a big boozy gossip with smart people, but for some reason, very little business takes place. The conference was originally just for people interested in the pedagogy and administrivia of universities' creative-writing departments. It's not exclusively for academics now, but at the end of the day, the community in question is still decidedly not-for-profit (very few literary agents, almost none of the major New York publishers or magazines will be there, etc.). On the upside, almost everyone is there because of a shared love for reading and writing, rather than for love of filthy lucre.
I want to bag a writer, any advice?
Recite Matthew Dickman's poem "Slow Dance" into the ear of a poet, and you will end up with a hickey on your neck (even before you get to the chandelier part!). Also: Be kind to poets, they've made peculiar life decisions, and bear in mind that these people are inexplicably excellent in bed.
Quote Lorrie Moore to a fiction writer, and you'll end up pregnant. Please for God's sake do not ask a fiction writer if you can find their books in a store. You can't. These people are crumpled, spiritually, by rejection, even the ones who are doing well. Alternatively, if you'd like to see this person weep, tell them your writer friend says her promotional tours are grueling—her publisher flies her from city to city for weeks on end. Ask if they also find this exhausting.
You don't want to have sex with a writer of creative nonfiction. Unless it's Samantha Irby (author of Meaty and the blog bitches gotta eat), who's probably not going to be at AWP anyway.
What about this book fair?
Carpet stretching for miles. Thousands of tables lined up in rows—mostly literary journals you've never heard of. It takes about an hour to walk the whole thing. If you can get stoned first, that's a good idea. Hover by the tables with free chocolates or pens. Red Hen Press had nice pens last year. Avoid fridge magnets. You don't need a Florida Review fridge magnet.
On the last day of the conference (Saturday, March 1), the book fair is open to the public and completely free. Saturday afternoon, many journals will try to unload their stock for cheap or free so that they don't have to haul it home.
Special tip for bar owners.
If you own a bar within a mile of the convention center, double your order this week and add additional staff. Writers are, almost by definition, broke, so they won't drink a single one of your special $12 cocktails, but they are also, almost by definition, drunks, so they will put back ten $5 mojitos.
Earnest poet: Fashionable or schlubby, working-class or aristocratic, but if you're lucky, they'll be tipsy and will recite a slightly shocking Tony Hoagland poem to you from memory. They're nice kids, the poets, their ambition is tempered by the fact that they went into debt for a degree in writing poems.
Earnest fiction writer: Bad childhood. These people are often chatty and drunk. They're trawling for material, so be cautious with your personal information.
Earnest nonfiction writer: Bad childhood. Or they did some study abroad and it blew their mind, and now you're going to hear all about that month in a favela near São Paulo. Counterintuitively, these people are NOT trawling for material. They already have it.
Paunchy thirtysomethings in suits that they purchased when they were thinner: Job interviews! Check for minty breath and sweaty palms. If you feel generous, grin admiringly at them and then look away, as if intimidated. If you're feeling mean, look at their face with concern and wipe at your nose until they do the same. Then say, "Yeah, you more or less got it."
Toiling-in-obscurity-for-years-after-MFA writer with large chip on shoulder, but ended up on a panel somehow, so decided to come to the conference anyway: This person will be blackout drunk and will hit on you, insult you, and then cry into your crotch (not necessarily in that order). Consider yourself warned.
Mid-level writer you've never heard of: Full disclosure—this is me. We're plentiful. Most are on faculty somewhere, but some (like me) aren't. A couple books, some nice magazine stuff, an award or two. We don't bite—we're truly just here for fun, and maybe to mention that our novel The Dismal Science was just published by Tin House Books ($15.95) and is available at... etc.
Professor who got tenure 20 years ago and then stopped writing: These guys and gals will not go out much—too embarrassed. If you happen to see one, do not make eye contact, or you will be miserable for the rest of the day.
Fancy professor you've never heard of: Wealthy individual between 50 and 70 years old who publishes books with respected presses periodically, sometimes has a story in the Paris Review, and is treated like a god in this small community. They probably have a long Wikipedia page (written by spouse). They can be blowhards, but they're often the most interesting people you'll meet at the conference.
Annie Proulx: Reclusive Wyoming resident who won an assload of awards for her novel The Shipping News, subsequently made into the most forgettable and poorly cast movie ever. Wrote a short story called "Brokeback Mountain," which also became a movie, but that movie wasn't very forgettable. Mostly these days she writes short stories that are unrelentingly bleak and set in Wyoming. She's giving the keynote address on Thursday. With luck, she'll recite an invective on the cruel and arbitrary nature of life.
As Lorrie Moore wrote in her story "How to Become a Writer" on the question of whether writers get discouraged: "Sometimes they do, and sometimes they do. It's a lot like having polio." That's about right. So just think of this as a conference for sufferers of a grave illness, and you'll be fine.
If you have a pass (or manage to sneak past the guards), here are some panels that will probably be great, in one way or another—but there are many more (I'm also on three panels, but didn't include them because unfair):
Melville House 12th Anniversary Reading (Thursday 9 a.m.: Valerie Merians, Dennis Johnson, Christopher Boucher, Jeremy Bushnell, Rachel Cantor)
Literary Politics: White Guys and Everyone Else (Thursday noon: Lorraine Berry, Roxane Gay, Amy Hoffman, Aimee Phan, Mat Johnson)
Beef Jerky, Bras, and Car Parts: What We Write About When We Write for Money (Thursday 1:30 p.m.: Rachel Kessler, Anastacia Tolbert, Matthew Dickman, Jan Wallace, Ryan Boudinot)
The Author-Editor Relationship (Thursday 3 p.m.: Sherman Alexie, Elisabeth Schmitz, Morgan Entrekin, Margaret Wrinkle, Jamie Quatro)
Author & Editor: The Relationship That Builds a Book (Friday noon: Noreen Tomassi, Jess Walter, Chuck Palahniuk, Gerry Howard, Calvert Morgan)
My Life Is a Fiction: Writing Fiction from Autobiography (Saturday 10:30 a.m.: Jodi Angel, Pam Houston, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, Greg Spatz, Josh Weil)
Writing, Rumpus, and Community (Saturday 10:30 a.m.: Brian Spears, Cheryl Strayed, Stephen Elliott, Roxane Gay, Isaac Fitzgerald)
Comedy, and Errors (Saturday 1:30 p.m.: Peter Turchi, Antonya Nelson, Steven Schwartz, CJ Hribal)
The Business of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century (Saturday 3 p.m.: Elisabeth Schmitz, Morgan Entrekin, Jill Bialosky, Dani Shapiro, Rick Simonson)
Page Meets Stage (Saturday 4:30 p.m.: Taylor Mali, Nick Flynn, Tara Hardy, Jamaal May, Rachel McKibbens)
Weird Girls (Fabulous Ladies of Fabulist Fiction) (Saturday 4:30 p.m.: Christine Vines, Marie-Helene Bertino, Amelia Gray, Karen Thompson Walker, Deb Olin Unferth)
Sherman Alexie and Timothy Egan: A Reading Sponsored by Hugo House (Saturday 8:30 p.m.: Timothy Egan, Sherman Alexie, and Tree Swenson)
There are more than 100 AWP after-parties taking place around Seattle from Wednesday to Saturday. These parties are open to the public and often free. Here are just a few of the best-looking events; for other standouts, turn to Stranger Suggests, or visit The Stranger's readings calendar (thestranger.com/readings) for a comprehensive list of all the events.
SEATTLE ARTS & LECTURES AND POETRY NORTHWEST
Local poets Matthew Nienow, Kary Wayson, and the Vis-a-Vis Society (Rachel Kessler and Sierra Nelson) join out-of-town poets Brittany Cavallaro, Jessica Fisher, Matthew Olzmann, and former Seattleites Hannah Sanghee Park, Zach Savich, Cody Walker, and Catherine Wing. That's a lot of names, and about half of them are must-sees. Given that everybody is sticking to five minutes of stage time, this should be a quick and (hopefully) dirty evening. The Pine Box, 1600 Melrose Ave, free, 8 pm.
UW CREATIVE WRITING FACULTY
UW faculty including Linda Bierds, David Bosworth, Andrew Feld, Richard Kenney, David Shields, Maya Sonenberg, Pimone Triplett, and Shawn Wong will read, making this a pretty impressive overview of Seattle literature as it stands today. Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, free, 8 pm.
INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN INDIAN ARTS MFA FACULTY
Teachers from the Institute of American Indian Arts' new Low Residency MFA Program read new work. One of the readers is Sherwin Bitsui, who gave a great poetry reading at Elliott Bay Book Company a few years back. Other readers include Natalie Diaz, Melissa Febos, Susan Power, and Ken White. Hugo House, free, 4 pm.
WAVE BOOKS READING
Mary Ruefle, Joshua Beckman, Cedar Sigo, Garrett Caples, and Eileen Myles take the stage at ACT Theatre. Myles alone would make this a must-see. ACT Theatre, 700 E Union St, free, 5:30 pm.
COPPER CANYON AND CAVE CANEM
Cosponsor Cave Canem supports great black poets. Sherman Alexie has called Copper Canyon the greatest publisher of poetry in America today. The Sorrento is a lovely backdrop for a reading. Sorrento Hotel, 900 Madison St, free, 6 pm.
AN EVENING WITH ELECTRONIC LITERATURE
This event is subtitled "Readings of Interactive and New Media Work by Members of the Electronic Literature Organization." The thing that separates this reading from all the other AWP readings is that these stories do not work without computers and, for the most part, the internet. That's totally fucking fascinating. Ada's Technical Books, 425 15th Ave E, free, 7 pm.
N+1 MFA VS. NYC LAUNCH PARTY
This is a book-release party for the book MFA vs. NYC, which is an anthology about the two cultures that dominate modern fiction writing. Contributors to the anthology (and readers at this event) include Eric Bennett, Alexander Chee, Melissa Flashman, and Jynne Dilling Martin. Vito's, 927 Ninth Ave, free, 7 pm.
This is obviously one of the bigger AWP events, hosted by one of the biggest literary-minded websites in the business today. The readers are Roxane Gay, Monica Drake, Katie Crouch, and Gina Frangello, which is a wonderful lineup. There will be music by John Wesley Harding, comedy from Derek Sheen, and Zoe Ruiz and Stephen Elliott will host. This should be very good, and very crowded. Spitfire, 2219 Fourth Ave, free, 9 pm.
BLOOF AND SATURNALIA
This event, which is sponsored by poetry publishers Bloof Books and Saturnalia Books, features readers including Timothy Liu, Martha Silano, Elisabeth Workman, and most especially Dorothea Lasky, who is a wonderful reader and thinker. Rebecca Loudon will be performing music, too. Jewelbox Theater, 2322 Second Ave, free, 6 pm.
GHOST PROPOSAL, LETTERED STREETS PRESS, AND APOSTROPHE BOOKS
This event features poets including Alexis Pope, who runs a great poetry blog at alexispopeisagirl.tumblr.com, and other writers like Thomas Patrick Levy (author of Please Don't Leave Me Scarlett Johansson) and Jessica Baran, whose newest poetry collection is titled Equivalents. Black Coffee Co-op, 501 E Pine St, free, 6:30 pm.
WAVE BOOKS & FRIENDS
This is an all-night party celebrating Wave Books authors, who will read every half-hour, with a "20 minute break" in between the readings "to grab a drink (cash bar) and a dance." Wave Books prints beautiful books by one of the strongest lineups of poets in the publishing industry today, so this is worth your attention. Sole Repair, 1001 E Pike St, $5, 7 pm.
This is a party to celebrate the animal in us, as an antidote to AWP's stuffy panels. (Get it?) If you're in town and don't know much about Seattle literature, this lineup offers some great Seattle talent, including Stacey Levine, Doug Nufer, Sarah Dowling, and Jennifer Calkins. Other readers include Bhanu Kapil and Amina Cain. Blindfold Gallery, 1718 E Olive Way, free, 7:30 pm.
ENTER THE POET: KAYA PRESS AND KUNDIMAN
Freshly published authors from two small presses read new work to celebrate Bruce Lee and the 20th anniversary of the founding of Kaya Press. There will also be projections of Bruce Lee floating around the teahouse. Nagomi Tea House, 519 Sixth Ave S, free, 7:30 pm.
How's this for a fucking great lineup? VIDA is bringing an A-game: Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn, Pam Houston, Natalie Diaz, Melissa Febos, Kate Lebo, and Alexander Chee! There are enough big-name authors there to headline an entire book festival. This event is intended to poke fun at the postwar domestic goddess, with pie and booze on hand. "Partygoers are encouraged to dress as their favorite medicated '50s housewife." Hugo House, free, 8 pm.
Writers including Lucy Hitz, Sheryl St. Germain, and Seattle-area memoirist Brian McGuigan will read new work on the theme of video games. Black Coffee Co-op, free, 12:30 pm.
ALICE BLUE, BLOOF, AND COCONUT
Excellent local publisher Alice Blue Books joins forces with "collective poetry publisher" Bloof Books out of New Jersey and poetry publisher Coconut Books in a group reading featuring "about two dozen performers" who are published by the presses. The Pine Box, free, 6 pm.
AWP: DRAWN TO MARVEL
This is a launch party celebrating the release of Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, which was just published by Minor Arcana press. Sherman Alexie is a contributor to this book, which shouldn't be a surprise to those of you who know Alexie as a big old comic-book nerd. This reading will feature 13 authors featured in the book. Raygun Lounge, 501 E Pine St, free, 7 pm.
MCSWEENEY'S POETRY SERIES
Even if you don't know most of these AWP publishers, you know McSweeney's. And since this event is hosted by McSweeney's Poetry Series editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan, you can expect a lot of McSweeney's goodness here. The readers are Victoria Chang, Dan Chelotti, Zubair Ahmed, and Carl Adamshick. Hugo House, free, 8 pm.