by Cerridwen Aker
Five days of sun dissolved to a cold spattering of March rain on my last morning in Seattle, and with it went much of my romanticism surrounding AWP. On Tuesday, before the conference began, Amtrak hurried me through industrial river towns, marshy farmland, expansive coastline and snowcapped mountains from Portland, Oregon, to the opulent King Street Station. The train-car was plush and nearly empty. Light split my wide window as I wrote and read, stomach clenched with excitement.
Fog rolled off Elliott Bay as seagulls dipped over the cobbled streets of Pike Place Market. With warm salmon pierogi in one hand and bitter coffee from the first Starbucks in the other, I began to inhabit downtown Seattle. Though it was only a three-day affair, AWP felt much like Duende: joyful, dark, and intense, wresting from me both a physical and mental response. Bodily exhaustion could not overtake the high. My head spun as I sipped artisan martinis and thanked Roberto Carlos Ascalon for his reading; as I bugged Steven Church about creative nonfiction; as I talked trauma in family narrative with Susan Ito and Christa Parravani; as I joined in the choreography of the New School's Ricky Tucker.
Conversation and dancing lasted later and later each night, leaving me sneaking back into a full house at 2am, footsore and sweaty. However, even with the caliber of attendees, much of the politics felt like high school: the cliques, the pretense, my giddy feeling of pseudo-popularity when MFA programs and journals sought me out at Duende's corner of the Goddard College booth.
The way materials were handed over was seductive, a secret writer's courtship, luring me in with words that were unspeakably sexy: fully-funded, teaching opportunities, publication. I was under the spell of AWP.
And what of Duende you might ask?
It seemed our little journal was quite the hit. Our booth was simple, the blue backdrop and white lettering of Goddard College emblazoned with cutouts of our bright Duende "D." It helped that our color was an unintentional match to the AWP lanyards, drawing eyes without difficulty. Our team was so successful with marketing that by the second morning, attendees could be heard asking, "Oh Duende? I've heard of you before."
There was more than just the glamour, though. Anna Bálint read from her essay, "Alexander 'Sandy' Taylor" during the Raven Chronicles panel. She spoke of legacy, of Manhattan apartments stacked with boxes of books after 9/11, and the sour smell of smoke. Brenda Miller moderated The Bellingham Review panel, addressing changing visions, podcasts, and online publication. Highlights included Angela Tung sharing an excerpt from her Annie Dillard Award winning essay, "An Old Man on the Frontier Loses His Horse," and Jennifer Militello reading from her newest book Body Thesaurus, a collection of diagnosis poems. Trust me, get the book.
Despite my exhilaration, by Saturday morning my perception started to fray. The sea of writer boys (in their H&M “worn” flannel and brown suede Hipster Cchukka boots) flirting with the waves of writer girls (with their painted red lips and high-waisted dresses) was no longer compelling. I was still breathing, but felt awfully close to drowning.
I left to nurse my hangover by walking through the book fair, where I picked up three Red Hen Press books for five dollars, along with an alarming amount of candy. Thankfully, children were scarce.
In reflection, I echo the advice that I was given in preparation for AWP: the book fair is simply the best. The range of panels should not be overlooked (several pages of notes fill my moleskin, and there are stacks of suggested books on my desk), but some are more of a platform for writers to talk about themselves. The offsite events are plentiful, wonderful, and demand caution. Self-care first.
On our second night in town, a fellow BFA student and I went on the famed Seattle Underground Tour--not nearly as hokey as I imagined. Deep in the tunnels of Old Seattle, we stared up at the skylights in the sidewalk. Small, square segments of glass made up one thick pane through which ghostly streetlight glowed. We learned that the glass used, which was not made with lead but instead contained manganese, turned a lovely lavender if exposed over time to ultraviolet rays.
Looking back, this is the best way I can describe my experience of AWP: overexposed. It was not so harsh that I was blown out, like a flashed photo in a darkroom. But on the crowded humid train home, trying to find space for my three extra bags of books, I felt a little like those skylights. In some sort of chemical reaction, my exposure to the vast and vibrant writing community of AWP had softened my consideration of what my future as a writer might look like as something sustaining, viable, and ever-shifting.