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The episode in which I prepare to hug everyone else
AWP. Harriet readers, by now, are familiar with the fact that this is the week of the annual conference during which America’s writers group their collective ambitions and anxieties in one US city. It’s the week of the smiling and nodding; the week of not remembering who you’ve just spoken to until you’re four steps away from that person; the week of wishing you could attend panel A except that you are obligated for some reason to attend panel C which means that though you might have learned a great deal from panels B and D you can’t attend those either. It’s the week of book fair overwhelm. For 51 weeks of the year most of us wish for better access to good books and journals, but this week, access is in surplus.
Kwame, I’d like to promise that I will say, “Hello, Kwame, this is Camille Dungy” when I approach you for my hug. Today most people will get their name tags, and that will help a little, but the name tags are always turned the wrong way when you need them most. Six thousand poets and fiction writers and playwrights and producers of literary nonfiction, nearly every one out of their normal context, even the best of us are understandably taxed in terms of our abilities to identify everyone.
I remember my first AWPs, years when, as a graduate student, I was awed to share the corridors with so many people who did what I loved. And all the writers on whom I had word crushes were all right there in the hotel bar or eating their $30 breakfasts or standing, dazed in the book fair. And the book fair! Publishers and journals I admired, authors I respected, some I’d never heard about and wished I’d heard of years before. So much! So much! And all for me! And I knew hardly anyone, and there was something rather nice about that. As if the conference were not much more than the animation of my bookshelves. Rather than reading my heroes’ work it was read to me by them.
I hear a lot of talk about the anxiety that AWP can produce and, to be sure, I understand whereof this anxiety can spring. But as I prepare to enter the fray that is this writers’ festival–I already chatted with 2 writers in the Oakland airport, shared my plane row with another, met another 7 at DIA, and shared my shuttle row with 3 more–I’m going to try to remember the wonder of those early experiences of first being surrounded by so many writers whose work I knew or would soon come to know.
Now I’m panel, book fair, meeting, panel, book fair, eating, off site reading bound. (I might pass through the bar to gather up a hug or two, but at 8 months pregnant, I won’t be partaking in that key aspect of the festivities this year). Wish me luck!