The AWP is arranged like a typical conference, in a hotel, with a bookfair taking up a few large rooms and, scattered throughout the hotel, Â tons of boring panels plusÂ some reallyÂ interesting panels or talks, which somehow manage to be interrupted by fire alarms right when they’re getting good. At night, there are readings around the cities, all in bars so that if you happen to end up at a bad reading, at least you canÂ down shot after shotÂ because being drunk and listening to bad poetry is better than being sober and listening to good poetry.Â Okay, not really. I actually got to hear some really great poets read and also play instruments so I feel pretty lucky. (But getting drunk does seem to be part of the deal. The first day, a gentleman asked me to smell him to see if he smelled like an alcoholic. The next time I saw him, he was too drunk to remember he’d asked me to smell him!)
You usually end up back at your hotel at about 3:30 or so in the morning, and then you have to get up at 6:30 to get ready and get to the hotel in time for the hordes of people going to panels and visiting the bookfair tables. In this sleep-deprived, hungover haze, you meet some really interesting and very nice people (like Richard Peabody), who gets his ear talked off because, after spending all day trying to catch people’s attention with flashy talking, you can’t shut up. At least, I found that by the end of the day, I was just jabberingÂ and jabbering about just about anything that came to my mind. I think it’s because most days, I spend all day by myself, alone in a room, writing. And alone in that room, you forget what it’s like to interact with real people because the only interactions going on are the ones in your head that you are creating and putting down on paper.
If that isn’t bad enough, I truly did make a foolÂ of myself the very first day. I was visiting Black Classic PressÂ and talking with two nice men who were standing there at the booktable. All of a sudden, I noticed that one of the gentlemen was Walter Mosley. Holy baloney shamoley! Walter Mosley! Â This doesn’t happen, where you suddenly realize you’re talking to one of the most famous writers alive.
“Hey,” I said, “you’re Walter Mosley!”
I know. I’m bright. I’m a graduate student at Stanford.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
“I’ve met you before,” I said. “At the BEA.” (That’s Book-Expo America.)
“Oh, when was that,” he asked.
Â ”Right after you wrote Monster,” I said. “That’s a great book!” Indeed,Â Monster is a wonderful book, a y.a. novel about a kid who is sent to prison and writes a screenplay about his experiences in order to get through the tough time.
“Oh, I didn’t write Monster,” Mr. Mosley said.
“You’re thinking of that gang memoir,” the other gentleman said to me. “It was about prison experiences. That wasn’t written by Walter Mosley. That was written by…who was that written by? Sanyika Shakur.”
“No, no,” I jabbered. “I’m not thinking of that gang memoir–I’m talking about Monster…Didn’t you write that?”Â And then I realized the mistake I had just made. “Ohmygod, I’m talking about Monster, written by Walter Dean Myers.”
Right about then, the little voice inside my head was saying, Shut up shut up shut up, Jessica.
“You know, you’re both named Walter…and…” I said.Â So then I chatted to them about this and that, including James Carr’s gang memoir Bad,Â and tried to make up for my mistake but absolutely did not succeed andÂ went away feeling dumb. I still feel dumb. But like most moments at conferences like this, it will probably fade away.