AWP Chronicles #3: The Literati

Earlier today, I told a good writer friend that I was “recovering” from the AWP and wasn’t so sure about going to any more conferences for awhile. She wrote back, wondering what a smart girl like me was doing at the AWP. I said that yes, I met  many nice people, but somehow the atmosphere made me feel horrible–lonely, unimportant, empty, strangling on the stale air of academia. Ha! Okay, melodrama queen has been in academia far too long, my friend. Far too long.

But then she told me about a mutual acquaintance of ours, also a writer, who said when she went to the AWP, nobody would look her in the eye. They would look at her name tag to see if she was anybody important! And when they found out that she wasn’t, they weren’t all that interested in talking to her.

Brilliant. Because yes, that was precisely the feeling I got from so many people there. Not, granted, the people who came up to New Pages and said, “Ohmygod, I love what you guys do.” Certainly not from the lovely people at the Beloit Poetry Journal, who had a table next to us, and were just as sweet as people can be. Or Bill Pierce, from AGNI, or Dennis Loy Johnson from Melville House Press–all great people, the kind of people I would choose to hang around even if we weren’t all somehow connected through this business of literature. So I can’t name all the really wonderful people I met at the AWP, the majority of them in the bidness so to speak. But there were 7000 people there and the overwhelming vibe was still snobness.

Does this mean I’m not going back to the AWP next year? No, I’m going back. Why? Because I’m a glutton for punishment. Okay, truth is, I’m going back because elitism is just part of the game. When I was twenty-two years old, I left Christianity–forever, I said (only to convert to Catholicism three years later). But the point here isn’t my conversion–my need to still be a part of the faith of my childhood–or the fact that I’ve been a truly terrible Catholic ever since: the point is that mostly why I left Christianity is because the culture had become completely oppressive to me. And I still find evangelical Christianity oppressive. Nevertheless, I gave up a lot when I left it–I gave up a community of friends who were supportive, an instant connection to many members of my family, and an open invitation from strangers around the world who would house and feed me simply because I was part of this “in” crowd called the church. It was an incredibly painful process of separation. It took me years to regain that kind of community outside of the church. In fact, I would venture to say that I’ve never found as large a group of supportive friends, or as wide a network, outside of it and that it may not be possible a) because non-spiritual institutions operate on different principles (you don’t find strangers inviting people into their house to stay the night simply because both people are members of the Green Party, for example) and b) because many other communities are not institutions and are just too small to  sustain that level of support. So the analogy here is that the AWP is just one more part of the literary community, the culture that is literature. Not all of that culture is pretty or wonderful and, yes, some of it is frankly exploitative and oppressive. But it’s still the culture I’ve chosen to be part of as an adult, chosen as my career, my vocation, my profession, my calling, even my spiritual practice . So what can I do except accept that there are unsavory parts to it? If you leave one religion, you can at least join another, completely different religion; but if you leave the community of literature, there’s no alternative to it.

 So AWP 2009…Chicago, baby, here we come!

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