AWP Part Six: Escape


Olvera street
Olvera Street, finally


Saturday was the last day of the conference,  and we had a plan:  

  1. Our friend Ariel’s panel. 
  2. One other panel.
  3. Try again to get to Olvera street. Don’t get lost and don’t trust Google. 

After that, I’d be flying home in the evening. Michelle was staying for several extremely fabulous-sounding rock-and-roll events. 

We got up early, looked through the schedule. 

“What happened to the keynote?” we wondered. Didn’t a conference usually have a keynote? It wasn’t in our chart of panels, but we found it in the giant schedule: Thursday night at 8pm. Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, the prose-poem discussion of racism that won a zillion awards and was at the top of every must-read list for 2014. Claudia Rankine who had famously departed from her planned reading at an AWP conference a few years earlier to instead read a scathing critique of a racist poem (I only learned that part later when I googled “What happened at Claudia Rankine’s AWP keynote?”). Basically, it was guaranteed to be an awesome, or at the very least, interesting talk. 

But we’d missed it. 

“What were we even doing Thursday night?” we asked each other. It was hard to remember, because every day at AWP feels like about four days. 

Whatever we’d been doing, it was too late, because the keynote had happened without us and there was no going back. So we ate the last of the instant oatmeal and apples we’d brought for breakfasts in the hotel, checked out of the hotel (Michelle would be staying with friends for the last night) and went to Ariel’s 9am panel. 

It was about motherhood and writing. I never would have gone to this panel if it weren’t for the people on it. I’m not a mother, I don’t intend on being a mother. I do know some things about mothers. I have a mother, and a lot of my friends are mothers. Also, two of the people who have been most supportive of my writing are the creators of the magazines Hip Mama and Rad Dad, so I read a lot about mothers and fathers. AWP had at least two panels about mothers and no panels about fathers, incidentally. Anyway, I went to the mother panel. 

It was good! It had to be good, though, so it wasn’t too surprising. Our friend the amazing Ariel Gore was on it, and Michelle Tea, and they have nothing to say that’s not interesting. Ariel talked about parenting and writing and how she couldn’t separate the two because she’d been a writer and a parent her entire adult life, which kind of blew my mind. 

When Michelle Tea talked, I though about how much I loved her book Rent Girl and how I lent it to somebody who then claimed I never lent it to him and how I wish I had it right now so she could sign it. Also Kate Schatz was on the panel. She wrote the book Rad Women A-Z, which is an very cool illustrated list of 26 radical women. She talked about how some people were mad that she included Kate Bornstein in the book because Kate Bornstein is trans and  identifies neither female nor male. Then I thought about how insanely awesome Kate Bornstein is and how could anyone possibly want to exclude Kate Bornstein from anything? 

I tried to think about what they said about motherhood at least a little. I do remember they said it’s okay to write about your kids, that they’ll forgive you. 

We had time for one last panel before our exciting touristy lunch plans. I had chosen the one I wanted last night, and it sounded so good, Michelle decided to go to it, too. 

It was AMAZING. It was the panel I wish every panel was. I especially wished every boring academic panel at every pointless academic conference of my (research-university) youth had been this panel instead. 

It was on African-American writing and the effect of the white gaze. The panel started with an academic style talk on the historical relationship between black authors and white audiences, whether authors had written for an African American readership or a white one. The other speakers discussed the topic from their perspective as writers and poets, reading parts of their work that reflected the issues they were discussing. It was so, so cool. 

There were questions from the audience, mostly good, answered well, and then the weirdest audience question I’d ever seen. A light-skinned African-American man in a sweater-vest raised his hand and asked about black people who wanted to be white. In a voice that sounded like every impression of a white man Dave Chappelle ever did, he explained that he just so happened to be writing a novel on this very subject: a black man who wished to be white, who lived in the white neighborhood, drove the BMW, played golf. I’m sure you know the type, said the black guy who sounded like Dave Chappelle pretending to be a white guy. He told us the plot of his book, the title, was just about to tell us the URL where we could buy it, just in case we were interested, when a woman in front of me and Michelle turned towards him and said, “Sir, what is your question?” 

“Yes, sure,” he said. His question was something like, “So has anyone on the panel ever heard of that kind of thing?” 

No one on the panel had heard of that kind of thing, but one lady very politely acknowledged that it would be a very sad state of affairs to want to be someone other than yourself. 

The man gave her a Dave Chapelle thank you and sat down, and then the awesome panel was over. 

Now was our time to escape! We hadn’t made it to Olvera street yesterday, so now we would do it the right way: call a cab. But we didn’t even have to call a cab, because Ariel’s daughter lives in Los Angeles, so she picked us up and took us all there.

Olvera street was incredible, like Disney Tijuana. Cobblestone streets packed with vendor carts, tons of skull jewelry and tooled leather and embroidered peasant dresses. Some really good-looking churros. Michelle said it was just how she remembered from childhood, when she used to visit, the historic oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles. We got a giant tex-Mex meal, a bunch of margaritas for people who like margaritas (not me), ate until we were really, really full. I had fish tacos, and my plate had enough food for two meals, but it was ninety degrees out and I wasn’t going to be dragging leftover tacos all over LA so I had to eat them all. 

Then we went in a candle store that kind of made me think of Haight Street, bought a scarf and bracelets for our friend Lisbeth who had been hoping to come to the conference but couldn’t at the last minute, and headed back to the car. 

I had to catch an evening flight, so I went back to the hotel, where my suitcase was waiting. I sat in the lobby, drank tea and worked, tried to find a place where the excessively polite hotel staff wouldn’t ask me every five minutes if I wanted some water or a food menu. I closed my eyes, listened to the fountains that gushed through all parts of the lobby (this was the lake district of the city-with-a-city, or perhaps the water park), pretended to work until it was time to go.

I waited outside the hotel for an hour for my scheduled shuttle, called the shuttle company three times, got hung up on twice. Finally I jumped in a cab to LAX, and me and my ten novel synopsises were on our way home. I’ll probably never go back, so that was it: AWP. A good story–trepidation, heartache, betrayal, redemption. The end. 

<Part 6





AWP Part 5: Never Mind, This Panel Was Even Worse

en route to “The Rejected,” full of naive optimism

Me and Michelle took a cab to Cielo Gallery, which was hosting a series called “The Rejected” of panels that weren’t accepted for AWP. Michelle had been invited by our friend to participate in a panel, even though she wasn’t on the original version that was rejected.

The LA Times touted the “Rejected” panels as a productive antidote or protest to the privilege and homogeneity of the official conference: 

“For two days, CIELO gallery in South L.A. featured panels and readings that had been rejected by AWP — all addressing issues related to marginalization — and the organizers hired an American Sign Language interpreter for all the panels.”

Which isn’t quite how it happened, at least as far as I saw. Michelle’s panel started at 4:30, and we arrived a little early, probably around 4. There was another panel in progress, so we walked in quietly and sat in the audience. All the people on Michelle’s panel were already there, watching the speakers politely.

It was a cool gallery, a warehouse space on a residential street corner. The panel was interesting–five poets, all people of color, and as far as I could tell, they were describing how sound played into their poetics. I wasn’t completely sure about some of the points they were making, partially because we came in late, but more pressingly, because a neighboring building was blasting top 40 dance tunes right outside the gallery’s aluminum wall. So an Indigenous poet was explaining the relationship between poetry and lost languages, in a mumbly voice, his hand half-covering his mouth in a gesture of shyness, and behind him, as though a soundrack, “All about that bass, ’bout that bass…” 

There was not an ASL interpreter, which is too bad because that might have been helpful. 

Still, undaunted, the panel talked. And talked and talked. Soon it was 4:30–still one presenter to go. Did the moderator not realize that another panel was scheduled, right now? Hard to say. The final presenter presented, without urgency. Then it was 4:45, and the moderator looked at her watch. 

“It looks like we have time for a few questions,” she said. 

No one from Michelle’s panel protested, because this panel, like their own, represented the marginalized, and you’d have to be an asshole to interrupt the marginalized.  

People asked questions and the panel answered, while we sat in the audience and waited.

At 5pm, the moderator said, “Any more questions? I know we’ve gone a bit over, but I think we can still take one more question.” 

No one offered, so she said, “Well, I have a question. I’d like everyone on the panel to answer it. How–” (I shit you not) “–has sense of place affected your poetics, and also how do you define identity for yourself and how does that identity find expression in your writing?”

The moderator of Michelle’s panel left. 

Everyone explained where they had lived and how it affected their poetics and how they defined their identities and how that found expression in their writing. 

The neighbors ran out of top 40 dance tunes and went silent. 

At 5:15, they stopped talking. As the surviving members of Michelle’s panel assembled themselves at the speakers’ table, the long-winded panel and their audience went into the adjoining room (separated by a thin screen) and had a very loud, lively conversation, returning frequently to interrupt our panel for items they had left behind at the table–phone chargers, backpacks, sweatshirts. 

“It feels pretty shitty to be rejected by the rejected,” Michelle said when it was her turn. 

The small remaining audience sat through the panel of our friends, trying to look pleasant and encouraging, until the moment they were done and we were all out the door. 

Worst AWP experience ever!!!

And it wasn’t even at AWP. 

Michelle suggested we cheer up with dinner at her favorite childhood tourist spot, Olvera Street, the oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles. We almost called a cab, but Google said it was a twenty-five minute walk. 

Google lied. 

At least it was warm and sunny as we walked through the garment district (or they call it the fashion district), past warehouses and wholesalers closed for the day, walked and walked and walked and walked until the sun began to set and we were in the theater district, and now mysteriously forty minutes from Olvera street. Then we bought some falafel, took a cab back to the hotel, and called it a night. 

<Part 4

Part 5>

AWP Part 4: Weird Meals

On that first conference night, we walked out to a place called Library Bar, which was just a bar decorated with a bookshelf–basically the nerdiest place for a bunch of writers/English teachers to get drunk and eat bar food instead of a proper dinner. I was starving, but the menu was pretty limited, so I ended up with edamame hummus (two lovely things that are kind of a gritty, salty mess when you put them together), the greasy grilled flatbread they served it with, other people’s french fries. Not really what I’d consider a meal, so I decided to wash it down with something that wasn’t really a drink, a tall, lemonade thing with I think vodka in it.

I told my writer/English teacher friends–most of them people I mainly knew from online–about my terrible panel. They were all appropriately pained when I told them about the women who was stressed out about too many people wanting to publish her novel.

sweaty bar selfie

I met one of their friends, an awesome woman who lives in Iowa. I only know one other person in Iowa, one of my best friends from graduate school. I figured Iowa is small enough that everybody knows each other, so I asked this woman if she knew Sondra Gates.

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Not only do I know her,” she said. “We share an office.”

We took a sweaty bar selfie together and sent it to Sondra. We are going to blow her mind, we said. I thought we were awesome and hilarious.

Some ladies came over in matching black shirts and miniskirts. They looked like a Robert Palmer video. They told us they were doing taste-tests, gave us shots of bourbon.

“Is it good?” they asked. We nodded. It tasted like Jim Beam. I used to drink a lot of Jim Beam back when I was a drinker, because it was dirt cheap and I liked whiskey. I still have a few neglected bottles of it above my refrigerator that must be old enough to send to middle school.

“What do you think it is?” the Robert Palmer ladies asked.

None of us knew the names of any fancy bourbons, and I didn’t want to piss them off by saying Jim Beam, so we just said we didn’t know.

“It’s Jim Beam,” they said. They looked like they wanted us to be very surprised and order a round of Jim Beam for everyone right away. 

We left and went back to the spinning restaurant at the top of our hotel for more drinks and the only dessert they had, which was banana creme brûlée.

I did go to yoga on Friday morning–some warrior ones and twos and downward dogs on a conference-room carpet. They must have added yoga at the last second, because it wasn’t on my printed schedule, just the online one. Since the AWP app wouldn’t let me or Michelle log into it, I had to run down to the registration area and make one of the conference volunteers log into her AWP app on her phone to find the room. 

Michelle was at some actual panels–I don’t remember what they were–so after yoga, I went back to the hotel and worked for a few hours, lying on the hotel bed that was so much more comfortable (as is pretty much every bed) than my old futon. I edited a novel chapter; it didn’t need much change, so I didn’t feel super-productive, but it was nice. I liked being by myself, not on anyone else’s schedule. It felt free.

Why is this all I want to do, I wondered. Lie around or sit around and work. I like actually working so much better than being at a conference. For all I complain about grading essays, I’d rather grade essays all day long than do most things I could be doing.

There wasn’t a lot of work time, because Michelle came back for lunch, and then she had an offsite event in the afternoon that I would be attending. We went downstairs to the most basic-seeming of the multiple restaurants in the hotel. No more bar snacks instead of meals, we said on the way down. We’re going to have salad. But we didn’t have salad. Michelle had a beautiful bowl of pasta–one of those times where you walk by someone else’s lunch and know you have to order it–and I got two helpings of salmon and vegetables from the buffet. She had a glass of wine. None of it was french fries or greasy fried flatbread, and it was delicious.

<Part 3

Part 5>

AWP Part 3: The Worst Panel

I was sad to leave the quiet room, but I needed to attend one last panel to earn my day off on Friday. It was a panel of five authors who had just had their first books published. I figured I should go to at least one talk about the publishing process, in case I could learn something useful about trying to publish my novel, something besides what I already knew (write the best book you possibly can, rewrite it a zillion times until it’s perfect, send it to a thousand agents and get nine-hundred and ninety-nine rejections).

The panel turned out to be in a far wing of the conference center, as far as possible from the quiet room where I was hiding out, so by the time I got there it had just started. 

I found a seat halfway through the giant room, scooted past some people sitting at the end of the row and sat down. The panelists were seated at a non-elevated table, so I couldn’t see any of them. Each one introduced themselves and said a bit about their books. I half-stood for a second so I could see what each one looked like, then tried to envision their faces as they spoke.

The moderator explained that he was going to ask some questions that each member of the panel would answer. I think this must be the worst possible way to run a panel (please remind me some day if I ever moderate a panel). (Just kidding; I’m never going to moderate a panel). No one had prepared any comments, the responses were all shallow and predictable and nobody could go into depth about anything. 

So, for example–“Do you read the reviews of your book?”

“Yes, of course,” said one author. “I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it.” 

“I never do,” said another. “Some people have friends send them links to only the good ones.” 

“It’s impossible to avoid the bad ones,” said the third author. “You have to read them all or none of them.” 

“The bad reviews are depressing,” said the fourth, “but you need to learn not to let them get to you.” 

The sad realization came over me that I was ten minutes into a seventy-five minute panel and I wasn’t going to learn anything. I was still thirsty and in need of tea. I got a text message from Michelle: 

“The Wayward Writers are meeting at a bar near the hotel at 6.” 

It was 4:45 now. The panel ended at 5:45, and the hotel was a mile away. 

“I’ll never make it,” I wrote back.

One panelist was explaining that her path to publication was filled with heartache and despair. You see, she had never written a book before, didn’t know any writers, had no connections and no knowledge of the publishing process. But she submitted her book to a contest, it placed, and suddenly all these agents and publishers were calling her, wanting to publish her book. It was terrifying! Can you imagine the trauma? 

I looked down to the end of my row. The four people I had slid past, two minutes late, were still sitting there. I couldn’t drag all my bags past them a second time to leave fifteen minutes into the panel. Could I?

I squirmed in my seat and thought about how I would spend the time until this panel ended. 

“The main thing is just doing the writing,” one panelist said. They all agreed. “Yes, the most important thing is just doing the work. You need to put all your focus into doing great writing.”

I knew it! There was absolutely no reason to be at this conference. I should be writing.

I looked around, desperate for escape. Then something wonderful happened: the people at the end of my row got up and left. 

I was free! I grabbed my bags and followed them out into the hall. 

I called Michelle to tell her that I was on my way back, explaining that I was grumpy, that I was going to be tired and hungry and thirsty after my walk back to the hotel, that fine, I could go straight out to the bar but there was no way anyone could expect me to actually drink without becoming physically ill.  

Michelle was even less interested in my whining than usual, because she had her own problem. She was lost in our city-within-a-city hotel. 

“What’s the room number?” she asked. “I don’t think that room exists anymore. I can’t find it anywhere.” 

Then she turned down a different twisting hallway and found that the room did still exist. I stopped at a juice place on the way back, got a giant kale-based juice to fill up my steel travel mug, drank it as I walked. That made me feel a lot better. 

A few blocks before the hotel, I was keeping pace with a fast-walking woman in high heels. I kept thinking I had passed her (good! so annoying to walk the same pace as someone), then she would pass me, then finally we were both walking next to each other. 

“You must be from New York,” she said.  

“No, I just walk fast,” I said. “You’re from New York?” 

She was, and she worked in a community college, as I do. She asked me if I was going to the upcoming conference for community college writing teachers (Of course not. Who goes to two conferences in two weeks?). 

“I hate conferences,” I said, because I can’t lie when I’m tired. Or actually ever. “I think I’m done with this one.” 

She smiled. “I went to a great panel this morning,” she said. “They’re doing it again tomorrow morning.” 

“What was it?” I asked, polite. I already knew I would not be going to any panels tomorrow morning. 

“Yoga,” she said. “It was really pleasant. I thought it was going to be chair yoga, but it was actually a nice little workout.” 

I was pretty impressed–this lady totally got me. So okay, there would be just one panel for my day off: yoga. 

<Part 2

Part 4>








AWP Part 2: Conference Hell!!!

We flew in on Wednesday night and took a very long shuttle ride to the hotel. It was the Westin Bonaventure, whose website described it as “a city within a city.” All hotel names sound the same to me, so I remembered it by singing the Pet Shop Boys song: In a Westin town, a dead-end world, east-end boys and Westin girls.

We didn’t even check in, just dumped our suitcases at a bag check and rode up to the 34th floor to join some friends from our writing community, the Wayward Writers, in the rotating restaurant. We ate six giant plates of appetizers while spinning in a very slow circle, high above the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

The conference started on Thursday morning. We walked a mile to the LA Convention center, stood in a line that was five times longer than the one we went through to check in at the airport, registered. They gave us a conference program the size of a high-school yearbook and a tote bag to carry it in. We visited the booth for Michelle’s publisher, PM press, where a few of her many fans were already waiting to meet her. The conference is attended by over 12,000 people each year, and it seemed like they were all in the building right then.

We went off to find panels. I went to one about depicting diverse characters, something I am always worried about doing well. The panel itself wasn’t as diverse as I’d hoped; all the panelists seemed to be Muslim women (based on biographical details in their presentations, clothing, and research interests). Several or perhaps all of them were involved in young adult writing or issues regarding children, and several of them referenced the We Need Diverse Books movement. The panel was helpful, even though their viewpoints were a bit similar at times (they all focused on nationality and immigration as the arenas for diversity and all spoke mainly of child-appropriate issues; one mentioned cultural differences regarding marriage but not sexuality). The best advice they gave, though it was familiar to me already, was not to describe a character different from yourself as having problems based on that difference. So for example, if you are an able-bodied American woman, don’t assume a disabled character wishes to be able-bodied, or that an Indian woman in an arranged marriage feels trapped.

I met up with Michelle for lunch. The lines in the convention center cafeteria were crazy long (like the bathroom lines), so we crossed the giant boulevard to the sushi restaurant. Then she had her panel, which was about Latina/o writers and punk/new wave music. I loved this panel: a poet wrote about listening to punk music in Los Angeles, a few writers rhapsodizing about the Smiths and Morrissey, an academic paper about Futurism and the obsession with categorizing noise. Michelle read one of my favorite pieces from her book, about a writer who accused Michelle’s band, Spitboy, of cultural appropriation for naming their album in Spanish, Mi Cuerpo Es Mio, evidently not noticing Michelle, the Mexican drummer who wrote half the songs and lyrics.

Here’s where everything went bad for me, right after that panel. Michelle went downstairs to sign books at her publisher’s table. I looked for tea. It was 3 o’clock, and the cafeteria at the conference was closed. I crossed the boulevard again, found a Starbucks, stood in line for ten minutes, got halfway to the register, decided to leave.

I walked back to the conference, found a water fountain by the bathrooms (lines still out the door), put some cold LA water into my steel travel mug. I felt completely defeated. I had just spent half an hour wandering around looking for tea, perhaps a snack, carrying two tote bags full of my laptop and conference-yearbook and ten copies of my novel synopsis in an increasingly rumpled file folder.

I looked in the giant program, found the designated “quiet room.” It was a conference room filled with tables and a few people, working, sleeping with their heads on a table, lying on the floor next to their charging phones.

loved it in there. I finished up some grading, emailed my students, did a little editing on my own writing. This is where I am spending the entire conference, I told myself, sipping on my cold, tinny water. This silent, empty conference room is like heaven. I am never leaving. 

Better yet, I realized: I would skip day two of the conference and stay in the hotel room ALL DAY.  I could rejoin the festivities on Saturday, when another friend would be on a morning panel. But tomorrow, Friday, I would just lie in bed, write, drink all the tea I wanted from the dinky coffee pot on the desk. I would not go to AWP at all.

But before I did that, I decided, I needed to go to one last panel.

<Part 1

Part 3>


AWP Part 1: The Decision

“Do you want to go to AWP with me?” Michelle asked. “I need to know soon. Like by today.” 

That’s how I ended up going to the annual conference of the AWP, which I think but couldn’t guarantee stands for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (but then why isn’t it AWWP?). Every year, a bunch of our writing friends go, while Michelle and I gawk at their happy pictures on Facebook, wondering, how did they get the time off work? How long are they staying? What do you even do at a creative writing conference? 

This year, an incredible confluence of events meant that my best writing friend Michelle had to go to AWP. For a change, it was scheduled during our spring break, across the state rather than across the country, and she just published a book she needed to market. 

I hate conferences. I might have mentioned this before. I was force-fed a horrible diet of yearly conferences as a graduate student. Now I feel about conferences the way a lot of people raised in the 70’s feel about carob. It didn’t taste good, and the people who said it was good for me were lying. 

But this was our BIG OPPORTUNITY to go to AWP without missing any classes (teachers hate missing classes), and anyway, I wanted to see Michelle do all her readings and panels and book signings. So we registered, booked a flight, reserved a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles. 

As spring break approached, I got nervous. I really wanted to spend spring break writing and catching up on my grading. If I wasn’t going to do that, I’d better make this conference worthwhile. I looked through the endless list of panels and activities. There were dozens of panels each day, fifteen at a time. Panels on writing, panels on publishing, panels on teaching. Panels on diversity and writing. Panels on parenting and writing. Panels in tribute to this and that author. Prose panels. Poetry panels. And of course, panels of advice from real literary agents, who probably would have the longest lines of people waiting to talk to them and hand them a business card and book proposal after the panel.

It reminded me of my least favorite conference, the one held annually by the Modern Language Association, which every English grad student needs to attend if they are looking for a job. A giant conference filled with useless panel sessions, grad students giving talks solely for the purpose of getting their departments to fund their trip, panels with audiences that were smaller than the panel itself. 

And then, that sense of desperation, of everyone’s needy ego, of desperate desire. These big conferences are like New York–you go there starry-eyed and full of big dreams, leave starved and deflated. 

It was to much to figure out ahead of time. I was going to wing it. But just in case, I rewrote the synopsis for my novel, printed out ten copies and stuck them in my suitcase. 

>Part 2