Two years ago at AWP in Chicago, as I was waiting for a session to begin, a friendly looking writer sat next to me and introduced herself. I reciprocated, and she asked what kind of writing I did. I told her. Then she asked where I taught. When I said “at a middle school,” she gave me a strange look. Then she asked me where my MFA was from. When I replied I didn’t have one, she blurted out, “Then what are you even doing here?” Needless to say, I changed seats. And I do not remember her name.
What I do remember is the feeling that I wasn’t welcome in this world of academics and “trained” poets, that I wasn’t a real writer if I couldn’t check off her little boxes. That feeling stayed with me through the session, on which I could no longer concentrate. It led me to skip the next panel and head to the bookfair, where I soon felt small and lost, thinking, “All of these people want their writing in the world, too. Who am I to think I have a chance?” It was a pretty miserable day until I met up with a good poet friend (also not a professor and also sans MFA). We wandered the bookfair together. I introduced her to Daniel Khalastchi, with whom I had taken a workshop the summer before. He in turn introduced both of us to Aimee Nezhukumatathil, who was gracious and kind and funny, and they restored our faith that there were good people here that welcomed us into the fold.
This is the flustered part. I hated feeling that way, and I am worried it will happen again. Now, I am proud of my writing and the ways it has succeeded, and I dare say even prouder that I have accomplished these things while holding a full-time public school teaching job. But all it will take is one pretentious or condescending remark to send me off to an anonymous corner of the book fair, to put me back in the place where I feel I am not worthy. This year, I am involved in a wonderful off-site reading of female-run presses on Thursday night. Every time I look at the line-up of readers, I still find myself wondering, “How the hell did I get on this bill?”
But then there is the fired-up. There are sessions and panels that I know will inform both my teaching and my writing. I have a book out in the world, and it has received a positive response from readers. Besides my first manuscript being released this year, two new chapbooks also made their debut. Pretty amazing. I am currently putting finishing touches on a sixth chapbook manuscript and starting to piece together a second collection. I am looking forward to meeting (in person) members of my supportive online writing community. My husband is coming to Seattle with me, and evenings will be ours, a welcome respite from the “business” of writing and networking.
All of the internet posts about AWP can be overwhelming – imagine how much more so the conference can be. So, if you see me looking lost at the bookfair, or hiding under a table, toss me an encouraging word. And be careful how you interact with others. Anyone making the effort to put words on paper (or to publish those who do) should be welcomed, if not with open arms, then at least with an open mind.