AWP 2014: Fired-Up and Flustered

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.

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7 thoughts on “AWP 2014: Fired-Up and Flustered

  1. As Maxine Kumin said, “I didn’t stop writing poetry because Wallace Stegner told me I was a terrible poet….” (What Stegner said was, “Say it with flowers, but for God sakes don’t write any more poems about it.”) Kumin came out on top in all the ways that count. You will, too.

    There are plenty of poets who don’t pass the academy’s sniff test. I’ve heard and read about the MFA nonsense till I wanted to scream. A degree isn’t, never has been, and never will be an indicator of anything except having completed the requisite requirements.

    You go, girl!

  2. I have it on good authority that when the people who decide which panels to accept measure their diversity, including writers who are not from academia adds diversity points. So there’s that (and it might explain how I got on a panel year before last). I don’t really feel as if I belong anywhere, so writers’ confabs don’t faze me all that much. I don’t share their aspirations, in most cases probably have very different literary idols, and don’t feel any particular sense of competition because I don’t think publishing is a zero-sum game anymore.

    • Agreed, Dave. But I am a fairly emotional and insecure person in general, so that threw me for a loop. I don’t really CARE or let those attitudes impact me day to day, but to have that blunt interaction put me in a place where I felt small.

  3. AWP is definitely overwhelming. I’ve scheduled some time to unplug this time around, too. I hope to see you at AWP, Donna.

  4. On some level, I find it offensive that someone would expect an MFA is a requirement to teaching writing, too. Or that teaching writing anywhere except an MFA program (because that’s the only professional practical use for getting one, probably) is somehow lesser. There are three things I use as my battle armor for such people: first, the fact that the overwhelming majority of half-decent or better writers and writing teachers in history have not had one. Second, the fact that the single most formative person in my writing practice and development was my high school English teacher. And third, Kay Ryan, because, essay: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/171211.

    Kay Ryan, ladies and germs, tellin’ it like it is.

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