AWP 2019: A Guide

By Matthew Goldman

For many of us in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, this is our first year attending North America’s largest literary conference. This year, we’re in Portland, OR, on March 27-30. My peers may feel as I did at this time a year ago, perhaps a churning mess of anxious curiosity, wondering what you and more than 10,000 other writers have gotten yourself into.

I often describe the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference as the literary community’s version of Coachella, to the eye rolls of anyone who has actually attended Southern California’s spring arts and music festival. At AWP, bands are replaced with panels of writers, publishers, editors, and agents. There are some stages, but no light show. We don’t get Ariana Grande or Childish Gambino, but we do get Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Pam Houston, and Paul Beatty—names that matter to writers in our program. There are 63 featured presenters at AWP this year in addition to panels and off-site events.

And just like Coachella, there’s a digital schedule that can help you plan your time. This schedule is available through the AWP website. Using that, the 2019 AWP mobile app, or the hard copy schedule chart in the conference tote bag to plan out your conference will keep you from feeling too disoriented once you are bobbing in the sea of humans that is this conference.

AWP-goers substitute Coachella’s psychedelic entry bands for lanyards worn round our necks. That’s the first thing to do at AWP—register and get your lanyard. Throngs of lanyarded writer folk are swarming the conference halls and the streets around the convention center for four days. The lanyards are important. They separate us from the those who actually live their routine lives in Portland. They unite us. They say, we’re writers! If you’re at a restaurant and you notice a lonely lanyard eating by itself, do what my group did last year and invite them to your table. Talk to as many lanyards as possible. The lanyards are your peers. Your mentors. Your potential employers. You never know which lanyard might become a close friend, or the person to give you your big break.

Unlike Coachella, AWP is an indoor festival. The main conference is split into two major sections: panels and the Bookfair. I’m not even going to try to count how many panels are at AWP this year. Hundreds? Definitely more than there are bands at Coachella. Look up the panel topics and presenters on the schedule and see what catches your interest. While it’s best to go into AWP with a plan, the experience is similar to a music festival in that things don’t always go as expected. A panel you thought would be interesting might bore you. Get up quietly and leave. Walk into another room, another panel. As you wander the hallway, you might bump into friends and end up at a panel or off-site reading you might never have found on your own. Prepare, but be flexible. Be open to opportunities.

The Bookfair is full of opportunities. The convention center auditorium is filled with tables and booths from various publishers, agents, tech companies, authors, and universities, including Chapman University at #3002. Each of our MFA students act as a Chapman University ambassador at our booth for a couple hours while at the conference. At the booth, we talk with anyone who comes by to ask about the program or our publications, Anastamos and TAB (which have recently formed a new partnership). It’s fun to meet alumni and friends of our professors who come by to ask how people are doing. Many panelists are at tables and booths, where they encourage people to continue the conversation from their panels.

The Bookfair is also where friendly networking happens. Here, you can collect information about literary journals and talk to editors face to face about their projects. There’s no shortcut to publication, but a genuine exchange with an editor makes you not just another file in the slush pile. Trading business cards at the Bookfair is a terrific idea, especially for those of us on the staff of Anastamos, the international, interdisciplinary journal at Chapman University.

Bookfair Pro Tip: On Saturday afternoon, many of the tables and booths give away free books so that they don’t have to ship them home. Some of us are bringing an extra suitcase for the books and journals we will inevitably haul back to California.

Though there are social receptions with food and beverages earlier each evening, what proper festival would be complete without a dance party at the end of every night? Coachella has DJ tents; AWP has a DJ at 10pm-midnight. Be safe here. Have fun, but not too much fun. As at Coachella, stay hydrated. You can choose to watch all sorts of characters on the dance floor, or become one yourself. Throwing a bunch of writers into a rave is the chef’s kiss of AWP.

Here’s some additional information for friends of Chapman University:

  • The Chapman University and Tabula Poetica booth is #3002.
  • On Friday at 1:30-3:30pm, Chapman University will host Carolyn Forché’s AWP book-signing for her new memoir What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance at our Bookfair booth. Forché is a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University and visits every semester.
  • There will be a reception & celebration in memory of Robert Bausch, brother of Chapman University Creative Writing professor Richard Bausch, on Thursday, March 28, from 6:30-8pm at Broadway Room, Portland DoubleTree, Level 1.
  • Anna Leahy, Richard Bausch, and Tom Zoellner host a MFA Faculty Meet & Greet at our booth on Saturday from 1:30-2:30.
  • MFA student Liz Harmerwill be signing her debut novel, The Amateurs, on Saturday from 2:30-3:30pm at Booth #3002.

Anyone who needs more tips on thriving at AWP should take a look at blog posts about surviving AWP from writers Leslie Pietzryk and Jeannine Hall Gailey.