Sunday, February 6, 2011

cross-posted from the wiki of my publishing class

A field trip to Washington D.C.

Moving to Baltimore has resulted in a lot of "firsts" for me -- first time living outside of Michigan, first time living six stories off the ground, first time relying on public transit to get places. The latest new first is my attendance at the AWP conference in Washington D.C. Last year during AWP time (it was held in Denver; I was still in MI) I was interning for a small press in Bay City. I had a few days off while the editor and her assistant flew out to Denver; they came back with various pamphlets and literary journals from presses I'd never heard of. The editor (who's also a poet) talked about having met editors for journals like Prairie Schooner and Exquisite Corpse and had a whole new list of places to submit her work.

Still, I didn't realize the magnitude of the conference until I got there at about noon on Friday. I picked up my registration materials (including a free tote bag and a conference guide that weighs as much as a biology textbook). I had no idea where to start. I wandered toward the exhibition halls and came across a session in which Joyce Carol Oates was reading from her memoir. I stopped in for a few minutes, but I was too anxious to see more. So I checked the guide for a couple tables with people that I knew (including the MI publisher I'd interned for and UB's MFA table), headed for the exhibition hall, and wandered through the madness until I found the familiar faces of Kendra and Steve.

I'm not kidding about the madness part. There were over 400 booths and tables in the exhibition halls at the Marriott (409, to be exact, if I counted correctly). That's 400+ different literary magazines, presses, MFA programs, and organizations. So, I moved to the right of the CityLit table (which was stationed next to UB's table) and started walking. I first came to the table of a literary magazine called Specs, which I'd never heard of. The cover design was beautiful, and it was a lovely nearly-square shape. I bought a copy with the theme “Faux histories” (there was also a “toys” themed issue, and their forthcoming will be “Kaleidoscopic point” themed). It was after I shelled out my $8, of course, that the lady at the table conspiratorially informed me that most of the vendors would mark their wares down dramatically come Saturday afternoon so that they wouldn’t have to pack it up and take it home with them. I thanked her and moved to the next table.

I won’t go into detail of all the tables I visited, mostly to save space but also because I don’t quite remember myself. It would have made the most sense to move up and down the rows systematically, but it was too overwhelming -- I kept seeing tables for journals I was familiar with, or a pretty cover display on a small-press table would catch my eye and lure me in (I did learn my lesson though: the Benu Press table had displayed a lovely book of poetry titled 200 Nights and One Day; Friday they wanted $10 for it, but I held off til Saturday and got it for $5). I acquired several other literary journals, most for free or cheap (there were a few who were still charging as much as $10 an issue; this was still marked down from the cover price). The BOA table had slightly-damaged poetry collections from authors like Li-Young Lee and Lucille Clifton for $5 apiece; I bought one Friday and three more Saturday when they’d marked them down to three for $5. I also got free bags, pins, magnets, pens, pads of paper, candy, and a free tee shirt from the Santa Clara Review.

I also met several of the “faces behind the names” -- one of the editors from, for example, and the editor of Benu Press. A co-editor from the Beloit Poetry Journal (which I’d become familiar with in the past, then forgot about) was at their table; we talked about poetry and she told me how they run the submission process. Upon hearing my intention to submit, she encouraged me to do so and told me to mention our meeting in the cover letter. I purchased a couple back issues (at $3 apiece) and thanked her, assuring her that I’d be sending some poems very soon. What a great opportunity!

And this was just the bookfair part. The conference also scheduled dozens of panels offering press readings and discussions on topics like “Demystifying the Author/Agent Relationship” and “What’s Normal in Nonfiction?” and “Fresh Faces & First Books by Asian-American Poets.” I attended one on Friday called “Shifting Your Perspective on Internet Publishing.” It featured speakers from five different online literary magazines showing us pages from their sites and talking about the benefits of the internet as a new literary medium (they cited things like the multimedia aspect and the accessibility to a non-literary audience among the pros). I don’t know that I’d consider myself a convert, but I was intrigued by the possibilities and was even thinking of my own poetry in that context.

Saturday I attended three more panels, among them a session called “What Editors Love,” which of course packed the room to the gills (people were sitting on the floor around the panelists’ table and at the back of the room). And you can bet we were all taking notes (if anyone wants to see them, I’d be happy to share). Another I attended was called “Exploring the Emerging Genre of Fashion Writing” (because yes, I’m a girl, and yes, I love shopping). It was a talk that got me thinking about the other ways I could potentially make a living as a writer.

At the close of the conference both days I pretty much felt like I’d run a marathon (partly because of the heavy bags of books I’d carried on my shoulders for hours). Nonetheless, Friday night after the conference I attended the Gulf Coast reading with a couple fellow MFA’ers. Valzhyna Mort was among the featured readers, as was Matthew Zapruder and another man who read an excerpt from his novel. The reading was held in the basement of a bar in D.C. called The Big Hunt; the room was packed beyond comfort by the time the reading started and stayed that way until I left at about 8pm (another reading was scheduled in the same place at 8, but I had a MARC train to catch). Despite the number of bodies in the room, everyone was respectful enough to keep it down while the readers were onstage. And I found that I much preferred to listen to the poets over the novelist; the compactness and completeness of the poems held my interest much more so than an excerpt from a novel I’d never read, whose characters I was unfamiliar with (despite the author’s attempt at a brief back story). I understand completely now why we don’t hold “novel slams.” Speaking of slams, I’m told that AWP sponsored a poetry slam Saturday night, but after getting up at 6:20 and spending a full 8.5 hours at the conference, neither I nor the girls I carpooled with had any more room or energy in our already-over-stimulated brains to take it on. So we had dinner at a Thai restaurant around the corner from the Marriott and called it a day.

All in all, I came away with 16 different literary journals and seven new books of poetry, plus a couple magazines and countless business cards/submission guideline slips. What an amazing resource for writers and publishers alike.

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