Reflections on AWP, Part 1

I had a wonderful time attending my first AWP Convention in Seattle the week before last. I went to readings and panel presentations, and made delightful and informative forays into the book fair.

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts, impressions, and pieces of information I came away with after my three days at the temporary center of the literary universe:

1) There is more than one way to write an ekphrastic poem. I used to think that ekphrastic poems need to be about the work of art they refer to–or at least about the event, scene, or figure that the work of art portrays. In a panel session exploring ekphrastic poetry, I learned some ways to work beyond this conventional definition:

  • The poet can allude to, but not announce, the poem’s relationship to the work of art.
  • The poet can immerse in the work of art, and the work of art can trigger the writing of the poem, without the poem describing the work of art.
  • Images usually suggest stories, and the poet can write a poem that resists the narrative intentions of the image by inventing an alternative story.
  • If, as Edward Hirsch asserts, poems inspired by art are “imaginative acts of attention,” then the way a poet pays attention to one work of art can inform how s/he pays attention to another work of art. In this way, a poem can respond, either explicitly or implicitly, to more than one work of art.

2) It is possible to live quite comfortably on trail mix and espresso for three straight days. Because when tantalizing conference sessions and readings and book displays cram the schedule from 8 a.m. until midnight, who has time to sit down to a proper meal? Well, I am exaggerating a little; I did supplement my trail-mix diet with a Chipotle burrito and a couple of breakfast sandwiches ordered to-go. Also, some very kind friends from Bellingham (thank you, Judy and Luther!) fed me apples and yogurt, and offered me additional high-quality proteins, after a late-night reading. Next time I go to a multi-day conference, I intend to carve out time to try at least a couple of good local restaurants. Or, at the very least, increase the chocolate-chip-to-almonds-and-dried-fruit ratio of my homemade mix.

3) I need to be very, very patient about getting a full-length poetry manuscript into print. Contrary to what the annual “Debut Poets” feature in Poets & Writers Magazine tends to indicate–i.e., that most first-book manuscripts are submitted to just a few publishers before being chosen for publication–the presenters of a panel session on book contests that I attended emphasized that finding a publisher for a poetry manuscript can take many years. As in ten to twelve years. As in multiple times being named a contest finalist, but never being chosen as the winner (a phenomenon known as Bridesmaid’s Syndrome: always the bridesmaid, never the bride). HOWEVER, refusing to be discouraged by these statistics, I took heart from several points made by the editors and poets making up this panel:

  • Having one’s manuscript chosen as a finalist, even when the final judge doesn’t select it to win, does get the attention of the press’s editors and can result in publication outside the auspices of the contest. Panelist Dora Malech, for instance, saw two of her collections published after being named a finalist at two different presses, three years in a row; even though her manuscripts didn’t win these contests, she developed relationships with the editors who eventually chose her work.
  • Prize money attached to a contest is nice, but it won’t solve your financial problems, or even necessarily cover the travel expenses you incur to promote the book.
  • Winning a contest can, nevertheless, attract reviews and publicity that less frequently accompany the publication of other poetry books.
  • 50-65 pages of poems is the new ideal for a full-length collection. (This is because paper and printing costs have continued to rise, and the recession has made book buyers even more price-conscious than before.) While some poetry publishers allow manuscripts of up to 90 or more pages, Joseph Harrison, editor at Waywiser Press, quipped, “I’ve never seen an 88-page manuscript that needed all 88 pages.”
  • Another conclusion I drew from this panel session is that I am UNBELIEVABLY FORTUNATE  to have a substantial chapbook in print. Thank you, Lana Hechtman Ayers of MoonPath Press, for turning me into the published author of a beautiful little book. You are my Fairy Godmother.

In Part 2, which will follow soon, I’ll elaborate on these further points:

  • The chapbook abides as a thing of beauty.
  • There is a place for politics in poetry, so long as the poetry is not sacrificed to the political message.
  • Editors and publishers are actual people, and I had the pleasure of meeting several very fine ones.

Thanks for reading!
Jennifer

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7 comments on “Reflections on AWP, Part 1

  1. Jennifer, wonderful, funny, and informative blog post! Thank you for posting this.

    Blessings to you and yours, Andy

  2. Sounds like you learned quite a bit, had a wonderful time, and are now an expert at foraging. Who knew conferences could be so beneficial! :D

    I especially like the Hirsch quote.

    • Jilanne, I can highly recommend the experience. I hear that the conference will be in L.A. in 2016; maybe you’ll want to venture down? My husband has family in SoCal, so I’m actually thinking about it already. Hey, we could meet up!

  3. Impossible Lessons has always struck me as more than a chapbook. It is a substantial achievement — and beautiful poems!

    • Thank you so much for saying so, Bethany! At 43 pages of poems, Impossible Lessons is indeed very close to the standard 48 pages of a full-length collection. I’m terrifically grateful to Lana for wanting to include even more poems than the average chapbook length would accommodate.

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