By Rosa Castellano
I had attended the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s Annual Conference and Bookfair only once before, as a grad student. That AWP trip, paid for by our student fundraising, left me largely uninspired. But 20 years, a family and a pandemic later, I was so hungry for connection with other writers, for craft talk, for the kind of discourse that surrounds panels with topics like “Into the Void: Faith & Doubt in Contemporary Poetry” or “‘The Future of Black: The Advent of 21st-Century Second-Wave Afrofuturism Poetry” I bit the bullet. I sent in my money and prepared to manage my anxiety enough to spend time with the 7,000 people attending the nation’s largest literary writing conference.
Wednesday evening, I kissed my kids goodbye, texted my husband the dinner plan, and boarded the train for Philadelphia with my friend Kristen (whose second book is out this month!). When we arrived at the hotel, the wall of noise coming from the bar at almost 11pm was nearly enough to make me regret my choice and the promise I’d made to Kristen—that I’d deposit my suitcase and meet her back at the bar for “networking.”
Networking is a major reason people attend conferences like this one. For those of us with unpublished manuscripts, shaking hands with editors or agents at the AWP Bookfair or anywhere at the conference, could at the minimum add a moment of interest to your cover letter and at the most lead to publication. In fact, at AWP the networking opportunities are real enough that some folks believe there is a problematic connection between access to the literary gatekeepers and the finances required to attend.
As I pushed back from the bar after finally getting served, I wasn’t thinking about access. Luckily my conference fees were paid out of a stipend, so I was free to focus on finding someone to talk to. It turned out to be easy. A crowd of Cave Canum fellows stood nearby celebrating the upcoming keynote to be given by founder Toi Derricotte. Torn between the desire to run and to fan-girl out, I just stood there. I’ve been applying to the “home for black poetry” since 2018, so not as long as it feels, with the time off for the pandemic—but still, long enough to make me wonder just what I was doing mingling with this group.
But the writers were friendly and welcoming, and as I pushed past the small talk, the travel talk and bar talk—the real talk became easy. Several shared how long it took them to become fellows and I knew, fellow or not, I was part of that group. I imagine it’s how people who attend comic cons feel, when they find themselves in a crowd of folks who turn out to be Spiderman fans and end up debating the continued relevance of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1. Except we were talking about Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake, which, while a game changer for me, isn’t super-well-known.
Writing is such a solitary occupation that can get even more lonely as we break ourselves down into our individual niches. I’m a poet but not a nature poet, or a formalist, and sometimes it seems that there are as many genres and sub-genres as there are people writing. So, when the Cave Canum folks moved out to a different party, I was excited to find myself chatting with the board chair for the National Book Critics Circle. All around me the bar was alive with people, connecting and reconnecting, with folks who shared their individual passions with an openness I wasn’t expecting.
Now you’re probably thinking, that’s nice, but get to the part where you have that elevator run-in with an editor who’s going to publish your work. Well, somewhere close to 2am I learned the person I’d been talking intensely with was the editor of Poetry magazine. And as we rode the elevator up, I knew I was definitely having one of those “conference moments.” But it wasn’t because I was pitching, it was because I was sharing, and he was sharing, and when the doors opened to his floor, I simply smiled and said goodnight because I realized (or remembered) two important things: 1. I love being a writer! & 2. Publication isn’t what makes me one.
For those of you thinking I blew a professional opportunity, know that I blew several. And if you go next year, you can make a different choice. In fact, I dare you to go and to push yourself to attend panels or readings outside of your primary writing style, to talk to strangers and make friends and network or not, as long as you pause long enough to enjoy the feeling of belonging.
I got a lot out of my time at AWP, even tips for publishing my manuscript, but mostly it was the impromptu conversations about craft, the off-the-cuff lunch with the poet laureate of West Hollywood. Chatting with folks already doing what I want to do and with those in the same boat: those conversations were as important as the poems shared at the start of panels, or in the readings or the discussions between the panelists. It’s the energy of all those conversations that I’m carrying forward. That energy spurs me to write new poems, to submit to journals outside the 20 or so that I always submit to. It’s fueling my writing and teaching and community work.
Chris Abani said at his reading, “We cannot write for a reader. A poem is a spell, a simulacrum and we can’t possibly know who needs it.”
The same is true for AWP. This is a conference like no other, with often more than 20 panel choices per each hour-and-a half-session—so many ways to spend your time. So, whatever it is you write, whether it’s writing to make sense of the world, or to escape it, or even to facilitate change in it—there’s something at AWP that just might offer what you need to do it.
Rosa Castellano is a poet and teacher whose work was recently supported with a year-long fellowship from the Visual Arts Center of Virginia and by Tin House. In 2021, she was a finalist for Cave Canem’s Starshine and Clay Fellowship and her work can be found or is forthcoming from the South Hampton Review, Alternating Current Press and EcoTheo Review. She has an MFA in poetry from Virginia Commonwealth University.
header photo: Philadelphia City Hall