AWP 2020, hosted this year in San Antonio, concluded last weekend amid growing COVID-19 concerns and news that many other events within the writing and publishing industry were being postponed or cancelled until next year. I wrote a bit after day one of this year’s AWP conference about the challenges and surprises low attendance introduced in my March 5th post, AWP 2020: the Good, The Bad, and the Unexpected. I thought I’d take a moment to recap some of the finer moments of the remainder of AWP 2020.
One of the things I really appreciated was the effort on the part of AWP organizers to make events accessible to those participants who opted not to attend in person. The keynote on Thursday night with author Helena María Viramontes was live streamed as well as many other events throughout the remainder of the conference, including an inspiring reading and Q&A with award winning author, Louise Erdrich. A lot of people were looking forward to this very special engagement with Erdrich, including a friend and fellow writer who had to cancel their AWP plans as a precaution to protect the well being of their child who is in frail health. It was great to know that while I was listening to Loiuse Erdrich speak in the Lila Cockrel theater in San Antonio, my friend who was two thousand miles away still had the opportunity to access this wonderful experience too.
Initially AWP 2020 was expected to have around five hundred panels on topics related to writing craft, publishing, MFA programs, and concerns within the culture and industry of writing and publishing. Many of the panels on the first day were cancelled. Organizers were able to find alternate speakers for quite a few panels on the second and third day, but based on the phone app designed to help conference goers to keep track of events, it appeared that less than half of the panels continued as planned.
However, the app could not account for the spontaneity of those who got creative and hosted their own pop up panels. I wrote previously about the fabulous panel I attended called “The Role of Women Editors with Small Presses and Literary Journals.” When the original panelists were a no-show, an impromptu panel formed consisting of other women editors who had planned on coming to listen but ended up stepping up to do the panel themselves on the spot. It was AMAZING. People asked great questions, and illuminating insights were shared based on these women’s own experiences in publishing. And the really cool thing was that this was not an isolated occurrence. I heard from several people who had had similar experiences at other revised panels throughout the three days of conference.
Impromptu panels and panelist switch-ups were not the only way that people were getting creative. Booth holders at the book fair were stretching out and taking liberties with how they used their spaces if they were there in person and others opted to offer virtual AWP sales at their websites. Folks who were not attending in person were blogging about AWP and connecting from afar via social media and online forums.
On site, the stages and rooms left vacant due to canceled events were being repurposed by other groups in attendance. I caught a great poetry reading in the book fair hall by a group of poets who saw a vacancy and seized an opportunity. It was loud and it was good. The volume of the reading, which bridged the empty space between the stage and the shrunken boundary of the book fair, caught my attention—but the quality of the reading held it. Some of the poets up there were reading for the first time and others were seasoned pros, but they were all on fire.
I especially enjoyed hearing Jessica Care Moore reading from her new collection, soon to drop from HarperCollins, We Want Our Bodies Back.
From my perspective as a representative of a small press, the book fair was a great success. At the Slant Books booth we sold more books than we have in years past and had more opportunities to talk with the people who stopped by to find out more about what we do.
First timers to AWP didn’t seem to be quite as worn and glassy eyed as they usually are on the tail end of day three. I got more out of my experience on the other side of the booth as an AWP participant too. I bought more books, did more networking, and learned more than I have in years past.
Ultimately, low attendance and other challenges surrounding AWP 2020 may have caused this to be the best conference ever for a lot of folks. It certainly was for me. New policies and practices that arose out of necessity may set in motion some major changes for how we congregate and connect meaningfully—in person and remotely— at large events, networking in new ways. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes to fruition.
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