The AWP Conference and Book Fair is an annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. Each year more than 12,000 attendees join for four days of dialogue, networking, and unrivaled access to the organizations and opinion-makers that matter most in contemporary literature. The 2015 featured over 2,000 presenters and 550 readings. The Book Fair hosted over 700 presses, journals, and literary organizations from around the world.
AWP is the single biggest writers conference in the world, bringing together thousands of professional writers and writing students from the nation’s creative writing departments. The work of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is part trade show and job fair, part scholarly convention, part political venue, and more than a little party central. AWP romances are the stuff of legend.
Thanks to its two nationally recognized creative writing programs, Miami was well represented at this year’s AWP conference, recently held in Minneapolis. University of Miami’s M. Evelina Galang and Florida International University’s Lynne Barrett bumped into each other outside a conference room. Told that Barrett, an awarding wining short story writer, had sung a song in the previous panel, Galang cajoled her into an impromptu performance, right there on the concourse. Barrett sounded great, delivering a “Kurt Weil-ish” cabaret number of her own composition, adding a touch of bluesy soul.
Other South Florida scribes on hand included Miami native Karen Russell, keynote speaker; travel writer extraordinaire Tom Swick; FIU poet Julie Marie Wade; UM short story writer Amina Gautier; novelist and former Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez, a visiting UM professor in the fall; UM graduate Daisy Hernandez, currently making a splash with her first major book, the memoir A Cup of Water Under My Bed.
All these presses and little magazines were indicators of the love and dedication of the people who produced them. They provided evidence that literary culture remains vivid, quivering with potential, in the digital age.
Galang who calls herself “an AWP baby” and is Director of UM’s creative writing program, notes she found mentors here in the early 1990s, when she was a graduate student at Colorado State University. She found her publisher, Coffee House Press at an AWP conference too, as well as her first tenure-track teaching job (at Old Dominion University), and she won the prestigious AWP novel of the year prize in 2004 for her first novel, One Tribe.
When I strolled through the adjoining book fair, a hangar-like space filled with publishers’ booths and tables where each of the hundreds of writing programs touted their uniqueness, I was bemused. Table after table of journals almost nobody reads, indie publishers few readers ever hear of. The futility of it all weighed on me, and I felt a bit cynical.
I saw things differently by the last day. All these presses and little magazines were indicators of the love and dedication of the people who produced them. They provided evidence that literary culture remains vivid, quivering with potential, in the digital age. This came home to me when I chatted with the graduate students manning the FIU table.
“It’s an existential crisis,” said fiction writer Miguel Pichardo., at his first AWP “You realize you are a drop in a very big bucket.” “Yeah, but I love it,” said poet Paul Christiansen, who recently defended his thesis and will graduate this spring. “The energy, the inspiration, it lasts for weeks.”
CHAUNCEY MABE is a seasoned journalist with a 20-year legacy of exemplary literary criticism for South Florida’s Sun Sentinel. (Mabe is also the husband of M. Evelina Galang, Award-winning author and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at UM, who is mentioned in this article.) With funding from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Betsy-South Beach has engaged Mabe in a project to document its literary programs from the inside out—sharing the creative viewpoints and experiences of wide-ranging writers who connect with Miami’s literary community through residencies in The Betsy’s Writers Room during March, April, and May, 2015.