Reflections on AWP 2016 in Los Angeles
Yes, I know AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) 2016 was a few weeks ago, but I’ve been thinking about how to write a story that didn’t just cover the enormous conference with it’s over 20,000 visitors, hundreds of booths, panels, readings, and parties sprawled over the enormity of the Los Angeles Convention Center in downtown Los Angeles. Something didn’t feel quite right about the conference. It was conference of paradoxical proportions.
Writing books was supposed to be a dying art form. Poetry cast to the age of the dinosaurs—extinct with only the fossil remains of long dead masters of the craft. Parties? For writers? Puhlease! Writers aren’t fun. Writers don’t… party. Or do they?
What I found at this monstrous conference was a thriving community of writers, writing programs, poetry journals and publishers, literary magazines, and more parties than even Kim and Kanye can handle. The secret is out, writers and poets. You guys party. And read. And write! What the Fudge?!
I was staying at a friend’s house in West Hollywood, a place so pristine and beautiful I felt like I needed to do a hundred ab crunches in the house before going to the gym to workout. The hills and perfect weather in LA is ridiculous. I hadn’t been here in ten years and suddenly felt the urge to have a juice cleanse and go hiking while eating a bag of chia seeds and listening to “Hamilton” on my iPhone. Which I did. Several times. #notgonnawastemyshot
My friend’s house was about a twenty-minute drive (everything in LA is twenty minutes away according to my Über driver—and Alicia Silverstone’s dad in Clueless) and I found myself navigating between my friend’s life in LA (he works in TV) and the writers and poets of AWP.
I went to a panel called “Genre-crossing and Poetic Truth: Lyric Nonfictions, Reported Poems” where Tess Taylor, Camille Dungy, Robert Polito, Tom Sleigh, and the wonderful Brian Turner spoke about how the genres collide and inform one another. Camille Dungy spoke of the difference between Northern California and Southern California and compared it to the two forms. As the discussion went on each panelist gave his or her version of the differences between California’s two iconic regions and nonfiction and poetry. There were fantastic ideas presented.
A few favorites:
“No discoveries for the writer, no discoveries for the reader.”
“Be honest of what it is you don’t know.”
“Ideas have to be visited then and there.”
I began thinking of the parallels of nonfiction and poetry and moved to the differences between the movie and TV industry and the book world. Two seemingly disparate industries—one with vastly more glitz and glam and another more reflective and, well not as lucrative (nobody’s getting rich on writing poems people. Nobody.) But there was something I was experiencing being in both worlds during the week I was there. I went to a few “Hollywood” gatherings with my friend and I went to a few AWP “writer” gatherings. I found that both were full of exciting conversations, interesting people, great drinks, and the biggest thing of all? Writing. That’s what every party I went to, centered on. Writing.
Writing. That’s what every party I went to, centered on.
Sure it was fun and the Hollywood party had its cool things and the AWP ones had theirs but the common thread at both? The thing that joined both seemingly disparate industries was the one thing we can all claim. We all use words.
The thing that joined both seemingly disparate industries was the one thing we can all claim. We all use words.
Words in Hollywood can employ many people (as one screenwriter pointed out). Words of poets create universes out of the tiniest phrases. Words directed to young readers create worlds to escape into. This is our link. This is our Pacific Coast Highway connecting Northern Cal to Southern Cal. The parties are the times we get to talk about them.
So why do I keep talking about parties when I should be concentrating on craft and how AWP really goes all out in showcasing a brilliant array of panels, keynotes, and booths that host an incredible amount of literary programs from every walk of life? Well, I think the short answer is we spend so many hours in front of a computer, creating words that the need to be social is a natural tonic for the life of the writer (a gin and tonic in my case). I digress. Honing our craft in solitude is necessary. But it is also necessary to be social, to engage with fellow writers, to move between industries and learn from each other, to go out and be “seen.” I’ve had some of my best ideas spring to life in a conversation at a social gathering.
Honing our craft in solitude is necessary. But it is also necessary to be social, to engage with fellow writers, to move between industries and learn from each other, to go out and be “seen.”
Yes, not all of us are social butterflies but we all, in some capacity, want to connect with someone. I don’t want to alienate those that struggle with social anxiety because I know that is a very real and serious thing and I totally respect and honor you. But the point that I saw from AWP and from the week I spent in LA was that between industries—be it television, film, fiction, writing for children and young adults, poetry—we all share something. We all share words. Words are the common ground – the connector of our varied crafts. And that connection is joyous when we share it with each other.
Writing isn’t dead. Poetry isn’t lost. Writing programs and literary journals and writing residencies are alive and well. And the folks who inhabit those spaces and places are thriving. Together. In the quiet of their writing spaces. By a fire reading. Or at a party working their best Beyoncé, #whoruntheworld. Thank you, AWP and LA for reminding me of that.
PABLO CARTAYA is the author of the forthcoming young adult novels, The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora and Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish (Viking Children’s Books/Penguin Random House). He is a contributor in an anthology about Iberoamerican writers in the U.S., directs the Escribe Aquí literature festival at The Betsy-South Beach, and is faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA. He calls Miami home. Follow Pablo on Twitter at @phcartaya.