Water~Stone Review Goes to the Sunshine State: Reflections on AWP ‘18
If you are a member of the literary community in the United States, you probably know about the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. It’s one of the largest events in the literary calendar, and thanks to my work with Water~Stone Review as the Assistant Managing Editor and the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University as a Communications Assistant, I was fortunate to be able to attend the 2018 conference in Tampa, Florida, from March 7-10, 2018.
I’ve been coming to AWP through four years of changes in my writing life and have found it to be a place of inspiration and support. I’ve gone from being a junior in college looking at MFA programs to a graduate student working for my program and its literary journals. Through my work, I have the amazing opportunity to promote our contributors through our social media platforms and celebrate their writing and work.
Most of my time at the conference was tied to my iPad and phone, promoting our contributors’ panels and readings. Although I expected I would feel a sense of digital disengagement from the world around me by being on my devices so much, I found the opposite to be true. This is one of the greatest strengths of AWP—the conference is all about building community and connections and practicing literary citizenship.
By posting online through Water~Stone, I found I was entering into a dialogue with a plethora of other voices—those of our contributors, subscribers, readers, submitters, and followers. It was uplifting to see how much digital and real-life excitement came from readers of the journal as they discovered the work of our contributors and got to experience the same thrill we feel when we read submissions for the journal and put each volume together. So much of the literary life is spent working in solitude that it can be rejuvenating to connect with others and share that joy, face to face, with another. But sometimes connecting with others is also a way to process dismay and sorrow.
The sense of community at AWP this year was, as one might imagine, deeply impacted by the political climate in which we find ourselves. The mood of this year’s conference was different. Last year in Washington, D.C., panelists were in a state of subdued shock as the entire artistic community grappled with the recent election of Donald Trump and the proposed cuts to the NEA and NEH budgets. This year, the challenges and fears were met with the creative resolve and that only a true community of artists can craft. There was a sense of resistance, but also of responsibility spanning genres to tell one’s truth, speak out against evil, write boldly, and ask for help when needed.
This spirit of resolve and support across the literary community was deeply embedded in the panels and readings I attended. Compassion emerged as a major point of discussion across events. During his keynote address on the first night of the conference, George Saunders told us, “Art is a form of compassion training wheels.” He also highlighted how being present in the world is an act of resistance. In her AWP panel “The Facts about Alternative Facts,” Inara Verzemnieks (our 2018 WSR Summer Writing Workshop visiting faculty member in creative nonfiction) pointed out that creative nonfiction is resistance to the passive recording of the world. During her reading, Maggie Smith (another 2018 Summer Writing Workshop visiting faculty member in poetry) nearly brought the audience to tears with her reading of “Good Bones.” The Q+A session following that reading discussed how we can bend our work to compassion—and poet Ishion Hutchinson, whose work you should definitely be reading if you aren’t already, highlighted how poetry readies us for a fight and is the only armor that can’t be pierced.
“Tension channels detail into memory,” said Layli Long Soldier during her reading on the final night of the conference, and perhaps this is the best way to encapsulate the emotional experience of AWP this year. There is much suffering in the world for artists and many others, and deep tensions across our country, but these tensions have channeled the details and interactions of the conference into memories that strengthen my writing life and work at home.
I think most often about the experiences and interactions I had while working at our bookfair booth. When I handed the final free back issue of Water~Stone Review to a young woman and realized our extensive supply of back issues had run out midway through the second day of the conference, I realized just how powerful the connection with a publication could be. And that was humbling and inspiring in equal measure. We who are writers, editors, and publishers are also creators of communities, and there is a sustaining joy in the undertaking of that mission via the conduits of language. May we all do so boldly and with compassion.
Assistant Managing Editor for the Literary Journals of the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University
A transplant from the fields of Iowa to the deep forests and flowing waters of Minnesota, Sophia delights in the natural world and considers it to be her writing muse. She is fascinated by the complexities of the written word and the hidden marvels of the brain, which explains why she savored the opportunity to pursue a double major in Creative Writing and Psychology with a double minor in English and Linguistics at Hamline. Equipped with a deep, reverent appreciation of research and heavily laden bookshelves, Sophia is currently delving deeper into her studies of creative nonfiction in the Hamline MFA program.