AWP: How to Attend without Really Attending

A guerilla-style approach to the enormous literary conference descending on Seattle this week.

The great thing about having the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference come to town is that you don’t have to register from the conference to benefit from it being here. In fact, many veterans of AWP will tell you that if you’ve registered, you’re sort of doing it wrong.

Most of the exciting and interesting events are free and open to the public, which, due to some amazing reportage, will include the best book fair in the country. Also, not registering means you won’t feel guilty about not attending AWPs more…academically wholesome…offerings, such as the keynote address and the panels.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer, teacher, avid reader, or you just want to peep in on the contemporary scene, here’s how to get the most out of AWP without spending a dime on registration.

1. Hang at the hotel bar.
The hotel bar is one of the great agents of democracy. Everyone knows where it is, everyone will at some point walk through it, and who doesn’t love to sip a nice club soda in a swanky joint? And here’s an important truth: hotel bars close, but hotel lobbies stay open all night long. After last call at last year’s AWP, people brought down from their rooms half-full bottles of wine and a few spare beers, and a particularly prescient poet distributed little bottles of tequila and brandy that he’d bought at a gas station just in case we ran out of booze. That night I counted three generations of poets and prose writers—some old friends and some brand new—all gabbing and gossiping and posing for photos long into the night. Hard to beat that. So, at some point in the weekend, be sure to stake out some territory at the bar and let the party come to you.

2. Sneak into the book fair early, or go for free on Saturday.
The word writers most often use to describe the book fair is overwhelming. For this reason, it’s important to have a game plan. If you know you want a particular book, or if you know you want to subscribe to a particular book series, then go to the fair on the first day. Popular books sell out fast, and the tables are freshly stocked with candy and extra goodies. Though you do need to be registered for the conference in order to attend the fair Wednesday—Friday, it’s easy enough to borrow a friend’s lanyard for a few hours, or to steal one off the neck of an overwhelmed attendee.

 The Generally Interested Reader or The Browser should go Saturday, which is when presses begin to deeply discount the books and literally journals start giving away back issues for free. No one wants to pay to bring a box of books back with them on the plane.

3. If you want to see the stars, go to the free readings on Friday and Saturday.
There are plenty of living legends slated to read at the conference this year. On Friday, from 8:30–10 p.m., Robert Hass (whose poem “Meditations at Lagunitas” slays me every time) and Gary Snyder (!) plan to sit down with marine biologist Eva Saulitis to discuss the pleasures and perils of writing nature poetry in late Capitalism.

On Saturday, from 8:30–10 p.m., you’ll have to choose between readings by Jane Hirshfield and Pulitzer Prize-winning Sharon Olds, or Timothy Egan and Sherman Alexie. All of these readings will be full of academic pomp and circumstance, so fill thy pipe and prepare thy tweed.

4. Skip the panels; just go to the offsite readings.
Some panels are great! But mostly they’re just CV-stuffing exercises that most people write on the plane. The offsite readings are free, in bars, open to the public, stacked with emerging and established talent, and you can leave in the middle of one without the whole room giving you the stink-eye.

5. Learn the lingo.
As with all pop-up communities, people tend to develop a common vocabulary in order to facilitate communication. If you’re new to the community, then learning the following phrases will help you navigate AWP’s fast-paced social situations.

Phrase Translation
“Let’s get a drink later!” See you next year!
“I love your work.” Please remind me the last thing you published.
“I’ve got tons of work to do.” Please invite me to the event you plan to attend later.
“I’ll be at the book fair.” Goodbye, friends, goodbye.
“I’ll see you at the hotel bar?” Gimme them digits!


City Arts will be covering AWP all week long—including Top 10 Offsite Readings during AWP

Pictured above: Sharon Olds (photo by Brett Hall Jones), Sherman Alexie and Tim Egan.