In the aftermath of this AWP conference, I hear about people who saw me from afar or through a window or, like I saw Nina McConigley, through a taxi window, as she stood on the corner of Wabash and looked out over my head.
I pounded at the glass futilely, while my friend in the cab with me, the writer Margo Rabb, collected herself and the driver took us down through the cold streets between the Bomb/One Story/Post Road party and the Chicago Hilton, the epicenter of the conference.
8000 writers. 4 days. AWP Chicago.
Everyone was talking about the distance MFA, not low-res–this one is online, and is considered a bad precedent. Also a big topic was the economy, which should surprise no one. But other than that, there was no cohesion, it was just writers exhaustively talking to each other.
One other constant topic, of course, was what it was like to be at AWP.
It’s like speed dating with your mind, I said to Paul Morris, who promptly put it on his Twitter.
I arrived Thursday in the afternoon after a short flight on an airline that was an amalgam of several airlines. It was either NWA, KLM or Delta. I checked in at the wrong desk, an easy enough mistake, given. When one of the women at the desk checking me in called the helpline for information, she exclaimed to her co-worker, “We’re Delta? They switched the helpline to Delta?”
This was not encouraging, but I got on the flight all the same.
I disembarked at O’Hare safely, and discovered an information desk that was actually a series of computer consoles with primitive interfaces that led to links and maps of a series of corporate chain hotels, none of which were the hotel where I was staying, so I gave in and called the concierge at said hotel. Hi, I said. What’s the best way for me to get to the hotel from O’Hare?
Well, she said. There’s a subway that costs 2.25 and takes 45 minutes. There’s a bus that costs 27.00 and takes over an hour. And then there’s a taxi that takes 50 minutes and costs 40.00.
Thanks, I said. I’ll take the train.
Downstairs, I bought the Chicago version of a Metrocard, and had the feeling of being in New York but …not. Immediately on walking through the turnstile, I heard a voice behind me say, Well, well, well…
It was my friend Andrea Lawlor, who I knew from when I was at Iowa, getting my MFA. She was an undergrad back then. Now she is getting her MFA at UMass Amherst, while I’m around the corner, at Amherst College. It’s as if in a past life we made some strange pact to watch over each other while we got our MFA degrees. I’m joking but as I write this it seems possible. With her two friends, we took the train into the city.
Chicago’s subway is so slow, it felt longer than the flight. On exiting, I asked some men smoking outside the subway station for directions to my hotel. You’re staying there? Why aren’t you taking a taxi, one of them asked. I only shrugged, and walked my rolling suitcase the 8 blocks to the hotel. And as I got near, I noticed many people doing the same.
I was staying at what was otherwise a very expensive hotel, and could afford it because the bad economy had forced them to make themselves affordable to people like me. And now here I was, already being mistaken for a member of the ruling class, when it was just Priceline. Around me on the sidewalk was the truth, many conference-attending peers, though a short conversation with two women headed to the same hotel revealed they were here for a very different conference. All the same, they had booked their rooms later than me and had received a steeper discount. I saluted them and checked in.
Everyone had taken the train.
I kept staring at the buildings, on that walk, and all weekend. I felt like I’d wandered into the outskirts of a Chris Ware comic. Also, that I understood finally how Metropolis was to Chicago to as Gotham was to New York.
I’d really only been to Chicago twice before, once with my mother as a child, a visit I remember mostly for the weapons room at the Art Institute, and then again graduate school, when I spent a night in Wicker Park to see a PJ Harvey show with friends. All I remember from that visit is joking with my friend, the poet Matt Rohrer, about whether or not she was looking at me or him from the stage.
Matt, I knew, was somewhere in Chicago, like the rest of the writers I had ever known or gone to school with, with few exceptions. But I wasn’t going to see him anytime soon, it would turn out, and if I did, I didn’t know I saw him and he was behind glass somewhere, and we were looking across each other.
In the Chicago Hilton’s lobby, the first person I saw was the poet Craig Arnold, recently here, and the second was Paul Lisicky. We were joined shortly by the poet Robert Polito, and we spoke about our various obligations before parting. I remember a short discussion of whether indoor sunglasses would be acceptable (the consensus was Lobby yes, Bookfair no).
I had a list of people I wanted to see that I wouldn’t otherwise see, sessions to go to, a list of book table numbers, and a set of parties and receptions to try and attend. All of it seemed impossible, so while I took stock, I found myself in a very expensive Irish pub off the lobby, in the company of Natasha Trethewey and her father. I soon had an expansive conversation about Annie Dillard with Mr. Trethewey before being pulled off to the corner by Margo Rabb, and then seeing Michael Rosovsky for about seven seconds. Justin Cronin appeared for a drink. I ordered a bourbon on the rocks and when it came, Justin said, That’s a paintcan of bourbon. It lasted a very long time. It was the sort of drink a waitress gives you when she won’t be coming back for a while.
I don’t know how they do it, an editor at Fence said, a few days later. I see them at the bar, talking and talking, and I have no idea how they do it.
I remember nodding. But by then I was thinking, This was one of the book tables I was going to find, and feeling a small amount of pride at getting there.
There is no point in telling someone to just walk into the bar, talk to people and get a drink. If you can’t do it, you can’t, and no amount of telling helps. It isn’t for everyone.
I bought a subscription, picked up my complimentary copy of Brian Young’s new book of poems, and left.
By the time I was in the cab with Margo, trying to get Nina’s attention, it was Friday night. I had acclimated. I had done things. Attended sessions. I had my badge in place around my neck, had seen people I had made plans with, and a few others. I knew where my hotel was, without a map.
Later that night, as I walked the dizzy maze that was the Chicago Hilton’s lobbies, trying not to allow the carpet’s coruscating patterns to distract me, my friend Nami Mun said, It is impossible to get anywhere here with Alex Chee. I’m going to throw a blanket over his head and run for the door.
I felt like my mother suddenly, when she used to stop and talk to her friends and a trip to the supermarket would take a year. Life in Amherst makes me feel a bit like Emily Dickinson, and I realized it was as if I was trying to get in a half year’s worth of talking in a few days.
At every moment, about 17 things were happening between the hotel and the off-site events. Everyone had developed a 45-second update. Whenever you were walking from one event to the other, and you ran into someone else, part of it involved telegraphing your next event if you wanted the person listening to meet up with you later. Mentions of where you just were inevitably brought exclamations of shocked regret from listeners. Mentions of future events involved “is it off-site”, “where is it”, “how far” and “oh my God, I’m going, when is it?” The program was so heavy it was hard to carry around, but a few did, and would proffer them. The Hilton meanwhile became a giant island of glass glowing in the night, strewn with 14.00 cocktails and writers everywhere, all of the talk bouncing off all the marble. Defiant bartenders demanded ID of anyone who wasn’t present at the purchase of a drink for them, as if anyone in the lobby was that young, and then made drinks slowly, amid dunes of white bar receipts.
Jess Row walked by me at the end of the night. We’d been trying to hang out. I can’t stay up anymore, he said, of having had a child. See you tomorrow.
Just walking into the Irish pub also was a strategy. At lunch on Friday I walked through and found Marilynne Robinson, my former teacher, having lunch with Jane Ciabbattari, who gave me some of her fries. You must eat these, Jane said, and I was hungry and agreed.
I’d found Nami and her posse at the University of Michigan MFA reception a few hours after the fries with Jane and Marilynne. They were celebrating, among other things, 4 very high-profile publications by grads in the last few months (this includes Nami). A slim and happy Peter Ho Davies presided amiably with the gracious Eileen Pollack. A former student of mine who’s there now, Lauren Pruneski, was this year’s nonfiction Hopwood winner and I congratulated her, before leaving with Nami to attend the arena-size Columbia College event with ZZ Packer and Dorothy Allison. I texted my current thesis student, Anna Brenner, to say I was there, and she wrote back to say, Me too! But it was clear there was no way to find each other in the vast ballroom. I sat so far away that ZZ was just a bright spot along the wall, though the speakers made her voice sound like she was right near me.
Before walking in, I’d entertained the fantasy of being able to find Dorothy and speak to her, as I knew her back from when I lived in San Francisco, and I missed laughing with her–she used to stop into the bookstore where I worked and talk to the booksellers–but it was instantly clear there was no reasonable way to get near the stage.
We left and went to dinner at a Pan-Asian restaurant nearby, called Tamarind, ate hungrily, and returned for the now-constant cocktail reception in the lobby’s bars. Text messages were arriving that offsite parties we’d intended to go to were too full, and so I had beers with Margo again, then Chad Harbach of n+1, Paul Morris of BOMB and John Freeman of Granta, and then left for my hotel.
I no longer smoke but noticed I kept standing outside as if I did. Talking to the smokers.
Saturday was a blur. I had lunch with Tayari Jones (who was consistently the most glamorous figure at the event) and then spent time out with a group of poets I started out with in the early 90s: Scott Hightower, Mark Bibbins, Peter Covino and Regie Cabico. Regie discovered us all and had us read together in his series Poets on the Ledge, which involved us actually standing on a bench at the back of a bar in the East Village of New York. Regie had talked so much he’d lost his voice, but by then he was the second person I knew who’d done this.
Sunday I had made time for myself. I ran two miles on the gym’s treadmill on the 42nd floor overlooking the river. I had brunch at Earwax and read Mike Mignola comics purchased in the Geek section at Myopic Books–B.P.R.D and Hellboy. And then I got on the plane and went home.
I wasn’t tired until the next day.