More thoughts on my decision to attend AWP 2020
I thought about titling this “Love in a Time of Coronavirus” with a nod to Garcia Marquez, but then I thought better of it. On the one hand, my wife’s joke when we were disicussing whether or not to go was “Well, don’t kiss anyone!” I said I hadn’t been planning on it, with or without the current situation. Still, I thought having love in the title might sound a little weird. But I have been doing a lot of thinking (haven’t we all?) about AWP: everything from “What am I doing?” to “What’s there to worry about, really?”
Yesterday began with a phone call from one of my students who was already in San Antonio. Her message said she’d heard the news and wanted to know what I was going to do. I called her back to ask “What news, exactly?” and while we played phone tag and I talked to another student about an unrelated, equally serious situation (for her), I checked the news and didn’t see anything yet. Apparently, it was all over CNN, but I don’t watch cable and was in my office relying on the New York Times and Washington Post. She was the first to tell me that the virus was out in the community in San Antonio after someone had been released from quarantine.
I’m teaching a class that is focused on the AWP conference. It’s our largest class ever for this Short Residency with 10 students who were planning to attend. The student who called me was already in a San Antonio hotel and they weren’t even saying yet which hotel the sick person had gone to. I had to make a judgment call on the spot, so I told her unequivocally that I would support her decsion, whether she wanted to stay or to get out of Dodge.
I could do this in part because my university had already started having discussions about what to do if COVID-19 coronavirus came to our area and schools were closed. We had already said we would take classes online or do what had to be done to protect student and faculty health and keep the university open. I told my student that I didn’t konw what I would do, but that she could leave and cancel her conference plans, and I would work something out. Worst case scenario, she would be allowed to drop the class, but I wanted to find some alternate assignments. When I got of the phone with her, I called my dean, and we discussed what I’d told her. He agreed. I emailed my class, as well as every student, faculty, and alumn of our program to let them know where things stood.
Throughout the day, there was a lot of consultation with students, other faculty, and colleagues at other schools while we all waited for news from AWP. In the end, though rumors were flying that they would cancel and many thought they probably should, the word came out that the conference was going ahead after talking to San Antonio’s mayor and other officials. I let my students and colleagues know that as well, but told them they were still free to change their plans. Half the students dropped out. Half decided to come on to the conference, and I decided to go to support them, to support AWP, and because for me, I think the risks are fairly small.
Risk: I go to AWP every year and rarely do I come home sick. I shake thousands of hands (might be avoiding that this time) and talk to thousands of people. I wash my hands regularly, but not obsessively (might be more obsessive this time), and avoid people who seem sick when I can. Every year there are colds and the flu. People get sick. I get it, and I don’t mean to sound cavalier about COVID-19. But I do think it’s out in the public in the US, and it’s unlikely to be contained. I don’t know that travelling to San Antonio will be any riskier than staying home. The person who was released from quarantine and found to have a ‘marginally positive’ test result isn’t showing symptoms and had limited contact in the public. Could the virus spread? Of course. Will it spread to AWP in the time that I’m there? I hope not. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Why choose not to go? I get why my students and colleagues have made the decision they’ve made. One was traveling with his wife and two kids to the conference. They’re planning another vacation wherever the rental car and the week off from work will take them. If I were them, I’d go to a national park or travel Route 66 (they were already in Oklahoma) or visit relatives. I wouldn’t expose my young kids to this. Another colleague is a single mom to a pre-school age kid. I wouldn’t leave home if there was a chance I couldn’t come back right away. Some of my students have their own health challenges and may not want to risk it. Others simply don’t want to take the risk even though they’re young and healthy. They may be making the right choice, and I support every one of them.
So why go? Some of my students and colleagues have been looking forward to this all year. We’ve made investments in hotels, flights, registration. Yes, we could get some of it back, but we might not get refunds for everything. AWP has offered to refund or apply registration fees to next year — who knows what next year will bring? — but the registration cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the other costs people have. If it had been cancelled, I might have been relieved. Since it wasn’t, I’m going and making the best of it.
Am I right? I hope so, but that will only be right for me. For those who decided to change their plans, their decision will always be the right one. For those of us who go, as long as we’re able to go and come home as planned, it will be right for us, though AWP will not be the same AWP that we expected, it will still be a rewarding experience.
What about my class? The five students and I who are going to the conference will treat it as planned. They will attend panels, visit the book fair, go to offsite events, and write about the experience. I’ll ask them to share their writings with their fellow students. Those who aren’t coming to the conference will write about their experience. AWP is planning to live stream some panels, so we’ll try to get them access to those. I’ll have them research some of the publishers, authors, or literary groups they wanted to check out at the conference, and write about those. If there are satelite AWP events (I’ve seen some discussion of this on Twitter, but don’t know if it will happen) they could go to those or go to another literary event closer to home and write about that. I’ll probably extend my deadlines and extend our discussion. In the end, I think it will be a good thing for the class. At least, we’ll be making the best of a very chaotic and difficult situation.
I don’t envy the directors, staff, and board of AWP having to make a decision like this just two days before everyone is supposed to arrive for a major conference. To cancel would have been a disaster. To forge ahead will be seen as foolhardy by some, as brave by others, and as either wise or incredibly risky, depending on what happens this weekend. No matter what you decide, you’ll piss of about half the people. Giving everyone the option to cancel and trying to find a way to keep the conference on track for those who decide to come, is probably the best decision, assuming they got the necessary reassurance from public officials that it is safe for thousands of people to descend on their city. It may seem a little post-apocalpytic, yet those of us who make there will likely have a great time.
If you’re on the fence about what to do, I’m not trying to convince you one way or another. I imagine most people had to decide whether to cancel at some point yesterday, if it wasn’t already too late for your reservations. If you’re coming, look for Mississippi University for Women or Ponder Review in the Book Fair. Our table may change, but we’ll be there along with Poetry South. I’ll also be doing a book signing at Texas Review Press / Sam Houston State University’s booth on Thursday. They’re still planning to be there, too. If you’re staying home or going somewhere else, then make the most of your time and maybe follow us from afar.