Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

A Look Back at #AWP20 in San Antonio

Receently, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs sent out a survey. They didn’t ask specifically about the conference, but their last question asked about our experiences in the past month or so. That was probably wise, since not everyone on their list went to the conference or was even planning to go, but asking that question gave me the opportunity to put some thoughts together about the conference. Here’s what I said (edited and then expanded on for this blog post):

We came to #AWP20 in San Antonio, and I felt AWP did the best they could with the information they had at the time. In hindsight, events like ours should have been cancelled in February, but with two days’ notice and everyone scrambling to cancel hotel and airline reservations (when it wasn’t yet clear that could be done), and with product shipped to the book fair, it was right to keep the conference on for those who wanted or needed to come. We haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from attending, so we apparently dodged that bullet unlike some other conferences at about the same time. I don’t blame AWP. If the national response had been clearer, they would have known in plenty of time that they had to cancel, and they would have done it.

Of course, everyone knew that the virus was out there. What we didn’t know was that what we had been told was wrong. We were given the impression that the virus was contained in a very few places and most of the U.S. was still safe. That was clearly incorrect. What we learned two days before the conference was that someone from an air base near San Antonio had been released from quarantine, stayed at a San Antonio Hotel, and then tested positive for the virus and sent back to quarantine. What we should have known was that the virus was out in places like Boston and New York, not just isolated in Seattle and a few people in quarantine. We should have known that travelers from Europe and the Middle East, not just from China, could be carriers. We should have had testing that would have let us know the true risks of public gatherings. We were just starting to learn that on March 2 when the news broke about the sick woman who had been released into San Antonio for about 24 hours that weekend and when the mayor of San Antonio declared a medical disaster (to keep other quarantined patients from being released).

I am glad for the many people who stayed away from the AWP conference, and I’m glad that AWP allowed anyone to cancel their registration at the last minute, which made that possible. I am glad that half our group went to the conference — we had a great, if surreal, experience, and none of us caught the virus or spread it. But we could have.

With better information, we probably would have made different decisions, but actually with better information, we wouldn’t have had to make a decision. AWP wouldn’t have been one of the first groups to face a decision about their conference. They would have known the risks well in advance and been able to cancel responsibly with enough time to give everyone a chance to cancel reservations or not ship their merchandise to the conference book fair. There would have been a national order to limit social gatherings that would have forced large conferences to cancel or postpone. That still hasn’t happened, but states and most groups have stepped up and made the difficult decisions anyway.

#AWP20 was right on the cusp of that happening. While we were in San Antonio, we learned that South by Southwest had cancelled. Other major events and venues soon followed, including the NBA and NCAA basketball tournaments. If our conference had been a week later or if we had gotten good information in the weeks leading up to the conference, we would have been one of the ones to cancel instead of one of the last to go forward and make the best of things. I’m glad we did what we did, and I’m very glad the virus didn’t seem to be spread at our conference, as it was at CPAC, AIPAC, and BioGen, other prominent conferences held about the same time. But I wish that we and all the other conferences had been given the information we needed to make better decisions, and I really wish that the U.S. response to COVID-19 had been led by science and testing and not by misinformation and denial.

Update, Day 3 of #AWP20

On the third day of #AWP20, things we’re much the same as before: somewhat bigger crowds in the book fair with the folks who had book fair stickers instead of badges. Since our table was in the hinterlands and some of our neighbors packed it in early, we started to wonder whether we should have moved, like some other tables did. On the other hand, we had a fair amount of foot traffic, nothing like a normal year, but the folks who stopped by were also more willing to talk. One of our alumni made it up from Houston for the day, taking advantage of the $5 admission. It was good to see Xenia.

All but one of our crew made it by the table, and it was good to see that no one was suffering from anything more than the usual effects of staying out till the wee hours. I did see a post from our other student, so I know she was okay. The only worries now we’re about getting home okay. With some news of cancelled flights and with the state of emergency in New York, some had reason to be concerned, but as far as I know, no one had any actual problems getting home.

Most of us are traveling today, though some left last night. Here’s wishing everyone safe travels and hoping we all stay healthy. It seems like we may have as much risk at hone as we had here.

Update, Day 2 #AWP20

This will be a quick update, since day 2 was much like day 1. Smaller crowds, cancelled panels, a few more people in the book fair, and as far as I can tell, everyone seems healthy. In fact, I’m hearing more news of COVID-19 from other places than from here. Some of us may be going home to greater risk than we have here, which is no to discount the risks of traveling.

Some friends are telling about the measures their universities are taking when they come back, such as formal self-monitoring. Still, everyone is calm and there doesn’t appear to be any greater risk than traveling anywhere else.

In the meantime, one of our grad students, Dani Putney, was invited to read with Juke Joint at the last minute. Some of us got the news in time to go hear them read, and of course, Dani represented well, despite having no time to prepare. That’s one advantage of being able to read from your phone (something I wouldn’t attempt anymore). It’s been a good AWP so far. As I’ve told a few people, it reminds me of the old days when the conference was smaller. It’s, sad that so many people and exhibitors aren’t here, but given the situation, everyone’s doing the best they can. We miss those who decided they couldn’t come. We understand and support that decision, too.

Looking forward to Day 3!

Update from #AWP20: Day 1

The first day of AWP in San Antonio was fine, if a little sleepy. The biggest problems were smaller crowds and cancelled panels. One of my students, Hollie, told about a panel on submitting where none of the panelists showed up, but lots of people were thee wanting to talk, so they took over the panel and shared advice. It was very useful.

Another student, K.D., told us about getting interviewed on Wednesday. On San Antonio news on Wednesday. They were so happy that the conference hadn’t been canceled, they wanted to talk to those who came. They misspelled her name, but did broadcast her interview.

Everyone I talked to was very upbeat, if a little sad that the Book Fair is smaller and there aren’t as many people or panels. Everyone’s making the best of it and so far there are no signs of an increased risk of catching COVID-19. Lots of hand washing and creative alternatives to shaking hands. It may be the healthiest AWP ever.

I get why some people decided not to come. It’s unfortunate that the news broke days before the conference started and people really didn’t have time to make a calmer decision. In the split second you had to decide, and with so much uncertainty, it made sense to cancel for many. Only the future will tell what was the right decision, but for now, those of us are here are feeling all right and making the best of it.

#AWP20 in a Time of Coronavirus

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.

Oh the irony of #AWP20

Little did I know, when I titled my recent post “How to Survive #AWP20” that things would go the way they have. I was only thinking about the crowds, the overwhelming number of panels, and the envigorating chaos of the Book Fair. At the time, COVID-19 coronavirus was a distant thing in Asia. Then last week cases were reported in the U.S., and now a quarantined patient was released into San Antonio for 12 hours before her test came back positive and she was taken back to quarantine. Then a state of disaster was declared by the mayor of San Antonio, yet the conference wasn’t cancelled, though many have decided not to go.

I’ll still be there with some of our low-resicency MFA students. Others have decided to stay home, and I respect their decisions. If it were just me, I might do the same, but I want to be there for my students who are going and to represent our program. In the end, I’m convinced by AWP’s argument that the risk isn’t that high (though they also get why some people aren’t willing to take the risk). With changes to the schedule and rearranging of exhibitor spaces, there still promises to be plenty of chaos even if there aren’t as many attendees. Those of us going are confident that the situation isn’t as bad as it sounds and that precautions like frequently washing our hands and respecting others’ personal space with a wave and not a handshake.

If you were planning to be at AWP and have changed your mind, I’m not trying to convince you to go. If you’re still on the fence, it’s everyone’s judgement call. But if you’ve decided not to change your plans, then I’ll see you in San Antonio! We’ll make the best of it, no matter what happens.

How to Survive #AWP20

Next month (March 4-8, to be exact), I’ll be heading to San Antonio for the annual AWP conference: that’s the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for anyone who doesn’t recognize the acronym. It’s three days of writerly bliss, overstimulation, anxiety, and information overload, when 10-15,000 writers descend on a city. After many years of going to AWP as a writer and program director, sometimes as a panelist, I’ve developed my own survival strategies. For those who’ve never been, I highly recommend reading about it and trying to get a sense of what you’re about to experience. AWP has an article by Paulette Perhach with 25 Tips that all make very good sense. I like that she links to a local poet, Pablo Miguel Martinez, who has advice on getting around San Antonio, and she mentions the First Timer’s Lounge. I plan to check out the transportation scene (esp. the best ways to get in from the airport), for instance. You can also get lots of advice from attendees who tweet with the conference hashtag #AWP20. Follow it throughout the conference to see what others are saying.

But the AWP is different for nearly everyone who goes. The best advice is probably to check out the schedule before you arrive and mark down some of the panels you really, really want to attend, then try to arrive early and hope you get a seat (some are in very large ballrooms and others are in smaller conference rooms, but some panels always end up with standing room only). Don’t plan to do everything, though. That would be impossible. And do have a plan B, so you can duck into a very interesting less well attended session if your first choice is super crowded.

I tend to spend a lot of my time in the Book Fair, so don’t forget to check out which tables and booths you want to see there. Many magazines and book publishers will be there, and it’s a great place to make connections or just to learn more about places you’d like your work to appear. Since we have a table for our low-residency MFA program and our two literary magazines Ponder Review and Poetry South, I hope you’ll stop by T2042 and pay us a visit! I’ll also be signing books at Texas Review Press on Thursday 4/5 at 3-4pm in their sponsor booth 1662.

To keep track of everything you want to do, download the AWP Events mobile app for your phone or tablet (or use the online event schedule on a laptop — unfortunately, they don’t talk to one another, so you should decide where you want your schedule to reside). Some folks do it the old-fashioned way and carry around the printed program. That’s great, but heavy, so I prefer the app.

Bring food! Yes, there’s plenty of food available for purchase in the convention center and surrounding restaurants, but lines can be long and you may not have time to stop for lunch, so having granola bars or other snacks to tide you through until you’re able to grab a bite can be a life saver. And if you’re desparate, cruise the book fair. There’s often someone with some form of calories to give away — candy, snacks, wine, etc.

You could keep going all day and much of the night — and you probably will  — but you may also need a break from the crowds. Go to some of the off-site events or slip away to a bookstore, coffee shop, or restaurant. Be sure to see some of San Antonio while you’re in town and don’t feel guilty when you do. It’s part of your survival plan!

Come prepared with business cards and with a short spiel about who you are as a writer. You may not need them, but it’s a whole lot easier to give out a card with your contact info than to write it down every time you meet someone, and it’s a lot easier to talk about yourself to an editor or a writer you admire if you’ve thought about what you’ll say in adavance. If you have a manuscript, it doesn’t hurt to have it ready to submit in case you make a good contact. And come prepared to bring back loads of information, too. You might pick up flyers from magazines and book publishers (etc.) or get information on other writing programs. You might collect sample copies of magazines or buy books (often at a discount, esp. on Saturday). Be ready to schlep all these things home with you, so save room in your suitcase!

But the main thing to remember is that AWP is a learning experience. It happens every year, and you can always go again, so don’t feel like you’re not successful if you don’t do everything you planned to do (that’s normal!), and don’t be afraid to do something completely different than you planned if a good opportunity arises (like a group going to an off-site event or a panel that just looks interesting and is nearby with empty chairs that you can sit in to rest your weary feet — you might learn something completely unanticipated). AWP is really only overwhelming if you think you have to do it all, and it’s only intimidating if you think you have to act like the ‘famous writers’ who probably don’t feel that famous after all. AWP is such a big, sprawling conference that it’s almost impossible to go and not get something good out of it. So relax, enjoy, and don’t take it too seriously! Connect with friends, meet new friends, explore San Antonio, get too little sleep, and then go home exhausted, a little overwhelmed, and inspired.