Mar 11 2013

AWP Boston, or the Noise before the Silence

Over half our staff at Booksmith are writers. So many of us were delighted to hear that AWP (the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference) would be held in Boston this year. Convenient, yes, to have over 10,000 writers, readers, agents, lit mags, editors, and publishers converge on one’s hometown. But I also found myself slightly disappointed not to be able to use the conference as an excuse to see a new place, to stay in a hotel, in short, to travel.

On the exhibition floor.

But attending a conference like AWP is a lot like traveling, even when it takes place on your doorstep. There is nothing so foreign as the landscape of the three gigantic exhibition halls in Hynes Convention Center, crammed with row upon endless row of booths bannered with MFA programs looking for tuition money, lit mags searching for submitters, publishers looking for readers.

If the international cuisine of the Prudential Center food court didn’t transport you to new lands, you could listen to readers from all over the world at one of the many panels on literature, publishing, and almost any aspect of writing culture imaginable. From essayists discussing the urge toward memoir to a conversation over big versus indie publishers, I found that many of these panels were stimulating in the way that travel is, breaking me out of my habitual ways of thinking about writing and pushing me into new practices and points of view.

Outside the convention center, the blizzard blew.

And finally, like travel, a conference introduces you to new people you might otherwise not have had the chance to bump into. People like the Australian woman who bustled into a panel on travel writing and took a seat next to me. She told me she’d never walked through snow before, and I asked if she’d come all the way around the world for AWP.

“No,” she laughed, “I heard some young people talking it up on the bus from New York, and I pricked up my ears.” Her hostel was full of conference-goers as well, and she followed them to Hynes. “I’m meant to be here,” she confided, and told me about the book she had just self-published about her travels around the world. We listened to the panel together, learning how to capture and document that elusive essence of place.

And while a conference, like travel, is exhausting, there were periods of contemplation as well. One evening, after a day of navigating the chaos of the exhibition, I stumbled out of a Grub Street party at a noisy and crowded bar and headed back to Hynes for the keynote speaker. There I found Vets Auditorium full of writers gathered to hear a conversation between poets Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney.

My brain was fried from the day of speakers, my head was woozy with one drink too many, and my ears were ringing with the bar’s loud music and the louder sound of writers’ networking. I settled into my chair and focused in on the speakers, who were conversing from two armchairs on the stage.

Walcott was saying something about silence, stillness, and serenity, what he called the “prologue before articulation.” As I listened, the noise of networking fell away. “Where silence is,” Walcott said, “real art arrives.”

“Yes,” Heaney nodded, “But you have to be able to dwell in the clamor as well–that is the condition we inhabit.”

Later Heaney would tell us about reading Virgil when he was a school boy in Sixth Form. The required text was Book Nine, but all he remembers about that course was his teacher continually asserting with regret, “I wish it were Book Six, lads, if only it were Book Six.”

Perhaps I had taken in one panel on literary tropes too many, but every word Heaney spoke seemed to hold the potential for metaphor, and now when I think back on the blur that was my trip through the foreign lands of AWP, my sense is that if nothing else, the convention was for me Sixth Form. A conference about art is not art itself, if anything it is the dissonance that distracts us from creation. Yet it is in that chaos that we dwell, and if it is a clamor that points us on to Book Six, to the silence before articulation, then it was a trip worth taking.

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