Dustin Lowman (MFAW 2020) is the SAIC editor at F Newsmagazine. In 2020, he would like to see a cardigan elected president.
Illustration by Ishita Dharap
The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, a self-proclaimed “essential annual destination” for writerly types, is infamously overwhelming. Fellow MFA Writing (MFAW) candidates who attended 2019’s Portland, Oregon set event used terms ranging from “a lot” to “zoo” to “total shit show” to describe the event. Indeed, nearly 15,000 people attended in 2019. Much the same was expected for AWP 2020 in San Antonio, TX.
A first-time attendee, I both thrilled and cowered at the prospect of reducing each day’s 180+ events to my favorite five or so. It would be overwhelming, no doubt, but as a young, aspiring, undecorated, promising (maybe?) writer, I figured this was exactly the kind of overwhelm I needed.
However, because of where AWP landed on the calendar, it was neither particularly well-attended nor cancelled. Spanning March 4 – March 7, U.S. COVID-19 containment measures had begun to intensify, but had not yet reached emergency levels. By the start of the conference, there were 108 confirmed cases in the U.S. — up about 100 from late January, but not a postponement-worthy number.
“We know there have been concerns about holding the conference at this time due to the coronavirus epidemic,” read a March 2 email from the AWP Board of Directors. “We have been in consultation with local authorities and public health staff in San Antonio. Though events have moved very quickly over the past few days, we do believe that we can work to address our legitimate concerns together by following the recommended health protocols.” These included measures which, though novel at the time, have since become universal: Wash your hands for 20+ seconds; don’t touch your eyes/nose/face; sneeze into your elbow; neither shake hands nor hug.
I grew visibly anxious when a flight attendant coughed, sniffled, and hand-wiped his nose throughout the flight.
At the start of the conference, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s most drastic containment measure was cancelling sponsored trips to countries with 2- or 3-level CDC travel health notices, including China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. Things were changing, but only incrementally.
Though the major functions of life — restaurants, airports, public transportation — proceeded more or less normally, I could feel a change in the air, and in myself. I started looking at people with a little more skepticism. I started washing and Purell-ing my hands more frequently (I had never seen men’s bathrooms so filled with earnest, devoted hand-washing). I grew visibly anxious when a flight attendant coughed, sniffled, and hand-wiped his nose throughout the flight from O’Hare to San Antonio International. Typically a less-than-fanatical self-sanitizer, I could feel the circle around myself tightening.
So could AWP. The morning of Wednesday, March 4, AWP Co-Director Diane Zinna resigned following the decision to hold the conference amid what increasingly looked like a global pandemic. Following suit, Thursday, March 5 saw the beginning of a rash of AWP event cancellations. 89 of the day’s 187 events would be cancelled, followed by 90 each on Friday and Saturday. As the conference’s timing straddled two worlds — the pre-pandemic, business-as-usual one, and the mid-pandemic, don’t-leave-your-house one — its functions were slashed in half.
“Every day, I would check the event schedule, and most of the events that would have been interesting to me were canceled,” classmate Kathleen Gullion (MFA 2020, Writing) told me via email. “Many of the panels had to cobble together new line-ups because the original panelists couldn’t make it.”
The panels that endured were a mixed bag. On Thursday, “From First Book Deal to Career as an Author: How to Navigate the Publishing World,” had only two of its original five panelists, but nonetheless provided a head-spinning amount of information. The following day, “The Soul of a City: Poets on Detroit Music” was not so lucky; only one of the original five panelists showed, accompanied by one substitute panelist, neither of whom brought the anthology around which the panel was based. One scrolled through his emails for a full five minutes, searching for a poem that took all of fifteen seconds to read. I left early.
The bookfair, which occurred daily between 8:30 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. and is perhaps the AWP component most infamous for its zoo-like atmosphere, felt more like the laconic, Labor Day Weekend bookfairs at my hometown’s public library. Empty booths and absent authors — including high-profile personages like Ada Limón, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Carmen Maria Machado — meant reduced attendance, and survival tactics. “One press ended up commandeering an empty booth in an area with more foot traffic,” wrote Mary Cerney (MFA 2020, Writing) in an email.
For those of us who went, however, this also meant more intimate access to presses and authors. “I connected with people from Sundress and Red Hen and had longer conversations with them than I might have been able to have otherwise,” Kathleen told me. Likewise, I was able to have in-depth conversations with representatives from a number of presses, including Phoenix, Arizona’sAZ’s Hoot ’n’ Waddle, and Minneapolis, Minnesota’sMN’s Coffee House Press. Spokespeople from both presses told me they had made more sales at this stripped-down conference than in previous years, crediting the opportunity for meaningful connections.
On Friday March 5, 89 of the day’s 187 events would be cancelled, followed by 90 each on Friday and Saturday.
For MFAWs like myself, the decision to attend had a lot to do with money. The Writing Department covered our registration ($55-$70) and provided $250 travel stipends, greatly reducing the cost of attendance. “I was relieved when they decided not to shut it down,” Mary told me. “Everything about the conference is expensive!”
Jesse Stein (MFA 2021, Writing) agreed. “I would only go back if I didn’t have to pay for it,” he wrote. “I think that’s the most useful way to engage with the conference, other than all of the super cool folks that you meet. Which is lovely, but I’m not going to pay $600 to make some friends.”
AWP ended on Saturday, March 7. On Tuesday, March 10, Harvard University announced that it would be suspending in-person classes, and the remainder of the spring semester would be conducted online. Two days later, SAIC announced the same protocol. California deployed a statewide stay-at-home order on Thursday, March 19, and New York City did the same on March 20. Business is being conducted remotely, restaurants are closed for dine-in service, apartments have become de facto quarantines. Life as we know it has changed.
In the UK, disease spread is expected to last another 12 months; the CDC expresses a similar outlook for the US. Having taken planes and trains, stayed in hotels, schmoozed with authors, and eaten at restaurants amid thousands of possibly infected people now seems unconscionably ill-advised.
“I am basically a knot of anxiety 80% of the time,” Mary told me. Jesse, more colorfully, agreed: “[expletive] is truly [expletive]. We are approaching worst case scenario [expletive] because the people who run this country are categorically uninterested in anyone who isn’t preserving their power or lining their greasy pockets.”
I attended AWP with my mother, who suffers from a lung condition that transforms even the most innocuous colds into full-on bronchitis. While I, a healthy 27-year-old, have limited concerns for my own survival, I worry deeply about hers. Given what has transpired in the immediate wake of AWP, I realize that attending the conference imperiled her much more than either of us realized.
Whether holding AWP was the right or wrong choice is a matter for debate. Certainly, had it been scheduled to occur any later, it would have been cancelled. AWP will provide refunds to people who registered but did not attend, but not for people who attended the half-strength conference.
My mother, who had no educational institution backing her attendance costs, was denied any refund, told: “#AWP2020 offered over 200 panels, numbers exhibitors, and a meeting of thousands of writers, teachers, publishers, and readers, and did so at a cost lower than similar conferences. I understand your dissatisfaction. However, we are not able to offer you a refund or a partial refund for a conference you attended.”