Every time I get on an airplane I’m certain it’s going to crash, and I’m going to die. I plan accordingly. Last week, before I left for the airport for my trip to Boston and the AWP conference, I told Jesse where to find my flash drive of unpublished material and the notebook of letters I’ve been writing to Laurel. I said my good-byes and gave my final hugs and kisses.
I sat near my departure gate at the Pittsburgh International Airport and listened to the flight crew, sitting behind me, discussing their surprise that our flight hadn’t been canceled. One read aloud from a print out: “Winds 45-50 knots, blowing snow and almost no visibility.” “Wow,” said another, “they canceled us yesterday for less than that.” I sent a panic-text to Jesse, obsessively read the alerts posted by Weather Bug, and spammed Facebook with my weather-related flight anxieties.
I thought of Laurel growing up as the kid whose mom died in a plane crash. I thought of her growing up without a mom at all. I wondered if Jesse would marry someone else after I was dead. How long would he wait? Would Laurel call his new wife “Mom”? As the plane rolled along the runway to prepare for takeoff, I wanted out. I thought of standing up and screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! Bomb! Bomb!” But then Laurel would grow up as the daughter of the crazy lady who’d been hauled away by federal air marshals.
We took off. The flight was uneventful. But I imagined that at any moment the engines would fail, and we’d plunge to our deaths. I imagined what those last moments of life would feel like. Would I sob? Pee myself? I’d been listening to Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” on my iPod. Was that really an appropriate final song to hear before dying? I switched to my “relaxing” playlist and listened to Sarah McLachlan and Gillian Welch instead.
Of course, we landed safely in Boston, and before long I picked up my registration badge and materials at the conference and did a quick stroll through the bookfair. Milling grad students, baby-wearing poets, a few service dogs, lots of black clothing, free pens and bookmarks and those little spiral notebooks from The Missouri Review. Ahh.
I love AWP; I haven’t missed an AWP since I attended my first one in Baltimore in 2002 or 2003. The conference has grown significantly since then, but I love it for the same reasons I loved it then—it feels like a reunion, a gathering of friends, of former and current students, of colleagues, of writers famous and not. I also love the fact that attendees often pretend not to love it, as if enjoying something like an academic conference will make them less hipster and more schoolteacher.
So, a quick AWP 2013 recap…
I shortened my conference this year, arriving Thursday late afternoon and leaving Saturday early afternoon, because wee Laurel is only six-months old. Jesse does a fine job caring for her, but he doesn’t lactate, which makes his job more challenging. Lactation made AWP challenging for me, too; every three hours or so I had to scoot back to my hotel room across the (snowy, slush-filled) street for an intimate encounter with my breast pump. My friend and roomie Heather Frese Sanchez saw my boobs very, very often; she’s expecting a baby herself, though, so I don’t think she was too fazed by the whole ordeal. Our room had a fridge so I saved my milk, checked it with my luggage, and brought it all home with me. It took a lot of effort to make that stuff, and dumping it out would have been tragic. So now I have quite a stash for the next time I travel. I also limited my alcohol consumption (alas), and I tried to wait at least an hour after drinking and before pumping, but just in case, some of the milk baggies have labels like, “two glasses of wine” and “one IPA.”
My curbed alcohol consumption resulted in lonely (though clear-headed) morning strolls through the bookfair, where I exercised free-pen restraint and selected only the most interesting and unusual bits of swag.
Speaking of alcohol, there was a bar in the bookfair. Yes, a bar. What a great idea! AWP combined two of my favorite conference activities. A small cafeteria-style restaurant was next to the bar, too; if you didn’t try their French fries, you missed out. Crispy fries, cool IPA, books everywhere, and great conversation—I hope AWP makes the bookfair bar a permanent conference fixture.
Most of my time in the bookfair bar was spent with my friend and rockstar nature writer David Gessner. David is one of my favorite people, and I hope that everyone reading this already knows his work, but if not, check him out. His most recent book, The Tarball Chronicles, investigates the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Other titles include My Green Manifesto, Sick of Nature, Return of the Osprey, and Soaring with Fidel. I recommend them all! I also recommend that you check out his blog, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
I also had a beer with my friend and fellow hotshot Wayne Thomas (aka the Wayne Train). Wayne, another one of my favorite people, edits The Tusculum Review, one of my favorite journals. TTR reads submissions year round, hint, hint. Unfortunately, the other hotshots, Steve O., Stalker, and The Haas, couldn’t make it to AWP this year. My loves Aileen and Robin and Jeff from Virginia Tech also didn’t make it. And I somehow missed seeing several friends who were in Boston—Mary Ann, Sarah E., Gail, and others. Maybe we’ll see each other in Seattle…
On Friday morning I spent an hour signing copies of my book at West Virginia University’s bookfair table. I think I sold five books total, including one to a former student and two to friends. Not a lot, but that’s five books I wouldn’t have sold otherwise, right? WVU’s MFA students have just launched an online journal, the Cheat River Review. They’re now accepting submissions for the first issue (again, hint…). My friend and mentor Kevin Oderman signed copies of his new novel, White Vespa, at the Etruscan Press table. Do you know Kevin’s work? You should! Several other writers from WVU signed books, too; for more info on our talented faculty, check this out.
Shamefully, I only attended one panel this year, on Saturday morning. The panel, which discussed the many obstacles facing moms who write and teach, featured my friend Erika Meitner and four other brave women. In addition to delving into the serious and often heartbreaking challenges that moms working in the academy face, two of the panelists mentioned unfortunate times when they’d leaked breast milk in public. This acted as some kind of cue for my own boobs. I hustled back across the street as soon as the panel ended. I encourage you to read Erika’s poetry—her recent books include Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls and Ideal Cities.
I also ran into my friend from high school (yes, high school!) Anne Hays. It’s kind of unbelievable that our small, rural high school class of 130 or so contained two women who would eventually be creative nonfiction MFAs. Anne’s got a journal, too – check out Storyscape.
So, AWP is wonderful for all kinds of reasons—in addition to getting to hang out with old friends and make new ones, I always come home inspired to write. And lately I’ve been lacking inspiration. Well, that’s not true. I have plenty of inspiration, but finding the ways and means to put words on the page has been difficult. It’s my fault, of course. I may try to blame it on wee Laurel, but in reality, I have to work harder on making time to write. I must finish that vulture book!
And this is the last mention of lactation, I promise—I’ve written this entire blog post with Laurel on my lap, alternatively napping and nursing. So it can be done! Onward, words…