The Participation Prize
Apr 13, 2016
by Abigail Kerstetter, Colorado Review Associate Editor
It’s always a strange thing, spending a weekend in devotion to writing, in the company of thousands of other writers, publishers, and general lovers of words at various stages of their careers, some well-seasoned in navigating what can quickly become a hall of mirrors, others just entering this space for the first time, at risk of performing themselves into a corner or losing themselves in the myriad conflicting reflections if not careful. I’m talking, of course, about the recent AWP conference, which took place in Los Angeles.
My first AWP experience was overwhelming, to say the least. Each day, I studied the program and circled at least a dozen panels that sounded like they would teach me how to write the poems I wanted to write, or how to get those poems published once written, or just sounded interesting in ways I couldn’t yet articulate how they’d directly benefit me, but was sure it would be a missed opportunity if I didn’t go. I would sit in a panel for all of fifteen minutes before anxiety would set in: What was I getting out of this panel? How would it benefit my writing directly? How was this panel going to help me get ahead of the thousands of other hopefuls? What if I had picked the wrong panel? I’d quickly, and as quietly as possible, collect my things (after anxiously debating in my head if it would be offensive if I left the panel early, and if so, would I offend anyone who would come to matter in the future, and shouldn’t I maybe just sit there and try to focus on how to scavenge what I could from the conversation about—what panel was I in again?), and off I’d be to the next panel I’d circled—only to arrive and worry about what I’d missed, and what if the next presenter at the panel I’d just left was really the person I needed to hear, and was it too late to go back? Maybe no one would notice. At the very least I wasn’t able to listen to a word this panelist was saying because I was too busy fretting about where I’d just been. Maybe the book fair would have the answers I needed—maybe that’s where I should have been all along—schmoozing with the readers and editors at all the journals I needed to get into to “make it” as a writer. A hall of mirrors with a hundred anxious versions of “me,” each pulled more out of shape than the last.
What I ultimately came to realize since that first terrifying experience—taking a year off from the conference, but also moving further into a literary community—was that I was doing it wrong. All of it. What does it mean, after all, to attend a conference? To confer? There’s the standby dictionary approach: as a noun, a meeting, bestowal, representative assembly, association of teams; as a verb, to discuss something important in order to make a decision, to give to someone or something, to compare views or take counsel. What does that really mean, though? I would offer this: to participate.
In all the panels I attended, in all the interactions I had with fellow writers, all the exchanges at the CLP table or with other book fair representatives, it was the level of participation that seemed to make or break the experience—either a reciprocal interchange of people genuinely interested in what the other had to say (say, not offer), or a lack thereof, which left one feeling flat and adrift. How do you find an audience for your work? Be that audience for the work of another. How do you find your way into that literary journal you’ve been chasing for years? Pick up an issue, subscribe, read without agenda. It’s through these relationships that we build communities, and through these communities that we all find support. Maybe at the end of that panel, you find yourself face to face with someone who was hitherto just a name on your shelf. And then one day it happens—you’re being introduced to a publisher or a poet you’ve idolized from a distance for years, and you’re not chasing an angle, you’re having a conversation—a genuine human interaction. Or you’re having lunch surrounded by poets whose poems you’ve pored over for years, whom you wouldn’t have dared to make eye contact with a couple days ago, but here you are, talking and listening. And maybe something comes of it, maybe something doesn’t. My bet is something does—something you didn’t even realize you were looking for.