Be Mused: Memories from a Non-Virtual AWP Conference

March 3, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Stephanie Hunt

“I walk into a large white room,” begins Twyla Tharp in her lithe arabesque of a book, The Creative Habit. In this large white room there are wall-to-wall mirrors, a boom box, skid marks on an otherwise clean white floor, and that’s it. Tharp describes how this vacuous blank space ignites her imaginative muscle, and despite its daunting void, how she begins every day by slowly moving into it, deliberately filling it with physical poetry, her limbs arching into verse, her body a refrain of the music. She enters this space with playful openness and intention, and through some alchemy of mystery and madness (and absurdly limber muscles), creativity emerges into form, shape and energy—a dance.

This spare image, this pristine white-room canvas of space, was on my mind as I walked into the immensely grandiose ballroom of the Chicago Hilton for my inaugural AWP conference. The “room” was more like two city blocks with walls boxed around them, paneled in huge mirrors and heavy velvet curtains, topped with a ridiculously gilded lid. Four chandeliers the size of hot-air balloons descended from mega-ceiling medallions. I fully expected Louis XIV to prance in at any minute. This ballroom was the gaudy antithesis of Tharp’s minimalist studio, and there I was, in obvious pre-pandemic days, crowded in with some 8,000 other writers, all of us seeking the same thing Tharp seeks in her barebones white room: inspiration, imaginative juju, magic.

Gilded ballrooms aside, the massiveness of AWP is something to behold. The conference planners might consider placing a warning label on the registration form: “Agoraphobia Caution” or “Not for the Timid Ego.” I went for a perfectly valid reason—everybody else I knew via my writing and publishing circles was going, and they evidently had been for years. AWP is a right of passage for would-be writers, and I was yet to be initiated. So I bought a cheap airplane ticket, talked my husband into a literary, mid-winter romantic Chicago Tundra getaway, and registered, following the lead of my more experienced colleagues. The ones who knew how to propose panel topics and become a speaker; knew which cocktail parties were not to be missed; which publishing house booth in the vast conference underworld otherwise known as the Bookfair (i.e., miles and miles of table-clothed displays) had the best candy bowl.

And I drank it all in, chugging inspiration like a college freshman at a keg party. The AWP schedule is an invitation to gluttony, filled dawn to dusk with keynote addresses and panel discussions featuring genre giants and more laureates than you can find wreathes for—even amidst the ballrooms’ enormous flower arrangements. It was both affirming to be among such a mass of creative souls and fellow lovers of language, and overwhelming. Especially since the vast majority of those around me were current or recent MFA students, which means I could have easily been their mom. But I squeezed in the rows alongside them nonetheless, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, listening to literary luminaries—those who have won Pulitzers and lesser prizes, those who have been anointed by Kirkus and The New York Times, those who knew what royalties are, in these ballrooms decked out for royalty. And I’m guessing I was far from the only one in this small city of writers in this large metropolis of a hotel dreaming that maybe one day I’ll be discovered, that one day I could be keynoting AWP.

During one particularly long poetry reading, my mind began wandering and wondering how the Muse navigates such a huge, unwieldy affair. Does she get lost in the shuffle between the various ballrooms? Sidetracked by the endless supply of Twix, M&M’s and chapbooks down at the Bookfair? Is she exhausted and frustrated by so many gasping, needy souls dragging her around from panel discussion to panel discussion, desperate for assistance in fortifying blah characters, energizing flailing plots, adding zip to limp verse? If I was the Muse, I’d count the hours until the crowded ballrooms emptied out so I could text Twyla Tharp and say, “now, darling, finally, shall we simply dance.”

This year as AWP shifts to a virtual platform, I wonder what might get lost in transition from an en masse experience to one privatized on our individual screens. And what might be gained? Maybe the Muse will enjoy a break from the crowd-sourced mayhem. Perhaps she’ll be able to zoom exactly where she needs to go, whispering in our earbuds what each of us, thirsty for inspiration and affirmation, needs to hear. Perhaps our computer screens will be less like the overly ornate and vast ballroom and more like Tharp’s pared-down studio—clean, spare, inviting, ready.

Maybe this year, instead of hurrying down hallways of bad hotel carpet between sessions, I can turn on some music and let my imagination sway and twirl. I’ll invite my fingers to an ad-lib pas-de-deux on my keyboard; affirm my own small place in the universe of writers. Maybe the Muse will happily meet me there, and you as well. Shall we dance?
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Stephanie Hunt is a Charleston, SC-based freelancer whose work has been published by The Washington Post, Hippocampus, Veranda, Coastal Living, Orion.org, and Charleston Magazine, where she is editor-at-large, among other outlets. More at www.stephaniehuntwrites.com or @stephhuntwrites. 

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