Bookies in D.C.

Local writers and readers set out for the great book nerd get-together.

Poet and University of Minnesota English Instructor Sarah Fox sits Sunday in her Minneapolis home. She will be attending the Association of Writers & Writers Programs Conference which runs from Feb. 2-5 in Washington D.C.

Poet and University of Minnesota English Instructor Sarah Fox sits Sunday in her Minneapolis home. She will be attending the Association of Writers & Writers Programs Conference which runs from Feb. 2-5 in Washington D.C.

by Grace Gouker


It can be hard to make the trek downtown in the evening to hear a reading at The Loft, sometimes. Hell, it can be difficult enough to read through the homework thatâÄôs assigned for that class with the overly inspired graduate student without having to worry about reading a 370-page book recently profiled in âÄúThe New Yorker.âÄù

Once a year, though, lit nuts and those whoâÄôve been laissez-faire about their literature have the opportunity to meet up and catch up. The rendezvous point? The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference âÄî the largest literary conference in North America.

With an attendance of about 8,000 people per year, the conference is bound to attract some members of the literary community at the University of Minnesota and the Twin Cities at large.

Kevin Fenton will be one of these 8,000. A Winona, Minn. native and âÄúRain TaxiâÄù board member, Fenton won last yearâÄôs âÄúAWP Award Series in the Novel.âÄù The author will be a participating featured presenter alongside Bradley Paul, Christine Sneed and David Vann.

With his masterâÄôs in creative writing from the University of Minnesota and a graduate of the UniversityâÄôs Law School, FentonâÄôs âÄúMerit BadgesâÄù takes its readers to the fictional town of Minnisapa, Minn., tracking the lives of its locals through postcards sent from the âÄô70s until the early 2000s.

The colloquial prose and localized backdrop of the novel, as Midwestern and straightforward as it may be, present an idea of home that everyone can relate to: a place to develop in, to detest and then âÄî ultimately âÄî to hold dear.

English doctoral candidate Robert St. Lawrence will be taking the stage at AWP in a slightly different context âÄî at one of the multitudinous off-site venues close by. Tonight, less than five miles away from the conference in Arlington, Va., St. Lawrence will read at Artisphere along with a few other poets with featured work in the magazine âÄúRooms Outlast Us, No. 2.âÄù

The event, called âÄúArt is Square,âÄù will house a scene reminiscent of the poetry readings of old: a jazz band, low lights, people murmuring in the crowd and drinking cocktails.

âÄúItâÄôs going to be incredible,âÄù St. Lawrence said. âÄúI sometimes like going to events more than the conference itself.âÄù

Exhausted attendees whoâÄôve spent their days going to packed ballrooms and milling about the grandiose hotels that theyâÄôre housed in can let their hair down and relax, relishing in the opportunity to hear talented up-and-coming authors like St. Lawrence.

The poet, who happens to have studied at one of the conferenceâÄôs hosts, George Mason University, agreed.

âÄúIt can be good to go to the panel talks and that sort of thing. But honestly, after two, three or four [of those events] every day, itâÄôs more fun doing the off-site stuff,âÄù St. Lawrence said. âÄúYou have the opportunity to explore the writerly community face to face.âÄù

Many fellow Minnesotans can be found at the conference and bookfair, too. Local Graywolf Press and Milkweed Editions will host panels during the conference, with Coffee House Press, the Minnesota Historical Society Press, Borealis Books, Hamline University, Minnesota State University-Mankato, Blue Earth Review and The Loft Literary Center all distributing materials at the fair. And The Loft, keeping true to its devotion to literary arts in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, is also one of the conferenceâÄôs literary partners.

MC Hyland, a Minneapolis transplant whose work has been published in âÄúThe Paris ReviewâÄù  and several other high-profile poetry magazines plans to man Table X âÄî a conglomeration of punk mags at the book fair. Hyland runs Double Cross Press and the Pocket Lab Reading Series, both of which will have materials at the table.

Sarah Fox, an English instructor at the University and editor of the local âÄúFuori Magazine,âÄù will be stopping by Table X as well.

âÄúA marathon-like lineup curated by all the punk rock presses will occupy Table X in the bookfair,âÄù Fox said. âÄúI envision potentially disruptive âÄî in a nonviolent, jubilant, carnivalesque kind of way âÄî actions.âÄù

There are also those who plan to soak up all the literary knowledge and advice there is to offer at the conference via its panels. With featured presenters like Sapphire, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill, thereâÄôs a lot to be exposed to. Yet another masterâÄôs candidate, Kate Petersen, is particularly excited for the panels.

âÄúIâÄôm super-keen to hear Amy Hempel read and/or say wise things Saturday at the plenary,âÄù Petersen said. âÄúHer short stories slay me, all of them.âÄù

In 2012, the get-together will be only six hours away instead of 20. Taking a Megabus to Chicago wonâÄôt be nearly as stressful or wallet-emptying.