At the same time, dang, that shit is expensive. Travel , hotel and registration, even if you make it onto a panel is costly. Book fair tabling--egads, even if you split. I've done it, but it's always like this huge chunk of money out of pocket (and my pockets aren't that deep) And I rarely am able to make it back, even the years that books are selling like gangbusters. My student loans funded my 2007 jaunt to Atlanta. and in 2014-Seattle , it helped to be staying with friends. The Chicago conventions I attended were easier since there was no travel or accomodations involved (I split a table with Switchback books in 2009 and in 2012--I opted just to host an open studio down the street instead of a book fair table, and luckily was able to register as a panelist otherwise.) A couple years back, I had all intentions of going--travel and hotel booked, a table slot paid for, and a financial setback at the last minute prohibited it.
And even money considerations aside, there is also the whole getting time off work issue (more difficult now because we're understaffed at the library), the getting places without a car and extreme anxiety around flying. The stress involved in making 80 lbs of books and carting them cross country alone on Amtrak (which I did for Seattle and will likely never attempt again.) The making the 80 pounds of books in a short period of time also stress-inducing--making sure we have enough of each thing, but not too many. Deciding where to draw the line on what to bring and what won't possibly fit on a table when we publish so much.
And there is also my mixed feelings on the mfa-cation of writing..AWP being the mothership of the academic-creative industrial complex and what that means for people outside it. The people who feel like they do not fit in / cannot afford / do not feel welcome at at AWP. AWP's reluctance to furnish childcare or offer a diverse enough array of panels. Also the pure bloat of it--the all consuming monster of it over the past 10 years.
Part of me wants to be there because all my friends are. Wants to work it some way that I could avoid the actual conference hall but still hang out with other poets and do off-site readings and maybe even sell some books somewhere outside the book fair. Maybe host a big dgp reading and party off-site while all the writers are in town. But then there are so many readings and parties and it's impossible to actually get to all the things you want to.
I attended my first conference in 2004, in Chicago, pretty much only becuaue I was still an MFA student and it was free. I remember how small it was relatively, tiny enough to fit in the Palmer House alone, but how overwhelming it was at the same time. I sort of drifted from panel to bookfair and back to panels. I know pretty much no one in those days outside of a handful of fellow CCC MFA-ers. The poets I did know outside of school, locally and from online were mostly non-academicly oriented and just not there. Or maybe they were there, but I didn't know where to find them or connect in that pre-facebook world. I was still pretty much totally under anyone's radar, as a poet, as a publisher. DGP was only a glimmer in my eye, and I wouldn't issue our first title til that fall. (though admittedly I was leaving thick piles of wicked alice pliers on all the free tables as I went.) I'd been publishing for a couple years regularly in online journals, but the book fair was mostly print pubs,so the editors weren't familiar faces. I hadn't published any books or chapbooks and no one really knew my work. I also was only beginning to read widely of my peers, so I didn't really know who anyone was--the authors reading, signing books. I was completely invisible and it was at the same time both wonderful and terrifying. I didn't feel in any way a part of that world and yet I wanted it.
It was actually probably the first and only time I got to go to a lot of panels that weren't my own (by 2007 I was bound to the book fair table almost the whole time.) My choices were scattered--Publishing chapbooks, Hypertext Poetry, Blogging. I went to one off-site reading up the street at Rain Dog Books that actually sparked my obsession with Diagram / New Michigan Press (where I only remember that Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis read and it was amazing. I proceeded to stalk NMP until they published my chap three years later and Sophia until she submitted work for dgp. (and we've published her twice..lol..).) Mind you, I was still too meek to introduce myself to anyone, so I watched and observed. I wondered downtown with my little black and orange totebag and felt like I was the most seriously writerly creature in the world.
By the time 2007 rolled around..I was a little wiser in my ways and not so invisible. (I ran into my as-yet-unmet-in person Ghost Road Editors in the lobby six months after the book came out and felt like such a celebrity. I knew more blogging poets, more poets in general, forthcoming dgp-ers, whose list was growing every year. More journal editors who were publishing my work or people who had encountered either my poems or my blog or the press.. I definitely felt more at home, more in my element--as a poet, as a publisher. What a difference three years could make. Mind you, I still feel really introverted and awkward, but alcohol helped .(I'm pretty sure there were only a few sober hours at the book fair in Seattle 2014 my last go round. The rest of the time I was raiding the amply stocked bar at chez Menacing Hedge and double fisting Jack & Cokes through my Friday night reading. )
And that's the stuff I miss most about AWP--not so much the book fair and the panels, but more the social and community aspect. And maybe I do need to find a way to get the good stuff without the expensive and too-academic-ness of it all. One could (and some have) go to AWP without actually, ya know, going to AWP--be it taking advantage of free day at the book fair and going to all the offsite stuff. I just might have to do that next year.