Sunday, March 18, 2012

AWP 2012: Chicago

Before going to AWP, I had never been to the Midwest. 

My traveling experiences had been severely limited to the East Coast, more specifically New York, Jew Jersey, and Pennsylvania - all places where my family is. I have been to England and, for a day and a half, France, but for the most part, America has been largely unexplored for me. As a family, we never went on road trips. We never drove for hours in one direction, not really caring where we ended up. Everything was planned down to the smallest detail. In my family, the familiar is good. Safe. 

However, as sick as I am of Florida weather, I was ecstatic to have found out that the conference was in Chicago. I had it on good authority it would likely snow while I was there. I hadn't played in the snow since I was a little girl. I couldn't wait to have my hair blown about in the windy city, to feel my bones ache from the cold, to feel tingly when stepping inside a warm building. Yes, I'm weird like that. I practically daydreamed about the horrors of winter with a big smile on my face. 

Prepping for Chicago was another ball game. Because it doesn't get cold here, stores don't sell winter gear. I spent hours in shoe stores (so not kidding) trying to find boots. It was January and flip-flops and sandals were already pushing out the fleeting Florida shopping season of boots. I stared in horror at the boots with high heels - instant death for me, I imagined. Finally I found a pair of plain black boots. I remember telling my mom that the tops of the boots were tight  - not very comfortable. She laughed at me and said, "You really don't remember, do you? They have to be tight to keep the snow out." 

Well, not my fault. I was a kid when I had been bundled up in boots and jackets and rolled around in the snow like a careless puppy. It's been so long. 

EXCLUSIVE SCANNED PHOTO of me as a wee one, rolling around in the snow like a carefree puppy. I actually went looking for the photo after writing that simile... and I'm happy that this photo actually fit. 

Looking for a coat... well, that was something. My dad tried to get me to wear his old winter jacket that he still had from when we lived in New York. I put it on and my arms were lost in the sleeves. The jacket went down to my knees. There was no way I was wearing that to Chicago - I had to look "cool," haha. I ended up going with a bright blue pea coat from Forever 21 that my parents were skeptical about. They said that there was no way it would keep me warm... but I remained firm. "If I'm going to freeze," I had said, "I'm going to look good turning into an icicle." I also packed my dad's jacket just to make them feel better.


I'm glad I made that decision because in Chicago, everyone looked very comfortable and stylish in their winter garb. There were pea coats everywhere! (A rare find in any Florida stores, trust me). I proudly held my head high against the tear-inducing winds and almost skipped down the street in pure happiness. I hadn't been bluffing. I felt at home in the cold weather. My body may not have remembered the feel of boots or the stuffiness of many layers, but it remembered cold. And I adjusted pretty quickly to it even with my thinned-out blood.

Interestingly enough, the people of Chicago were fascinating - so much different than the way Floridians are. The people I met seemed genuinely friendly, eager to help, and had all around warm personalities. It feels strange to type such a statement, almost as if I had dreamed the whole thing up. I remember being surrounded by those smiles and cheerfulness in Chicago, and being so stunned that I apologized for little things like not putting my train ticket in the scanner correctly. I actually felt worse that I usually did about not knowing something - being a tourist - because people were so quick to help me. It's an odd feeling that sticks with me still.

I didn't get to see snow until the morning I headed back to the airport. I was walking over to the train station, lugging my suitcase behind me, when all of a sudden I noticed a flurry of white stuff drifting down from the sky. I wasn't sure what it was at first, and turned to my mother and said, "Did a bird just smash into something? Look at the feathers."

Yeah, I said that.

In Florida, birds smashing into walls is a regular occurrence. So much so that some glass walls have stickers on them so that birds will be able to recognize the walls before they try to fly right through them. Don't even get me started on the hawk that broke through the mesh in my backyard last summer. Yep. So I thought, at first, that was I saw was the last remains of a recently squashed bird.

My mom gave me an odd look and said, "No, Kim. It's actually snow."

I looked up with my mouth hanging open as the flurry rained down, light as soap bubbles. Some snowflakes landed on my coat and melted right away. We waited for the train for at least fifteen minutes and, the entire time, I kept my eyes on the falling snow. "It's beautiful," I said.

My mom burrowed deeper into her scarf and replied, "It'd better stop before we get snowed in at the airport."

Ah, ever so practical. We were fine. The snow melted long before our plane even arrived. A safe flight home.

Because of the conference, I hadn't been able to sight-see. Mainly I stuck to the streets in the area where the two major conference hotels were. As I mentioned in my last post, I did wander around the eight-floor Macy's after a long day at the conference. The most amazing floor was the dishware one, ironically enough. The displays were just pretty. Very much like the tourist I was, I took pictures of the displays and dodged the employees. I also ate a lot of delicious food and saw some wonderful paintings.

Kim's Mini-Food Adventure

My first legit deep dish pizza. It was outstanding! We put olives, tomatoes, and peppers on it - a bit of an odd mix, but it worked well in the end. The pizza was very fluffy and thick; it really was like eating a cake. Now that I'm back in Florida though, I'm dying to have more... but no one makes it here ;_;

Bread Bowls! This was the perfect lunch for my first full day in Chicago - it warmed me up right away.

Pad Thai. 'Nuff said, right? I came back twice because it was so delicious. 

Flatbread Pizza! Now, I've had flatbread pizza before, of course, but  eating it in Chicago is different. The bread is thick, soft, and fluffy here, so it makes the pizza taste fresh and full of flavor. I'm used to eating tasteless, cardboard bread - the water and dough don't mix to well in FL (I know I keep bashing Florida, but, well, come eat here and then we'll talk). 

Art Institute Chicago

I love museums - even the cruddy, local ones with dubious things encased behind glass. So I had to go to the Art Institute Chicago. The building, while impressive, doesn't look too big until you actually start wandering around inside. I couldn't believe how many rooms there were, all splitting off in different directions, and random hallways that seemed to make sense but then, really didn't. After stomping around at the conference that morning, my feet were aching by the time I trekked through the museum. I had to stop frequently on benches to give my legs a rest while admiring the paintings.

The collection was huge, but my favorite parts were the Impressionists and the Decorative Arts exhibits (a fancy term for beautifully crafted items found in the home). I'll end my post today by sharing some photos from the museum - a great way to end my time at Chicago before the flight home. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

AWP 2012: The Conference

The time had finally come. The reservations were made. Plane tickets printed. Suitcase packed. I dug around in my closet for anything warm, knowing that I would be flying to Chicago in the bitter cold to attend the AWP conference. AWP, or The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is the biggest creative writing conference in the country. While I hadn't been able to go last year, I made it a point to experience this time - at least while I'm still a grad student (yay, discounts!). Yes, this year's conference was in Chicago - a place I'd never been before, but I'll save my sight-seeing adventures for my next post. This one will focus on the conference itself. 

The conference this year as sold-out, so that meant that, if you walked the streets between the Palmer House Hilton and the Chicago Hilton hotels, you'd probably see a lot of people with red tote bags and name tags. 

These two key accessories not only got you past security (a lot of hotel workers disguised as friendly, yet stern people), but they were also the best conversation starters. I'm not very social, but I ended up chatting with a bunch of fellow conference goers while waiting for a panel to start or in line for the shuttle. We exchanged a lot of laughs and complained about the weather - though I was so ecstatic about the cold that I only pretended to complain.

I attended around five panels over the course of the two days I was there. I have been to writing conferences before, so the panels, while interesting, weren't terribly new to me. It was refreshing to be sitting in a room with a bunch of eager writers and poets, hands poised to ask the first question at the end of each session. The question and answer periods are always exciting. The last thing I imagine you want to do is read a play-by-play of every panel. So this is, essentially, what I learned from all those panels in a nutshell: 

  • Self-publishing is still risky business. It's a great way to get your work out there and, in a way, control your destiny. However, it's still not a medium that is well-respected within academia or the traditional publishing world (something that, yes, I'm well aware of, but there you go). What was interesting about this conversation is that it's the biggest topic this year at the conference. There were plenty of panels about self-publishing and if the panel wasn't about it, someone always found a way to bring it up. 
  • Writers of crime fiction are typically male. This is upsetting to everyone (hence, a panel full of feminist ranting. Fun to listen to, but overwhelming). 
  • I learned what a "cozy" crime novel  is. Cozies also bring in the most sales with thrillers coming in second. Wow. 
  • To my delight, I learned that speculative fiction is growing in popularity - at a wonderfully alarming rate. New literary magazines are popping up that accept strange and whimsical stories. 
  • Kate Bernheimer, one of my heroes, gave a rallying speech about the value of fairy tales. Her metaphor about the turnip and honey was very creative. 
  • An editor of a new lit mag called Unstuck admitted that he loves Mervyn Peake. Yesssh. His cool points rose exponentially.
  • Fiction chapbooks are becoming more popular - slowly, like a turtle, but that's great news. One of the panelists referred to fiction chapbooks as a musician's EP album. Pretty cool. 
  • The YA panel I went to was fun, but it turns out that most of the panelists were poets. Surprisingly, none of them talked about verse novels (the genre I find really fascinating) and they spent a lot of time reading their own work instead of discussing writing for YA. 

After tackling the panels, I went downstairs to explore the bookfair. If you've ever been to a convention or conference before, you know what a dealer's space is like. Endless rows of booths, all surfaces cluttered with delightful things to buy. Pushing and shoving, wallets ready, plastic bags. For this bookfair, each booth was stacked with books. Literary magazines with their proud editors and staff manned the booths, setting out all kinds of books. As I wandered up and down the rows, I admired the beautiful covers (and at the same time, tried not to drift over and open my wallet. I didn't have room in my suitcase for a lot of books). There were a lot of  ugly covers too - you know, the kinds that look like textbook covers? Brrr. It's interesting to see the aesthetics of each magazine. 

The bookfair was separated into four different rooms; the air was stuffy with people and thankfully the hotel provided jugs of water on either end of the rooms. I guzzled down a lot of water. Bookfairs can be pretty intense. 

One of the booths I was excited to visit was the Fairy Tale Review. As the title implies, this literary magazine focuses on publishing fairy tale-like stories in their issues. They also have a press that occasionally publishes novels, short story collections, and poetry. When I got to the table, it was crowded with people admiring the  books. There were so many choices, and the books were printed with such high-quality - hard to tell when you're just looking at a photo of the covers online, you know? I picked up the books I had planned to buy: the Grey Issue of FTR and the newest novel, Irlanda

Kate Bernheimer happened to be at the booth at the time... and I quickly reverted to a five-year-old girl. I can't imagine how I sounded when I spoke with her, but in my mind's eye I was blushing and blabbering about how much I liked her books. I have two of them so far, the anthology of new fairy tales she edited called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me and the children's book she wrote called The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum with illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli. Even as an author and editor, Bernheimer has also been a great fairy tale advocate. If there was anyone at this conference I was excited to meet, it was her. 

So there's me on the left and Kate Bernheimer on the right. We're both completely tired from the long conference day. Still, it was really awesome of her to take a photo with me. She was very nice in person.
So you know how I mentioned the artist Nicoletta Ceccoli? Well, it turns out that the novel Irlanda, written by Espido Freire, has a front cover that has one of Ceccoli's artwork on it. Very cool. Ceccoli is one of my favorite artists, so I knew I had to pick up that book - if only for the cover. The book itself, though, was a remarkable read. I'm going to do a mini-review on Irlanda, just to give you an idea of this novel.

The premise of Irlanda is deceptively simple: after the death of her sister, Sagrario, Natalia is sent away to spent the summer with her two cousins in a decaying country house. She'll help with repairs and get to know the cousins she remembers from childhood - Roberto and the "perfect" Irlanda. The longer she spends in the house, the more it's clear that Natalia has not gotten over her sister's death, along with being haunted by dead animals and braving Irlanda's cold attention. Natalia sees the world through the lens of fairy tales, but it doesn't take long for a sense of unease to settle upon you while you're reading this book. Something's not right. 

Here's a small excerpt so you can get a sense of the beauty of the language:

"There was a house in the middle of the field, surrounded by flowers, water, dark trees, and running children, and a grandmother with amethyst necklaces and coral cameos, and a grandfather with a silver cane. A little fairy tale cottage where the girls were dressed in long gowns and added a pearl to their necklaces each year. And they hosted balls where they slid across the marble floor, their dresses rustling, feather fans in their hands.

At least that's what the grownups who told the stories assured us, and that's what my mother said, too, bringing back from oblivion what her grandparents and their grandparents had passed on to her, long after the dresses, feathers, and laughter behind the fans had faded, because none of us, not even my mother nor my aunt, had lived through those splendid days, and you couldn't tell what really happened from what had been made up each time those stories were told." 

I think it's safe to compare Irlanda to an Edgar Allen Poe story - there's such beauty and depth to the language, but nothing is as it seems. There's some dark mysteries in this book and when you get to end, you'll probably go back to the beginning to start picking out the puzzle pieces again. If you're up for a spooky, twisted story full of lush imagery, then I completely recommend Irlanda

To finish off this chain of related events, I'd like to show you a picture I took while exploring the gigantic Macy's in Chicago (something I'm saving for the next post). On one of the many floors, I spied a Ceccoli piece of art on display:

You'll notice that Macy's blotted out one missing piece of this - the girl! Check it out:

I can't believe they didn't keep the girl in. Still, I had only to look at the insect in the picture to know that this was Ceccoli's work (and, yes, I have seen this one before anyway). 

So, in a walnut shell, this was my overall experience at the conference itself. The conference is huge in many respects, so I feel like everyone's experience is probably vastly different. Mine happened to be full of fairy tales and illustrations, haha.