Saturday, February 5, 2011

If You Are Awping ... Beware.

So, at my first AWP conference, I had a nemesis. The nemesis didn't know she was my nemesis or that I'd built a small mythology around us. This was before I'd published my first book, back when I was a devout short story writer who would never, ever write a novel -- that was selling out. She was the editor of a small press who'd held my short story collection for over a year then called one day to tell me it was almost a go; they just needed to run it by some board or something. She'd call me after the holidays.

No call. So, eventually, I mustered my courage and called and she said off-handedly -- like, were you not paying attention? -- that they couldn't publish my book for two simple reasons: I was a first-time author and I wasn't affiliated with a university.

These two simple reasons were true the year before, during the previous phone call, all along the way. I was stunned, said, "Thank you," and hung up.

But then a few minutes later, I called back. One version of her, at least, had loved the collection -- at some point in time -- and I wanted to know if she had ideas on what to do with it next, any thoughts at all.

She said, very dismissively, "I don't know. Send it to contests."

The woman's name burned into my skull, and she is the reason why I was so ready to become a novelist and enter the fray of New York publishing. If someone at a small press could be that cold, could it be any colder in the big leagues? If any editor anywhere could hand me my ass, I'd rather have an editor at a big publishing house hand me my ass.

In any case, at my first AWP, I wondered what I would do if I ran into the woman. My first novel and collection of poetry were out now. Would she recognize my name? Would I thank her for goading me -- even though it wasn't her intent?

First, though, we crashed a party. Todd Pierce had gotten me and my husband into something that required tickets. It was in a sweet apartment-sized hotel room. I remember a grand piano. And there, across the room, was Rita Dove. I was tipsy by this point (let's blame Pierce), and I loved Rita Dove -- her work, her elegance. And I wanted to thank her for choosing a poem of mine for Best American Poetry from the piles of magazines that must have seemed like a vast sea.

My husband talked to her first, introduced us, and, in one of those divine moments, I started rambling and within that rambling I got to say all the things I wanted to say to Rita Dove. After we left the party, I turned to Dave and asked what the hell I said. He restated the conversation, and I'd gotten it all in -- probably speaking so fast, as is my nervous tendency -- and it came out all blurred. But still ... AWP sometimes offers these small moments.

And then we went to a party that didn't involve tickets at all.

I do not run into my nemesis, but I do run into her assistant, oddly enough. A genial young man who, at first, seems very unhappy about being her assistant. And he keeps asking me questions about his boss, and I tell the story, as faithfully as possible. He then turns to me and says, "You're vicious and pretentious." To which I respond, "I'm not pretentious." (I kind of liked the idea that I could be seen as vicious in some way probably because I was such a small, scrawny child, youngest of four.)

I then lose the assistant in the crowd, and I meet up with Michael Gills who I knew a little in grad school. Now, those of you who read my Literary Good Ole Boy rant are going to think -- ah, Gills, I know Gills, that must've been the person she was all fired up at that day. And once again I'll say that I wasn't fired up at any one person at all. It was an accumulation. And as much as I can get pissed off at the fellas, I also love them dearly. Gills is a sweetheart, through and through. Of course, I tell him the story of what just happened.

Gills is pissed. "How dare someone insult Julianna Baggott!" he says. "I'll kick his ass!" See, at this point, Gills and I have heard of each other for years, know and love a lot of the same people (mostly from our days at UNCG) and we're immediately good friends. And Gills is wearing cowboy boots and looking a little intimidating.

Gills now struts into the middle of the party and shouts, "Who insulted the honor of Julianna Baggott? I want to have a word with the person who insulted Julianna Baggott!"

No one steps forward. I tell him, "It's okay. It was nothing..."

He asks one more time.

The party's gone a little quiet now.

No response. The assistant is not showing his face or maybe he's already gone or he doesn't know my name or it hasn't registered that he's insulted someone's honor. (Do we have honors to insult anymore?)

And so we then leave. Where do we go next? I don't know. Weren't there readings and panels and educational things going on? Of course. And we hit some of those too. But I deeply recall Rita Dove next to the piano and someone defending my honor. Things like that tend to stick.

So, I hope you're enjoying your AWPing -- as it begins to come to a close.

Go forth and return home, bravely.