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Read Kay Ryan’s hilarious, lacerating first-person reporting on AWP.

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September 21, 2021, 1:49pm

Today is the 76th birthday of Kay Ryan, the Pulitzer-winning former U.S. poet laureate known for her tight, winding work. Throughout her career, Ryan has been viewed as an outsider poet: she has no MFA, and for that matter, has never taken a creative writing class. This is likely why Poetry commissioned her in 2005 to attend AWP and write about it. The result is Ryan’s incredibly funny and biting essay “I Go to AWP,” which charts her experience at the 2005 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Annual Conference.

In “I Go To AWP,” no element of the creative writing industrial complex is safe. Here’s Ryan on writing workshops: “It doesn’t matter if [the workshop’s] opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really.” On panels: “The word transgressive is thick upon the ground here at AWP . . . It’s funny how writers will all want to jump on the same bed till the springs pop out.” On literary tradition vs. connecting with other writers: “I don’t want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellowshipping way, but I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead.” On getting drinks with an editor: “The editor hated being there. He knew it was going to make his life harder; every writer you meet means one more personal rejection letter you have to write. We both resented, but from opposite ends, personality horning in on the real question: the words on the page.” On panels again: “There is something inherently Monty Pythonish about panels.”

But Ryan isn’t immune to the wonders of AWP either: the hope that comes with digging into poetic forms, the excitement of feeling connected to other writers. You can read the essay here—here’s how it begins:

I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences. It’s been a point of honor: the whole cooperative workshopping thing, not for me. I have never taken a creative writing class, I have never taught a creative writing class, and I have never gone, and will never go, to anything like AWP, I have often said.

Once, when I was about twenty-five and not yet entirely aware of the extremity of my unclubbability, I did try to go to a writers conference. Thirty minutes into the keynote address I had a migraine . . .

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