Experimental Fiction Panel at the End of the World

One way to reach the Henry B. González Convention Center, located in downtown San Antonio, is to follow a walkway through Hemifair Park, which leads one through a series of arches along which vines grow, small peach-colored flowers beginning to bud. In early March, the city is experiencing a picturesque spring: the sun shines; the temperature hovers around a pleasant seventy degrees, air freshened with wisteria and the mint-like scent of wild bergamot, birdsong hung in the background like an embroidered tapestry, the pleasant sound continuing long into the mild evenings.

Arriving for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, a person would find no obvious indicators in the city that San Antonio was in a state of emergency, declared by Mayor Ron Nirenberg on March 2 in response to the premature release of a patient with coronavirus into the community. Coming, as it did, two days before the conference was scheduled to begin, the news led to rumors, some attributed to conference staff members, that AWP would be cancelled, and airlines and hotels offered many conference participants refunds before the official announcement came that the conference would indeed go on. I thought briefly about canceling myself, but I had two panels to moderate and was already in Texas, and heading back to New York City hardly seemed more safe. I decided to attend, and the Lyft driver with whom I spoke upon arrival told me that he hadn’t noticed any difference in business or in day-to-day life, which seemed true my first night in the city.

But inside the convention center, it was a different story. The registration line on Thursday morning, usually a long and festive one, with people greeting each other, was nonexistent. Participants simply walked up to a kiosk and printed their registration badge before gathering a tote bag and conference program, the whole process taking perhaps four minutes. Piles of unclaimed tote bags sat on the registration tables.

In the bookfair, booths sat empty. Many small magazines and book presses rely on sales at the conference to fund their operations for the year. Some had decided not to attend; the conference was offering refunds on the fees they had paid for tables. Others had soldiered on, too financially committed or too steadfast to give up hope. Michael Nye, the editor of Story, was cheerful but matter-of-fact about how the low conference attendance would affect sales. “Back issues are hard to move,” he said. “A lot of these will end up just sitting in my basement.”

Four-foot-high beige hand sanitizer dispensers stood by escalators, chugging out foam into outstretched palms, though not many people used them. Walking by meeting rooms, many LED displays read CANCELLED beneath panel titles, empty chairs inside facing empty podiums and silent microphones. The carpeted hallways, seen from above, were wide expanses across which a few solitary figures crossed. It was odd to see a space meant for many people occupied by so few. Being there, one felt a doubling of experience that illuminated the disconnect between daily life and the news; it was a little like living in two places at once, and that doubling suggested something of time and space folding, giving us a glimpse of what life is like currently in China or Italy, and what it may well be like in the United States soon. My own panels had been affected; three writers had dropped out of my first panel, on experimental fiction, and I had replaced them with two more. A third new panelist was not to be found; no one I contacted was now planning to attend the conference. Alexandra Kleeman and I, the two remaining original panelists, were joined by Alex Gilvarry and Cam Terwilliger, our two replacements, who also happened to be our husbands. Both had kindly spent Thursday morning jotting down remarks and delivered their thoughts from the podium as if they had not been conscripted by us at the last minute. It was an impromptu double-date on a stage. But the room was full of people, roughly two hundred of them. They listened attentively, hands shooting up across the room during the question-and-answer portion of the event, one person helpfully shouting “Value” from the audience when, quoting from memory, I screwed up a line from Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” I had mistakenly used the word “meaning.” The person went on, “We require an assertion of value.” We did, it was true, and it was nice to be in a room full of people who cared about the same things we cared about, some of whom had memorized the same things we had memorized, or, in this case, tried and failed to memorize. We had come to talk about fiction that pushed the boundaries of reality only to find our own reality in question. We wanted to help each other out.

My second panel, Five Writers Walk Into a Bar: Using Humor in Fiction, took place immediately afterward. It was missing only one participant, Jennine Capó Crucet, who Alexandra Kleeman graciously agreed to replace, jogging with me from the first panel to the second, though of course in this sort of situation, replacement is not possible, only substitution. But she did so ably, and, though the other panelists had prepared remarks in advance, she, too, had spent the morning jotting down notes, which she delivered with impressive professionalism. That conference room, also full, held perhaps three hundred eager people waiting to be enlightened or entertained, or, ideally, both. We began by reading panelists’ tweets about the conference, including this one, from Danielle Evans: “I feel like this is poised to be AWP: Chaos People Only, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” The night before, I had joked to Alex in a tweet that we could hang out together after flying back to New York and getting put in isolation, which I imagined would be not in a military compound but in a vacated BestBuy, to which she replied, perspicaciously, “Or an abandoned WeWork!” Courtney Maum contributed, “Sexting with my husband about our USAA pin code.” But it was Kristen Arnett who best summed up the mood: “What, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, the fuck is going on.”

On Friday, some panels were less packed. On one such panel, my third and final of the conference, Kim Coleman Foote and I read for an audience of five people that eventually swelled to seven, good practice, we joked, for book tour.

A morning panel, however, Decentralizing Whiteness in Craft, was well-attended, participants paying careful attention as David Mura said, “Kenneth Burke called literature ‘equipment for living.’ But different writers may need different tools.” Matthew Salesses spoke, too, discussing material from his much-anticipated book on craft, and Ruth Joffre offered her own remarks and read those by absent panelists.

At night, karaoke was sung, people danced. Catapult held an offsite mixer, Atom Atkinson on the street greeting people warmly, and at Dakota East Side Icehouse, a bar full of velvet curtains and plants, greens and violets and pinks, an offsite reading forged ahead. On a blackboard above the bar, “Welcome writers” was chalked, the first word of that message faded enough that one had to squint and do some guesswork to arrive at the conclusion that we were, in fact, being invited in and not warded off. Several readers read, and then Hadara Bar-Nadav, a striking poet who, for the record, only looks like a poodle in the best, most elegant way, introduced herself by saying, “Something about me? I’m obsessed with poodles, I sort of look like a standard poodle, so there’s that.” The audience laughed, and then she read her poem “Harvest,” forthcoming in American Poetry Review, about her mother’s death. A meditation on the act of naming opens the poem: “Silence didn’t exist / until the fourteenth century. // Until the fourteen century / there was only noise, or silence / itself was silenced, unmapped / in language—a hollow where / silence waited to rise.” The room quieted as Hadara read, something like silence prevailing until someone needed a drink, and then drink orders could be heard, because when you need a margarita, you need a margarita. Other readings were lighter, and some weighty in different ways, but immediately before we left, the poet Steven Kleinman, who had invited us to the event, read a poem called “Elegy in Anger,” about a friend’s death, and a poem called “Bear,” which ends with a series of questions: “did he resemble / loved ones I know, was he / human, when everyone left him, / was he a human, was he dignified, / a small voice asked, did he die / a dignified death, do any of us?” Our Lyft driver had other matters on his mind: his girlfriend, with whom he had recently reconciled, had texted him, in jest, she claimed, to say that she was going to make a sex tape with a coworker, and now she wasn’t responding to his texts and calls. “She’s not worth it, right, guys?” he asked us, so much pain in his voice that it was hard to answer. He was an off-duty security guard, still in uniform, working two jobs to help support her and her children, and, as for all of us, his individual problems were not cancelled out by the world’s less personal ones, though the world’s less personal ones were no doubt contributing.

At the hotel bar, the mood was reflective and subdued, though some people were talking about heading up to the dance. People agreed that they missed seeing friends who could not attend, though it was nice to enjoy a less-crowded conference. One conference-goer joked, “Maybe each year, we should have a lottery, and half the participants have to stay home.” It was an argument for intimacy, for a human scale. But of course, no one wanted to achieve this at the expense of others’ health and happiness. Those concerns were increasingly on people’s minds. Many began the conference hugging and ended with awkward alternative greeting and farewell gestures: nods, elbow taps. Later, flying home, travelers wore blue medical masks in the San Antonio airport and on the plane. Over the next few days, the news worsened, and, as I am writing this, colleges in the New York area are canceling classes as my partner and I wonder whether New York City will be put on lockdown.

But between the reading and the hotel bar on Friday night, we went to dinner. On Saturday, we would leave the city, and we wanted to see friends who were in town from San Francisco, having planned to attend the conference but decided instead to make the trip into a vacation. The Pearl District, where we met, was packed. We ate, joked around, shared news. After dinner, the four of us walked back toward our accommodations. Along the riverwalk, “Take My Breath Away” wafted from an unseen source. A gondola drifted by, partygoers waving lighted wands; a young couple kissed in the shadows, pulling away from each other as we drew closer and resuming once we passed. It was all lovely and romantic, all taking place on a gorgeous spring evening. We were happy to be among friends. One could have been forgiven for forgetting, briefly, that none of this would last.

—March 11, 2020

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