Sara Graefe

Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

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