Of Books and Letters
Washington College students and staff make the annual literary pilgrimage to the Association of Writers & Writing Program (AWP) Conference & Bookfair.
The Rose O’Neill Literary House staff and their four bleary-eyed student representatives submitted to the screech of their alarm clocks on a snowy March morning to attend the 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Hosted in Tampa, Florida, this year’s conference offered the temptation for which all literature lovers will get out of bed: books.
James Allen Hall, Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Associate Professor of English, acts as the fearless leader of the Literary House in its ultimate mission to amplify the impact of the creative arts on the Washington College community.
“The Literary House is an interdisciplinary space interested in how we express ourselves through the written word,” Hall explains, “by importing and exporting the best minds in America.”
The AWP conference is the largest literary conference in North America, offering 12,000 annual attendees with upward of 550 lectures as well as 800 booths at the Bookfair. Hall, a veteran AWP attendee, couldn’t help but liken the energy of the four days of literature to an event that surpasses a standard academic conference. The pageantry of displays, circulation of avant-garde thought, and perpetual merchandising mimics, to him, the spectacle of a parade.
Lindsay Lusby ’08, assistant director of the Literary House, explains the importance of Washington College’s presence at that literary parade—especially given the institution’s historic ties to AWP. Retired English professor Robert Day, the founding director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House (1970-1997) who mentored hundreds of young writers, is also responsible for saving the AWP in its early days by moving its headquarters to Washington College and financing its operations. Since its beginning in the 1970s, the non-profit literary organization has grown to serve a literary community of nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.
“The AWP Conference has always helped to put Washington College on the map,” says Lusby. “Washington College [through AWP] has footprints over time for people to follow.”
Ahead of the conference each year, Lusby stuffs three tremendous boxes with what Hall tenderly calls “emissaries of literature” to be shipped for sale. The Literary House sold an unprecedented amount of merchandise at the 2018 AWP Conference, subsequently surpassing the projected revenue for the Literary House at the conference by a landslide.
The 2018 conference marked the debut of the fourth issue of Cherry Tree, a national literary journal based at Washington College. Since its launch in 2015, Cherry Tree has been widely praised, notably in its recognition in the 2016 and 2017 editions of The Best American Poetry. The fourth issue of Cherry Tree sold out at conference, releasing the newly printed issues to join the bookshelves of conference-goers scattered across the country.
Confident in the strength of the Washington College English Department and Literary House, Hall aims to push student excellence beyond the confines of the classroom. “We should make the effort of seeing writing, as a craft, applied to the real world because it inflects and improves students’ art,” Hall suggests.
The AWP Conference introduces participating students to the extensive landscape of writing careers, while also giving them an opportunity to showcase Washington College’s literary repertoire.
That responsibility is not a duty designated lightly. Lusby explains the key requirements students must meet in order to be chosen them as conference representatives.
“We have to know [the student] and they have to know the Literary House inside and out,” she says.
“We try to take people who, we believe, would benefit most from the conference as a transformative learning experience. We want to know people will take the opportunity and wring it for every drop that it’s worth,” Hall adds. “There is a difference between watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV and participating in it.”
Jack Despeaux ’18 experienced a moment of professional serendipity there.
“I found the exact person I needed to help me explore a highly specific career on the very last day of the conference, so you never know who you will meet,” he says.
The writing world, while expansive, is tightly knit and welcoming to newcomers. From technical writing to book design career contacts, the networking opportunities at the AWP Conference unfold in front of students who attend.
Despeaux, a former media intern for The Pegasus, credited his chance to go to the conference to his relationship with the Literary House staff. “I think they invited me as someone they hope to see write more. It was certainly an opportunity for inspiration.”
As the years creep onward and more emissaries of literature are born of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, one thing will remain constant: Washington College students can always be found at the AWP Conference surrounded by books and filled with inspiration.
— Emily Holt ’19