There was a fire in the San Antonio airport when we landed. Also, Bernie Sanders was losing nearly every key Super Tuesday state to a man whose candidacy, aided by a rapid consolidation of DNC power that verged on the conspiratorial, almost certainly constituted elder abuse. Also, I got a text as I landed informing me that the one person I knew in San Antonio—our friend Lizzy, who’d arrived for the conference a few hours earlier—had been asked by her employer to turn around and head back to New York, because San Antonio was in a state of emergency surrounding an outbreak of the coronavirus.
Well. This was all very disorienting, but naturally the first thing to deal with was the fire. “I don’t feel like we’re going to die, but I do feel more like we’re going to die than I usually do,” Nicole said as we fast-walked through the terminal past blaring alarms. The whole airport was empty except for the people who’d been on our flight, plus a handful of blasé airport employees who seemed unbothered by the loudspeaker announcement informing us every thirty seconds to please find the nearest exit and leave the building immediately.
Outside the airport, people from various small presses milled around and waited for rideshares. The comradely move would have been to talk to them, but I couldn’t stop looking at my phone, refreshing the New York Times homepage. Was socialism over? I wanted to yell at Elizabeth Warren. Bernie was maybe going to win Texas, at least. We took a Lyft to our Airbnb—these are two institutions I hate, and had been counting on President Sanders to abolish—and I forgot to look outside for the whole journey through San Antonio.
I woke up the next morning with a headache. Onset of coronavirus? No: Lone Star hangover. I went for a walk, to get my bearings and to pick up some coffee beans from a spot a few blocks away called simply FOOD. San Antonio in the daytime made me feel a little better. The air was humid and smelled great, and the residential architecture was amazing: low houses with those big hooded porches that are all over Portland, Oregon, draped in unlit string lights, plus weird little ’70s concrete structures and the occasional pueblo-style garage. Almost every driveway had a truck, just like in the movies! Lots of houses had fenced-in yards inside of which were dogs, though there were also some loose little dogs running around in the street. Most of my favorite places in the world are full of wild dogs, and I was very happy to see them here. They yapped at my ankles as I walked.
Still, the day started off with distinctly bad vibes. Bernie, I’d learned when I woke up, had in the end lost Texas to Biden. It had rained overnight and the sky was gray. The roads were mostly empty, but a Latinx woman stopped me near FOOD. “Are you with the feds?” she asked.
“What?” I said.
“The feds! The whites around here are mostly with the feds.” She scowled, reasonably.
I considered for one moment saying: “I’m not with the feds! I’m with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs,” but refrained.
At the convention center’s registration desk we were mandated to use hand sanitizer before going any further, and were rewarded with lanyards with our names on them. The place was humongous, larger than any room I’d been in in ages. It reminded me of Costco, and sure enough, the University of Iowa was giving away little sample-sized cups of coffee and cookies. Elsewhere, a third-rate MFA program was selling the same catered coffee for $3.
Also, it was nearly empty, just like the airport and the streets of San Antonio. Where was everyone? Once we’d set up our booth, people kept stopping by and making virtually identical remarks about the low attendance and the coronavirus panic and how it was nice to meet each other but we probably shouldn’t shake hands, haha. I’d never been to the conference before, so I had little to add to this discussion, but it was true that the proportion of populated vendor booths to empty ones was a little apocalyptic.
We made some sales though. A woman stopped by and bought a bunch of our Russia books (we sell lots of books about Russia) because she used to work for the CIA and had, she said, a lot of experience with Russian intelligence. “But I also held leftist politics,” she said. “Once I hosted a DSA meeting and this guy with a Russian name RSVP’d, so I googled him and learned he worked in the Russian embassy, almost certainly doing intelligence work. So I thought, I could quit organizing, or I could quit my CIA job. So I quit my CIA job.” I didn’t entirely follow this, but I gave her a discount on a copy of Elif Batuman’s excellent The Possessed.
A guy ambled over and said he’d really liked our magazine in his youth, but hadn’t seen us around since the 1960s. (n+1 was founded in 2004.) Another guy came up to our table and wanted to argue about Hegelian Marxism, the merits of publishing online, the radicalism of one of the magazine’s founding editors, of which he was dubious, and standardized testing. He asked me where I’d gone to college. When I told him, he asked me if going there had made me consider suicide.
I walked around for a while, wishing I had some weed. So many literary magazines have such terrible names! I won’t name the worst ones we saw—I’m not a monster—but everything was called something along the lines of “Fuzzy Feelings Press” or “The Jersey Turnpike Review of Books.” The publisher across the aisle from us had the word “Tit” in its name.
Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race on the morning of the conference’s first day. I remembered an infographic I’d seen about each candidate’s top donors by profession, which had asserted that the second most common occupation for Warren donors was “editor.” Like much of the electoral material I see on Twitter, I’m not sure if this was entirely trustworthy, but a lot of conference-goers certainly looked crestfallen.
A woman stopped by the booth and asked what we were looking for, in terms of writing. I gave my usual spiel about literature and politics, plus feminism and history and film criticism and, for some reason, Russia, then dutifully asked what kinds of stuff she wrote. “I do nonfiction, so obviously I write about myself,” she said.
Maybe I sound a little dismissive, but mostly I just felt bewildered. Despite the relatively low attendance, I was astounded at the sheer volume of written matter, here and by extension in the world. Nearly everyone in this massive room, I kept remembering, has written a book or several books! This realization felt like looking at those photographs of Amazon fulfillment centers: miles of expensive, extractive commodities, most of which I couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to own. How could any of this possibly be sustainable? I’d read somewhere (n+1 essay?) that something like 150 new MFA programs had been founded just in the first two years of the 2010s. What was everyone doing? How oversaturated was this market, and also all markets? Would a COVID-19 recession hobble the MFA industrial complex in the way it had hobbled #AWP20, or would everyone in fact be more likely to go learn about craft if other industries began to shrink? I felt uncomfortable behind the booth. I don’t have and have never had a tremendous amount of institutional power—I write this magazine’s tweets, mostly—but MFA candidates living in America’s more affordable cities kept pitching me their work as though I could make or break their careers.
I vowed to never try to write a book, only tweets. I triumphantly convinced a few people to subscribe to the magazine. I heard someone squeal, from the ether, “Oh my god I love linked vignettes!” I ran into an acquaintance from college who’d just sold a novel, which sincerely impressed me until I remembered that I am newly anti-book. I made friends with an old man who told me he’d send me a psychic message if he found a good party later that night. A weird and cheerful woman stopped by and started talking to us, for no reason, about her obsession with L. L. Bean. “Do you Bean?” she asked. She told us her birthday was on Leap Day, and also that she never takes naps because they make her stomach hurt. She said all of this very quickly. I liked her vibe a lot: this was the way, I thought, to give an account of oneself—not with a lyrical manuscript, but with a rapid assortment of fun facts.
At night we mostly drank margaritas and walked around, looking into churches and the Alamo. We stopped into a handful of parties and readings. A bar mitzvah–like, conference-sponsored dance party in the Grand Hyatt Ballroom A was too depressing to do more than peer into out of sociological curiosity, so we went for a while to a poetry reading. I listened to a haphazardly enjambed epic poem about interracial adoption and remembered reading the Decameron years ago, in which a group of writers take shelter from the bubonic plague in a suburb of Florence and entertain each other by telling stories. The impressive part of the Decameron, of course, is that everybody’s stories are told more or less off the cuff, but still—that could happen here, I thought idly, if the virus stuff gets really bad. Everybody already has a book.
“There is a place for those who remain outside these processes, but I felt that I could contribute by influencing policy from the inside. Yet even on the inside I have largely remained an outsider because of my refusal to surrender my independence.” —Senator Enrique (Henry) B. González
I spent most of my time at the conference unsure whether the San Antonio River was manmade or at least partially natural. In a brief moment of certainty, I explained the situation to my mother on the phone as it had been explained to me by a fellow traveler: “The river was BUILT JUST to bring in tourists.” She was skeptical. “So, what? They just dug down until they hit water? And then the ditch filled up?” I agreed this seemed unlikely but declined to look into it.
We were all on unsure ground. The Henry B. González Convention Center, where AWP was held this year, appears on Google Maps as a dot in the center of a large green park, when in reality the building takes up two thirds of the park and faces out onto a roadway. The river, which is very narrow, moves directly beneath the building and stretches curiously through the rest of the city, straddled by concrete walkways and lined with Mexican restaurants.
Over the course of the conference, the parameters of the park stayed hazy in my mind because of the persistent visual misrepresentation on my phone screen. I continued to believe that the park really did surround me on all sides, despite what was physically in front of me when I exited the convention center, which was moving traffic, a Denny’s, a tall, pale pink Marriot, and a billboard with a number to call if you got in a motorcycle accident (1-800-LAW-TIGERS).
Inside the convention center, one could easily wind up eating frosted cookies from someone else’s convention. At 1.6 million square feet, the center includes two ballrooms, four exhibit halls, a theater, and a million-dollar art instillation, designed by a British firm. The piece, completed in 2016, is called “Liquid Crystal,” and was once referred to by former city Councilman Joe Krier as a “giant cheese grater.” To me, it’s more immediately reminiscent of a guard tower from Trump’s fantasy border wall—tall, metallic, fancy, and bristling with what appear at first glance to be blades.
The González Center, named for Texas’s first Mexican American senator, Henry B. González, regularly hosts multiple large conferences simultaneously. If AWP had been scheduled for March 11, rather than the 5th through 7th, we may have been sharing pastries with Robert Perez, deputy commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, who will be delivering the opening keynote at the Border Security Expo held this week. This year, the expo will host members of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, ICE, the Kuwait Ministry of Defense, the German Federal Police, the Nigerian Police Force, and contractors who build “cutting-edge firearms” and drones with migrant-sensing detectors. I pictured war criminals and war criminal-adjacent bureaucrats eating tacos next to the fake river, their laminated binders full of illegal (for now) surveillance technology gleaming in the reflected light of the cheese grater. The convention center would probably use a group photo from the expo to advertise its commitment to diversity.
AWP 2020, sparsely attended compared to the usually robust turnout in years past, was spread out on a soft teal green carpet that looked a little like grass. Rows of bright white tables, some empty, others covered in books and candy and tote bags, formed aisle after aisle. Planted in the middle of the broad avenues, where guests wandered, dazed or determined, were old-timey benches presumably for guests to sit and read under the fluorescent lights.
In the midst of a lull, a man named Red came up to our table. A cowboy hat sat snugly on his head. His black and white name tag was framed by his sweater which was red, confirming his presence.
A prior cowboy hat guy had swiveled away with a disgruntled, “Oh,” as soon as I mentioned that we only published translated literature. I didn’t attempt my pitch this time. Red was a health writer, he said, he gave talks on how to treat yourself well. I asked him how he felt about the presence of coronavirus in the city. He insisted that really only elderly people were going to die, that everyone was overreacting. When I expressed concern for the older people he described, he leaned towards me over the spread of books: “I’m 77 and I’m here,” “and you’re healthy” I interrupted, catering to him gracelessly, “And I’m MORE than healthy,” he said, giving me a distrustful look.
At the booth I had a lot of time to Google stuff. The original convention center and the park, Google told me, were built for the 1968 World Fair, which demolished an entire neighborhood in San Antonio’s downtown and displaced over 1,600 people. The theme of the fair was “The Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” and it featured a Frito-Lay sponsored “Flying Indians of Papantla,” wherein a topless woman was “sacrificed” and a chicken—a real one; that is, a living one—was killed on stage.
Walking through the southwestern corner of the park on my way to lunch, I watched kids slide down a trampoline slide and climb up two large rope cones. It was a palatial playground and they seemed thrilled to be in it, bouncing around, occasionally slamming each other off the structure’s swervier elements, briefly crying, and then raising themselves up to do it all again. Nearby, the river flowed to a dead end in an artificial lagoon.
On our first day in San Antonio I took a forty-five-minute walk down Main Street without passing a single pedestrian. I’m from LA and am used to empty sidewalks, but in LA you don’t usually get chased by two stray dogs or loudly honked at after trying to take a picture of a sign advertising “Cowboy Karaoke.” I kept walking and kept not really getting anywhere. The scale of the city was disorienting, at once small and endlessly sprawling. There are rings of freeways circling the city and radiating outwards, making it quick to get around, or get away. And leaving seems to be the goal: when I asked people what was cool to do in San Antonio, they told me to go to Austin.
The Henry B. González Convention Center sits right in the middle of the city, massive and stadium-like, or maybe Walmart-like. The Alamo is less than a mile away, but also nearly a thirty-minute walk—geography that even a lifetime in LA couldn’t help me comprehend. I thought the Alamo would be surrounded by other historical buildings, or maybe a park. I did not think there would be Ripley’s Believe It or Not across the street, or a Denny’s around the corner. The Texas-themed restaurant with $5 strawberry margaritas a few blocks in the other direction was mostly noteworthy because we were already in Texas. The beautiful 18th-century cathedral a few blocks past that was itself down the street from the Central Texas Detention Center. All this, in its strange and incoherent proximity, was delightful. Walking around I felt like I was in the world’s most mundane amusement park, where none of the attractions has any relation to one another and you need a map to make sense of the place . . . but even after looking at a map of San Antonio, it’s hard to find much logic in the layout. Everywhere I went felt like it had beamed in from another city, or maybe even another planet. Needless to say, I loved it.
I also loved AWP, which I realize is not a popular opinion. But how could I not love it? I loved my AWP-mandated lanyard, which made me feel like I was at an official gathering of people with Harry Potter tattoos. I loved the dueling mariachi bands in the convention center’s main hall. I loved that everyone I met wanted to talk to me, or at least talk at me about the personal trauma they hoped to turn into a book deal. During our time hawking books and tote bags at the book fair, one attendee taught us the Russian for “surprise bear,” and another was so impressed by a deal I invented for her on the spot (a discounted paring of Facility: A Magazine About Bathrooms and The Story of My Purity—purity and impurity, together at last!) that she purchased both books without opening either. Several writers lingered at our booth to share sad and winding tales of how they got into the biz, and what the biz had done to them for them to end up at AWP when many attendees had dropped out because of COVID-19. The publisher across the aisle even poured us unprompted shots of whiskey. When I saw my lanyarded brethren on the street outside of the convention center, we’d give each other obligatory closed-lips smiles.
Did I even go to San Antonio? The convention-going experience dwarfs and collapses cities, but so does tourism, and so does commuting. Still, it’s hard to imagine San Antonio as a city not always populated by thousands of roving writers, all of them dutifully appending the #AWP20 hashtag to their tweets. Who would be around to write flash fiction about the mall with the river running through it, or a memoir in verse about the Hyatt hotel bar? Had the conference been canceled, I’d know a lot less about self-published chapbooks (not the worst thing in the world) and would probably have never seen small-city Texas (a tragedy). I kept hoping, a little, that coronavirus panic would make it impossible for us to return to New York. Maybe then I’d buy a car and try my hand at some Alamo poetry.