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Polaris represents ONU at the annual AWP conference in Tampa, FL

Polaris staff attended AWP, the country's largest literary journal conference. (photo/Matthew Haase)

ONU Polaris staff attend the AWP conference in Tampa, FL

Polaris staff attended AWP, the country's largest literary journal conference. (photo/Matthew Haase)

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs, also known as AWP, welcomes writers from all across the country for a week of networking, keynote speakers and opportunities for individuals to share their passion for writing every year. While college students were on Spring Break in March, Ohio Northern University’s undergraduate creative writing journal, Polaris, sent its editors and advisor to the annual AWP Conference in Tampa, Florida. From March 7-11, the Polaris staff were given the AWP experience, along with the chance to explore the city of Tampa. 

Co-Editors-in-Chief Kelley Lewis and Marisa Lucas, creative nonfiction editor Matthew Haase, fiction editor Dominic Turnea, and Polaris advisor Dr. Jennifer Pullen woke up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday, March 7 and drove to the Columbus airport. One coffee run, a layover in Minneapolis and two flights later, the staff successfully landed in Tampa around mid-afternoon, where they checked into their Mariott Hotel, ready for the grand AWP conference that would begin the following morning. 

Words cannot effectively describe the scope of the AWP conference. The book fair held 1,400 publishers and their various works, dozens of MFA programs and every hour there was a book signing from an author. Polaris staff worked in the book fair in shifts, selling copies of the critically acclaimed creative writing journal. When the staff was not on duty, they were able to spend hours browsing the book fair, purchasing an unhealthy amount of books, along with receiving free books from many undergraduate journals. What fascinates Dr. Jennifer Pullen about the book fair is that there are so many writers in a single place: 

“I think the greatness of AWP comes primarily from the energy created having so many writers from so many backgrounds in one place. With anywhere from 12-40,000 people, depending on the year, undergraduates get to rub elbows with National Book Award Winners, publishers, editors, graduate students and professional writers.”

In addition to the book fair and book signings, Polaris staff were able to choose from hundreds of panels and attend.  These panels focused on a broad range of topics; there was something for everyone. The panels allowed students to hear from authors as they shared their own stories in the publishing world, giving tips on how to become a better writer. For senior literature and creative writing major Kelley Lewis, the conference has made her feel more confident not only in her writing but in the academic field as well. 

"For me, this conference helped me to feel more inspired to write more. English majors need to go to more conferences because it helps us adapt what’s in the classroom to the real world and helps prepare us for life after ONU," Lewis said. 

The event became even more exciting when it was revealed that New York Times bestselling author George Saunders would be the keynote speaker. Saunders had recently won the National Book Award for his critically acclaimed novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” On Thursday, March 8, Saunders spoke to the thousands of conference attendees, which was followed by a book signing.  Dr. Pullen, Hasse and Turnea were able to get their books signed and meet Saunders. AWP is an excellent way to meet one’s literary role models, along with meeting new people. 

“There is a kind of beautiful egalitarianism from the way one can talk to anyone at the conference. I witness a beautiful interaction where an undergraduate hugged George Saunders, who just won the Booker prize,” Pullen noted. 

There were many familiar faces at the AWP conference. ONU alumni frequently stopped by the Polaris booth to say hello. Additionally, students were able to say hello to authors who had been part of ONU’s English Department Reading Series, such as poet Dianne Seuss, and most recently, fiction writer and poet Virginia Konchan. ONU’s very own Dr. Jennifer Moore was also at the conference, reading selected poems from her book, “The Veronica Maneuver.” The Polaris staff were fortunate enough to attend an alumni rooftop reading event on Friday, March 9., hosted by Dr. Moore and Konchan. Pullen notes that the AWP conference is more than a conference, it’s a reminder that English and creative writing programs are flourishing all across the country. Any English major would highly benefit from the conference:

Reading and writing can feel very solitary. The conference highlights the fact that we are actually part of a vast community engaged a common project. It's a community that extends past geographic boundaries, even boundaries in time, since we are essentially in conversation with writers who are long dead, as well as those who will come after us. Getting to meet writers and know that they are just people also helps it feel like something that you can do, that you too can be a part of the conversation.

Next year’s AWP conference will take place in Portland, Oregon. Lewis, who graduates this semester, offers advice for those attending the upcoming conference. 

“Go to all the panels you want. Don’t be afraid to go up to people and talk to them. Network. Push Polaris on everyone. Just have fun. AWP is what you make of it, and it’s amazing that we get to have this trip every year, so enjoy it!” said Lewis.    

Memories, great food and a chance to expand your knowledge on publishing is truly a mere taste of what AWP is all about.