Alt-AWP: How two indie publishers created a summer camp at America’s biggest writing conference
It was only day two of AWP, but my head was spinning. I had held a hundred 30-second conversations, listened to ten 75-minute panels, and walked a quarter of the bookfair before needing to join the cafeteria’s long line for weak coffee. So much was happening, yet something was missing. We fled the conference at noon on Friday and walked fifteen blocks to a non-descript concrete building, rode a creaking elevator to the top floor, and stepped into an open studio where a green camping tent sat in the middle. Writer Amelia Gray set a heaping pan of pasta on a folding table. A breeze blew in through the six open windows.
I had arrived at Camp Real Pants.
Each year, during the behemoth that is AWP,Amy McDaniel and Adam Robinson do something different. The pair edit the literary culture site Real Pants and publish books under separate presses (421 Atlantaand Publishing Genius, respectively). Whether it’s a reading on a Chicago subway or a dance party to raise funds for Seattle literacy groups, these two work tirelessly tocreate unique, communal, away-from-it-all experiences.
And this year, it was a camp. An all-day getaway a mile from the LA Convention Center, Camp Real Pants took place atAstroetic Studios, a historic loft in the heart of LA’s Fashion District. Complete with meals, tents, official highlighter-yellow camper T-shirts, blankets, and beer, the event was unlike anything happening on- or off-site at AWP.
The schedule of camp activities consisted of readings, panels, Q&As, campfire sing-alongs, and plenty of time to chat while breaking bread. “The idea was to create an alternative to spending the whole day under bad lighting at the conference center and shuttling around to all kinds of different panels and readings,” Amy said. “We wanted a more relaxed, convivial atmosphere that cohered around indie publishing in all its dimensions, from representation to printing to distribution to editing to submissions to actual journals and presses…And plenty to eat and drink.”
With the help of sponsors, donors, volunteers, and their own pockets, the two were able to offer free, open admission to their lit summer camp—t-shirts, food, and beer included. “We’re not real event coordinators,” said Adam. “We just want to come up with a cool idea and see if we can make it work.”
It did. Across the ten-hour event, nearly two hundred people found their way to camp. Melissa Broder, Timothy Willis Sanders, Natalie Eilbert, Ginger Ko, and about twenty other readers performed short, energetic sets. Representatives from over a dozen literary organizations stopped by to talk shop. This all added up to the biggest and most structured event Amy and Adam have ever put on, and that was intentional. “We did a lot of whiteboard lists of our dream participants, [and discussed] how to balance and represent different voices. Then we just asked. Mostly everyone said yes, which made for a beautifully hectic schedule,” said Amy.
The day began with lunch made by Amy (mac and cheese, arugula salad, blueberry cobbler), followed by a series of casual, non-traditional readings. Sarah Green stood before the six-sleeper tent and read science poems. Jarod Roselló projected his comic Robot Camp on the studio wall and sat crisscross-applesauce to narrate. Gabe Durham performed hilarious micro-fictions from his book FUN CAMP.
The afternoon’s boot camp was a crash course on each element of the contemporary writing ecosystem. Sessions were brief and interactive. VIDAtalked about representation and the results of their newly released 2015 count. Staff from Submittable spoke about the submission side of being a writer. Small Press Distribution answered questions about selling books from independent labels, while Calvert Morgan offered insight into the “Big 5” side of the publishing world. Even Amazon was represented at Camp. “To hear Morgan Parker talk about her work with Little A and Amazon Publishinginspired me and directed my thoughts on what Amazon means for the literary world,” said Adam.
After a dinner break, Camp Real Pants reconvened with readings around a glowing, crackling campfire sculpture (built by artist Jenny Morgan) in order to remind campers what all this publishing, marketing, printing, and writing is really about: community.
It’s important to note: Camp Real Pants was not an anti-AWP endeavor, but rather an alt-AWP adventure. Amy and Adam have attended and enjoyed AWP for years. But CRP provided something a little more personal, more relaxed, a little more real.
While it hasn’t been confirmed, you can expect Camp Real Pants (or something similarly refreshing) to take place in DC at AWP 2017. “I want to push [Camp Real Pants] even more into ‘publishing think tank’ territory,” Amy said. “So many interesting connections emerged in the afternoon, and I want to think about other ways to promote and facilitate that.”
When I try to recall my first AWP even one month later, what I feel is the atmosphere of that studio. Camp Real Pants opened my eyes to the fact that all the people at AWP, the best-selling presenters, the beautiful presses, the swarms of badged crowds moving from room to room—they’re all Real People. People who eat, and sweat, and laugh, and write and publish, and also sit on floors and sing.
Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.
BIO: Tyler Barton is a fiction editor at the Blue Earth Review, an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a writer of short stories. Find his published work at tsbarton.com. Find his jokes at @goftyler.
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