The Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference will take place at Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

This story has been updated.

San Antonio is about to have a very wordy weekend. Upwards of 12,000 writers from around the nation are expected to descend on the city from Wednesday through Saturday for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which bills itself as the largest literary conference in North America.

The conference annually attracts professional writers in all disciplines to learn tips and tradecraft from professionals and peers, in panel discussions, presentations, readings, and hundreds of offsite events in the host city.

“It’s the literary version of the Super Bowl,” said Alexandra van de Kamp, executive director of San Antonio’s Gemini Ink literary arts center.

Van de Kamp joined Gemini Ink when Sheila Black was its director, and took over when Black took the position of director of development for the AWP, which might be a primary reason the conference is back in San Antonio for the first time in four decades, Van de Kamp said.

In terms of size, the numbers are staggering: more than 2,000 presenters and 550 readings, panels, and craft lectures. The full schedule is available here, though registration is required to attend all but a few public events.

A centerpiece of the conference is the Bookfair, which hosts more than 700 presses, journals, and literary organizations from around the world, and will be open to the general public Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets will be available for $5 at the door and will also allow access to the San Antonio Spotlight event from noon to 2 p.m., featuring a lineup of 24 local authors and musicians including Juan Tejeda, Carmen Tafolla, Barbara Renaud González, Amalia Leticia Ortiz, Xelena González, and Marisela Barrera. Several of these authors will also participate in panels and presentations during the conference.  

Other panels and presentations are accessible only to registered conference attendees. However, a group of local organizations will reach out to the community with a free, open-air reading on the Henry B. González Convention Center lawn Saturday from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. The “Read-In Mitote” will offer readings by a growing list of local authors in a festive atmosphere open to all.

The keynote speaker Thursday evening is Helena Maria Viramontes, a noted author “considered one of Hispanic literature’s most distinguished craftspersons,” according to the University of California at Santa Barbara Library, which houses her papers.

“She’s a rock star in Chicano letters,” said Natalia Treviño, a San Antonio poet and leader of the Macondo Writers Workshop, which Viramontes visited in July. At the time, Viramontes lauded San Antonio’s “artistic, Chicano, Latino art culture,” and said “people really organize, they really nurture” here.

Other notable authors appearing at the conference will be National Book Award-winning novelists Alice McDermott and Louise Erdrich, who will present “a double master class in the art of fiction” Friday afternoon, and San Antonio favorite Sandra Cisneros.

Even the list of featured author events is daunting at more than 20, and requires choices to be made as some panels run concurrently.

Offsite events throughout the city will offer conference goers the chance to mingle outside the confines of the convention center and broaden the scope of literary offerings.

Local zine maker St. Sucia will present Zine Baile!, a “radical Latina/x” reading, dance, and cultural event 9 p.m. Saturday at La Botanica, for a $3 cover charge, open to anyone.

Gemini Ink was to kick off the offsite events Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Brick at Blue Star, with the free Lit Down the I-35 Corridor, featuring authors from Austin, San Antonio, and points in between, including the much-lauded Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson. However, its website noted Wednesday that the event has been canceled.

Late Monday, leaders of the AWP conference decided to go on as planned despite Coronavirus fears centered on San Antonio, issuing a statement explaining the decision and stating precautions to be taken by all attendees. “This will be a handshake-free, hug-free conference,” read the statement.

However, the conference has suffered multiple cancellations, including one by former San Antonio Poet Laureate Jenny Browne, currently a Fulbright U.S. Scholar for the semester at Queen’s University in Belfast. Browne wrote in a Facebook post explaining her “difficult call” not to travel and canceling a scheduled tribute panel to San Antonio poet Naomi Shihab Nye, a recent recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

Browne was also to participate in a distinguished panel to close the conference Saturday evening called Laureates for the Pueblo on a River, jointly presented by Gemini Ink with the City of San Antonio. The Saturday evening panel will go on as scheduled with Tafolla and current San Antonio Poet Laureate Octavio Quintanilla, with author and teacher Jim LaVilla-Havelin moderating.

Attendees can check the conference schedule for updates, as multiple panels have been canceled.

Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...