What if a Super Bowl was held and half the players didn’t show up?

A previous Rivard Report headline stated that 12,000 attendees were expected for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, comparing the largest annual literary conference in North America to the annual National Football League championship game.

However, as of Thursday afternoon, estimated registrations numbered closer to 5,500 to 6,000, or about 40 percent less than expected, according to AWP Director of Development Sheila Black. A visual survey early Thursday afternoon showed around half of exhibitor booths empty, with many scheduled events blanked out on information placards, and a sparse crowd wandering through the Henry B. González Convention Center.

“We’re one of the first big public things to get affected in this big public way,” Black said. “And that’s interesting – hard, but interesting.”

A virtual Twitter storm erupted prior to the conference, with multiple posts stating concerns over the emergent coronavirus epidemic as a reason not to attend.

Many choosing to stay away included panelists for the multitude of panel discussions that form the core of the conference, causing a cascade of event cancellations, including 250 of the 550 planned readings, panels, and craft lectures. However, many will still go on, including the Thursday night keynote speech from honored guest Helena Maria Viramontes. Those interested but unwilling to attend in person can see the speech, and other events, on a livestream set up by AWP.

Noted author Louise Erdrich was still scheduled to present at 3:20 p.m. Friday in the Lila Cockrell Theatre as of Thursday afternoon, though Alice McDermott will no longer be part of the event.

An estimated half of offsite events have been canceled, including the conference-opening Lit Down the I-35 Corridor co-sponsored by Gemini Ink and Texas State University planned for Wednesday night.

However, Gemini Ink’s free Page Meets Stage event at Ruby City will go on as planned Thursday at 6:30 p.m., assured executive director Alexandra van de Kamp. While some writers pulled out of the event, Van de Kamp suggested filling the slots with local writers.

Such improvisation became necessary to give attendees a reasonable slate of activities, Black said. She enlisted Van de Kamp to also fill several open panel slots, which now include two Puro San Antonio readings with local poets. More than one person in attendance at the Thursday 1:45 p.m. event noted the irony of San Antonians reading to San Antonians at the national conference, but poet Eddie Vega noted those from out of town in attendance before reading a San Antonio-themed poem.

“I think people coming here feel good about being here. I think they’re using common sense,” Van de Kamp said, noting the proliferation of hand sanitizer and the conference’s no-hug, no-handshake policy.

Of the approximately half of registered exhibitors present, several said the low attendance proved an opportunity.

Risa Pappas, senior editor of Tolsun Books from Flagstaff, Arizona, called the lower levels of attendance and activities “a blessing.”

“Our sales have been better here in one day than they were in the entirety of AWP last year. … So we are kind of an island,” she said, gesturing to the empty booths surrounding hers, “but that’s a good thing.”

Her message echoed that of a note from AWP staff posted Thursday encouraging new discoveries amid the more intimate atmosphere: “We are small but mighty. There are fewer of us, but those that are here – and that means you –are putting your heart and soul into this. … We had all planned a different conference, but sometimes the most transformational life moments happen when the best-laid plans go astray.”

Nolan Meditz, assistant editor of the Westview literary journal, drove in from Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Meditz called the number of open booths “striking,” but said, “my impression is that it’s a little bit quieter, obviously, but this conference always feels convivial, very supportive of each other, and in that sense, that spirit is still there.”

However, not all exhibitors shared such optimistic views. “If I’d had control … I would have said let’s just not go, and and we can wait till next year,” said one representative from a university press who asked not to be named, and who said three of six assigned staff people for the booth decided not to attend. The representative also said the concern was not so much over coronavirus, but because of the depressed attendance.

Syed Haider, executive director of the nonprofit education-based press Austin Bat Cave, said he consulted his doctor before heading to San Antonio. “I asked her, is this an example of people being too cautious, or not cautious enough. And she said it’s right in the middle, like, you should be cautious, but it’s not enough to take you out of this experience. She basically told me [to] be smart.”

Haider said he’s on two panels and didn’t want to back out, and that the visibility is crucial for his press. He did, however, advise a colleague with an immunocompromised relative to stay home.

Of his own, personal decision, Haider said as a resident of a major city, he acknowledged that “we’re not going to outrun it, basically.”

In attendance at the Puro San Antonio reading Thursday, Black acknowledged that the financial effect of registrant and exhibitor cancellations, most of which will be refunded or transferred to next year’s conference in Kansas City, would be substantial.

“It’s a significant portion of our income,” she said. “But we are a membership organization,” and despite the cancellations, AWP decided “that we had to serve our community” of writers.

She called the coincidence of the height of coronavirus anxiety and the conference “particularly heartbreaking,” in that so many writers will have lost the chance to experience the multicultural diversity of San Antonio, her former hometown.

To encourage attendance, Black said AWP is now offering $5 admittance to anyone interesting in coming on Saturday, including non-registrants. The entrance fee will allow access to the Bookfair and all scheduled panels and readings. The free public Read-In & Mitote taking place outside on the convention center lawn at 5 p.m., featuring San Antonio authors, will go on as scheduled.

An updated conference schedule is available here.

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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...