Patricia Grace King shares her thoughts on the contemplative and reverent undercurrent of AWP Chicago 2012.


"From the plethora of panels and readings to the book fair to free-range meetings in elevators and hallways, the AWP conference can come to resemble a three-day cocktail party, set at warp speed. But at this year’s tribute to writer and editor Jeanne Leiby, participants found a space for real contemplation. In the midst of the regular conference frenzy, we reflected on our lives as writers, and in particular on one well-lived writer’s life.

Jeanne Leiby, who died on April 19, 2011 at age forty-six, was author of the award-winning Downriver, former Fiction Editor of Black Warrior Review, former Editor of The Florida Review, and the first woman Editor of The Southern Review : the role for which Jeanne was perhaps best known. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, according to the tribute program, “noted that Jeanne ‘awakened The Southern Review from a sleep of generations.’” By the end of the tribute, however, it was clear that Jeanne—or Jeannie, as many there fondly called her—was equally well known as an inspiring teacher and colleague, an advocate of women in the arts, and an ardent supporter of young editors and writers.

Before I attended the tribute, I’d heard from two different writer friends how much they appreciated Jeanne Leiby. One, whose very first rejection letter had come from Jeanne, recalled the letter with warmth because it had been so personal and encouraging. The other remembered how Jeanne had personally called her to accept a piece. At the AWP tribute, Jeanne’s former students and teachers, as well as interns at the magazines she had helmed and associates throughout the creative writing world, stood up to express gratitude for her life. After seventy minutes in that packed-out room, Jeanne’s sister looked around and remarked that, while Jeannie had been beloved as sister, daughter, and aunt in her biological family, here was her real family, too: the family she had drawn around her through decades of dedication to literary writing and publishing.

The tribute to Jeanne Leiby was one of fourteen tributes in total held at the 2012 AWP, for eighteen different writers. While such events may be overlooked in the flurry of the larger conference, Jeanne’s tribute served as a reminder that, beneath our daily work as writers, there is also community, shared memory and support, and even abiding love."

Patricia Grace King is the author of The Death of Carrie Bradshaw and Rubia, which won the 2011 Kore Press Short Fiction Contest and the 2011 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Contest, respectively. Both are forthcoming this year. See her full author profile here.