Friday, February 1, 2008

AWP is where it's at!

“Are you going to AWP?”

Rod Smith tells me that Kevin Thurston tells him that for writers, this question has become “the new hello.”

I’ve certainly been asked it somewhere between ten and twenty times in the last two weeks.

Actually I’ve never been to AWP, maybe partly because I’ve been to MLA a dozen times, peddling what scant resources I can offer in as many directions as I can and being so worn out afterwards that the idea of going to another professional conference is about as fascinating as dental surgery. Maybe someday I will go, but not this year.

Among those writers going to AWP, and among those not going, there turn out to be many concerns about AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the standards of the profession at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the quality of the official AWP panels.

Some writers are concerned about the ideology of the official AWP panels.

Some writers are concerned about how the problem of professionalism, as evidenced by AWP, changes what writing is, who writers are and what they do.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship between “experimental” or “avant garde” writers and AWP.

Some writers are concerned about who’s more “inside” and “outside” at AWP and they’re concerned about what “inside” and “outside” mean.

Some writers are concerned about who gets the opportunities that AWP has to offer and who does not get those opportunities.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship of the writers at AWP to the academic world.

Some writers are concerned about the relationship between AWP and larger U.S. institutional systems of power.

Some writers are concerned about whether enough of their friends will be there to make AWP fun.

Some writers are concerned about whether there will be enough interesting writers there to balance out the dull, pompous stuffed-shirts who are legendary at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the importance of being seen at AWP.

Some writers, if they are also publishers, are concerned about getting word out that their books are available at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about letting others know that they have a reading or panel event scheduled at AWP.

Some writers are concerned about letting others know that they have a reading or other event scheduled not at AWP but at the time and in the proximity of AWP.

Some writers are concerned about the distinction between “I’m going to AWP” and “I thought I’d go to AWP this year because it’s in New York.”

Some writers are concerned that other writers care about AWP too much.

Some writers are concerned that other writers don’t understand how much power AWP really has.

All of these, in greater or lesser degree perhaps, are legitimate concerns.

Are you concerned about AWP and what are those concerns? I mean, since so many writers are concerned about it anyway, we might as well discuss what we’re concerned about.


tmorange said...

hey, are those people in the photo all from the same school or something?


rodney k said...

I'm concerned that AWP really is where it's at.

I'm concerned about what "it" is.

I'm concerned about what "where" is.

Sheesh, it's trying times: I'm just plain concerned, and AWP's a handy pipe 'n' drape trellis for bigger angst.

Two turntables & a microphone,

tmorange said...

i guess what i find most remarkable is the swiftness with which AWP seems to have caught on: would we have even been having such a discussion about the relative merits of AWP for anyone with even remotely non-mainstream tendencies, say, 3-5 years ago?

mark wallace said...

Tom, a Paul Hoover blog that Rodney links to from his blog has a post in which Paul says that as recently as 2001, there were literally almost no poets of any kind of New American poetics legacies etc at AWP. So clearly the organization has changed rapidly, although the specifics of that change are perhaps easier to make pronouncements about, from many perspectives, than to understand in detail.

Rodney, I agree that it's tempting to make AWP a symptom of everything that's wrong with the world, and none of us can rule out entirely that it may be just that. But I think we have to try our post-millennial best to look into that blinding darkness and try to see AWP for what it is, whatever that is. Quite a few people report meeting quite a few people there that they were happy to see. How much that counts for, I'm not sure.

tmorange said...

mark, wonder if relative to AWP you've caught wind of this dust-up...


Brent Cunningham said...

Hey Mark,

Just back from the AWP myself, glad this conversation is taking place (tho it seems it always does, round this time o year).

Curiously I was at that 2001 AWP in Palm Springs too. Hoover describes it pretty close to my memory too. It's changed some, yes, especially the bookfair where it's hard to say there's a dominant aesthetic anymore. But the panels are arguably a different case. To me the best way to get a sense of the AWP's sense of canon is to look at the panels where the name of the writer is in the title, i.e. the readings & discussions & celebrations of individuals, which are really the most sought-after slots and signs of anointment. It's easy enough to talk about the latino avant garde in general (one panel) or what's up with Newlipo (another), but it's more rare for AWP to name an actual avant-gardist in BOLD as it were. Here's the list I culled of writers named within the title of all panels/readings/receptions this year:

George Herbert
Charles Simic
Bruce Weigl
Lynda Hull
Yusef Komunyakaa
Sharon Olds
Russell Edson
Galway Kinnell
Edward Field
Carolyn Forche
Denise Levertov
Ed Ochester
Alicia Ostriker
Marvin Bell
Sonia Sanchez
Rae Armantrout
Liam Rector
Judith Johnson (2)
Richard Howard
Stanley Plumly
Louis Simpson
Marianne Moore
Gerald Stern (2)
James Tate
Billy Collins
Phillip Lopate
Robert Pinskey
Natasha Tretheway

Grace Paley
Max Steele
Joyce Carol Oates
Ha Jin
John Irving
Russell Banks
William Kennedy
Alice McDermott
Amy Hempel
Peter Cameron
Jonathan Safran Foer
Sue Miller
Alan Cheuse
Edwidge Danticat
Richard Yates
Frank McCourt
Cynthia Ozick
Phillip Lopate
Martin Amis

Romulus Linney

Daniel Menaker, Random House Editor
Carol Houck Smith, Editor

As a whole, I think this is an accurate reflection of the AWP's views of the writing world, their history coming out of George Mason U., their aesthetic values and sense of who are the current stars. On this basis, I think Paul overstates how much New American Poetry or avant garde or Langpo influence there now is, depending on how you define such things. Levertov & Armantrout, you could say, are about it here.

Is that part of AWP shifting too? Will it? Should it? How should people reading & caring about different poets than the above approach that org? Work with it to expand it, ignore it, work against it? All great things to talk about I think.



Johannes said...

It does seem like this year the AWP panels were much less interesting than in the two previous years (which are the only two I've been to, I wasn't at the Hoover-mentioned one). More big-shots etc. I'm not sure why that is. Probably: NYC.

I did go to a pretty electrifying panel with Cecilia Vicuna and Rosa Alcalay about Latin American poetry in translation.

The panel not really the appeal of AWP though. What I like is meeting with people and exchanging ideas and hatching plots etc. As well as getting our books to people who would otherwise not know about them.

I wrote about this on my blog.


John Gallaher said...

John Ashbery was there as well, reading his translations of Martory.

In other news, I'm concerned that being concerned about AWP is something to be concerned about.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Mark,

Like you, I've been to MLAs, and I've been to American Historical Assoc. and Popular Culture and American Psychological and American Philosophical Assoc conferences over the years.

I was hesitant about going to the AWP but figured I had survived the MLA, PCA, AHA, APA, and even the PAHA!

What I found was that the AWP was harder to manage and co-exist with than the other conferences. Maybe it's because I'm older (an academic for 35 years) and want more of my comforts when I need them.

I wrote about what the AWP was like for me at blog everything's jake.

After I wrote that piece, what I came to understand was that my essential problem at the AWP was the problem of loneliness.

When you stand in a room with 3000 people and you don't know a person in that room, you lose your bearing.

I don't know if this is what happened to other people, but it did to me. I felt alienated, distant. I felt all the bad ways that literature and writing are meant to alleviate.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

An anonymous commenter wanted to point everyone in the direction of the Debra Di Blasi blog linked to on my site, so I'm doing that here. Anonymous, could you please next time identify yourself in your comments? In general I don't accept unidentified comments, since that invites spamming and related forms of internet abuse.

John Guz, I think your comment is very insightful. AWP faces us with the fact that reading and writing, which we love so much, and which contributes so much to the intimate pleasures of our lives, turns out to be connected to these massive bureaucratic systems that many people feel ambivalent about, at best. Probably we knew that all along, right? But to look right at it probably is very unpleasant for many people.

John Guzlowski said...

I've been getting emails in response to my blog about my trip to AWP, and they pretty much express sadness rather than anger or frustration with AWP.

A lot of the emails are from people who went to AWP for years and then stopped because each year they were enjoying it less and less.

One poet thanked me for reminding him why he had stopped going.

Sandra Simonds said...

AWP + drugs = DIS


mark wallace said...

Sandra, that's definitely one that my original post didn't cover.

"Some writers are concerned about what drugs they should or shouldn't take while attending AWP, and how they will behave when taking those drugs."

Sandra Simonds said...


Thanks for taking responding to my comment with the dedication, patience and seriousness and detail of a scholar...

Seriously though, my thoughts and feelings about AWP are mixed. I went to the one in Atlanta 2 years ago and found myself acting /lashing out in the most humiliating ways in part due to the horrific and really false set up of the conference. On the other hand, I got to meet some really fascinating poets in the flesh. Those were people who I knew that I would like BEFORE I got to AWP---so in a really twisted sense AWP solidified a lot of digital relationships.

(but it was all on drugs, so who knows!!)


John Guzlowski said...

I have a question about the AWP and am not sure if anyone here can answer it, but maybe you can direct me to an answer.

Who makes money off of the conferences?

There must be incredible money involved. Sums large enough to make people think profits before people.

For example, a small example: I was sitting at a booth signing a book, and the publisher of my book said he'd like to get another chair but that the hotel was asking $300 for the use of a chair for the conference.

I know this kind of stuff goes on. I went to an AHA where the hotel (DC Marriott)asked $3000 for the use of an LCD projector for the evening. Somebody on the panel paid.

The hotels are making a lot of money.

Who gets the kick back?

You figure 8000 people, paying say an average ogf $100 each for registration.

How much is that?


And then add in the cost of the tables/booths/refreshments etc etc.

Who gets the money after the hotels get theres?

Sandra Simonds said...

I don't know: Dick Cheney??

mark wallace said...

John, I have no detailed answer to your question, but I could hazard a few ideas.

Clearly the hotel/ restaurant/ conference business is big business in many cities. I don't know whether AWP has any exclusive contracts with anyone for these things, although obviously Marriott and some others are major players in the industry. The conference does move from city to city, obviously, so there's at least some spreading of the wealth on that level.

AWP is a non-profit and I doubt the people who work for it make huge salaries compared to standards for non-profits. I don't know whether AWP is flush with cash or, like most non-profits, worrying constantly about having too little money to continue its activities.

Certainly a lot of cultural capital accrues to those writers who are officially lauded with panels on their work and such, so there's a lot of profit there. Not directly financial but indirectly so, and quite lucrative in some cases maybe.

So that's about what I could say on the subject. As to whether AWP has made some especially dark deal with a shady corporate underbelly somewhere, I certainly wouldn't know.

tmorange said...

a recent professional's opinion.


Jessica Smith said...

Hm. I didn't really think about most of those things when I went to AWP for the second time this year.

I thought: I can get in at a student ticket price ($40) and see all my friends and sell some enough books to pay for all the books I want to buy at the AWP book fair.

I thought: It will be fun to see all these people I've only known online and all the people I have known in real life who go to AWP because they can see all the people they haven't seen in awhile.

I had tons of fun, saw lots of great poets (well, "great" in my mind) and amazing books (including The Jungle), and even saw an old friend from k-12 who is now in the MFA System. He was amazed at all the people I knew. Of course, I did not know those people from paying $40k for a useless degree. I knew them from being around.

The AWP and all the hogwash System it represents (MFAs, "respected" poetry journals etc.) are kind of being infiltrated by all this DIY stuff-- by US-- which is cool. The bookfair has almost as many of "us" as of "them" now. The only panel I went to, which was on Oulipo techniques, was about 1/2 "them" and half "us" (and it was clear which half had any clue about Oulipo and Christian Bok scared 1/2 the audience shitless while delighting the other half, sending us into giggles of ecstatic admiring glee).

I mean if you care about infiltration. I dont' really care. I just went to get out of it what I wanted out of it. Which I did.

It was great to see all my friends and meet new friends and find out about new chapbooks from people I like that I didn't know about and learn about new poetry by people I didn't know about. Perusing the book fair was awesome. Overwhelming but awesome.

I am late in responding to this.

mark wallace said...

These large scale professional conferences are always more fun, aren't they, Jessica, when one has no significant career stake in them.

Some of my poet friends have, in the past, even gone to MLA for fun. But the fun of MLA decreases greatly if you're there to interview.