Monday, August 3, 2009

A call for guerrilla poetry action at AWP Denver, 2010

[Jade Sunouchi behind the Tinfish table, AWP 2009, Chicago, Illinois]

I've attended several AWP conferences in recent years, mostly to push Tinfish product by sitting and standing behind a small table in a cavernous room--in Austin, the next room down had Toyota trucks in it--underneath terrifying buzzing lights, bathed in a cacophony of unintelligible sound. Along the way I've been on a few panels--there was the "what to do about genre" panel organized by Joyelle McSweeney where some of us argued for teaching writing without enforcing genre boundaries; there was a panel on translations from Asia with Tinfish writers and translators Craig Perez, Don Mee Choi, and Steve Bradbury; most recently, there was a fractious and well attended panel on Annie Finch's and my collection, Multiformalisms: A Postmodern Poetics of Form (Textos, 2009). I still get emails from people who witnessed that afternoon's conflict between those who think that breaking established form is akin to violence (we got questions about domestic and non-domestic violence, oddly enough) and those who prefer their metaphors more gently cooked (or mixed).

But I've also been included in proposals for exciting panels that never happened because they were turned down. By whom one does not know: the AWP website notes the "Selection Process" that "Conference Committee members submit rankings to AWP Director of Conferences for tabulation. Each proposal is given an aggregate score based upon these rankings. Proposals are sorted by aggregate score and the top-ranked proposals in each event type are marked for acceptance." The apparent mathematical rigor of the process (mirrored by the model proposal under the "Craft of Poetry" event type on "Mirror Neurons, Mathematics, Metaphor, and Mind: Where Science and Poetic Craft Meet"?) is not matched by any sense of what these rankings are based on. I tend to agree with Charles Bernstein, who wrote on my facebook page that, "the AWP says it is a service organization with no agenda. That's why those with different agendas that conflict with their no agenda have no place on their panels." But let's look more closely at the proposed panels and at the AWP's mission.

This year's rejections included panels proposed by Philip Metres and Joseph Harrington. You may know Metres from his fine book on poetry about war, or for his own poetry, or for his translations from Russian, or for his blog. Joseph Harrington wrote a well-received book on poetry and the public sphere, published by Wesleyan, and is circulating a marvelous book of documentary poetry on his mother's death and Richard Nixon's resignation, events that occured on the same day in 1974. No slouches, these guys. Metres's proposal was for a panel entitled "Off the Page and Into the Streets: Poetic Interventions in the Public Sphere." Panelists would have been Kaia Sand, Laura Elrick, Jennifer Karmin, Philip Metres and myself. Here's Phil's description (ordained by the extremely careful wording on the AWP site for how to propose a panel):

"Poets . . . share their experiments in guerrilla poetry, bringing poetry off the page and into the streets. They provide a guide for creating your own spatial poetic interventions, whether signage, walks, installations, or street theater--and what it means for poetry and social change." Under the "how it would contribute" rubric, he writes: "The panel would be pitched to inviting a discussion about how to integrate poetry into our lives as citizens, as workers, as consumers, as recreators."

Joseph Harrington proposed a panel to include himself, Eleni Sikelianos, Craig Santos Perez, Brenda Coultas, and me, on "Experimental Docupoetry." "There is growing interest in poetry based on testimony, reportage, and research," he writes. "Through these forms, experimental docupoets investigate not just their subjects, but also the relations between evidence and memory, truth-claims and genre. This panel will explore this growing body of work and the insights that poets and other nonfiction writers might gain from it." He might have added that the "growing interest" in the subject started growing decades ago, at least since Charles Reznikoff wrote Testimony and Muriel Rukeyser her magnificent oeuvre. Fortuitous perhaps that on the first page of Chapter One of Al Filreis's Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960, I read, between parentheses: "(In the late 1940s and 1950s, dubbing a poet 'journalistic' could even, at times, be coded red-baiting.)" (3) This may offer a hint to the AWP volunteer reviewers' non-selection of this panel, even if "red-baiting" is a bit passe these days. But not according to the mission statement of the organization itself, as transcribed in David Fenza, Executive Director's "About AWP: The Growth of Creative Writing Programs":

"More than any other literary organization, AWP has helped North America to develop a literature as diverse as the continent's peoples. This, of course, is also a boast for the democratic virtues of higher education in North America and the many public universities that comprise AWP. AWP's members have provided literary education to students and aspiring writers from all backgrounds, economic classes, races, and ethnic origins."

What follows this paragraph is another that begins with the phrase "the largest system of literary patronage the world has ever seen," which is perhaps telling. But the paragraph I just quoted seems to invite just the kinds of proposals put forward by Metres and Harrington. Follow Fenza's essay further and there's seems more reason yet to include panels on cutting edge poetics. Did you know that AWP saved literature? So it seems. "AWP rescued literature from the exhumations of philologists to elevate literature's status as a living art, an art that compels each new generation to add its own interpretation, readings, stories, and poems." The italics are Fenza's, as is his ongoing invocation of the terrible past, when literature died in the classroom, and the magnificent present, when AWP members share a living art with their students. Included among these classrooms by Fenza are those in "hospitals, prisons, elementary schools, high schools, and community centers as well as in colleges and universities."

But the portion of Fenza's essay that seem to mandate panels like Metres and Harrington's are these: "Many students, especially today's students, feel that the world is not of their making, and not theirs to form or to reform; but writing classes often demonstrate the efficacy of the human will--that human experience can be shaped and directed for the good--aesthetically, socially, and politically."

So what gives? Is this just bullshit? Are there simply too many stunning panels to accommodate them all? Has the AWP's vaunted patronage system mandated a fleet of panels associated with particular programs, specific directors, advertising needs? Is the AWP more interested in programs than in people? Is the experimental crowd still unwelcome? Where do questions of ethnicity and gender fit in here? Was the content of these proposals too radical for the volunteer judges? There's no way to know. The answer, as in so many standardized (and standardizing) tests, is probably "all of the above." I do not want to presume, though I do. I've been to enough AWPs by now to know that not all the panels are scintillating enactments of a living, re-forming art. Reading the works of the authors I've mentioned in this post (the links are deliberate and mandatory!) gives me faith that a living, activist, historically informed art can already be found within and without the classroom. Not so easy to find in the cosmopolitan hotels where AWP sets up shop, however.

So let me call for guerrilla action at this coming AWP convention in Denver in April, 2010. Nothing too specific, since this is a blog available on the internet to anyone who cares to find it. But let's think of some ways to protest the stodginess of the organization, spill some metaphorical blood on its metaphorical white pages or its literal 600 page program! Let's take AWP to the streets, organize some off-site panels and workshops and signage! After all, Donald Fenza tells us "that the study of literature should include the play of creation as well as the work of conservation"! Who knows, we might just rescue literature from the exhumations of AWP.


Philip Metres said...

thanks for your post, Susan. I still am trying to make sense of the whole thing (i.e. the decision-making process at AWP); you'd be amazed the other panels that I've seen that have been rejected--some really fine ones.

What it suggests, at the very least, from a "member" point of view, is that we need to agitate for ever more transparent judging and clearer criteria and application of criteria.

Further, you point out here, there is an implicit tension between the aim to be representative in a democratic sense and to be patrons of the arts--i.e., an art that is democratically funded, organized, and legitimated, and an art that is aristocratically funded, organized, and legitimated (though here, I'm simplifying).


Molly Gaudry said...

I would love to be a guerilla. Let me know how I can help, if I can help.

Patrick said...

How about a boycott? The best way to demonstrate the vitality of literary curcuits that bypass their organization is to do so uniformly.

David Fenza said...

AWP has worked very hard to make our conference grow to include more of AWP's members, more publishers, more peer organizations, and more writers who teach. In 1995, AWP's conference had roughly 16 events, 45 presenters, and 40 exhibitors (and no open proposal process for events). AWP in Denver will have over 300 events, over 1,000 presenters, and over 500 Exhibitors. And AWP managed to build this starting from a deficit of $300,000 in 1995. The staff and board of AWP applied huge personal sacrifices and special efforts to build this meeting place for writers, teachers, administrators, and publishers. The conference has been reorganized many times recently for the benefit of many.

David J. Daniels said...

Thanks for the carefully articulated posts, Susan and Phil. As Phil notes on his blog, I am a rejectee as well. I'm looking forward to the Denver conference and excited to see what turns out in terms of greater transparency of judging criteria.

David J. Daniels

Joseph Harrington said...

I'm struck by the similarity between the palaver about democracy, inclusivity, etc., quoted above, and similar pronouncements in the anticommunist press in the postwar US (not to mention the US govt.), including the literary press.

The function of a professional organization is to maintain standards (i.e., a certain level of uniformity) and to serve a gatekeeper function (licensing, etc.). Whether or not either of those purposes are good for the arts is another matter.

Patrick Playter Hartigan said...

Good points, all. Susan - have you tried addressing AWP directly on this issue, perhaps by suggesting a parallel or satellite structure of presentations and readings? I have yet to encounter a bureaucracy that was not open to energy, initiative, and a practical outline. Ask AWP what you would need to do to prove that your circle of topics would be of interest to the many. Get the conversation going. Skip the stance and shoot for the goal.

Patrick Playter Hartigan

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Susan - and I am extremely interested in docu-poetry. SO if anyone wants to get together and talk about that - let me know - Deborah Bogen, I can't think of anything more necessary than this. Deb Bogen