Tuesday, August 4, 2009

AWP Guerrillas, Part Two

Not one half hour after I posted yesterday's entry on AWP's capricious selection (non-selection, rather) of panels, I got an automated announcement from them that another panel I'm on had been accepted. Organized by Janet McAdams, the panel is called "Editing Indigenous, Editing the Americas"; its purpose is "to enlighten our audience about the complications and rewards of publishing and delivering Indigenous writing and translation to larger reading communities." Surely this is a good thing.

Less than an hour after that my phone rang. When the caller ID read "George Mason University," I gulped. AWP headquarters. Sure enough, the caller was Christian Teresi, Director of Conferences, AWP. He said he was calling to answer any questions I might have. We talked for a while. I told him that the AWP has gotten a lot more diverse and interesting since I first attended (Albany, late 1990s). But many of my colleagues who have proposed panels on (among many other subjects) Hawai`i and Pacific (Indigenous) work have been turned back. To see more amazing rejections, look to Phil Metres's blog; he's been collecting evidence. I've also heard stories on facebook from Tim Yu (who proposed John Yau and Mei-mei Berssebrugge on a panel that was rejected) and Stephen Hong Sohn, who had a similarly stellar panel turned down.

Lest one think that paragraph two indicates on-going ethnic bias on the part of AWP, the first paragraph argues against that bias. Neither is evidence enough for any conclusion. But that's one of the problems: there is no evidence, because panels are rejected without any feedback or context. The process might, in fact, be rigorous, but it seems capricious. Capriciousness is the writer's friend (so much room for interpretation!), but it's the institution's enemy (so many angry writers!). I've lived in English departments long enough to know that capriciousness can provide cover for unstated agendas. Simple words like "craft," like "theory," take on fierce, yet unspoken, allegorical meanings and are used to exclude others (and Others).

There is reason to be suspicious of the capricious. After all, D.W. Fenza, an energetic enthusiastic partisan of AWP, has laid down a stark agenda in essay after essay. I'm sure he does not speak for all members of AWP, but he is the Director (currently on sabbatical). So, when he takes on "critics," calling them out seven times in one paragraph of "Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing: The Words & the Bees" (2006), and remarking that they "sustain a parasitic lifestyle" and engage in the "systematic humiliation of literature" with "gruesome interrogations" and live in a world he calls "academentia (forever)," well then.

Close-reading Fenza's essay may be exhilarating fun, but it's too easy. He's clearly on a romp, and it would be easy to respond with a romp of one's own. As Patrick Playter Hartigan advises in yesterday's comment stream (where Fenza also makes an appearance), go for the goal, not the stance (even when you're faced with such a one). So true, though one of the problems with AWP is that it represents institutions rather than writers, branded ways of thinking about literature and writing rather than new or synthetic ones, ways that bring together craft and culture, content and form, and yes, theory and practice.

In his essay, "Who Keeps Killing Poetry?" published in The Writer's Chronicle in 2006, Fenza cites D.G. Myers's The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since the 1880s. This important book explores the origins of creative writing as a discipline that grew out of composition, emphasized creation over reception. While dense, the book is useful in teaching the pedagogy of creative writing, something I've been drawn into in recent years in my work with Ph.D. students. What it shows most starkly is how the workshop method developed as a tool for teaching creative writing. The workshop method emphasizes craft, community, and other good things, but often at the expense of content, experiment, or immersion in unfamiliar--in all senses of the word--literatures. The danger of workshop classes is that they are often content-free. They also tend to be conservative. If you have a group of students whose experience of literature is limited and based on notions of realism and linguistic transparency, it's hard to encourage experiment and risk-taking of a new kind if they are mostly talking to one another. "But that isn't realistic!" "No one talks that way!" Mark Wallace has written on this pressure to "make it real."

AWP is like a giant old-fashioned workshop, seems to me. What it needs are some good Bernadette Mayer exercises to remind it that its role is as much creative as it is institutional. Joseph Harrington remarks in yesterday's comment stream that institutions are meant to be gate-keepers. Perhaps this is true, and perhaps entering the institution ourselves is a danger we should think more about. And yet what I and others love about AWP is that it IS too big, it is diverse (in some ways, at least), and it offers a place where we can see each other, swap books and tales, and show off our wares as small publishers and poets and writers.

So what to do, aside from guerrilla tactics? I thought it amusing that the Director of Conferences offered to advertise an off-site event for me, as if that is what I wanted. Co-opted before I began!! I still think guerrilla tactics would be good fun, even good for AWP itself. But what are those positive goals that Patrick is advising us to shoot for, now that the AWP is clearly listening, or at least hearing? Here are some AWP experiments, after Mayer.

--Tear out pages from previous year's programs and write all over them. You might choose to erase words to create new proposals (see Ronald Johnson, Janet Holmes), or you might add new words.

--Cut up old programs and splice pages together randomly. Anything new pop up?

--Write down lists of talks you'd like to hear, then ignore the list and open yourself up to surprises! Make decisions more transparent. The AWP website has a long list of "Event Types," but everything I've seen that was rejected fit one of those types. Christian mentioned that some people will volunteer panelists who don't know they're being proposed, but that's not the case either, in my experience.

--Write lists of goals for the organization. Make decisions not based on who's on the board, but on goals of the organization itself. Christian told me that the Board decides, and the board is always changing. Well, there's one way not to be transparent! If the AWP sets goals for (let us say) including some panels on literature and theory (don't tell Mr. Fenza), or literature and journalism, or literature and cultural studies (as Joseph Lease suggested to me backchannel) and gets board members who know these things, then we might get somewhere.

--Write lists of writers outside MFA programs that you like to read. Invite them to AWP. De-emphasize programs, and re-emphasize writers and teachers of writers. This would be difficult as the AWP has as in its name the term "writing programs." But many of us teach creative writing, even if we are not faculty of MFA tendering institutions. Or, if we are, we don't teach in that track. Some of my colleagues do not teach creative writing, but have had great influence on students who write. I'm thinking now of someone like Craig Howes, who has been on dozens of fiction committees over the years.

--Write short descriptions of different kinds of diversity, ethnic, theoretical, stylistic. Encourage diversity ON panels, as well as in the program itself. Encourage panels that include poets and parasites, the morally upright and the "morally repugnant" (sorry, I go back to Fenza's rhetoric--it's seductive, isn't it?) On that last blast, see Reginald Shepherd, Charles Bernstein, Christian Bok, et al.

--Write a short play about AWP, then perform it on the street outside your house. Have events outside the buildings. Street theater, poet's theater, slam poetry in the streets. This is a way to reach out to the communities in which we're camping out for a few days. Get out of the hotels!

--Write poems in the form of AWP panel descriptions. Then turn the descriptions into poems. Make those panels happen.

--Collaborate with strangers who goad you. Add their goals to your list and vice versa. As Mayer puts it: "11. Get someone to write for you, pretending they are you."

I'm glad that Christian Teresi called. While he couldn't clear up matters that are opaque (like how panels are selected), he sounded open to suggestions. Let's start making them. We needn't attack. Just do.


Patrick said...

The goal vs. the stance...The thing about non-MFA scenes is that they have their own gatekeepers, and outside the mammoth cash cows of professional organizations like MLA and AWP, access to gatekeeping--better put, defining the questions germane to the "field"--is more evenly distributed, and potentially more transparent. Hence, every stance (i.e. boycott) has an implicit goal. The more implicit, sometimes, the better, as part of a program of inclusion is embracing the indeterminacy of said "field." I value your transposition of Mayer's experiments in this light.

susan said...

I don't know that a boycott would work, as who would miss "us"? I'm not sure I share the optimism of the other Patrick (!) about institutions, but why not try and see if AWP is open to more inclusiveness?

Janet McAdams said...

I think AWP needs to make it _more_ difficult to submit a proposal-- not more difficult in terms of filling out that maddening computer form. But more substantive proposals, with abstracts from each of the participants. That is, I'm arguing that they be more like other academic conferences.

But I would also argue that AWP could be more imaginative in the kinds of formats they include. So many people need to be on the program to get funding from their institutions, some of whom might be happy just to attend & discuss. (AWP exacerbates the problem by discounting the conference registration for people on the program--why?). What about seminars in which lots of folks can participate, discuss, respond (& have their names on the programs)? I'd love to be in a room with a dozen or so other small press editors (for example) to spend an hour talking about issues we hold in common. Which is different from a panel where we present to an audience whose interests may be so diverse the discussion is unfocused, not very useful.

Oh AWP. I love the annual anti-theory rant disguised as the opening address.

Patrick said...

Why not try to see if AWP is open to more inclusiveness? Because we won't see it even if they are, due to the lack of transparency in their processes. I should talk, though... AWP has never presented itself as a necessary evil where I am concerned. Yet I care, for obvious reasons. And for a not-so-obvious one: I'm on the MLA reading that the Poetry Division hopes to bring the off-site reading overground!

Jill said...

I'm glad you're back to blogging.

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