Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Whither AWP? Toward the Yawp or the Yawn? The Big Tent or the Circus?

Susan Schultz, who was on my (rejected) panel proposal, blogged yesterday on the rejection of two panels, and made a call for guerrilla poetry actions, a call that I'd like to answer if I can make it to the AWP conference in Colorado.

Just for fun, I asked my facebook friends to report if they also had rejected panels, and I was surprised to find a number of really interesting ones.

Here's Danit Brown's, author of Ask for a Convertible, an excellent book of short stories:

Danit Brown,
Rebecca Meacham, Kelly Magee, Diana Joseph, and Michelle Herman.


Why Every Writer Needs a Wife and What to Do If You Don’t Have One: Balancing the demands of Writing, Academia, and Motherhood.

Writing takes time and psychological privacy, which can be at a premium for parents. Women especially may find themselves unable to reconcile being a Good Mom (selfless, present, makes own baby food) and a Good Academic (selfless, present, does committee work, mentors students) with the conventional image of the Real Writer (typing away alone in the attic). Panelists discuss their experiences as writers, academics, and mothers, and share strategies they’ve used to stay focused and keep writing.


Social scientists have long observed that men in academia find it easier to balance the demands of career and parenthood, while women are more likely to be single and childless, and/or keep quiet any conflicted feelings towards career and motherhood. This panel seeks to bring this conversation out into the open, and to expand the definitions of Good Mother and Real Writer so they are more inclusive and less dependent on gender roles and stereotypes.

Here's poet and editor Cate Marvin's.

Cate, plus
Victoria Chang
Erin Belieu
Brenda Shaughnessy
Beth Ann Fennelly
Robin Beth

Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women's Poetry


Six contemporary female American poets explore how sentimentality is deployed in twenty-first century women’s poetry, with regard to both content and rhetoric, as a means to counter traditional assumptions regarding female desire and identity. What personal and political alchemies occur when the affectionate address verges on acerbic? What transformations are sought when a female speaker, once familiar as mother, daughter, sister, wife, or lover, employs sentiment to reveal herself as Other?


The first female American poets to be respected for their intellect, Marianne Moore and her protégé, Elizabeth Bishop, were careful not to express an excess of sentiment; poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath would make a stark departure from this mode by channeling emotional extremity. It is now important to explore how twenty-first century American women poets understand and reinvent these opposing traditions
in their work.

By the way: I had a stellar group of panelists (VARIED and FAMOUS) lined up for this.

As I stood rolling my socks into balls and shoving folded shirts into drawers (warning: dangerously clumsy use of heavily figurative language in use: the women are the clothes, get it?? Being shoved into drawers, i.e. repressed!), I considered how another panel proposal I was on was accepted. It concerns the uses of criticism, harkening back to the New Critics, Eliot in particular. Nothing WRONG with that . . . but hasn't it been done?

And I thought, too, of how often I see more men's names in prominent magazines than women's, how I see men getting prizes more often than women, how even though female students would love to read newer work by female writers, they are rarely taught the work of women-- except for the usual suspects.

And I thought about how a male poet friend of mine discouraged me from getting involved with editing a book of feminist poets/poems from the past two decades because it would be "dangerous" and "divisive."

Now, there's no reason why one should, on the basis of these two panel rejections, assume that there is a bias against feminist perspectives on literature at AWP, but it will be interesting to see whether there are indeed panels of similar concern or frame, and to figure out why those were chosen (if, indeed, they exist). Barrett Watten emailed to say that Carla Harryman's panels also went by the wayside.

Of course, I received other rejected panel proposals, also of interest:

David Daniels.
"Crossing the Great Divide: Creative Fallout from Teaching Composition"

Statement of Merit
In an interview with composition theorist David Bartholomae, Charles Bernstein suggests that teaching composition can be useful for the creative writer. Viewing these disciplines as inimical, Bernstein argues, hurts both. Past AWP panels suggested ways of incorporating creative-writing practices into the composition classroom. This panel adds to that rich conversation by examining ways in which teaching composition can complement one’s creative process. The panel thus offers an alternative vision of composition as enriching rather than threatening to creative writing.

Event Description
For many beginning creative writers, the reality of teaching composition is greeted with sorrow and distress, but does this need to be the case? How might teaching composition deepen rather than disrupt one’s creative process, enrich rather than jeopardize one’s creative output? This panel, composed of poets, playwrights, fiction writers and literary editors, will explore the positive, creative fallout from teaching composition and examine how the view of composition as inimical to creative writing actually threatens to hurt both disciplines.

Particpants: David J. Daniels, Heather Martin, Carol Samson, Blake Sanz

And this, from Jake Adam York:
Two panels I was on were rejected (waiting to hear about a third). The first was about Writing About Racial Violence, with Anthony Grooms (coordinator), Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Ravi Howard, and myself. The second was called "Whose Disaster?" and was to discuss the ethics of writing about human disasters in which the author did not participate/suffer, with Colin Rafferty, Nicole Cooley, Sheryl St. Germaine, and Carly Sachs.

So the concern remains, as I wrote to Susan Schultz, that the AWP is not a big enough tent--that how the AWP panel judging understands and applies the notion of diversity--part of the criteria for panels--needs to be examined by members and more clearly articulated by the organization. It is too soon to decry the AWP for 2010, though I know that critical analysis of the organization has been done in the past.

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, as Susan points out in her piece, 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).

What we need to ask of the AWP, at the very minimum, is a fuller report of judging criteria, a revamped system of application which would include full abstracts--as every other conference does--rather than name-dropping participants, catchy titling, and a few sentences about why people should care. Though I have been impressed by the substance and range of a good many AWP panels, still far too many AWP panels are shoddily presented, thinly argued book- and self-promotions.


Christopher Kempf said...

Well, I wasn't planning on going to Denver anyway (terrified of flying that far), but this gives me added and more justifiable reason not to. I read your proposal over on Susan Schultz's blog, and the panel sounds super interesting and exciting. I'm sorry it won't actually be put on.

susan said...

Thanks for the post, Phil. That last paragraph is great for pointing out possible remedies.

Philip Metres said...


next time, I'll add your blurb to the proposal: Kempf calls it "super interesting." !

Philip Metres said...

Addendum: Here was Dave Lucas's proposal!

Singing School: Poetry In and Out of the Academy

Cross-Genre Issues

We've been arguing for years about whether or not poetry is dead. We need to be asking how to make it healthier yet. We may disagree about the role of poetry in the academy, but we agree that a general public more aware of and interested in poetry is good both for the public and for poetry. This panel will bring together people who are active in and out of the academy to explore how we can help this happen. We will talk about what's already being done, and suggest some ideas for the future.


Attacks on the role of poetry in the academy, and defensive apologies for it, demand a practical synthesis. This panel hopes to offer some examples of how poets—and poetry—can thrive in both the academy and the “real world.” We plan to discuss how institutions and individuals can work together to improve poetry’s vitality. We hope to demonstrate not only how the panelists have addressed these questions in their own lives and work, but also to encourage those in the audience to do the same.

Attacks on the role of poetry in the academy, and defensive apologies for it, demand a practical synthesis. This panel hopes to offer some examples of how poets--and poetry--can thrive in both the academy and the "real world." We plan to discuss how institutions and individuals can work together to improve poetry's vitality. We hope to demonstrate not only how the panelists have addressed these questions in their own lives and work, but also to encourage those in the audience to do the same.

Dave Lucas is a doctoral student in English at the University of Michigan. A former high school English teacher, he reviews poetry for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. His own poems have received a “Discovery”/The Nation Prize and have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, and Slate.

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife (W.W. Norton). A poetry editor for The Paris Review, she is also a founding editor of Double X, an online politics and culture magazine for women, and a culture critic for the online magazine Slate. She was a recipient of the 2008 May Sarton Award for poetry.

John Barr is president of the Poetry Foundation and has served on the boards of the Poetry Society of America, Yaddo, and Bennington College. He has also taught poetry in the Graduate Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence College. His books include The Hundred Fathom Curve (1997) and Grace (1999), both from Story Line Press.

Maggie Dietz is director of the Favorite Poem Project and co-editor, with Robert Pinsky, of three anthologies, most recently An Invitation to Poetry (Norton, 2003). Her first book of poems, Perennial Fall (University of Chicago, 2006), received New Hampshire’s Jane Kenyon Award. She teaches at Boston University and is assistant poetry editor for the online magazine Slate.

Boo said...

This is a major bummer. Two of my favorite panels at last year's AWP were yours, Phil, and Susan's (on form issues, but it went tangentially onto the connections of form and violence). The one other panel I thought was up there with those two was the post-racial lit panel that John Keane put togther, which also follows your argument, I guess. I hope I make it to Denver just to see what goes down regarding this, now.

Lyle Daggett said...

To my thinking, there's also a basic issue of whether panels (as they're usually constituted in an academic setting) are a useful or relevant way to talk about poetry or any other kind of writing. I mean, people sitting at a table at the front of a room, reading essays out loud to whoever else is in the room.

One fairly random recollection that comes to mind, thinking about the things you're talking about here, is that among all the panel descriptions listed for AWP last February, not one made any mention of Carl Sandburg -- this in Chicago, a city permanently associated with Sandburg. Even at one of the panels I went to, on Chicago poetry communities, none of the panelists mentioned Sandburg until an audience member (myself) commented on the fact. Again, a more or less random observation...

A large part of the problem, I think, is that AWP functions to a large extent as one more station on the Via Dolorosa toward tenure. For those lucky and/or ambitious enough...

I couldn't help noticing the massively prominent corporate logos of the conference sponsors everywhere throughout the hotel. Was it possible that events organized by the most prominent conference sponsors (i.e. funders) were assigned the largest and most preferable meeting rooms for their events? Yeah, possible.

I guess I went to the Chicago conference with low expectations, so in that sense I wasn't much disappointed. I liked a couple of the panels I went to (the ones on Tom McGrath and on "Four Invisible Poets"), and the Gwendolyn Brooks tribute event was excellent. Haven't decided about Denver yet, probably will decide when registration opens.

Thanks for posting this.

Philip Metres said...

Lyle, I concur with your observations--what has always concerned me about the AWP conference is the way in which sponsoring organizations essentially buy their piece of the conference, which means that there is a sort of "poll tax" for representation--if you pay, you play. Now perhaps this is an inevitable feature of the conference, but it makes it unlike academic conferences and more like a trade show convention, selling cars or blenders or whatever. Perhaps financially that's the only way to make this huge event happen, but it does raise a number of questions. For example, if I as "Journal Poetastic" sponsor the AWP with $5,000, I sure as hell would like to recoup my investment by pushing my wares all the harder. Which means my reading or panel or whatever will be designed to forward that agenda and not, say, engage in some sort of conversation about the difficult questions of literature today.

tyrone said...

Just to add fuel here...my two panel proposals, both critical/avant-garde, were summarily turned down...

Philip Metres said...

Tyrone, if you post the info on the comment page, we will have the start of a "shadow awp" conference already online!

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