Don’t Believe the Hype: The Spurious Case of Benjamins-Glutton, AWP 8

Association of Writers & Writing Programs, AWP, Ted Hash-Berryman

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs is a “non-profit” organization that advocates for and supports the institutionalization of literature. Because their primary goal is to “foster achievement,” they lead the charge in establishing the values that define our era—individualism, careerism, identity politics, paranoia, impenitent schmoozing, and so forth. We as writers are falling into their trap by being duped into reinforcing these values. AWP is operating under the guise of promoting achievement, but in reality the organization is fucking our culture in a non-consensual way.

Every year, AWP holds a conference open to anyone willing to waste $285. For a conference that offers only a book tote to the starving artists who attend it, it is unjust of the organization to expect them to pay so much. These are people who are passionate about art, and right before their eyes that passion is being funneled into a consumer market. Why should people who are already sacrificing livelihood for art have to shoulder such a burden when, in a single year, AWP makes nearly $500,000 in profits?

Three college students display the $285 tote bags they opted to buy in lieu of groceries that month

Three young writers display the $285 tote bags they opted to buy in lieu of groceries that month.

The substance of the conference is almost as nightmarish as the price tag. The vast majority of the panels are so boring that they should award $285 to anyone who can successfully stay awake through one of them. The conference does offer an opportunity to see some of the great writers of our time read, but at what cost? Oh right, $285. If only there was some sort of forum for hearing great writers read for free, like at a college or a bookstore or anywhere in the world with an internet connection.

Aside from Robert Pinsky’s annual masked basement orgies, the AWP conference has become as stale as the writing it propagates. One of the main reasons writers put such an emphasis on having a strong writing community is that conversations with like-minded individuals are refreshing for one’s spirit and writing. However, most of the talk at the conference is self-congratulatory in nature, or too businesslike, or focused on getting laid. Only very rarely has there been a glimmer of real exchange, a Rankine-esque accusation that addresses something, or someone, with purpose. But even those conversations are laid too quickly to rest, as people go on believing poetry has once again touched some relevant nerve, only to continue their schmoozing in the next room.

If I wanted to lose myself in a sea of virgins vying for recognition from bottom-rung cultural celebrities, I would dust off my Captain America shield and sign up for this year’s Comic-Con. AWP’s attempt to synthesize a spurious proto-community in a despicable grab for dominance is akin to McDonalds’ creating 365black.com in order to further take advantage of an already disadvantaged demographic.

Let us now take a look at AWP’s own measures of success to get an idea of where the organization’s allegiances lie:

How will we know when we’ve succeeded?
• When the conference is the preeminent annual gathering for writers teachers, and publishers of contemporary writing
• When there is an affiliated, non-academic AWP organization in every state
• When AWP enjoys a $25 million endowment
• When AWP operates a powerful online literary community
• When holders of the MFA who have strong records of publication receive equity with their scholarly peers in hiring, promotion, tenure, salary, and benefits
• When recently established programs meet the standards outlined in our hallmarks
• When AWP produces regular comprehensive stratified surveys of writers and writing
programs, conferences, and centers
• When AWP utilizes the survey data in reports to membership, in balanced scorecards for each board committee, and in the development of new policies and projects

The organization purports to exist for advancing writing, yet it measures success only by the breadth of its own power. I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the writer’s lifestyle and purpose. Their conference is the preeminent annual gathering for writers because it is sui generis; there is nothing else like it in terms of scope and attendance. The organization has spun a cultural vise grip onto the dangling scrotum of poetry, and we are pathetically asking for it to be clamped shut.

AWP doesn’t need a $25 million endowment, but they sure would enjoy one. Just how do they plan on enjoying it? By buying an island in the Pacific on which to establish an MFA Factory that produces self-replicating, anthology-humping robots, probably. Why else would they need so much more money? The AWP Conference already receives financial support from The Poetry Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, The Center for Fiction, The National Books Critics Circle, The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, The Poetry Society of America, The Council of Literary Magazines & Presses, and over 50 Universities and Colleges, among many many more sponsors.

If The Association of Writers & Writing Programs succeeds at their goals, they will, in one way or another, have their hand in every publication produced by the establishment. Do we really want one entity, a homogenized status quo, decreeing what the future of poetry will be?

As a poet, I cannot abide. Poetry is larger and more relevant than ever, and yet it remains well-contained in conference rooms where elbow rubbing begets professional success. Poetry does not reward those who go through the motions in an attempt at achieving success, so why should poets? The bottom line is that making poetry more like a business makes it less of an art.

AWP does not advocate for an art free of form and restriction, which is what poetry must be; instead, AWP has positioned poetry within a culture that fails to examine itself, which means poets are limited in their ability to speak to truth. Empty gestures are made toward progress and innovation, but poetry is more attached than ever to the same tired rituals and presumptions that have brought about the need for such change in the first place. The need to honestly and openly examine ourselves, as well as poetry’s purpose outside of the institution that attempts to contain it, is dire. Poetry mustn’t keep reflecting the exploitative culture we currently exist in, it must speak directly to and against it.

Good writing cannot survive in a culture that values name recognition over substance and professional success over truth. Don’t allow AWP to further bastardize our art. Don’t fall prey to their unabashed power moves and cash grabs. For the sake of the art and the culture, don’t believe the hype.

Association of Writers & Writing Programs, AWP Conference

8 thoughts on “Don’t Believe the Hype: The Spurious Case of Benjamins-Glutton, AWP

  1. Reply Lars von Tree Mar 6,2013 6:12 am

    You’re not a writer, dude. What have you written? Let’s see some work, you sad fuck. You’re a parasite, and absolutely nobody gives a shit about you. Nobody ever will. You will always be nothing. Your only hope is to try to receive one tweet’s worth of fleeting attention by shitting on people more talented than you who have actually accomplished something. You are not a writer. You never will be. You can’t even write a grammatically correct blog post. A poet? You’re not a poet. Fuck you, you sad little insect. Fuck you.

  2. Reply Tony Starks aka Ghostface Mar 11,2013 1:44 pm

    Dat French nigga Rambo did no write no blogs… why don’t ya get yo lazy ass away frum da computah and plant dat shit on du chair behind the papuh, and write dat shit. Shiiiit Read a lot o books too cuz yo writin ain that good to be hones B yo ass probubly don even no wud meter iz ,fukin craftmunship mayne dis be Ghostface wud up! straight from da muhfucka slums o shaoliN! Wallabees yo!

  3. Reply Tony Starks aka Ghostface Mar 11,2013 4:55 pm

    sup Jesus shiiiiit !

  4. Reply John Hill Mar 17,2013 7:12 pm

    Where’s the love? This post made ME laugh, and that’s all I care about.

  5. Reply Stephen Sossaman Apr 19,2013 3:26 am

    My mind locked up on this phrase. . this… what, koan? Paradox? “Poetry is larger and more relevant than ever, and yet it remains well-contained in conference rooms.” Poetry has been sanitized, commercialized and commodified, if Billy Collins is vastly more popular than Ishmael Reed. As for the $285, I imagine that gets paid by colleges that send young instructors (after all, this is a conference for people working in writing programs). That is why the three people holding totes are smiling: a little professional development field trip on the college’s dime, some networking, cute strangers, a notch on the cv. Check out poetsandwar.com, a new site that, like you, is looking for some honesty and chllenge. William Logan’s reviews in the New Criterion are also refreshingly demanding.

  6. Reply shaz_r Jan 15,2014 10:16 am

    I believe I have genuine tears in my eyes.

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