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?
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.