• Ian Kirkpatrick

Why I’m Disappointed in #AWP17

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

This year was my first year going to AWP Writer’s Conference. AWP stands for Association for Writers and Writer’s Programs. Every year the association hosts a large scale conference in a different place somewhere in the United States. In 2016 it was in LA, this year it was in DC, and next year it will be in Tampa, Florida. It’s not a new program, this was the fifth year anniversary and with that said, I was kind of hoping for a little more professionalism from everywhere around.

In preparation for my first time at the conference, I talked to people and read blog posts on how to best prepare, make the best of your time there, and tips from those who have previously gone on how to get the most out of AWP. The number one line that was constantly repeated by everyone was that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. There’s so much stuff, don’t spend all day, every day at the conference. Take breaks. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. I must say, I certainly didn’t feel overwhelmed, perhaps I would have been if I wasn’t so underwhelmed with disappointment due to the incredulous amount of social justice garbage woven in and forced down the throats of the goers. Though I’m sure many, if not most people at AWP didn’t feel strangled by social justice because most of them embrace it. I’ll get into what I mean in a moment here…

I was initially worried about AWP (the association) and the conference after I renewed my membership with the group. You may recall my blog post a couple of months back called, An Open Letter to AWP’s “The Writer’s Chronicles.” AWP has what’s supposed to be a writing magazine that they release quarterly. Over the last year as I’ve received the copies I’ve noticed an increased social justice focus. Some of the articles in the past few copies have included essays from black authors blaming their failures and struggles on the unrelated white community. They blamed white people in general for not writing, for not recording, for not speaking. It published stories that were based on the lies of Michael Brown, Ferguson, and other false narratives that have been proven time and time again.

This was where I first became worried.

As the AWP conference drew closer, the schedule for seminars, panels, and readings became available. I had to make multiple attempts to scroll through the panelist because the social justice focuses within was infuriating. Here are just a couple of event titles and descriptions:

  1. Magical Realism as an Agent for Social Change: Latin American Boom masters assaulted political oppression with Magical Realism. Now, this popular genre is adapted by writers of various subject positions to bolster social justice. This panel of magical realist writer/teachers discusses how to guide student use of the genre to confront inequalities of their time and locale.

  2. Revolutionary Mothering: Radical Caretaking as Essential to Creating Revolutionary Communities: Inspired by the legacy of radical and queer Black feminists of the 1970s and ’80s, Revolutionary Mothering places marginalized mothers of color at the center of movements working toward racial, economic, reproductive, gender, and food justice, as well as anti-violence, anti-imperialist, and queer liberation.

  3. Inclusive Anthologies: The Challenge of Building Books that Reflect Our World: Five anthology editors discuss the choices they’ve made in soliciting writers of varied backgrounds and experiences to reach a broader, more diverse audience. How best to solicit diverse contributors? Should submissions be read “blind” or with knowledge of and attention to writer background?

  4. The Killing Fields: Representing State-Driven Slavery, Genocide, The Holocaust, and Other Systemic Murders: How does literature engage state-driven atrocities like Native American genocide, war crimes, executions by police, and other systemic murders? This inclusive panel will interrogate representation, mourning, witness, and the impact of such writing.

  5. Submission as Action:  Once VIDA published statistical evidence illustrating the underrepresentation of women writers in top journals, editors were quick to say women don’t submit as often.

  6. The Politics of Queering Characters: For queer writers, creating a queer character is a political act that involves conscious decisions and unexpected obstacles. How can we tell when our characters are too queer or not queer enough? What other complications may arise when we try to define our audience and their expectations? How do we choose to out ourselves and our characters in our work?

  7. Which Comes First, Activism or Artist?: Confronted with social wrongs, should we, as writers, feel obligated to use our art to advocate for our gender, race, or a political  cause? What goes into that choice and what is at stake? If we do so use our art, how do we face injustice and still craft aesthetically compelling poems?

  8. Global Narratives Within US Literature: In a world where cultures transcend borders, what defines US literature? How is a writer’s experience, aesthetic, and vision shaped by carrying more than one country in her skin? What particular challenges and opportunities exist for writers whose work springs from a global, multicultural source?

  9. Real Talk, Real Action: Road Maps to Authentic Cultural Diversity: Discuss the concrete steps and strategies they have taken to build cultural diversity among literary offerings in their growing Texas city. What are the barriers to, and opportunities for, creating a dynamic literary ecosystem that reflects and values different perspectives?

  10. Facing Trauma: POC Leveraging Their Experience in the Academy to Initiate Community Healing: It is increasingly difficult for those in privileged positions (politicians, the academy, the media) to ignore the violence in America’s public sphere. Often, the responses to these structures of power are confined to exposure (media coverage, statistics, etc.) or punishment of offending parties. This panel discusses how POC leverage their MFAs in nontraditional ways to foster healing in communities with trauma via new media/video games, community workshops, and other modes of cultural healing.

  11. What’s Workshop Got to Do with It: Altering Power Structures in the Creative Writing Classroom: Flannery O’Connor wrote that writing workshops are dangerous; student comments are driven by ignorance, flattery, and spite. Even so, the traditional workshop has thrived, and professors often struggle with the balances of power—wanting a democracy while adjusting for all the bad advice. This panel offers concrete ways to honestly share power in creative writing courses, with particular attention to how gender, race, and class affect perceptions of authority

  12. Stakes Is High: The Urgency of Intersectional Poetics: The Dialogue Arts Project (DAP) is a pioneering new diversity consulting initiative that utilizes the literary and performing arts to generate difficult dialogue across lines of identity and difference. This dynamic chorus of facilitators from the project—award-winning writers, professors, and performers—will present new work that highlights DAP’s mission, prioritizing vulnerable personal narratives around socialization connected to race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and more.

  13. Degree of Change: Using Your MFA in Social Justice Nonprofit Work

  14. We Are Here Because You Were There—United States’ Military Intrusion and the Shifting Landscape of American Poetry: With a history of military involvement, America has left countries and ethnic groups with the burden of piecing together existences across diasporas. Poets will read from their work and examine how, through the act of writing poetry, they reclaim their exiled lands, as well as explore trauma, honor lineage, shift the literary landscape, and resist erasure from United States war history

  15. Triggered Writing/Creative Warnings: Trauma and Trigger Warnings in Creative Writing Classrooms and Communities

  16. Agents of Change: Social Justice and Activism in the Literary Community

  17. Social Justice and Poetic Communities: How do we, as writers and literary arts organizers, bring about change in the greater literary community? And how do we move from intention and discussion about race, gender, and inequality to action? This panel brings together literary organizations to discuss their roles as social justice activists in the writing community.

  18. The Power of Picture Books: What Picture Books Can Teach Middle Grade and YA Writers About Inclusivity and Craft: As writers of children’s literature, inclusivity is necessary in order to reflect the world around us. Complex topic discussions on mental health, gender expression, feminism, racial equality, and social justice are just as critical for young people to understand. The modern picture book is a leader in the exploration of these concepts.

  19. Social Justice and the Poetic Communities

  20. We’re Recruiting: Teaching & Enacting Social Justice in the Writing Classroom

  21. From the Bottom to the Top: Building, Rebuilding, and Embracing an Inclusive Creative Writing Program

  22. Young Adult Authors Tackle Social Justice and Activism

Here are just some of the race-related panels:

  1. Making Space—A Hmong American Writers’ Circle Reading

  2. Four Indigenous Writers, Not Just Simple Indian Stereotypes: A Reading

  3. Not Just Novelists: On Publishing Contemporary African Poets

  4. Black Magic Women: Black Women Examine Creativity in Digital Spaces

  5. Asian-American Generations at Coffee House Press

  6. Beyond the Spoken Word: Black Poets In and On Performance

Here are just some of the women-focused panels:

  1. Girlhood, Womanhood, Coming of Age

  2. It’s the End of the World as She Knows it: Apocalypse Poetry by Women

  3. Finding a Way: The Secret Life of a Solo Mom Writer

  4. The Baby Penalty: The Complex Dynamics Surrounding Motherhood and a Literary Career

  5. The Political Woman: Historical Novelists Reimagine and Reclaim Women’s Place in Politics

  6. What Women Want: Writing Female Desires

  7. Who Runs the World? Women with Power and Purpose

  8. Women’s Fiction: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It

  9. Fractured Selves: Fabulism as a Platform for Minorities, Women, and the LGBT Community

And here’s one I just thought as strange (and I’ll explain why in a second):

  1. Strange Bedfellows: The Unholy Mingling of Politics and Art

Most, if not all of the above-mentioned titles for panels were only from PART of one day of the three day weekend. After all of those social and political panels, do you really think it’s ‘strange’ that politics and art mix? Politics and art have been ‘bedfellows’ since the beginning of politics and art. Art has always been used as a way to critic and comment on what’s happening in politics and society at large. And then just to contradict itself, AWP also had these course listed:

  1. Uneasy Alliances: Poets Laureate & Government Agencies

  2. Translation as a Political Act

So clearly it knows writing and art are political and social acts in a lot of ways.

And a lot of the mentioned above titles don’t include random courses that don’t mention social justice in the title but do mention ‘marginalized’ and ‘power structures’ in the bodies of the text. Look, I don’t really care if you want to have racially segregated or focused groups and talks. Sometimes that’s what certain people need. However, if you do that, you can’t be mad at people who want to do the same who you might not like. You know what I didn’t see on the list? Panels and discussions or celebrations for white writers, but there were TONS for other races. You don’t have a single panel listed with the focus on men or developing male characters, male stories, or exploring true masculinity, but so much for women.

They’re not there because people would riot. There was one table with the name, “Bull: Men’s Fiction” written across their banner. However “Men’s Fiction” had been crossed out. When I spoke with the owners of the table and Bull Press, they said yeah, their magazine is only called Bull, but they didn’t mark out “Men’s Fiction.” They said someone must have sharpied it when they ran by. This overload of women, minorities, and garbage isn’t about justice or equality, it’s about the erasure of others. It’s about the hatred of men to the point that even a single table focused on male fiction and masculinity is vandalized.

If we want to talk about diversity in the program, there is none. It’s all the same people spouting the same social justice, diversity, inclusion crap, but no one talking about actual identity and culture on an individual level. There are no booths that talked about white or European writers, that encouraged American writers and American history, but only those that shamed Americans if America was mentioned at all.

So let’s get into the actual echo-chamber of the community at AWP. I saw pink ‘pussy’ hats, I saw No Fascist USA shirts, I saw so many books about Fuck Donald Trump fiction and heard so many presses and magazines mention “We’re all about the resistance. We’re all about revolution. Send us stuff about your resistance.” I wonder what that’s in response to.

And, to what I think should be the shame of all those involved, those who clapped, and those who enabled, in the middle of Friday’s book fair, a random bunch of people decided it was time to demonstrate their political opinions IN THE MIDDLE OF A PROFESSIONAL BOOK FAIR. They linked arms and blocked off aisles as they chanted about Trump’s Border Ban. Some three-line chant that had the same exact rhythm as all other leftist garbage chants. You know the one.

This went on for at least twenty minutes as some people, I’d say most people, just tried to move on with their day and continue the book fair. Look, we all paid a lot of money to be there, to discover books and writers. Obviously you are all obsessed with your political whatever, but I don’t want to hear it unless it’s on the page. I’m in a room full of, what are supposed to be creative people, and all I’m getting is an unoriginal chant and an unoriginal ‘protest’ that does nothing but annoy.

When was the last time you heard the news saying how these garbage chants and obstruction changed anyone’s mind? Oh, that’s right, it never has. Why not be persuasive, smart, charming, and factual? Maybe it’s because you can’t. Maybe because you have no actual argument, facts, or charisma. You’re unable to convince anyone to your side, so you sort of threaten them.

Do you know what would have happened to me if I had worn a Trump hat to AWP? I can assure you that I wouldn’t have been welcomed by a majority of the publishers, magazines, or other authors. I can assure you I wouldn’t have been given the same kind of grace I gave the pussy hats, the chanters, and the dumb LA RESISTANCE! Tables. I would have loved to bring and wear my Trump shirt to DC. Call me a coward, but traveling alone and still making my way into my actual career which is flooded with liberal idealogues, I didn’t want to bomb myself before I even got started, but maybe it’s too late for that.

I know I can’t have an honest conversation with many people because they want to be snarky, catty, and assume they’re right and everyone agrees. During the chanting session, there was an older gentleman that passed by who said, “Isn’t this like singing inside of a church?” Just another sign that the people who attend these events and who run this industry are all mental copies who can’t think for themselves and doubt other people do too.

I wish AWP was more inclusive. I wish they were more interested in diversity of thought and opinion rather than circlejerk politics and division based on race. Conservatives have been losing the culture war for some time, and this is why I can’t give up. This is why I must infiltrate places like this, and until I meet the people I need to meet and make it to the places I need to make, I have to keep my head down. You don’t win the culture war by screaming in peoples’ faces, you do it by presenting ideas in entertainment material that people want to read, see, watch, whatever.

Based on the list of panels, even the liberals realize that propaganda and entertainment are necessary for capturing the minds of the next generation. There were a handful of panels and reaching kids with social justice and indoctrinating them. My infiltration of the literary world is not about indoctrinating kids but offering alternative ideas to what they’re being force-fed en masse.

I’ll probably give AWP a few more chances, but I’ll also be looking at other conferences. I’ll be watching the attendees of conferences for changes. I’m just so disappointed, but I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. AWP has never given me any reason to think they were different than what the arts community is at large. For being an industry that flaunts experimentation, open-mindedness, and new ideas, it’s always disheartening to see just how closed the doors to difference actually are.

Sorry AWP, you’re missing out because of this bull.

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© 2019 by Ian Kirkpatrick