ETA: An earlier version of this essay used the words "corporate" and "for-profit" to describe AWP, which accidentally misled readers. AWP is a registered non-profit, and has been since its founding in 1967. However, as with many non-profits, this does not necessarily mean that their staff and board members are unsalaried.
ETA 2: After perusing publicly available documents, Quaint has determined that in the 2012-2013 financial year, at least, most of AWP's named board members were not paid for their time. Fenza, however, retained a salary well over $100,000.
It hasn’t been a very good year for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). Despite a record number of registrations, panels, and presenters at the 2015 conference held in Minneapolis earlier this year, the high note was quickly stifled by wave after wave of controversy, administrative missteps, and PR bungles that would have one question whether the folks behind the scenes are as skilled with words as their positions would indicate.
First, not long after the close of the 2015 conference, conceptual poet and AWP member Vanessa Place was discovered to have been systematically tweeting the entire text of Gone With the Wind. Place, who at the time sat on the subcommittee in charge of selecting panels for the 2016 conference, had also changed her Twitter avatar to a picture of Hattie McDaniel in her role as Mammy, from the 1939 film adaptation of GWTW. At the time, Place’s conceptual project lacked significant context or explanation, and while she has since defended it, over 2000 people signed a petition to remove her from the AWP subcommittee.
For some writers, the idea that Place – whom many considered to have just performed social media blackface – would be helping to decide on the 2016 panels seemed at best misguided, and at worst offensive. After significant pressure, AWP issued a statement which announced that Place would be removed from the subcommittee.
Of course, AWP is not Vanessa Place, and it would be wrong to hold the entire organization accountable for the actions of one of its members. However, it was the tone of AWP’s non-apology that had many questioning whether the board was really as committed to diversity and inclusion as they claimed. As QueenMobs contributor Olivia Olivia stated, “AWP in effect said, we understand some people think Vanessa Place’s work is racist, and that’s really of no concern to us, but what is of concern is this controversy which we want no part in.”
Still, they seemed to have done “the right thing.” Folks submitted their panel proposals, spent large amounts of money reserving booths and tables at the book fair, and signed up for early-bird registration. Though AWP15 was barely yet a memory (and for some not a particularly pleasant one), there was an atmosphere of tentative excitement. Who doesn’t look forward to a week immersed in the celebration of their craft? With Place off the committee, would-be panelists were optimistic that the 2016 schedule would be a true representation of the diversity of voices within our community.
Except, not really. While there are some panels on offer that deal with gender, queerness, and race, Utah writer Karrie Higgins noted a distinct lack of scheduled events by and for writers with disabilities. “On Friday, after I learned that AWP rejected every single disability panel proposal for the 2016 conference in Los Angeles,” she said “it hit me like a sucker punch.” Higgins, who is neuroatypical and epileptic, said that after years of feeling excluded from literary events, the possibility of attending AWP16 – and perhaps even participating in a panel – was both exciting and affirming. “It felt like a confluence.” She wrote, “Like things were coming together. Being invited made me feel part of something for the first time in a VERY long time.”
Much like the Vanessa Place incident, the case of there being no panels that represent differently abled writers might seem like no big deal –perhaps even a case of sour grapes from folks whose panels were rejected. After all, there’s a disability caucus, where differently abled people can network, mingle, and socialize. AWP gets thousands of panel applications every year, so it’s understandable that some people will be disappointed with the selection.
However, much like the Vanessa Place incident, it’s the manner in which AWP handled this valid criticism that catapulted the issue from potential oversight into utter shit-show. First, Higgins was told by an AWP representative that there had not been any panel submissions that dealt with disability. “My fingers are always crossed that we receive proposals from writers with disabilities,” the rep tweeted. “Our panels are only as diverse as the submissions.”
Except there were panels submitted by differently abled writers–Higgins was slated to participate in one such event. As the list of rejected disability panels began to grow, and with no official word from AWP regarding the issue, folk took to social media to express their concerns. Among them was Laura Mullen, poet and program director of the Louisiana State University MFA program, who tweeted at AWP to explain their decision. Mullen also called on AWP to make transparent the gender and race breakdown of accepted and rejected panels, noting that marginalized voices seemed to have been…well, marginalized.
In response, David Fenza, Executive Director of AWP and supposed grown-up, wrote her a patronizing email, and CC’ed the Chair and Associate Chair of LSU’s English Department. That’s right; rather than trying to meaningfully engage Mullen in dialogue, or listen to the concerns of the community, Fenza told on her. He told on her to her boss, as if she were a naughty child, not a fully grown woman expressing her own opinions on a private platform that is not associated in any way with LSU. “We would hope that the director of a member AWP program would support our association rather than cast aspersions upon it via twitter, as you have done.” He said. “AWP has worked very hard to support creative writing as an academic discipline and to establish careers for writers who teach.” In other words; you owe us, Laura Mullen. Now be quiet, and stop causing this silly fuss.
Things snowballed from there. First, a blog post by writer Sandra Beasley, which discussed the controversy and offered support to Laura Mullen, was blocked on Facebook. Then, her entire blog was blocked. When people tried to link to her content, they were presented with an error message stating that Facebook’s security systems had deemed the link “unsafe.” While there’s no way of knowing exactly what triggered the block, links are often flagged if people report them as spam.
Naturally, AWP then issued a statement. While the tone was somewhat improved in comparison to the Vanessa Place sorry-not-sorry, the message was essentially the same; we know we’ve fucked up, and we’re trying desperately to minimize the fall out.
At this point, it was a little difficult for people to swallow AWP’s insistence that it was “[privileged] to continue listening to [the] concerns [of the community],” much less that it was “finding new ways to improve.” As Stephen Kuusisto noted in his blog post, the issues with AWP and disability inclusion extend far beyond rejected panels. Kuusisto, who had attended AWP over a number of years, pointed to problems with accessibility, and a lack of accommodations made for differently-abled attendees. If his itemized list of issues and concerns seems unreasonable, imagine how you’d feel if you’d paid anywhere between $240 and $300 for full-price registration and somewhere in the ballpark of $300-900 for travel expenses, only to find that conference organizers and staff were neither prepared nor eager to assist in making “reasonable arrangements” to accommodate you. Imagine if you had spent that much money, and were then made to feel unwelcome and burdensome for the duration of the conference.
Granted, some of the problems Kuusisto raises are logistical, and not entirely under the control of AWP - but with over 40 years of experience running the conference, you’d think they’d have a better handle on things by now. Facilitating a high-traffic event is 90% logistics–so how is it that AWP is still struggling to provide even the most basic aids to differently abled attendees, such as handouts at panels, or a fully accessible website? It’s not enough to shift the blame onto individual staff members, volunteers, or panelists; if the organization wants to “do better,” it should be working with all its employees and participants to ensure that nobody is excluded or left behind.
Unfortunately (though not altogether surprisingly), AWP’s commitment to try harder faltered straight out of the gate when, on the 24th of August, Kate Gale –another member of the Los Angeles subcommittee, and managing editor of Red Hen Press –published an opinion piece at The Huffington Post. The article (which has since been removed, but is preserved here, through the magic of the internet), titled “AWP is Us,” outlines in no uncertain terms exactly how Kate Gale feels about those pesky minorities and their pleas for inclusion and diversity. Managing to offend almost everyone in under 500 words, Gale throws out clichés and caricatures of the queer community, the Jewish community, and Native Americans (whom she consistently refers to as “Indians”). “I pictured David Fenza saddling up a horse, Stetson in place, going out to shoot Indians,” Gale says. “It was an unlikely image.”
It took about two days for “AWP is US” to be pulled from HuffPo. In its stead, there appears a retraction and apology from Gale, which, in the now storied tradition of AWP non-apologies, reads like a desperate woman doing damage control for her press and her reputation. “Red Hen Press is committed to publishing works of literary excellence, supporting diversity, and promoting literacy in our local schools,” she says. “We continuously strive to make sure the books we publish are by a wide diversity of authors of all walks of life…[and] we honor transparency as a way to improve the publishing world and we honor your right to criticize.”
Fenza, too, issued a statement. In conversation with Publishers Weekly, Fenza defended Gale, asserted that AWP had not asked her to remove the article, and referred to AWP’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists.” He added that Gale would not be removed from the LA subcommittee, and that he believed her “intentions were good.” “Nobody was standing up for this organization,” Fenza said, “saying something positive about this great trade show we participate in every year.” This sentiment flies in the face of AWP’s prior assertion that it feels “privileged” to continue listening to the concerns of the community, and that hearing and responding to those concerns is “deeply valuable.” Instead, Fenza seems to be calling for blind loyalty–and if that loyalty comes at the expense of queer folk, women, people of color, and the disabled…well, so be it. Drink the damn Kool-Aid, already.
When you refer to AWP as a “trade show,” you expose the kernel of truth at the center of all the recent debacles; AWP is not us. Fenza’s small linguistic slip highlights the stark reality: AWP is a business venture operating under the auspices of capitalism, and as such it serves its own interests over and above those of the community. While AWP is a non-profit, that doesn't mean individuals (like Fenza) aren't profiting. According to public record, AWP netted over $385,000 last financial year, and while those proceeds do go back into supporting the organization, that support includes salaries for a number of its board members, including Fenza. Why would Fenza say "trade show" when AWP is referred to everywhere else as a conference? The word “conference” implies meeting, discussion, connection. By contrast, the word “trade” implies a transaction, where one party expects equivalent exchange or investment from the other.
Yet the community is trading with AWP. We make a transaction with them every time we pay membership fees, conference registration, and entry fees for competitions which may or may not decide to pick a winner. In return, we expect AWP to honor its promises–if it says it is committed to diversity, then we expect to see diversity. If it says it is listening to our concerns, we expect it to listen. This is not unreasonable. This is the nature of trade.
But AWP and Fenza are asking for more than our money, now. While they awkwardly fiddle about trying to uphold their own end of the transaction, they expect us to further invest; they ask us for our patience. They ask us for our understanding. And they expect us to swear fealty to and organization that, time and time again, has shown itself utterly unworthy of our continued investment.
I am not suggesting that AWP is entirely without value. Neither am I engaging in so-called conspiracy theories, or asserting that it’s an evil corporation bent on the destruction of our community. I believe there are good, hard-working, intelligent and empathetic humans working in all levels of the AWP–from board members to conference volunteers. But personally, I cannot continue to trade with an organization that continually fails to uphold its end of the bargain.
AWP is not us, though ironically we are its animating force. Why do we attend AWP, anyway? It’s rare that I hear of someone planning to go because of a particular on-site panel, reading, or even the keynote address. Those things are all wonderful experiences and opportunities, but what people love about AWP is the chance to come together with their community. We love that for a week we can live in a bubble, where the whole world cares about writing as much as we do.
But the crazy thing is, we don’t need AWP for that. At the 2015 conference, I spent almost all of my time at the book fair, working the Quaint table. I did not attend any panels, or on-site readings. I did not “network” or waste time bowing and scraping to folks who would probably forget my name 45 seconds later. All the events I went to were off-site, planned separately by small presses, publishers, and writers, without the aid of AWP. And I had an absolute blast.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that Quaint did make some small amount of money at the book fair–essentially enough to cover our share of the $575 table. But we made more money at our off-site event, which was hosted (for free!) in a small, queer, community-run arts space. In return, we channeled that money back into the magazine. This felt far more like connection, far less like commerce.
It’s understandable that, for some, AWP brings more to the trade than just the chance to connect with one’s community. For mid-level and big-time writers, and most particularly for academics, AWP also deals in professional currency, where appearing on a panel or giving an on-site reading can make all the difference to a tenure-track career. AWP knows this. David Fenza knew this, when he told Laura Mullen that “Establishing creative writing programs, including LSU's, required support from AWP.” Subtext: you owe me.
This is why we feel it would be unreasonable to call for an AWP boycott. As much as hitting AWP where it hurts might wake them up to the reality of the situation, it would be unfair to ask writers who are already struggling to spit in the face of the organization who may, possibly, give them a leg up. Many writers, particularly the marginalized, feel they cannot afford to lose the support of AWP. We are angry for them. We are angry that, in exchange for scraps, they are asked to swear loyalty to an organization that so frequently fails and dismisses them.
For younger writers, those of us in the earlier stages of our careers, or those of us who have more or less given up on a “professional” career (see: why speaking out against abuse wins you no friends in high places, ever), the cost/benefit analysis of boycotting AWP is simpler. We can connect elsewhere. We can commune elsewhere. We can organize, and support, and sustain, and yes, even trade, all on our own.
We are not AWP. We are a community. We are so much more than the confines and limitations of one single organization.
Mild-mannered copy editor by day, and caped crusader by night, Kia Groom recently graduated with an MFA in poetry from the University of New Orleans. Her poems, essays, and short fiction have appeared in Cordite, Going Down Swinging, Overland, and Midnight Echo, and she is founding editor of Quaint Magazine. Twitter: @whodreamedit, Web: www.kiagroom.com
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