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Poetry, Prose, and Politics: Trendsetter at AWP 2017

No matter where it was held, the fiftieth annual AWP Conference & Bookfair was bound to be memorable: all golden anniversaries are. However, this year’s festivities happened to take place in Washington, DC, a mere three weeks after Inauguration Day. Conference dates and locations are chosen years in advance, but it felt right to be there – and truly, politics and protest were at the heart of the event. The conference was held at both the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and Marriott Marquis, only about a mile from the White House, so it probably comes as no surprise that this year’s conference was highly charged. The three-day affair featured quite a few marches, vigils, and handmade pink hats. Sound somber? Not at all: the overall mood was one of joyful defiance.
AWP, or the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, is a nonprofit literary and academic organization founded in 1967. During most of the year, its member programs provide education and support to aspiring writers around the continent. The Conference & Bookfair, however, is the largest literary conference in North America, with attendance over 12,000 in the last few years. Anyone can sign up as a member and register for the conference, provided you’ve got the necessary cash. As a result, the people who come each year represent a wide range of careers, preferred genres, and academic affiliations. Quite a few of my friends attended as participants in panels or as staff for a book fair booth, but I went as a solo observer. Though I now work in publishing, I earned two degrees in writing, and the opportunity to check out the conference from both of my professional perspectives seemed irresistible.
Each year, AWP follows the same general format. The conference is broadly split up into a few different categories of events: the book fair, which runs each day from nine to five; panels, readings, caucuses, pedagogy sessions, and receptions, which take place on the conference grounds; and offsite events, which are hosted by individual groups and programs, though AWP advertises them. Because the call for panel proposals concluded on May 1 of last year, some of these discussions had to be revamped to include more recent events. (Usually this is more of a problem for panels that focus on technology, which changes quickly and often.) So, although the topical panels did not directly address the election, the new administration loomed large regardless. This year’s keynote speaker, author and immigrant Azar Nafisi, spoke passionately about the arts and resistance. “There has never been a more important time for writers to assemble,” she told the audience of 1,500. Quoting James Baldwin, she added, “Artists are here to disturb the peace.”
Out in the book fair, some eight hundred exhibitors sold and handed out a dizzying number of books, in addition to assorted pamphlets and swag. A few big-name publishers came, Harper Perennial and W.W. Norton among them, but the booths were largely given over to independent presses and university programs. Split This Rock, an organization dedicated to cultivating socially engaged poetry, put up a large board for visitors to write their own “ideas for poetic resistance.” Another, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, offered conference-goers the opportunity to add comments to poems written by incarcerated men and women. Graywolf Press gave out free chapbooks of Praise Song for the Day, the poem Elizabeth Alexander wrote and recited for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The National Endowment for the Arts, whose budget is under fire from the White House, was represented well by the many publishers and journals who receive funding from it. At Bodega’s booth, attendees could write messages on #ThankYouNEA postcards, which were later sent to Rep. Ken Calvert, who oversees the NEA’s budget. In addition, a number of book fairgoers were seen having their photos taken with a traveling whiteboard on which they’d written individualized messages of gratitude for the organization’s work.
For many attendees, this book fair is the center of the action: a lot of networking can happen while you’re waiting for coffee. Spirits were particularly high on the second day of the conference, once those travelers stranded by the snowstorm had finally gotten in. Some booths hosted meet-and-greets and book signings. Remembering to refresh Twitter frequently (and wearing athletic shoes) was the key to finding and making it to pop-up signings and galley giveaways. Electric Literature brought AWP-themed bingo boards to be filled out for a discount on their merchandise. These could be spotted in the hands of particularly competitive writers, myself included.
The panels, readings, and other on-site events – over five hundred in total – spanned a wide variety of subjects and communities. There was something for everyone: panels on apocalypse poetry by women, bookkeeping challenges for independent presses, and the utility of MFAs in nonprofit work had all wrapped by lunchtime on Thursday. Conversations had a tendency to veer towards the political climate, simply because everyone on either side of the microphone had some stake in it. One panel on West Virginia writers – a topic very close to my heart, as a native of the state – drew a sizeable, boisterously friendly crowd that looked and acted a bit like a family reunion. We addressed the new president and his popularity in-state at some length. Other digressions at other panels were briefer; there was already a lot to discuss. A Friday evening reading and discussion between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, moderated by writer and activist E. Ethelbert Miller, filled up long before any of the friends from my hotel room could get inside. All three have been outspoken about the state of the union, and those lucky souls in the audience reported that this was a passionate, powerful, and political evening. AWP screened footage of the discussion the following afternoon for those who couldn’t make it; with any luck, they’ll make it more broadly viewable soon.
The off-site events primarily took place after hours and included an array of happy hours, dance parties, and open mics. Local venues like the Northeastern Neighborhood Library and Busboys & Poets played host, giving AWP-goers the chance to stretch their legs and see the city. Though the weather was windy and cold throughout the conference, a crowd of about three hundred marched from the Marquis to the Capitol grounds on Friday afternoon, carrying signs and chanting slogans. Quite a few people took advantage of their proximity to the Capitol and went inside in groups to speak to their elected representatives.
The weekend wrapped on Saturday night with a candlelight vigil held in front of the White House, held by Split This Rock and co-sponsored by some thirty other literary organizations. That crowd numbered over a thousand and was addressed by a total of nine speakers, most of them poets. The speakers addressed a number of topics, ranging from the travel ban to ICE raids and Simon & Schuster’s controversial choice to publish a book by Milo Yiannopoulos. One speaker, poet Carolyn Forché, declared the event “the best AWP panel ever.”
Perhaps the unique flavor of Washington’s conference can best be captured in a vignette: on both Thursday and Friday afternoon, attendees formed a human chain snaking across the book fair floor. For about twenty minutes, strangers linked arms and chanted slogans of resistance: among them, “No ban, no wall, sanctuary for all!” Others watched, took photos, or kept looking through the fair’s offerings. There were a few rounds of applause. Then the wall dissolved back into the crowd at large. Though AWP 2017 is now over, the work of these writers, professors, and publishers continues. In the year ahead, we would do well to listen to what they have to say.

One Comment

  1. Hi,
    I am Mehedii Hasan, I just found this article. Just loved it. I must say about post font size. If you don’t mind, please increase font size. It will be looking and reading great.

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