We have been trying for some time now to understand poetry, understand not just its aesthetics but also how it circulates and what it carries with it as it circulates. We came to poetry through higher education, but once we were there, we were told that poetry was more vibrant outside of higher education and this seemed to be a true statement at the time. As a result, when we were sent down to do an internship at the Poetry Project, we devotedly showed up every Wednesday and put out chairs. Once Jessica Hagedorn let us write some things for the Newsletter but she complained that our prose was not awake and rewrote them so they were no longer ours and she was right. Once we got to ride in a cab with Eileen Myles and a typewriter. Once we missed the last train upstate and spent the night in Penn Station. Actually more than once; there was this bar called Downtown Beirut... Years later we found a datebook where we wrote down the readings of that freshman year. And what was surprising to us twenty years later was how many people we saw read that we now count as long time friends. Poetry is funny that way. Decades pass.
Does this in anyway explain why we are so puzzled when we hear that one and then another and then another poetry friend that we know and love is going to be spending close to $1000 to attend the AWP conference — not as a presenter but as an audience member — in a few weeks?
When we ask this question we don’t mean those of us who are poetry professionals. For better or worse, and most days we are saying worse, the AWP performs the tepid expectations that our culture has for professional organizations. Best we can figure out, AWP functions as an advocacy group for the institutionalization of creative writing. It publishes a newsletter full of advice about teaching and feel-good reports from MFA programs, it provides guidance (and some best practice standards) on MFA programs to potential consumers, and runs a conference that features a plethora of panels about things such as How Twitter Works (And Doesn't Work) For Writers and The Third Degree: Why Writers Pursue Additional Education Beyond the Bachelor’s and Master’s. Oddly the AWP seems to see its role as an advocate for creative writing programs as a thing, less for its individual members. We say this despite its claim that it exists to advocate for writers. There is no other way explain why it has decided to have a panel on a third degree and to reject the proposed panel on Principled Protest in Academia: the Story of the University of Houston Sit-in. And why its idea of advocacy has been concentrated around providing program advice to writers who want to enroll in higher education to study writing and why it has done little to protect their interests once they are there. It has not taken a strong stand against the predatory lending practices of the student loan industry. It has pointedly made no serious resistance to the adjunctification of labor beyond a statement of recommendations on non-tenure track faculty that says things like “NTT faculty who wish to bargain collectively should do so.”
We at Commune Editions all have our own individual reasons for avoiding the AWP conference, although we might agree that a conference with a panel on Four Ways Blogging Benefits a Writer was never likely to be much of an inducement. But we should confess that two of us have succumbed to professional pressures from our employers and gone in years past (and are likely to succumb in the future too; we do, we admit, work in the business); one of us remains untainted. And we should further admit that when this succumbing has happened, we relied upon travel funds provided by our employers to cover at least part of the expenses. It would be dissimulation not to admit this. For not to belabor the obvious, but one of the reasons these conferences have $285 registration fees and are held in $200 a night hotels with $12 beers in the bar in major urban areas is because there is a presumption that the attendees are tenured faculty who will be getting at least some of their costs covered by their employers. According to the AWP’s financial statements, the revenue on the conference was $1,352,908 in 2012. Most of this was spent on renting rooms from the hotel and on staff and also on honoraria for the featured writers. Whether this is a good way for any organization to be spending its money is another issue. Our only point here is that the AWP conference resembles other professional academic organization conferences and it is priced like everybody has an expense account, like everybody is tenure track.This is not to brag. Hate the tenured as much as you want, including two of us; forgive the underemployed one of us perhaps. We are just trying to describe what feels odd to us.
Here is the thing, despite this financial structure, we doubt the conference could happen if the only people who attended it were those with travel funds provided by their jobs in higher education. There are not that many people in this category, compared to the MLA or even the ASA or Modernist Studies Association. And we suspect, although cannot prove, that there are even fewer interested in say panels on devotional poetry or female memorists with daddy issues or in tumbleweeding out of the great plains. This means that for the AWP to survive as it is, it requires there to be a lot of underemployed people hoping to eventually get jobs and who see the conference as a semi-professional networking nexus in which to seek precarious employment. It seems telling that the AWP seems to get bigger each year as employment prospects collapse. In 1992, the AWP conference had 15 events and 40 presenters. Last year more than 12,000 people attended. In 1992, nontenure line labor was closer to 57%. Now it is at over 76%.
We get the desperation here. We don’t hate the payers. There are a lot of MFAs and not a lot of jobs. There seems to be a bursting high education bubble and a bursting MFA bubble within this bubble too. Outside of higher education, there is no serious grant infrastructure for writers. There is no meaningful welfare system for any sort of US human that might help writers along. There is Obamacare and it isn’t that great. We get how all of this might force one into a position so impossible that one might as well join an organization whose mission is to defend writing programs and not much more. I mean we do all sorts of odd things in our moments of despair too.
But what is it that lets the conference look as it if could be a semi-professional networking nexus? What compels so many to go to a conference when the conference is full of panels like We’re Having a Party: Building a Literary Community Through Event Series? and so not full of panels on how the U of Houston students managed to get a 55% raise after their sit-in?
We suspect that a lot of that reason has to do with the offsite reading.
Basically, the only part of the AWP conference worth attending is the part that is not the AWP conference. We do not know when the offsite reading becomes the most crucial part of the AWP (no one at the AWP has returned our email requesting information). But in recent years the offsite has become many nights and many overlapping events organized by many different presses and organizations, few of them local to the city. The AWP has even started listing them on their website, as if they are part of the conference. And if the conference panels seem, well, lacking, then the offsite readings seem at least better.
We are interested in how the AWP has become the offsite readings more or less because we too love and believe in the DIY ingenuity of literary culture. The offsite reading has an interesting history. The first one was probably at the Chicago MLA in 1985. Charles Bernstein probably had something to do with it. At the MLA, the offsite reading is just one night. The tradition is that the local poets organize the reading and that local poets read with visiting poets. Poets show up as poets (not as representing a press or a journal).
It is notable how different the AWP offsite readings are than the MLA one. At AWP they are for the most part organized by the business, the MFA program (Brown alumni read) or the press (Apogee press) or the not for profit (VIDA). They do not necessarily have a local tie.
Why are so many presses and journals and small groups of people willing to do the work that the AWP could possibly be doing, such as preserving DIY literary cultures in the face of the onslaught of attack on this by the institutionalization of creative writing that is taking all things dear to alternative literary cultures and charging large amounts of money for them? And why, to add insult as it were, do the people Doing It Themselves then pay the AWP and multinational hotel industry and the airline industry close to $1000 to let them do it?
We keep getting caught up in these amounts of money in part because we have watched the Brooklyn Poetry Summit funding campaign sort of fail. Or half succeed if you like that glass half full stuff. Their goal was a modest equivalent of five people going to the AWP. They only got the equivalent of two and a half people going to the AWP. But the Brooklyn Poetry Festival is just one example of a moment of community organized support for literature. And really saying the Brooklyn Poetry Festival is good and the AWP is bad is not our point. They are what they are. What we want to say is that the AWP is not, as it claims in its mission, the advocate of the writer in general. The kind of writer who most needs advocacy is the kind least likely to get it from AWP. It is an organization that has very successfully appropriated the community-organized forms of literary distribution and used them as a false sociality to disguise the economic collapse of higher education and then to perpetuate its continued existence.
We worry not that much about the $1000 paid by our friends (it’s first world money after all), but more the false sociality that lets the AWP conference suggest it could be for the community. It is this false sociality that has so many joining an organization that seems dedicated to preserving their own exploitation and then, once there, do the work that the conference is refusing to do. This is also, we worry, what makes it impossible for these same people to imagine that they have a collective politics that could resist the pillaging and destruction of higher education that is happening right now. Makes it difficult to support the very things that have made literature have such rich and decentralized structures of support.
This false sociality, we suspect, is why the AWP is even worse than the MLA at protecting the very institutions that formed it. Don't get us wrong. Both organizations are fiddling while Rome collapses. But the MLA (and this must be related to the fact that its annual conference, unlike the AWP, gets smaller each year) has at least been able to issue some tepid critiques of casualization. It has at least been able to have a discussion, even though a painful one, about Israel, Palestine, and BDS. And its disenfranchised membership in addition to having a party and building literary community through a reading has also been holding a sort of alternative conference every few years whose goal is to attempt to figure out how to respond to the economic destruction of higher education.
Again, it is not MLA good; AWP bad. But maybe we were wrong when we said that it wasn't AWP bad and Brooklyn Poetry Festival good. Maybe it might be that the Brooklyn Poetry Festival is at least somewhat good. And we bet if you were going to the go the AWP and decided not to and sent your money to the Brooklyn Poetry Festival instead, they wouldn't make you do the AWP's work and organize a panel on What's a Creative Writing PhD Worth? and then charge you $285 to go to their readings.