The American creative-writing community comes together every year for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference. This year’s conference, held in Los Angeles from March 31 through April 2, featured far-reaching conversations about diversity, inclusion, access, race, and racism that have been simmering and, more recently, boiling. While the vibe at the conference was mostly positive, a great deal of anger was also expressed. Writers are attempting to address these issues, by protesting, advocating new programming, and developing caucuses within AWP.
Race, Diversity, and Creative Writing at AWP and Beyond
Perhaps the most notable evidence of, and response to, the mounting frustrations was the AWP keynote delivered by poet Claudia Rankine, whose 2014 collection, Citizen, brought attention to the myriad ways racism is expressed in everyday situations and made Rankine a public intellectual. The speech, which AWP will publish in its entirety in the fall issue of its Writer’s Chronicle magazine, is an indictment of institutionalized racism within the creative-writing community.
Boris Kachka, reporting on the keynote in New York magazine’s Vulture blog, wrote that Rankine’s “stated topic was ‘what keeps us uncomfortable in each other’s presence’ at the book fair, or, more specifically, what she sees as persistent racial tokenism in M.F.A. workshops.”
Rankine said that even some writing programs with a diverse student body “have successfully tokenized a person of color, objectified, exploited, and disregarded her all at once.” As an example, she cited a letter she received from an anonymous African-American student “who was thinking of leaving his or her program because they were told that certain life experiences are said to belong to sociology and not to poetry, and that to write beyond the imagination’s notion of normality is to write political poetry, sociology, identity politics poetry, protest poetry—many labels, but none of them poetry. For in order for poetry to be poetry, white readers must find it relatable, and only then can it transcend its unrelatable colored writer.” According to Rankine, simply admitting people of color into creative-writing programs doesn’t solve the deeper problems.
Rigoberto González, poet and faculty member at Rutgers University–Newark, agrees and looks toward steps his program and others might take.
“Rankine is placing, quite rightly, responsibility and accountability on even those M.F.A. programs, like Rutgers–Newark’s, that have reached a commendable level of diversity not only reflected in the graduate program’s student body, but also the program’s faculty,” González said. “Achieving diversity is not an end goal; it is only the next vital step. What happens next? Rankine is challenging all creative writing spaces to imagine fresh avenues of discussion, critical feedback, and even community building with language and pedagogy that don’t rely on the insular, even trite discourse that has become the default teaching method in the writing workshop. A cultural shift happens not only with a diverse classroom, but with innovative instruction.”
One purpose of the AWP conference is to create forums for this kind of discussion. Here are the titles of just a few of the AWP 2016 panels that addressed the issues of race, and inclusion and diversity: “What Are You? Mixed-Race Writers Find Voice and Community,” “Write Me Right: Ideas and Resources for Writing Diverse Characters,” “Coming-Out Narratives: Beyond Queer 101,” “What Makes an M.F.A. Program LGBTQ-Friendly?,” and “The Absence of Color: Addressing the Lack of Diverse Writers of Children’s Books.”
Most AWP events are selected by a subcommittee through an application process, and though conference subcommittees have worked to create schedules with diversity-focused panels, not everyone is confident the members are using the right criteria.
“My understanding is that AWP subcommittee members have been asked to assess diversity as it refers to variety, not to an increase in racial, class, and gender equity,” said Ken Chen, executive director of the Asian-American Writers Workshop, a New York City arts advocacy organization focused on supporting Asian-American creative writers. “This has meant that a panel of half white men and half white women would be considered more diverse than, say, a panel of all black queer women. Diversity becomes, perversely, a way to increase white representation rather than a way of equalizing power structures—which might explain how a diversity panel I attended once at AWP featured three white writers and only one person of color.”
It may be a positive indication of how seriously writers’ concerns over institutional racism are being taken that AWP scheduled Rankine’s keynote. Christian Teresi, AWP’s director of conferences, explained how it came about: “Claudia Rankine had given a previous address at our Washington, D.C., conference in 2011, where she challenged the prejudices in creative writing programs and in poetry,” Teresi said. “When we booked her in February 2015 for the keynote in L.A., we did so because she is a world-class literary author, but we also hoped she would extend that previous discussion, and her analysis from Citizen.” He called her L.A. keynote “one of the best lectures I have ever heard on art and community and the challenges before us.”
But Teresi also sees some impatience on the part of members of the writing community: “Change can’t happen quickly enough for many writers, especially in academe, where academic disciplines sometimes fall into institutional habits,” he said. “Academe sometimes can only change after a new generation has become the teachers, the opinion makers, and the leaders. The younger generation is a lot more diverse than the older generation of creative writing professors and gatekeepers. So there is a lot of frustration, some of it generational, about the making of literature, about who gets to decide what’s valuable and what’s not, and about what literature and which authors portray humanity most fully.”
These are issues, of course, that extend far beyond AWP, but, Teresi said, “passions about that can’t help but to spill over into the AWP conference. Writers’ interests are so varied; there really can never be enough diversity, not even with 560 events, but we do our best to facilitate discussions about race, gender, class, sexual orientation, social justice, aesthetics, professional development, and every other topic important to writers.”
AWP Caucuses Addressing Accessibility and Race
In addition to panels and readings, AWP also solicits proposals for caucuses, which, according to the AWP submission guidelines, “should be made up of a specific demographic group that shares academic, literary, and professional development concerns.” An AWP caucus is a way to establish an annual gathering, and a kind of mini-organization with AWP, for a group that wants to represent its interests and to amplify its voice within the larger creative-writing community.
There is currently a Latino caucus, a women’s caucus, an LGBTQ caucus, and others. AWP 2016 saw the establishment of a disability caucus, which seeks to address longstanding complaints about accessibility at the conferences and to foster more disability-related programming, and an Asian-American caucus.
Writers Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Meg Day set up the caucus with the help of many others. In an April 1 post on her blog, Bartlett wrote that after months of work and voluminous correspondence with Teresi and others, the Conference Steering Committee of the AWP board of trustees finally approved the caucus. In the post, she explained its accomplishments: “We were able to build a caucus with a website, bylaws, a board, and social media; get AWP to put more benches in the convention; put a disability activist on the 2017 selection subcommittee; meet numerous writers through social media; make AWP very much aware of the issues of disabled writers; and agree to only list accessible sites on the off-site schedule (although this didn’t pan out as we intended).”
Bartlett told PW that AWP still needs to take specific steps to address the needs of its disabled attendees: “The only way to make AWP realistically accessible is to hire a full-time coordinator,” she said. “With a conference of this magnitude, this is a necessary position. I also witnessed firsthand [at other conferences] that when the venue is accessible and disability is included, disabled people attend in droves. The absence of disabled writers at AWP reflects the absence of disabled writers as students, teachers, and administrators in M.F.A. programs.”
Teresi said that accessibility is a huge priority for AWP, and that the conference works hard at listening to disabled attendees. “AWP has always provided interpreters and many others accessibility services, and we keep refining the delivery of those services,” he said. “We had a dedicated accessibility desk this year in L.A. to address needs and questions in real time, and we enabled registrants to notify us at the time of registration if they had accessibility needs. These allowed us to provide consistent communication to facilitate accessibility.”
Jillian Weise, who led the campaign to get more benches throughout the conference and worked on establishing the caucus, expressed her continuing frustration with AWP’s handling of accessibility. “I have never made a request that was accommodated until this year,” she said. “I asked for benches at the convention centers starting in 2013. I was told the request was too late. I was told the fire marshal said no. I was told to ask again next year. This year my request was met with very many conversations. It was the first year of extra seating, and that was a success. I credit the success to the vitality of the caucus, which, in my opinion, should not have to make such accommodation requests.”
This year also saw the first Asian-American Caucus at AWP. Ken Chen, who was involved with its establishment, said, “AWP helped us create a wonderful community space for Asian-American writers of color to gather.” But he has reservations about AWP’s caucus system as a whole. “The organization also vetoed my petition to create a social justice caucus,” he said, “which is ironic, since the idea of ‘Asian-American identity’ came out of the Asian-American movement,” a social justice groundswell that originated in San Francisco in the late 1960s.
Obviously, the issues around race and accessibility within the creative-writing community are broad and not limited to those described here, nor to just the AWP conference. As Teresi said, change happens slowly over time. And as González and others said, the conversations going on now represent progress and also lay the groundwork for action that needs to be taken within academic institutions, within AWP, and by individuals. The anger and progress of the last year serve as reminders of how much work remains to make the creative writing community truly inclusive.
Below, more on the subject of M.F.A. programs.M.F..A. Update May 2016: Five Pieces of Good Advice for M.F.A. StudentsM.F.A. Update May 2016: A Few Great M.F.A. Programs
Correction: This article was modified to reflect that the disability caucus was established before the online petition over accessibility, not because of it.