The literary publishing and small press world has been buzzing with accusations and defenses directed at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
Last week, charges of discrimination and insufficient transparency were leveled at the organization. Then, on Monday afternoon, an op-ed appeared on the Huffington Post defending AWP against those charges. (This Huffington Post article has since been removed, but PW obtained a copy as a series of screen shots.) Written by Kate Gale, founder and managing editor of the Los Angeles-based Red Hen Press, the article, called “AWP Is Us,” has caused its own furor, with some AWP members saying the piece has only added to existing concerns about the organization.
AWP sponsors the largest annual gathering of literary and small presses in the U.S., and Gale is a member of the organization's 18-member subcommittee planning its next conference in Los Angeles. In the article, Gale attempts to combat recent charges that AWP's programming has lacked diversity, and that the conference has consistently failed to accommodate people with disabilities.
The language in Gale's piece, though, has set off a firestorm. Discussing a complaint that AWP is not inclusive of various ethnic groups--and responding directly to a charge that the organization has been dismissive of Native Americans--Gale writes of trying to find the potential "Indian hater" in the organization. Then, speaking about issues of diversity around gender and sexuality, Gale asks, rhetorically, " How gay is AWP?," before stating that she feels she is "30% gay" because of "all the time with girls before I started dating guys."
Many responding to Gale's column on social media felt that the article, with its inflammatory language and tone deaf approach, simply demonstrated the existing problems within the AWP leadership.
Poet Laura Mullen, who is director of the creative writing program at Louisiana State University, felt Gale's article is symptomatic of a larger issue at AWP. She claimed that AWP executive director David Fenza tried to intimidate her after she’d tweeted AWP using her personal Twitter account, asking for information about the race and gender breakdown of panels that were accepted and rejected for the 2016 conference.
Mullen told PW she received an “astonishing, condescending, bullying” email from Fenza--which was also sent to both her department chair and associate chair at LSU--stating that she was casting “aspersions” on AWP.
“I was shocked,” Mullen said. She subsequently blogged about the correspondence, and a petition has been launched, demanding that AWP “change its practices to improve diversity, accessibility, and transparency.”
Mullen isn't the only AWP attendee to lash out at the group, either. Memoirist and poet Stephen Kuusisto wrote about the difficulty of attending AWP conferences as a blind person with a guide dog. He wrote: "After a decade of attending their conferences, I’ve found the cumulative experience so demoralizing I’ve decided both to speak out about the matter and to skip the affair.”
Fenza told PW that AWP was not aware of Gale’s column before it was posted, and that it “did not and does not endorse it.”
Fenza also confirmed that he had written to Mullen in response to a tweet she had posted. He told PW, though, that his letter was "sincere" and "was not censorship.” He said he hoped the letter would "channel discussions to a better platform," since a number of "falsehoods" had been leveled against AWP on social media regarding its 2016 panel selection. Fenza also added that he had suggested to Mullen that she could “use her status as a program director to participate more directly in AWP’s governance.”
Declaring that AWP has always provided accommodations to those in need of it, Fenza noted that AWP has expanded its conference to 550 events and 2,000 presenters to make the conference more inclusive, and has expanded the book fair to more than 800 exhibitors to make it more representative of literary publishers and small presses.
AWP also has “established partnerships with allied organizations, including those that serve minority communities, in order to make the conference more diverse,” Fenza noted, adding that the last five years of AWP’s annual conference have featured “some of the most diverse literary programming in America.”
Update: Shortly after this article was published, Kate Gale’s Huffington Post piece, “AWP Is Us,” was taken down and replaced with an "update." In the update, Gale wrote that she is sorry for the “hurt” her column caused, and that Red Hen Press is committed to “inclusiveness and diversity.”