While the mood on the floor at this year's AWP conference has been largely harmonious, calls for increased diversity and greater efforts at inclusivity have been major topics of conversation on panels, at the book fair, and, most notably, in the keynote presentation by the poet Claudia Rankine.
On Thursday evening, Rankine, author of the National Book Award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, focused her keynote on the chilly climate for people of color in M.F.A. programs.The auditorium was packed to capacity with 2,500 people. Introducing the theme of her presentation, Rankine projected on the screen above her an email she'd received from an unnamed African-American M.F.A. student who wrote of being told that writing about his or her life experiences was more sociological than poetic and asked Rankine if he or she should just give up and drop out of the program. After reading the email aloud, Rankine said that she was going to address the "amorphous uncomfortable," the lack of inclusivity in the academy. She castigated M.F.A. programs for "privileging the white imagination" by not doing more to hire and retain diverse faculty, declaring, "the inability to hire and retain diverse faculty takes work." And even though some M.F.A. programs have diversified their programs by enrolling more students who are people of color, she said, they make them feel as if they are being tokenized, which she defined as being "objectified, exploited, and disregarded, all at once."
"Unintentionally discriminating is the same as intentionally discriminating," she noted to a burst of applause, "The result is the same." But, Rankine subsequently pointed out, she too is guilty of discrimination in her own work, by disregarding "poor, white, working class people." To correct that previous oversight, and to inspire other writers to do the same, Rankine read her unpublished poem, "Sound and Fury," about the people who support Donald Trump for president because they have lost their jobs and their way of life and feel as if they have no other recourse. Rankine received not one, but two standing ovations from the crowd, many of whom then, according to Skylight Books manager David Gonzalez, "made a mad dash" to Skylight's pop-up store in the lobby to buy Rankine's books. About 100 copies of Rankine's most recent collections of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf, 2014) and Don't Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf, 2004) were sold Thursday evening; she signed books for about an hour after her presentation.
AWP representatives that PW spoke to on Friday morning praised Rankine's presentation, with director of conferences Christian Teresi describing it as not just "an essential and necessary address" but also "one of the best lectures I have ever heard on literary art and community." For his part, David Fenza, AWP's executive director, described Rankine's keynote as "an extension of Citizen," saying that making M.F.A. programs more inclusive and more accommodating to people of color in terms of hiring more diverse faculty and tweaking curricula "is the community's discussion."
"Each distinct community [within AWP] needs to lead the discussion," he said, citing Cave Canem, which advocates for African-American poets, and Lambda, which advocates for the GLBTQ community.
On Thursday afternoon, a small group of AWP attendees staged a "protest" reading they called "AWP is Us," in reference to Red Hen Press editorial director Kate Gale's controversial essay in Huffington Post last summer. The protest was held in the bar area inside the main AWP hotel but was quickly dispersed by J.W. Marriott employees. And Thursday evening, at an offsite venue, 15 nationally-published poets—including Jericho Brown and Bao Phi—took part in a reading event called "Against White Privilege: Writers of Color, LGTBQ, and Disabled Writers Respond to White Privilege in Writing Programs and Publishing."
AWP's first disability caucus, billed in the conference program as an opportunity "for disabled individuals to network and discuss common challenges…to increase our visibility and emphasize our importance to this organization along with our social and creative significance to the academic and literary communities," will also take place Friday evening.
Update: An earlier version of this story reported that the "AWP is Us" protest was held outside the J.W. Marriott hotel. It was actually held inside the hotel. This error has been corrected.