The annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs kicked off on Thursday morning inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.,and exhibitors, panelists, and attendees alike seized opportunities throughout to make political statements about the direction of the Trump administration.
The seven Red Hen Press employees staffing the Los Angeles-based small press’ triple-sized booth all sported pink "pussy" hats, as did a number of attendees. Split This Rock, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that promotes social change through poetry, encouraged visitors to its booth to write haiku on postcards and send them to the President and to members of Congress, while, at another booth, VIDA promised to stamp and mail postcards that attendees filled out. Booth visitors to Split This Rock were also invited to post their “ideas for poetic resistance” on a large board set up at the entrance to the booth. And the organization passed out postcards promoting its Saturday evening candlelight vigil in front of the White House.
While some attendees sported bright pink “Make America Normal Again” buttons given out by one organization, others wore “I Dissent” buttons distributed by another. Minneapolis' Graywolf Press passed out chapbooks containing the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” which she recited at the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. And AWP's 2017 keynote speaker, Azar Nafisi, the Iranian-born author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, added her voice to the mix in a fiery speech, urging 1,500 people "to be good writers, good teachers, [and] good artists to resist the tyranny that is overshadowing this beloved country," with a president targeting "women, minorities, and culture...Silence is complicity," she said.
While upstate New York-based BOA Editions publisher Peter Connors reported that his booth was busy, even selling 30 copies of Chen Chen’s debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Possibilities, during the hour that the young poet was signing copies in the booth. Other exhibitors reported the typical AWP- first-day pattern of slow but steady sales at their booths while the exhibit hall filled with people as the day wore on. “Everyone runs in to see their friends [the first morning],” Another Minneapolis press, Milkweed Editions' managing director Patrick Thomas, reported, “And to see who’s got deals. Then they start buying in the afternoon and it goes from there.”
Coffee House Press, which won this year’s Small Press Publisher Award at the AWP 50th anniversary gala held on Wednesday evening at the Marriott Marquis Hotel across the street, reported that Brian Evenson and Valeria Luiselli’s works were especially popular among the day’s visitors to the Minneapolis literary press’ booth. “There’s a good energy at this show,” Coffee House publicist Mandy Medley said, “People are fired up.”
Panelists also reported engaged audiences, even when they were small in number -- like the two dozen people in attendance at the “Don’t Stop the Presses: On the Enduring Value of University Presses,” panel which went overtime because the discussion turned to the impact upon higher education of the Trump administration, prompting panelist Ned Stuckey-French to castigate the president for being fined $25 million for defrauding Trump University students. Other sessions drew crowds, such as the 300 people who attended a panel with editors from the Big Five: Nan Graham (Scribner), Chris Jackson (PRH/One World), Calvert Morgan (HarperCollins), and Erroll McDonald (Knop/Doubleday), who discussed their lives and times in publishing, with an emphasis on how and what they are looking for in their acquisitions.
“We’re not just publishing a book: we’re building up an identity,” Morgan explained.
Not only did the editors' panel pack a large convention center ballroom, it was also indicative of how AWP is evolving as it grows: the participation of corporate publishing in recent years continues, simultaneous with AWP’s growth in attendance numbers. Penguin Random House’s Speakers Bureau exhibited at AWP for a second year, and even Amazon is making an appearance this year; a panel scheduled for Friday features three Little A authors discussing the road to publication via the online conglomerate’s literary imprint.
While some who had registered to attend AWP were unable to do so because of an early morning snow storm that walloped the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic areas, cancelling flights and delaying trains, AWP conference director Christian Teresi told PW that the impact upon the show was minimal. “We were able to find alternate flights for featured authors, and some panels today have four people instead of five,” he said, “There are people who couldn’t make it today. But they’ll be here tomorrow.”
AWP 2017 will continue through Saturday afternoon.