The third and final day of AWP 2017’s closed on Saturday evening with a candlelight vigil in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, organized by Split This Rock, and co-sponsored by 30 literary organizations and creative writing programs. Nine speakers, most of them prominent poets, addressed a crowd of over 1,000 people, with one, Carolyn Forché, declaring that it was the “best AWP panel ever.” While recent controversies including the Muslim ban, ICE immigrant raids, Standing Rock and even Simon & Schuster’s publishing a book by Milo Yiannopolous were condemned by some speakers, others emphasized the impact of the Trump administration upon Americans’ Constitutional rights and the responsibility of writers to defend those rights.
“This is a freedom of speech issue, a freedom of expression issue, this is a writers’ issue,” Sarah Browning, Split This Rock’s executive director and the vigil’s moderator, told the crowd, while Luis J. Rodriguez declared that “every writer has to do acts of truth” because “truth matters,” but has become “a subversive act.”
In addition to the scheduled march upon the Capitol and the candlelight vigil, several spontaneous demonstrations took place inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center throughout the weekend and even inside the book fair area itself. Friday morning, a large number of attendees linked arms and chanted in a human chain that wended its way around the perimeters of the exhibit hall and through a center aisle. While some exhibitors stopped what they were doing and applauded, others simply continued to go about their business.
“It was wondrously disruptive,” Spartanburg, S.C.’s Hub City Press editor Meg Reid told PW, “That’s what makes this year’s AWP such a rich experience. We’re not just living in our bubble. We’re engaged with the outside world. There’s a lot more engagement. Everyone’s talking politics.”
“I think our attendees welcome the opportunity to voice their frustrations among their peers,” AWP conference director Christian Teresi said, “AWP values free press and freedom of expression: we’re happy the attendees are here to exercise those rights. There has never been a more important time for writers to assemble.”
Despite the outpouring of political sentiment throughout all three days, AWP remains both an academic conference and an opportunity for literary presses and literary organizations to display and sell their offerings to consumers in the book fair area, while universities promote their MFA programs.
“It’s been a great show,” Copper Canyon’s co-publisher, Joseph Bednarik said on Saturday afternoon, “we’re connecting directly with readers. To talk to human beings about real books: it’s not an abstraction. AWP at its core is a celebration of creativity; that in itself is worth the price of admission.”
Bednarik also noted the impact upon him personally as a publisher, setting up a book display, and “to see hundreds of [Copper Canyon titles] all in one place: you see the cover art and the relationship between the titles. It’s inspirational.” Bednarik reported that Copper Canyon had shipped a “huge pallet” of books from its Washington state offices and that sales had been brisk, with advance copies of two April poetry collection releases it brought as AWP show specials selling out: Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves and Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child.
For his part, Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson noted that this year’s book fair may not have been “quite as busy” in terms of sales for the Brooklyn-based indie press as other AWP conferences in recent years, but praised it highly nevertheless, reporting that there were “good discussions” on the panels he had sat on. “When you get 200 people to discuss the form and structure of the novella,” he said, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Read all our coverage of the 2017 AWP conference.