The opening day of the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Portland, Ore., saw a renewed conference kick off March 28 after an off year at 2018's annual gathering, which was followed by months of organizational tumult.
At the conference's first official AWP panel, the AWP Program Directors' Plenary Assembly, the AWP brass largely avoided the topic of its previous year, which saw former longtime executive director David Fenza dismissed with little explanation and former conference director Christian Teresi also dismissed, with no explanation from interim executive director Chloe Schwenke. Teresi had come under fire in years past for mishandling issues relating to accessibility for people with disabilities, criticism the organization has endeavored to respond to by taking steps to "orient itself towards access" with robust new guidelines for accessibility services, panels on the subject, and on-site announcements alerting guests to the accessibility hotline and other programs, including at the keynote speech on Thursday night. (On Twitter, "#AWP19 disability" was trending, and not all the feedback on efforts to solve accessibility problems was positive.)
This past year, AWP also received accusations of harassment by former employees, directed at its leadership, including Teresi. 2018 also saw the organization sever ties with its former host institution, the University of Maryland, which had sponsored AWP for just over a year.
Now an autonomous nonprofit, the AWP is still under the interim executive directorship of Schwenke, a veteran nonprofit manager, who was due to end her tenure at the end of last year. The board of trustees, led by chair Robin Reagler, has yet to end its nationwide search for a permanent executive director—although, Reagler assured the assembly, "we are close to naming a permanent executive director," continuing: “Because of confidentiality, I can’t tell you the blow by blow of any of it, but we feel like we’re in a great place.” She added: “We’re really going through the due diligence of stabilizing the organization.”
Reagler told PW that the next executive director would be named "within a month." This is corroborated by a source familiar with the search process, who spoke with PW on condition of anonymity, noting that two finalists for the position were interviewed in Portland this week and a vote was taken by the board before the conference kicked off.
At the panel, Schwenke also unveiled the AWP's five-year strategic plan for the organization. “This is our inculcation of many, many threads into one fabric," she said, outlining the organizations three guiding directives for the years to come: "support individual members in their literary pursuits and engage them in opportunities to participate in the larger writing community"; "support creative writing programs and groups that build and sustain robust learning and professional environments"; and "offer year-round support, services, and programming to our communities of creative writers."
On the Floor
On the show floor, the first day saw bumpy beginnings but positive attitudes. Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, said the poor internet in the Oregon Convention Center meant sales, many of which are handled digitally, got off to “a rocky start.” Nevertheless, he added, early sales standouts for the press were Ilya Kaminsky's poetry collection Deaf Republic and Esmé Weijun Wang's essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias.
The poor internet wasn't the only hiccup early in the program. At the Electric Literature booth, executive director Halimah Marcus and author Garth Greenwell commented on the long line for registration. While the line was robust enough on Wednesday, the day before the conference opened, with as much as 45-minute waits for exhibitors, the lines for exhibitors and attendees on Thursday was even longer, with many standing for more than an hour. (On Twitter, "#AWP19 line" was a trending topic.)
That's the kind of complaint, though, that the AWP could use after its 2018 conference in Tampa, where attendance was low, around 10,000—a good 2,000 heads below its average, and more than 3,000 below a record 13,000+ at AWP 2014. And while PW has yet to secure official numbers from AWP, the word on the floor was that this year's fair—which had the good fortune of being held in a city with a robust literary scene—has bounced back from last year. Julie Buntin, director of writing programs at Catapult, said she could tell that the fair was "already busier than Tampa on day one."
AWP has long been a favorite conference for small presses and writing programs, but its popularity, despite recent controversies, has been burgeoning. Publishing industry veteran Richard Nash, currently the co-head of Cursor, sees it as a growing competitor for the more established industry fairs. "Not to dis BookExpo, but this effectively is BookCon," Nash said. "Because publishers can sell books and meet authors, and because the authors are often funded to be here by their university, the cost of being here is offset by the opportunity to sell books. A lot of small presses are coming here instead of BookExpo."
One clue that Nash might be onto something was the presence of Ingram Publisher Services, which has a booth at the fair this year. Ingram also held a happy hour on Thursday in conjunction with the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and six partner publishers: Akashic Books, Coach House Books, Europa Editions, Greystone Books, Scribe Publications, and Icon Books. At least two of the Big Five publishers, Macmillan and Penguin Random House, are also in attendance.
At the Keynote
This year's keynote featured the author Colson Whitehead, who has been awarded the 2019 Oregon State University Stone Award for Literary Achievement this spring. (OSU is a major sponsor for this year's AWP conference.) Former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody, the American Navajo-Warm Springs-Wasco-Yakama author who was the first Native American poet laureate of Oregon, performed one of her poems as an invocation.
Taking a comic tone, Whitehead began his keynote address with a soliloquy on his efforts to perfect cooking a variety of different forms of fried chicken, which "got him thinking about alternative universes"—that is, about the possibility of going back in time and making the fried chicken better the first time around. Fried chicken, of course, served as a metaphor for writing, with Whitehead touching on his debut novel, The Intuitionist, and William Carlos Williams's frequently-parodied poem "This is just to say" in order to show the idiosyncrasy, and unpredictability, of the writing process and the process of the growth of the writer.
Whitehead kept his audience in stitches throughout. Discussing a writer he met in his 80s who was still hard at work in his office, he said: "What kind of life is that? You just keep writing books until you die?" His hope, he said of one of his books, is that it "might improve [his readers'] day a little bit and distract them from the knowledge that we're all going to die." (The jokes, like much of Whithead's writing, were wry.)
"I've learned that writing a book, getting it published will not make you whole. It will not fix you, If you're unhappy, it will not make you happy. Let's face it, you have long-standing issues," Whitehead said. "Finishing a book will not cure what ails you. But like a nice stew, it can fill you up for a time and take away that hunger until it returns."
To young writers, Whitehead gave the opposite advice from the old adage "write what you know." Instead, he said, "don't write the story you know how to write. Tackle a story you're not sure if you can pull off—the one you're scared to begin." He also advised on how to write stories that aren't yours in an era of sensitivity readers. "Is it cultural appropriation if I, a black guy, make Korean fried chicken?" Whitehead asked. "Let us apply the following standard for all appropriation in every arena: It it tastes like shit, it's cultural appropriation. If you pull it off, it's good eatin'. No one's going to call you out if you get it right. They call you out if you fuck it up."
If you are attending AWP 2019, and you have any comments on accessibility for people with disabilities and would like to speak with Publishers Weekly, please email John Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the numbers at AWP 2014 in Seattle, which drew more than 13,000 attendees.