Following a tumultuous 2018, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs made its 2019 conference count. The show, which wrapped up in Portland, Ore., this past Saturday, was quite possibly its most successful show to date.
"The tone has felt better than any of the three I've been to before," AWP interim executive director Chloe Schwenke said of the show, adding that this year, the mood of the show felt much more "personal," and less "corporate," than the three she had previously attended. That started, Schwenke explained, at the conference's Wednesday night gala, where Mexican poet Ekiwah Adler-Belendez, "a person who had overcome phenomenal disabilities, who's busy supporting young Mexicans who really had no exposure to poetry before," was named the 2019 George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. (Adler-Belendez was born with severe cerebral palsy.)
"It was just so moving," Schwenke said. "People were on their feet. People were crying. I think that tone was one that really caught people and said, 'This is a community that is really invested in each other.'"
Macalester College (St. Paul, Minn.) creative writing professor, poet, and writer Wang Ping agreed. "I've been to AWP many times, but this year seems different! Such great vibes everywhere!" she told PW and later posted on Facebook. "I didn't feel a single moment of snobbishness, power games...everyone was there for poetry, stories, comradeship, alliance...the panels are first rate, stimulating, awakening...the readings are so energizing."
Being in as vibrantly literary a city as Portland, Schwenke noted, helped. Tin House Books senior editor Tony Perez said the Portland-based press was glad to welcome so many other presses to its hometown, while Kate Gale, managing editor and cofounder of Red Hen Press—which celebrated its 25th anniversary at Portland's Cider Riot!—called the event terrific, adding: "Portland is a great book city." The city is so literary, in fact, that 25 small presses gathered in another neighborhood to throw their own literary festival for presses that couldn't afford AWP, NO FAIR/FAIR, which ran concurrently with the conference (and, according to its site, was explicitly not anti-AWP).
One major complaint from attendees was on the long registration lines, which were cleared up by Thursday afternoon, Schwenke said. And while the AWP has yet to release numbers for the show, which was principally organized by conference director Cynthia Sherman, Schwenke said she had every reason to believe that it was the organization's highest attendance ever; the pre-registration numbers certainly were the highest in the conference's history. That would put its attendance somewhere above the more than 13,000 people at AWP in Seattle in 2014.
On the floor, that busyness meant business. Publishers big and small—most independent, some not—saw lots of foot traffic, and for most, that meant lots of sales. The tripartite press the Accomplices—comprised of Civil Coping Mechanisms, Entropy, and Writ Large Press—made back the $650 it paid for its booth by Friday afternoon, and sold out of its 2,000-book inventory by Saturday. Copper Canyon Press "brought a larger number of books than usual and by Saturday we were pretty much sold out," publicist Laura Buccieri told PW. "We broke our own record in terms of sales."
Many, including Coffee House Press marketing and sales manager Nica Carrillo, pointed out the show's "energy," which Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue Literary Press, called "dense and overwhelming and thrilling." Jaclyn Wilson, marketing manager at Wesleyan University Press, said she saw steady sales throughout a show that had "a relaxed, light-hearted atmosphere despite how overwhelming such a large conference can be at times for attendees." Michelle Dotter, editor at Dzanc Books, was another who saw constant foot traffic. "We had a great number of people converging," she said.
Those numbers, according to Akashic Books editorial director Ibrahim Ahmad, were enough to convince him to come back. Akashic hadn't been to AWP in almost a decade until last year's gathering in Tampa, but after this show, Ahmad said, he was "inspired by how productive, dynamic, and energetic the show has been. The caliber of conversations I've been having with people, and the energy in the room, has been infectious. The traffic has been nonstop. We've sold a lot of books—the sales were a nice surprise." He added: "This is what BEA felt like some years ago. It's a sign of health for the book business that indies have a place to connect with their readers one on one."
It wasn't just indies, university presses, and MFA programs showing off their wares. Ingram Publisher Services and Kickstarter had booths alongside those of such trade and nonprofit organizations as the Academy of American Poets and the National Book Critics Circle; the National Book Foundation, in conjunction with Amazon Publishing and Electric Literature, co-hosted this year's infamous Thursday martini lunch. From the Big Five, both Macmillan and Penguin Random House—whose author Colson Whitehead, who publishes with Doubleday, headlined the keynote address—had booths at the show. "It's important for publishers to support our authors at every stage, and for them to feel that support," James Meader, v-p and associate publisher of Picador, said. "The AWP conference is a tremendous occasion for writers to come together and collaborate, and publishers should absolutely be a part of that.”
PRH, which had a small booth dedicated to its Speakers Bureau, did not sell books at the fair. Instead, readers who bought PRH books from on-site bookselling partner Powell's Books could come by the booth for a free galley. "AWP is an amazing place to launch new voices and books. We love what they're building here, and we love partnering with the local indie," Ruth Liebmann, v-p of account marketing at PRH, told PW.
The show was a good one for Powell's. the on-site bookseller found hits in some of the show's big names. "Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was our bestselling title with sales at the book fair and outside the ballroom at his keynote speech on Thursday evening. The next bestselling title was Pam Houston’s Deep Creek," Kim Sutton, chief customer officer at Powell's, told PW. "We brought over 300 titles to the conference, and also saw strong sales of poetry titles, especially those associated with the author programming at the ballrooms."
If there was any one major draw for readers this year, it was poetry. At Graywolf Press, Ilya Kaminsky's long-awaited collection Deaf Republic had sold out by noon on Friday. Wave Books publicity and marketing director Ryo Yamaguchi said the press's sales were "on par with, or better than, last year's," and Nightboat Books publisher Stephen Motika said his press "blew it out." At Tin House, Perez said that showgoers seemed particularly excited about its poetry offerings.
Accessibility, long considered lacking at AWP conferences, was the organization's "number one issue this year and moving forward," Schwenke said, following years of activism by members of the literary community with disabilities advocating for AWP to change its policies and practices at the conference. Schwenke added that the AWP has "literally written the book on accessibility at conferences," going on to note that "other conferences" are now adopting the AWP's standard set of practices. (That comment has been disputed.)
The Oregon Convention Center's wide exhibition space was well-suited to the size of the fair, and while booths were crowded, lanes on the floor now included a number of benches in central locations and were primarily clear, making the exhibition floor more manageable. Outside the exhibition hall, there were more issues. The Center was under construction, which the poet Jeannine Hall Gailey, who has multiple sclerosis, told PW "made it very difficult to navigate for anyone even with a slight disability." She added: "There were multiple barriers to everything I had to participate in—a panel, a book signing, and three offsite readings," including access problems at offsite venues and a lack of handicapped parking and signage. The hotel she booked across the street from the conference center, she added, was blocked by construction. Disability studies scholar Jessie Male noted that narrow passageways across the conference center also impacted access.
Technology, too, proved imperfect. Kaminsky, the author of Deaf Republic, tweeted: "It is a bad joke to offer to a disable writer to project their poems on the screen and (even though the writer sent the material a month ahead of time) announce five minutes before the event that the technology doesn't quite work right for the material." This was also the first year AWP allowed video chat access to the conference, and the rollout, a number of writers with disabilities noted, was flawed.
"AWP maintains a recalcitrant stance towards Skype, since they are not assisting disabled writers with the tech set-up," poet Jillian Weise, a disabled writer who advocated for video chat access to the conference, wrote in an email to PW. "So yes, we can Skype in, but we must provide our own equipment. In other words, AWP has tasked disabled writers with providing our own access." Weise added: "I attended via live stream the Disabled and Deaf Caucus, so I heard testimony after testimony of access fails. Some of these access fails were minor. Some of these access fails were devastating."
Cade Leebron, another disabled writer, concurred. "AWP might 'allow' disabled writers to Skype into panels now (after significant effort by activists, specifically by the writer Karrie Higgins), but we had to provide/coordinate all of the technology (laptops, HDMI cables) in order to do so," she wrote in an email. "Meanwhile, when I told the consultant who was running AWP's focus groups this year that I wasn't able to attend the conference, she immediately suggested using video-conferencing, and she set up all the technical details, all on a day's notice. One might think that if a consultant can get that done on the fly, the conference could do the same, especially since they generally have much more time to plan."
There was some positive feedback. In an email, poet, writer, and UC Riverside Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing Allison Adelle Hedge Coke wrote that "the Lyft token passes and TriMet passes provided for accessibility eased attendance beautifully," and that the free hotel to conference accessibility shuttle bus was also amazing." She added that the American Sign Language interpreter and live screen captioning at Whitehead's Thursday evening keynote, in addition to improved wheelchair seating and captioning access at panels—where she was provided with a stenographer and live transcription during a caucus meeting—were all most welcome, although "the initial walk to the registration was long, indeed."
Regarding other representation issues, Hedge Coke also praised AWP for being "respectfully conscious of local Indigenous representation with 2016-18 Oregon Poet Laureate and Warm Springs citizen Elizabeth Woody presenting her poetry and more in-depth cultural and territorial knowledge at the official welcome." The decision to do so, she wrote, was "a giant leap in new directions for AWP administration (previously requested and not honored for a dozen years)."
As for last year's drama surrounding longtime AWP executive director David Fenza and former conference director Christian Teresi, Schwenke and the AWP seem to see it as firmly behind them. As such, the AWP is planted looking firmly forward: toward its next executive director, who will likely be named shortly, and toward the AWP's new five-year strategic plan, which the organization, Schwenke said, would begin implementing the week after the conference wrapped.
This story has been updated with further information from AWP attendees with disabilities. If you have any comments about the AWP's representation and accessibility efforts and wish to share them with PW, please email John Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.