Authors, educators, students, and publishers got together for this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs meeting in Seattle from March 8-11. According to Juanita Lester, AWP director of communications, checked in and registered attendees totaled 9,037, including 775 Saturday-only Bookfair passes. An additional 545 attendees chose the virtual conference platform instead of the in-person option, which provided access to livestreamed events. Altogether, 563 exhibitors were onsite, with 632 organizations represented.
AWP23 focused on inclusive programming, opening with land acknowledgments to the Duwamish Tribe and other Pacific Northwest region Coast Salish people. Emphasis was placed on accessibility, an issue of concern for members in past years, with Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin providing accessibility sponsorship. All sessions included reserved seating, encouraged microphone use at all times, and led with a statement reminding those present to “be aware of your fellow attendees who may have disabilities,” whether apparent or not. Closed-captioned streaming and ASL interpretation were available for major panels and keynotes, and sessions addressed neurodiversity, mental health, and writing about wellness and the body.
As an organization, AWP set several new initiatives in motion. The annual AWP Prize for the Novel was renamed the James Alan McPherson Award, after the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Macarthur Fellow, and professor emeritus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who died in 2016. McPherson’s daughter, Rachel McPherson of Iowa City, said at a reception that her father’s “job was to facilitate bringing imaginations together” and that the award would ensure that continued.
AWP also threw a party for the first beneficiaries of its HBCU Fellowship Program, which provides travel, lodging, and conference registration for two faculty members and four students from historically Black colleges and universities. 2023’s faculty recipients are Dana Little of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a digital studies researcher and creator of the Factions website, and Tommy Mouton of Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Tex., who has published in Flash Fiction Forum and Callaloo.
Little and Mouton were selected by fellowship program creative advisor A.J. Verdelle, author of Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison and a recent scholar-in-residence at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Because no HBCU offers an MFA in creative writing at this time, the fellowship—funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—encourages multigenre innovation at HBCUs and among emerging writers of color teaching and studying there. Verdelle introduced the guests of honor and spoke about Black authors’ opportunity to bring diverse characters to life on the page.
Contemporary controversies simmered at the show, too. Lambda Literary handed out rainbow stickers with the slogans “read queer books” and “write queer stories,” and judging by how quickly the stacks disappeared, AWP members are keen to do so. Trans and nonbinary writers and publishers pitched creative work. Panels spoke to reproductive rights, post-Roe parenthood, and memoirs and other writing about traditional and queer families. At the PEN America booth, a cork bulletin board prompted visitors with the question, “What’s your favorite banned book?” Passers-by wrote titles on index cards and posted them, sparking anti-censorship conversations with Rebecca Werner, PEN America director of membership and national engagement, and Aleah Gatto, PEN America membership engagement coordinator. The Bookfair crowd felt energized around writing as a form of activism and resistance.
Centering BIPOC and Global Voices
An array of AWP sessions and after-parties (listed or by-invitation-only) served up a national and global who’s-who of newly published and the long-established authors. The conference spotlighted well-known and up-and-coming writers of color and diverse identities, who signed and networked at booths, tables, and readings.
Nonprofit organization Kundiman, which nurtures Asian American writers and readers through workshops and 10 regional groups, sponsored a livestreamed panel on Pacific Islander literature, with afakasi Samoan slam poet and Youth Speaks Seattle executive director William Nu’utupu Giles, Chamoru poet and scholar Craig Santos Perez, and Native Hawaiian writer and editor Kristiana Kahakauwila. Milkweed Editions hosted a conversation among Bitterroot Salish novelist Debra Magpie Earling, Upper Skagit memoirist-poet Sasha LaPointe, and Hawaiian poet No‘u Revilla.
In a well-attended panel around the forthcoming anthology How We Do It: Black Authors on Craft, Practice, and Skill (Amistad, July 4), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown and Howard University lecturer and fiction writer Darlene Taylor talked about co-editing. They were joined by Emory University’s Tiphanie Yanique (Monster in the Middle), Millsaps College scholar W. Ralph Eubanks (Ever Is a Long Time), and Hurston/Wright Foundation executive director Khadijah Ali-Coleman for a lively conversation punctuated by Brown’s exuberant laugh into the mic.
The panelists addressed the importance of differentiating Black writers’ craft from creative work done outside communities of color. Eubanks said he centers his place-based nonfiction on the Black memory of Mississippi and pointed to the ways Natasha Trethewey and Jesmyn Ward understand the American South. Brown expressed that as a writer, “you don’t want your Blackness essentialized, but it is nice to see people who look and sound like you, and find out what they have to say.” Yanique said writers cannot subtract race and ethnicity from their craft: “When I’m told race doesn’t matter, I automatically know I’m in danger,” she said, urging writers of color to “bring your Blackness to the page.”
When the panelists talked about the spoken word and the varieties of colloquial speech across the U.S., Yanique took a moment to caution that “writing in the vernacular is not in itself artistry.” She noted that writers who love colloquialism “do more to make it complex, make it poetry.” Ali-Coleman agreed, saying that artists “who see vernacular writing as rebellion are still centering a white gaze,” and need to beware “the performative trap” this can become.
Brown advised aspiring writers to think about “that thing you can’t get rid of”—an obsession, love it or hate it—and “run toward that thing. It will be your magic power, your Zeus’s lightning bolt, your Athena’s wisdom,” even if—especially if—it’s a source of profound discomfort.
Anniversary Celebrations at AWP23
Several presses and journals celebrated anniversaries and held on- and offsite gatherings to bring authors and friends together. Poetry lodestar Copper Canyon Press, which had a wide and bustling booth along the central “Bookfair Boulevard,” celebrated its 50th anniversary with multiple onsite panels and a 12-poet reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on AWP’s closing night. Millay Arts, a writers’ residency at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Steepletop property in Austerlitz, N.Y., likewise marked a half-century as an organization.
Four Way Books, founded in Tribeca in 1993, held a reading for its 30th year, as did Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art, established at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. Pittsburgh-based nonprofit literary publisher Autumn House Press celebrated its first quarter century with events including a multi-author reading from Queer Nature: A Poetry Anthology, edited by Michael Walsh. And online literary journal Terrain.org, publisher of multigenre writing about sense of place, held a 25th anniversary gathering moderated by founder and editor in chief Simmons Buntin, with readings about the natural world from Ellen Bass, J. Drew Lanham, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Bryan Turner.
With numerous concurrent events, authors signing fresh work, and appealing books, journals, and swag, AWP provided a kid-in-a-candy-store experience for the literati. Next year, AWP24 convenes from Feb. 7-10 in Kansas City, Mo.
This article has been updated.