Thank you for the delightful humor issue, but you made a peculiar choice in assigning Kay Ryan to report on the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs [“I Go to AWP,” July/August 2005]. After all, she admits to having an aversion to “cooperative endeavors,” including conferences, especially AWP’s. Why send someone who despises conferences to attend one? That editorial assignment, like Ryan’s essay, was perversely funny. Poetry is a sadomasochistic art, written by the passionately erudite amid hordes of the semi-literate who prefer TV; Ryan’s essay puts that sadomasochism into some new contortions, some of which are unintentionally funny, and some of which are sad. As Charles Baxter has written, “The one thing that can get a poet irritated and upset is the thought of another poet’s poems.” Ryan seems to prefer self-immolation to the company of other poets. It’s as if she were declaring herself proud to be a miner while she prays for the shafts to collapse in order to preserve the purity of her labor.
If you devote yourself to poetry, you work alone in one of our nation’s smallest minorities. That’s a sad predicament, but Ryan suggests that isolation and more antisocial behavior is best if the poet wishes to protect her artistic soul. Well, of course: a poet makes verse in solitudeand not as a member of the kinds of teams that produce movies and other simulacra of art for a culture stupefied by celebrities and explosions. But many lovers of poetry, including poets, find happy relief, at the very least, in the shared company of those who love books; it’s a respite from a culture that usually mistakes the vulgar for the authentic. Oddly, Ryan enters the company of writers and finds only soul-destroying horrors. Her fears are bizarrely misdirected; and, in the end, that’s not so amusing.
These days, the best way to elevate one’s status as a writer is to pose as the rebel, maverick, iconoclast, transgressor, or lonesome independent. Academe and AWP provide convenient backdrops against which many have posed with a rebel snarl. A few of the Language poets especially have done this with hilarious success in their postcoherent styles, celebrating their outsider status, even while they remain safely close to their seats in the game of musical tenured chairs. Had you chosen a Language poet for your commentator, the fault lines of hypocrisy might have quaked with more laughter. As a more earnest and lonely outsider, Ryan could only deliver a quirky, More-Independent-Than-Thou diatribe.
Ryan joins Donald Hall, Joseph Epstein, Thomas M. Disch, and many others in complaining about the mass production of creative writing programs. Other critics, most notably Dana Gioia, have argued that academe has incarcerated poetry in a small elite, isolated from our culture at large. So academe, according to its detractors, has diminished audiences for poetry by providing it with hundreds of thousands of students and graduates and readers all over North America?the “millions” Ryan facetiously says crowded into a grand ballroom for poetry readings by Anne Carson and W.S. Merwin?
Creative writing is taught at most of the 2,100 departments of English in North America; and, in these classes, books of contemporary poetry and the classics are introduced to many students along with elements of the craft of writing. While enrollments throughout the humanities continue to decline, creative writing is one of the few areas that enjoys rapid growth. Nonetheless, many critics have indulged in a hallucination that condenses thousands of far-flung public outposts into a single, remote, hermetically sealed ivory tower. At least Kay Ryan likens the AWP conference to a traveling circus attended by millions. That comparison provides a slightly less inaccurate view of AWP’s commitment to serving literature, writers, and the public.
The AWP conference does, indeed, contain multitudes. How glad many are to study an art that has become as pluralistic as North America’s peoples. Too bad that artsy-smartsy solipsism prevented Ryan from seeing that 1,500 people attending a poetry reading might be an encouraging sign, or that our presenting fine Canadian authors to US readers was a good thing, or that strong sales of poetry at the conference bookfair might be reassuring, or that our gathering of four thousand fiction writers, poets, nonfiction writers, teachers, editors, publishers, and book lovers can be profoundly useful, educational, and entertaining.
ASSOCIATION OF WRITERS & WRITING PROGRAMS