AWP, Communazis, and Me
This post is in two parts. The first is a simple announcement of my participation in the upcoming AWP Conference in New York City.
I am chairing a panel on Saturday, February 2 at from noon to one fifteen on Gay Male Poetry Post Identity Politics, featuring “emerging”? poets Christopher Hennessy (whose wonderful blog Outside the Lines focuses on the relationship of identity and creativity), Brad Richard, Aaron Smith (whose entertaining blog focuses on anything but poetry), and Brian Teare. Here is the description of the panel from the conference schedule, written by moi:
What does it mean to be a gay male poet today, after gay liberation, the somewhat domesticated gay rights movement, the revived radicalism of Queer Nation, the AIDS epidemic and ACT UP, and intellectual interrogations of “queerness”? and identity itself? Contemporary gay male poets can take their gayness for granted on several levels. They also can explore, question, and even explode that identity. On this panel, four emerging gay male poets discuss what the words gay male poetry mean to them.
I hope that all interested parties will try to make it. Let’s make this panel a party!
The second part of this post is about my impression of the role that some phantasmatic nightmare image of AWP plays in the imaginations of many participants in the various online poetry worlds. To read more, look below the fold.
There seems to be a lot of resentment and anger toward AWP and its conference among those (many or most of whom seem never to have attended the AWP conference) who see themselves as excluded from an overly monolithic and reified idea of what AWP is and what it does, people who seem to believe that all published writers enjoy lives of pampered luxury. I understand the sense of those who feel themselves to be on the outside that the “inside” is some kind of “cabal,” as Ron Silliman has characterized the mainstream poetry world (though his definition of “cabal” includes people who don’t support or even know one another and have no contact with one another, which is rather the opposite of a cabal), or even a conspiracy, as the folks at the late-and-very-much-unlamented Foetry.com saw everything in the poetry world. I have felt that sense myself, that there was some secret key which I didn’t possess which would give me access to the poetry world and make me a real boy at last.
But it’s hard to understand the cultivation of such feelings among those who are clearly not the beleaguered outsiders they present and/or imagine themselves to be. Charles Bernstein has a recent post on his web log parodying AWP as the “Amalgamated Writing Programs,” a malign and monolithic corporation. He also presents it as seeking to crush all poetry that clashes with its ideology, all poets who refuse “to write the Amalgamated Way,” quoting the imaginary Darien Credenza (a caricature of D.W. Fenza, AWP’s executive director) as saying that “some views are more equal than others,” a heavy-handed allusion to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and its critique of Stalinism. Besides the implication that AWP is equivalent or even comparable to Stalinism, I was especially disturbed by the piece’s central conceit, that the so-called Amalgamated Writing Programs were holding (at their “annual congress,” a clear allusion to Communist Party congresses) a “Morally Repugnant Poets-and-Theorists Exhibit,” particularly since at another point in the piece this imaginary exhibit is referred to as “the Degenerate Books exhibit.”
The last people to hold Degenerate Art (Entarte Kunst) exhibits were the Nazis. Such a conflation of the utterly incommensurate—the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and the Nazi Party—is irresponsible and, yes, morally repugnant. If we put all the insinuations together, that would make AWP a bunch of hypercapitalist Communazis. The latter was a popular term of opprobrium among Nineteen Fifties McCarthyite types. But then, “the centerpiece of the exhibit [will] be a graphic display naming names of poets who engage in Un-Amalgamated activities,” so I guess that AWP are McCarthyite red-hunters as well. It all gets so confused and confusing…
Such pseudo-political posturing is rife in the online poetry world. But to compare AWP, which whatever its shortcoming and blind spots has no power over anyone (though the piece quotes Credenza with threatening that poets who don’t toe the Amalgamated party line that “poets should be like bees [working in swarms]…are going to get stung”), with Nazism is inexcusably irresponsible, demonizing AWP and trivializing the murder of millions of actual people. Such comparisons, like the word “fascism” (which Bernstein doesn’t explicitly use in this post), are thrown around much too casually these days.
But Bernstein’s piece does reflect many people’s view of AWP as a malignly powerful corporate entity out to keep them from achieving their dreams. Such a sense of exclusion and oppression is rather odd in the case of someone like Bernstein, who has been a chaired professor at SUNY Buffalo and is now a chaired professor at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania. Such positions are hardly markers of marginalization. These would seem, rather, to be indications of the acceptance of avant-garde poetry and criticism in academia.
Having now published five books of poetry, two poetry anthologies, and a book of literary essays (yay me!), and still not found that magic key, I now realize that the poetry club or clique or coterie or cabal is at the least much more diffuse, diverse, and fractured than I had imagined when I was only aspiring to be a poet. Of course there is no lack of nepotism and back-scratching in the poetry world, and I don’t like it any more than anyone who’s not a beneficiary does. I hate dishonesty and hypocrisy, by which I've been victimized too many times. But I’ve also realized that their prevalence doesn’t distinguish the poetry world from the world at large. The poetry world offers more opportunity for effort and merit to be rewarded on their own terms than most parts of the so-called real world that I’ve seen. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t have the publications I rolled off above, as I’ve never had anyone’s sponsorship or been anyone’s protégé.
I grew up in poverty, about as far from anything like a literary world as one can imagine, and partly because of this, literature and the world it presented, and the possibility of a world where people cared about literature, appealed to me as a place utterly different from my own. As I’ve experienced the literary world and academia in general, I've come to see that too much of it operates by the same unfair rules as does the rest of the world, except sometimes in even more vicious and petty ways.
Many aspects of academia are petty, cruel, and vicious. The MLA convention, for example, which I have attended as a job-seeker for more than ten years (and no doubt that situation colors my perspective), is for me a toxic experience, full of people whose only interest is in scoring points against one another, in looking down on those who don’t come from or haven’t been placed in the right institutions, and in playing out their social dysfunction in the guise of intellectual debate, the point of which always seems to be “I’m smarter and thus better than you are” or just “Pay attention to me.” The criterion of “collegiality” in academia (at least in English departments) seems mostly to be used to weed out anyone who isn’t “one of us,” often on ethnic or racial grounds, or just because someone hasn’t completely filed him or herself down to fit into his or her assigned box. Or maybe he or she is just someone that the powers-that-be in a given English department don’t want to have over for cocktails. But the MLA is hardly the Nazi party either.
But I was struck when attending the AWP conference for the first time last year by how closely it resembled my early vision of a literary world. The warmth, the friendliness, the welcoming environment were almost overwhelming. I found it to be a very diverse place where I could meet with poets, have discussions about poetry, creativity, etc., without any sense of people trying to advance their careers. I’m very sensitive to the jockeying for position that’s so common at “professional” gatherings, and I found none of it.
So two cheers for AWP.
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...