Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dear Christian Teresi and the AWP,

This open letter may be outdated, or a disclosure of my ignorance, my being out of the loop.

Or at least I hope it is.

(Full disclosure: I was on a panel that was submitted for consideration. It was rejected. In all seriousness, it should have been rejected. For a number of reasons.)

But I am curious if you or anyone else could tell me what correctives have/will be implemented to deal with the necessary and urgent feminist issues brought to my attention by the postings of Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu's letters on various blogs.

For me, there are two major issues regarding this issue I haven't heard addressed. I'll name these issues later in this post.

Rather than summarizing their letters (it’d be shameful for me to gloss their precise, thoughtful words), I’d like to post the link to where I first saw these letters:

I do not know any of these people (Cate Marvin, or Erin Belieu, or for that matter, C. Dale Young), and have no plans to meet them. I say this only because I think it’s important for you to know this is out of individual interest. I am not associated with any collective, or any alliance with another person.

I would like to say that it partly concerns me that Victoria Chang reported on her blog that she was contacted presumably after she blogged about the incident.

It is not because you reached out to her. That's admirable. I think you should be commended for that. And I hope you have been.

But I must ask: after the women associated with this one particular panel was contacted, were other women from other rejected panels that were also feminist/female-centered, or consisted of all female participants?

Victoria Chang is a poet with a more than substantial reputation. Chang herself describes Cate marvin as a "super poet." All the women in this panel are pretty huge, if not stellar, instant name recognition for anyone who has been in any poetry circles.

Did you go to the trouble to explain your rationale to other women of less visibility? Was this a gesture made out of panic that some high-profile women may spread potentially negative feelings about the already heavily criticized conference? I hope this isn’t so. I hope that as a result of Victoria Chang’s blog that you realized that all female centered panels needed to be notified and offered a similar transparent rationale.

Otherwise, AWP is contradicting the ostensible philosophy that all people will be treated equally. AWP then would be in defiance of your own guidelines, and a public explanation is warranted.

I do not know if this has taken place. But I assume it has. I would love to hear that lesser known women writers were offered the same treatment. Maybe this conversation has already taken place. If so, please someone alert me. And I apologize to you, Christian, and AWP.

According to all accounts, Christian, you are a kind, extremely responsible person. So I want to make it clear, if it hasn't, Christian, that AWP is responsible, not simply you. This is I'm sure obvious, but it deserves repeating.

(I happen to be ambivalent about the AWP conference. I am sick of people whining about how big it is. Get over it! Use your money and come see me in wonderful rural Upstate New York them. It's cheaper and I'll buy you at least two meals. It's lonely here. That's why I do this blog.)

That’s my first point. This is my second point.

I can’t help but wonder if Cate Marvin’s panel wasn’t rejected simply because it had a great title. I would want to go see a panel named “Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women’s Poetry.”

It sound great. It has a kick and spin. It seems intellectually substantial for once. And it doesn’t cater to the high school students who seem to populate the conference these days. (Sometimes I wonder if the panels should be given MPAA ratings, protecting these literary youngsters.)

Did you really choose the following panel instead of Cate Marvin’s?

It sound like arsenic itself:

Ellipsis as art: Crafting omission of information in a text
Description: Typically texts are made up of explicit information vital to the story. But texts can also be constructed with vital information left out which the reader must provide. Such information -- negative text -- must be crafted as carefully as explicit information. Works of this type rely on the reader’s imagination to be effective. The panel will discuss various types of techniques for crafting negative texts and genres that employ them.
Participants: Lance Olsen, Yuriy Tarnawsky, Debra Di Blasi, Steve Tomasula

Or how many times have we seen this one?:

Getting Students to Meaningful Memoir
Description: Getting to Meaningful Memoir: Students in their late teens and early twenties have all sorts of experiences--jobs, family life, sexual orientation, cultural background--that they can draw upon for memoir that goes beyond immature navel-gazing. Panelists will present in-class exercises and writing assignments aimed at getting students of all ages to the widest possibilities for strong memoir story and voice.
Participants: Eric May, Laurie Lindeen, Joe Mackall

Or how about this?

It's Not You, It's Me: The Poetry of Breakup and Divorce
Description: Poetry is one of the most beautiful forms of human expression on earth; breakup and divorce are among the worst. Does the poet's experience with such a dire emotional event change the way she approaches the topic? Featured in a new Overlook Press anthology on the subject, these panelists will read and discuss their work in order to explore the connection between breakup and divorce and their own poetic process.
Participants: Jerry Williams, Kim Addonizio, Gerald Costanzo, Amy Gerstler, Alan Shapiro

First, anyone entitling a panel" The Poetry of Breakup and Divorce" should be ashamed of himself. Are we aiming our panels for junior-high students who shoot rabbits and badly in need of counseling?

There is another serious problem with this panel. And it is a huge problem.

By looking at the labeling, it seems that this should be a panel, but the description makes it seem like a reading. Which is it?

AWP has to differentiate between a reading and a panel. A panel is a discussion. A reading is a reading. A panel should not be an opportunity for a reading. The panels that openly state that time will be significantly devoted to the participants reading their own work is a huge problem. It makes AWP seem like they’ll devote panels to writers who are simply high-profile (what somewhat aware poet doesn’t know all five of these names on the Divorce Panel?) AWP needs to give panels to writers invested in intellectual exchange, not a substantial amount of time given to a reading of their own work. There seems to be more than one “panel” like this. Let these writers do their readings at their own readings.

For what little it's worth, I support Cate Marvin, Erin Belieu, women's writing conference.

My only hope that their conference is not seen as a supplement or complement to AWP, but instead a potential replacement of it if AWP doesn't offer less conservative, anti-intellectual panels.

If anyone of this information is wrong, Christian, I apologize. I just felt that AWP would like to pacify the concerns of people like me who are on the far invisible margins of the literary community.

I'd be more than willing to talk to anyone from the organization on the phone, via email, or at the conference face-to-face.


  1. Aside from all the inane panels they offer, that has been my biggest complaint about AWP over the years: panels that false advertise and promise to be a discussion about some idea and then the poets just get up and read their work as if the work will speak for itself. I find it incredibly intellectually lazy. After skipping going to any panels for a few years, I lucked out last year: the handful of panels I went to that advertised as panels were actually panels. Refreshing to have panelists take the time to write up a paper or poetics piece, exercise the critical side of their brain.

  2. I promise if you come to my panel, we won't bore you with reading our own work. Our panel on finding ways to balance a career while being a poet has some great panelists -- Lola Haskins, Megan Volpert and Karen Head -- and we hope to bring some thoughtful ideas and tips to the discussion. Actually, we're stunned our panel was selected over some of the more "famous" folks. Like I said, it's like playing the lottery.

  3. Collin,

    I know we've had our disagreements,fierce and many. But I do want you to know that if I go to AWP, I will excitedly sit in on your wonderful panel. The topic is great, and as you know I do respect you, as I've said in and out of this blog: I amazed by your work in terms of creating community.

  4. I think it's hilarious that you're criticizing the intellectual muscularity of AWP panels in an incredibly petulant, anti-intellectual tone on a blog (or whatever the hell this is). What do they call that in your world? Meta-irony? I need to get off the internet--permanently. Or take more goofballs.