Monday, July 14, 2008


Ray Bianchi has a rant against the AWP over at his irascible blog.

Another thing: I see they have given out &50,000 for their "unknown poet" award to Tony Hoaglund... This is idiotic beyond reason. Give it to someone who needs it.

If we want to play the old cold-war team-game, we can compare that to Bernstein encouraging his students to start chapbook series at SUNY Buffalo.


Blogger Max said...

Yeah, that's kind of lame that AWP isn't even attempting to "go local" in any way as far as panels and planning are concerned. Perhaps they're taking for granted that Chicago writers will be interested simply because it's taking place in Chicago, and they're more oriented around getting those from around the country interested? But then again, I have to say, if I was flying in from Atlanta or LA or some small town out in the middle of nowhere, I'd be more interested in seeing a Chicago AWP that reflects something of the city, that makes the event a bit more seamless with the location. When I was working on my MFA, one of the things that always factored into my decision not to go to AWP was the fact that I'd almost invariably rather wander around the city than go to the planned events. I mean, holding it in NYC? I might as well just use the time more wisely and veg out in art theaters for 3 days.

But yeah, I guess it shouldn't be surprising that the biggest literary conference in the country is more about networking and careerism than it is about writing. It even attempts to mimic other academic organizations by holding "panels," etc. Not that I have anything against panels. I think they can be useful. But I have a big problem with how writing has become such an academic pursuit in this country, and how it has become attached to money and careers outside the realm of publication. Just the idea of a writer having to consider "professionalization" bothers the fuck out of me. I feel bad for people coming out of MFA programs now who have this illusion that they will be instructors and adjuncts and eventually they'll find coveted tenure track gigs in creative writing programs. It's only getting harder and harder, and you have to work like a slave in the meantime in order to keep your foot in the door.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Fran├žois Luong said...

I'm somewhat amused at the notion of Tony being an "unknown poet." I mean, I vaguely remember how he was the talk of the town when he was hired at the University of Houston and how Ani Di Franco reads his poems at shows ...

9:15 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

They could have sent it to any one of us and gotten more out of it, Johannes.

What would you do with $50K?

And for a Klondike bar, while we're at it?

9:43 PM  
Blogger Max said...

What is the running definition of "unknown"? Certainly, having (what I assume to be) a tenure track creative writing job at a university and 3 books published would put somebody well outside the boundaries of this definition, right?

That's another problem with this career/economics-oriented writing culture we have now. There are a lot of resources out there presumably up for grabs, and they are constantly spread around in dubious and suspect ways. While entering a book contest is probably something somebody should do with a bit of pride and confidence, there is something really desperate, grasping, and pathetic about it, given the fact that you're laying good money out on the table for what is probably a nothing but a scam, all because the publication lottery might help you get much closer to a coveted ... what ... $40,000/year job?

11:53 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...

Hi Johannes. I'm thick and don't understand the analogy to Leave Books etc. If you get the chance I would be interested to hear more.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I agree with most of the statements offered here. When I see them giving away all this money to Hoaglund I feel quite ridiculous about having supported the organization by renting a table at the event. Give some of it to Will Alexander so that he can pay his healtcare bill.


I think one attitude is to keep giving out big money awards to people like Mark Strand and Tony Hoaglund in order to create the illusion of an "important poet" - ie using elitism to gain attention for poets.

I think what was so smart about Bernstein's tenure in Buffalo is that instead he used endowment money to help students actually engaged with disseminating the poetry.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I also wanted to say that I in particular agree with Ray's attention to the local (and Max's comments on this). Very important.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Max said...

If AWP is going to continue to be this insular MFA thing, I think perhaps an important question to ask is whether AWP actually even reflects the interests, concerns, sensibilities, ethics, etc. of the overall MFA community. Perhaps Alabama is just a crazy, out there program or something, but AWP kind of plays like a dinosaur organization in our circle. Plenty of the MFAs here attend AWP, but they never have terribly high hopes, and they usually only report maybe one or two interesting AWP-related anecdotes upon return.

It just seems like a terribly conservative event, not at all in line with MFAs who see the exciting possibilities of what the national writing community can be, but rather in lockstep with a "professional" academic path.

The university is a ghetto for literature. I honestly don't understand how anybody can get work done in such a position.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I think to an extent that AWP is exactly what it says it is: an association for writing programs, not writers or anything else. Of course they aren't going to care about a thing on Chicago poets: that's strangely beyond the scope of what it seems they want.

2 cents, almost...

1:10 PM  
Blogger Max said...

OK, but if AWP must be locked into an institutional mode, that still doesn't explain why it so insufficiently represents the interests, etc. of its institutional membership.

I'm sure it can't be for lack of complaining or introduction of better ideas.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Actually I think there should be a whole lot of complaining.

2:45 PM  
Blogger mark wallace said...

Johannes, thanks for starting this interesting discussion. Just as a point of fact, if I recall correctly, Charles Bernstein did give a small amount of money to Leave Books and other related student publications when I was a student at Buffalo, but most of the money came from student club grants, or NY State level grants, that we had to compete for along with other projects. I don't know anything about how it worked after 1993. I say this not at all to denigrate Charles' support for those projects, which was consistent and generous and not just a matter of money but of really being willing to participate with us, but to point out that given budget constraints etc, Grey Chair funding never gave any project more than a few hundred dollars. Comparing that amount of money to the $50K just given to Hoagland is also an issue worth considering here.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Mark, good point. Judging from all the people I know who were there in the 90s, it seems Charles's main importance was encouragement. But that is a totally different model from the hierarchical vision of most programs and the AWP. I was in Iowa and there is was intensively hierarhical, ruled by favorotism and such.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

Max, it's probably because AWP has no clue what those interests are. I think it's a case of "We don't understand the whole 'writing thing,' but we do understanding homogenization and categorization, so let's stick with that."

We also understand making money off people who spend their time trying to be recognized for something that could just as easily be a private activity. I think we're talking about a lot of closet A-types (myself included- don't think I'm not accusing myself in all this...)

10:49 PM  
Blogger Max said...

There are a ton of people complaining about AWP each year. The organizers would have to be blind and deaf not to understand that there's a good bit of dissatisfaction and meh-ness surrounding the event.

I think the way AWP is organized is a direct result of a specific, intentional mindset regarding promotion, not the lack of criticism and input from disenfranchised members.

They are obviously operating under the assumption that it is good for AWP's bottom line to perpetuate a star/celebrity system in the literary world. That way the event becomes part of an aspirational regimen. Going to the conference is not primarily a means of exchanging ideas, but a necessary step in career advancement. It's not enough for members to want what AWP offers; they have to need it in order to fulfill their aspirational goals. This is how AWP retains an active membership.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I agree with you entirely on the last point, of course, but as long as AWP is selling out their annual gathering, why would they care about complaints? I don't think they're blind or deaf. They are simply in a position where they can put on blinders and plug their ears.

But yes, you're certainly right: by maintaining their "star/celebrity system" they've made it so that, even if you have issues, you're going to end up going anyways. You put that really nicely.

I'd like to mention that with Chicago 4 hours away, I have yet to join and I'm certainly not going for AWP- though a weekend in Chicago obviously sounds good. Maybe I'm not yet worried enough about my "career." :) MAYBE if it were going to be baseball season I could justify it.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Exactly. You need to convince yourself that you'll go to Chicago for a little career-building and then sit in art theaters and stroll museums for a few days instead. That's what I would do.

I'm moving to Korea at the end of August. I wonder if they have anything like AWP there.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Congratulations Max. That sounds exciting.


11:10 AM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

My good friend's younger brother is headed to Korea to teach at the end of August. Is that what you're doing, Max?

1:34 PM  
Blogger Max said...


Where in Korea is he headed?

2:17 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I think outside of Seoul I think. Or maybe in. I can get back to you on that.

7:32 PM  

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