Earlier this year, I attended AWP. It's still a good time. As usual, overwhelming, exhausting, a great way to see friends. It was in California this year, meaning I saw pretty much every writer I knew. It's also depressing. There's no quicker way, as a writer, to feel you don't matter than going to AWP. You're surrounded by people who've also written books, a small percentage of whom have made money at it. And if you're working a dealer table, as I was, you cease to be an artist and become a salesperson. In other words, you ain't shit. Everybody's on an even playing field, trying to sell, until the elegiac final day in which they're just giving the stuff away for free so they won't have to take it on the plane. Maybe you sell enough books to pay the cost of the table, but there's no profit, which is fine, until you consider the conference itself has to be making millions off an event whose main draw is off-site readings. As usual, I found myself surrounded by more successful writers, and it was insanely humbling.
The question being: did I have to leave my house and travel all the way to L.A. just to be humbled? I'm pretty humble already.
Every year I ask myself this, and every year I register again. I think things would be different if I'd put out a book recently; without having new work to show the world, my fire for the writing life has cooled. I don't like promoting old stuff, no matter how good it is, when I know my best work is waiting in the wings.
One thing AWP did very, very well this year was their diversity programming. I went to a lot of panels involving black writers, speaking directly to the genocide of black people in the United States. The keynote speaker was Claudia Rankine, whose so popular she "sold out" the auditorium and I had to watch her speech on video in the run-off room. However, I smelled a conspiracy. Last year, the conference got in hot water because one of their board members, Vanessa Place, was using racist iconography on her Twitter. I'd never heard of her before, but apparently she's some avant-garde, New Wave poet type from long ago. She was removed from the board. Then, all of a sudden, they're inviting black people onto the board! All of a sudden, you've got more panels about James Baldwin and Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde than you can handle.
Which is maybe why I keep coming back to AWP. Why the community of small press writing appeals to me, with its valuing of ideas. When accusations of racism came up, the conference runners tripped over themselves to not be associated. Which makes them the exact opposite of mainstream white America right now. These people identify themselves as scholars and intellectuals, and as such outwardly reject the blatant stupidity racism entails. They don't want to be associated with the mouth breathers at the Trump rallies. Do a lot of college writing programs have a racist bent to them? Sure. For fucking sure. But diversity programming based on fear for reputation is good, far as I'm concerned. In the end, it provided a platform for writers of color they might not have otherwise received.
Certainly not in any type of mainstream, big money industry. Yes, Jay Z makes money--making ultra-capitalist, cynical art. Black creators speaking to the black experience are in an especially unenviable position. When I was a child, Spike Lee was everywhere. Anytime some news station wanted to talk about race, he was there in his Malcolm X shirt, talking shit. This is because, in the 80s and early 90s, white people were feeling alienated. So, like in the 20s and 30s, they turned to black culture as a way of finding authenticity. Hiphop changed the world. Black filmmaking came out of the grindhouse and into the multiplex.
Nowadays, Spike has to crowdfund his movies. That's because white people are no longer interested in the black experience, even for voyeuristic reasons. This is the era of gentrification, the era of Lena Dunham's Brooklyn. They want us gone. After the cities are reclaimed and they've settled, they will get alienated again, and turn back to other cultures for something real. There are, of course, other things at play such as the rise of white supremacy in the country. White voices are the only ones that are currently valued in the mainstream.
Literature, however, real honest to god literature, is still a place for a non-white person to have an in. Because learning about other people and places is, ultimately, why people read books. Literature is a challenging artform, not something for the cowardly, or those closed off to ideas. It really is about the life of the mind, as well as the fun of reading.
At AWP, I went to a great panel with the poet laureate of Los Angeles. And he said, straight up, that a world in which people read would be one where Donald Trump got no traction. So real. The rich intentionally keep the poor ignorant, degrade reading, degrade intellectualism, and perpetuate the myth that everyone's opinions are equally valid, the expert and the raving hatemonger. Poor people buy into this, and they suffer.
As I see it, the main advantage of reading and educating yourself is realizing that so much of what we perceive as normal is, in fact, engineered. Global warming isn't real? A little research shows the "experts" are paid off by corporations. Black people are a race of thugs and drug addicts? A quick Google search reveals crack was shipped into the community by the CIA, as part of the Nixonian scheme to destroy the black community, doubled down on by Reagan and Clinton to criminalize black people and fill prisons. White people are naturally superior? A quick read will tell you whiteness was invented as a way to keep indentured servants from teaming up with African slaves. Capitalism is human nature? Plenty of societies have actually stepped up to the challenge of being an intelligent animal and lived communally. The danger of self-education (i.e. reading books) is the lower classes becoming aware of their education as something that was done to them. A conspiracy. A set-up. Somebody else reads a book and tells you what to think.
Literature is still the realm of ideas and self-education. And that is why I love the community, why I come back again and again, why I travel to spend time with writers. I will always be challenged in such a space, and find art that reflects the diversity of the world. It's awesome.