Last Day #AWP21 reflections

AWP logo on a colorful background with balloonsI’m attending this year’s virtual Association Writing Programs conference and sat in on 3 discussions yesterday.

Here are some brief reflections on that experience.

Maybe I just expect too much…

I attended the following:

  • Debuting During a Disaster: What the 2020 Debuts Learned About Book Marketing

The disaster was that this advice panel for people debuting new books had little to no pragmatic advice for poets with new books. They also boasted budgets and publicists and proffered a cheery denial about the very real and legitimate challenges that authors with new books are facing in 2020-2021 without the possibility of face-to-face events, and it was downright vulgar.

We don’t need cheerleaders. We need solutions: practical advice, emotional support, acknowledgment that what we’re trying to do is harder than ever. We need realism and compassion.

The biggest rah-rah panelist asked me in the chat whether I was doing face-to-face readings… WTF? WHO IS DOING FACE-TO-FACE READINGS IN A PANDEMIC? Maybe she lives in Florida. Gahhhhh. I can’t do them until I’m vaccinated, sweetie. (Update: She lives in Mexico. So that explains a lot.)

They talked about a lot of things that seemed relevant only for mainstream mid-sized to large publishing houses. I was pissed and depressed for most of the discussion because it really excluded so many of us.

One exception: a few encouraging and compassionate words from one panelist, Eddy Boudel Tan. He reminds me that Canada actually takes care of their writers.

I stayed for the chat and linked up with some other writers who are in the same boat, who are probably not enjoying the same privileges that some of the panelists gloated about in the discussion. Privileges they clearly take for granted. Ugh.

It would have been so much better to sit with some writing warriors living inside the grit of this moment, who don’t have teams to market their work, don’t have any financial or network support from their publishers, who are winging it without a guidebook.

That’s who I need advice from, not somebody who paid several thousand dollars for some advantage and said it was worth it. Last time I checked, most poets don’t have several thousand dollars to pay for much more than food and shelter.

Maybe I expected this panel to be that guidebook. What a mistake. I didn’t learn anything new except that the chasm of privilege is deeper than ever.

And then I found my people again

I attended:

Neurodivergence in Literature

What a gratifying sink into the questions and quandaries that writers with neurodivergence face.

I may sound like a broken record at this point, but hearing from people living with and writing about their realities (in this case, being neurodivergent) has been the highlight of my AWP experience this go around.

What is neurodivergent?

From the My Place of Mind website: “A person can be neurodivergent (sometimes abbreviated as ND) when their brain works in ways that differ from what is considered ‘normal’ or neurotypical (sometimes abbreviated as NT). Neurodivergence is important for neurodiversity as all minds are unique and needed. People with developmental, intellectual, psychiatric or learning differences can be considered neurodivergent. … Neurodivergence is the state of being neurodivergent and can be genetic and innate (such as autism) or produced by experiences (such as trauma). Some forms of innate neurodivergence, like autism, are part of a person’s core being. Other forms of neurodivergence, like the effects of a traumatic brain injury, could be removed from an individual without erasing who they are. Therefore, neurodivergence involves understanding and supporting each individual’s unique mind and experience.”

The things I hope to see happening for writers in the ND world are the same things expressed by the panelists, boiling down to a single overarching hope: That the stories of the ND are composed and published primarily by those who are actually living these realities first hand. The privilege and power of these fictions is really only appropriate to publish/produce when written by those from the inside.

We live, however, in a world which continues to “other” these perspectives (to its peril). These “differences” are what make the world a diverse, rich, compassionate, and inclusive place.

Caricatures of people who move wholly through this community, created or written by NT folks outside the realities, are just unacceptable, a kind of systemic commodification not unlike the literature written by colonizers.

In the category of what the panelists hoped NOT to see in the future echoes the same idea: “No more colonizing!” was a repeated mantra in this thread. And no more gimmickry, no more posing, no more famous NT actors playing these parts. Again, an echo of “nothing about us without us.”

This workshop mined some of these big questions and unlocked some ideas I will need to try when I get back to my latest novel draft.

I am—admittedly in fits and starts—writing a speculative novel in which all the characters belong to a neurodivergent community (either with or without awareness of it). One challenge is whether the ND identity need be identified at all. The larger story is the situation into which they find themselves thrust. Taking the focus off the identity may in fact break that wall that NT readers may unintentionally be building around the voices of ND writers as the readers settle into the story itself. Wouldn’t it be great if readers learned about ND outside of their socially assigned boxes?

Also, how may I write these characters in a way that ensures they are relatable and whole even to people who are not ND? I have some ideas. We’ll see how it goes…

More science and poetry

The last discussion I attended was:

  • Science at the Source: Poetic Methods

Seems like it would be redundant to attend this one since I sat in on another workshop earlier with a similar topic. But I was pleasantly surprised.

While the first session was heavily focused on science and the philosophy of poetry using scientific inquiry and method, this workshop refocused the microscope on poetry guided by the inspirations that science (biology, in example) can lend. There were references to frog spawn and the reclamation of lost species (wolves), for instance.

There was also a felicitous merging of the shared notion of revealing the unknown (which both science and poetry can achieve) through both experiment and experience. (My poems are almost always experiments, I must add.)

I really loved the literal connections that Nomi Stone made between teaching poetry using scientific insights in a class she has taught on the topic.

I was also gratified by Rushi Vyas‘s presentation, which drew from relevant 21st century intersections between poetry, science, and race relations, equity, and identity. The AWP is not often lauded for being particularly diverse in its panels, but this one certainly stood as an example of what it could be. These layers of lived experience are really what inspire me to keep going as a writer.

If you attended the virtual AWP 2021 this year, what was your experience like? What panels or events did you attend? And how did you like the virtual access? Did you like the Bookfair this year? I’m dying to know. Drop me a note!

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