« January 2009 | Main | April 2009 »

February 22, 2009

The A.W.P. Chronicles: I'm a Believer

awp-chicago.pngby Libby Edelson

Last weekend a large contingent of dislocaters traveled from Minneapolis to Chicago to set up shop at this year's Associated Writer's Program (A.W.P.) conference. Over 8,000 people flooded the downtown Hilton, and from our shared hotel rooms to the book-fair, from the panels to the parties, there was hardly a moment of alone-time to be had. Funny, because the very thing we were all there to celebrate--writing--is a solitary act.

While we laud writing's power to engage us with the larger world, to connect us across time and space and cultures, both as producers and also as audience, while we stress the necessity for our own writing of cultivating curiosity about the world beyond ourselves, we write--physically, literally--alone.

Sometimes this aloneness, especially for those writers who don't have the luxury of teaching in or attending M.F.A. programs, or working in publishing, or whose work is as of yet unpublished, can transform into a poisonous loneliness. We rely on our imaginations to ply our trade, but those imaginations--exhausted by craft--can fall short of providing us with a sense of community and kinship. In the echo chamber of our head, our work--not just the writing itself, but the work of writing--starts to ping back and forth, sending out a resonance that sounds eerily like why bother or who is this for, anyway? We lose faith.

So going to A.W.P. felt a little bit like going to worship. There was something of the prayer service in the vast gilded halls full of people nodding in unison as Stuart Dybek articulated his theory of urban animism, or as Antonya Nelson talked about the power of omniscience. The Hilton, a stately old-time affair on Michigan Avenue is the Hilton--the first hotel in the family's empire. I found myself feeling that its crystal chandeliers, plush muffling carpets, elaborate murals, sweeping staircases and grand foyers served as a sort of tangible imprimatur of the worthiness of our enterprise--as if the lovely, and yes, old-fashioned, setting not so much elevated the conference or what it stood for, but provided a reflection of it that we so often are unable to see.

Manning the dislocate booth on the conference's last day and speaking to a steady stream of awesome, delightfully weird, surprisingly disparate, but all identifiable Writers (or at least People Who Care About Writing) in my capacity as Fiction Editor, I was reminded of the Rosh Hashannas and Yom Kippurs of my youth--the High Holidays were the only time my family attended synagogue. On those afternoons, sitting in a far row in the back of the chapel, I was amazed to be part of something so much bigger than myself. Instead of paying attention to the rabbi or the service, I would try to count how many people were in the room. Afterward, we mingled in the halls of the synagogue, families exchanging news and Mazel Tovs and the pleasure of being together. That was my sense of religion as a child, my sense of faith--the pleasure and possibility of community.

So yes, the A.W.P. conference is a good place to professionalize, to schmooze, to pad out the old curriculum vitae. More than that, though, it's a chance to be reminded that we don't work alone, that in the end, we do a share a set of values and beliefs in that thing that can feel so fleeting, so ephemeral, so isolating--the making of art. Whether it happened when I was stuffing my face with tacos (the likes of which I haven't had since leaving California) in a hotel room itself stuffed to capacity with raucous writers exchanging dirty jokes, or while watching Paul Muldoon and his ASL translator entwined in mutual fascination and a sort of doubled poetry, or during my mission proselytizing on behalf of our bad ass mag, dislocate, A.W.P. made a believer out of me.

February 9, 2009

Writing Stimulus

by Brian Gebhart

So everyone knows how bad things are right now, in just about every area of the economy. Writers and artists are no exception, though they aren't one of the politically kosher sectors that various leaders and commentators like to single out for their sympathies (i.e. money). One of the most universally ridiculed pieces of the current stimulus package was funding for the NEA, though there is actually a great case to be made for arts funding as effective stimulus.

It's instructive to note that during the Great Depression, the Federal Writers Project employed such petty scribblers as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, John Steinbeck, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright, among many others. In addition, the FWP produced books focusing on many unique and unsung local stories, like this one about the Bohemian Flats underneath the U of M's very own Washington Street Bridge. I'm guessing that whatever miniscule fraction of New Deal spending the FWP represented was probably money well spent.

The publishing industry is also feeling the crunch. This does not bode well for young writers eyeing their prospects for either signing a first book contract or landing a job in publishing. The future health of newspapers and magazines looks even gloomier. The historian Douglas Brinkley recently proposed the brilliant idea of providing federal subsidies for book reviews, the paper equivalent of NPR or PBS. My hopes for such a program actually appearing, of course, are basically nil.

Still, there is some reason for optimism. I have heard from an exclusive inside source (also known as my wife) that the used book business in the Twin Cities is booming, on both the buying and selling ends. In a country with a struggling economy and an insatiable appetite for entertainment, books provide more bang-for-the-buck than just about any other medium. In addition, there are numerous literary events in the Twin Cities that are free and open to the public (see here, here, and here for starters). Perhaps, if we're lucky, the current economic hardship could bolster the current revival of American readers.