The annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference hit Minneapolis this past week. Addressing North America’s largest literary conference, the mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges, turned out to welcome attendees at Thursday’s keynote with a sincere rally cry for more poetry in her administration—her love for literature went so far to include an admission that she has written an unpublished YA novel. Before Karen Russell took the stage to deliver the actual keynote address, Mayor Hodges brought attention to something that would ring true throughout the whole conference: The thriving Minneapolis literary scene that features Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions is signaling a serious shift in the book world where local independent presses have become powerhouses of publishing. Although the conference included over 550 talks and readings by luminaries (and writers of the major houses) like Stuart Dybek, Francine Prose, Louise Erdrich, Jane Smiley, Charles Baxter, and T.C. Boyle, the hottest ticket of the conference was an event with Graywolf’s nonfiction superstars.
On late Friday afternoon, hordes of attendees were turned away from what had become a sardine-packed house of a conversation with Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine. Bill Gates recently wrote a buzzy review of Eula Biss’ already hot exploration of vaccines, On Immunity, while Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a lyric on race in America, tragically became timely once again this week with the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina. With its many Pulitzer and National Book Awards laurels, Graywolf is not new to the limelight, but as was apparent at this AWP event (which had not been assigned to the largest auditorium in its time slot), audiences are surprisingly thirsty for such authentic, timely, and honest voices.
“We wanted to build a big town square where everyone who loved literature could come together,” explained David Fenza, the executive director of AWP. “AWP doesn’t see the conference as AWP’s conference, it’s the literary field’s conference.” Speaking to Fenza before the conference, he talked about how each year’s events reflect a diversity of concerns facing working writers. To showcase this wide span of voices, AWP invites over 2,000 presenters to discuss topics ranging from social justice and writing through poverty to how to better use social media to promote your book.
Fenza believes issues of craft are still a major current of AWP, which connects back to its origins when it humbly began 42 years ago and featured just six events. The conference has now grown into a frenzied four-day fest taking over convention centers (and every bar in a two-mile radius) to bring nearly 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and all likes of aspiring and established literati together.
With the expansion, one of the big changes in the conference has been the inclusion of far more diverse topics like feminism and multi-culturalism and the rising genre of creative nonfiction. “One of the things creative writing programs have done is that they’ve helped to democratize literature in much the same the way that other art forms have slowly become democratized over time,” Fenza said. “Some of the virtues of creative writing programs are the virtues of universities, which give access to everyone.”
This notion of access reaches to AWP’s program of over 150 offsite events, which is open to the public, and is collectively regarded as the real beating pulse of the conference. In a fitting comparison to the smaller indie publishers getting more freedom to experiment than the large establishments, the offsite events featuring readings and talks, slam performances, parties and mixers, and even a Literary Death Match that sprawl into fringe arts galleries, pubs, cafes, and bookstores around town. This is not to slight the impressive slate of onsite panels, readings, and the behemoth book fair where writers can mingle with thousands of literary presses, magazines, organizations, and the long-lost colleague. But could a drag reading that explores hyperbolic performances of gender happen in a conference room? AWP accommodates everything.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review “Discovery” Prize, her first book, What Is Not Missing Is Light, won Rescue Press’ Black Box Poetry Prize.