Art Works Blog

A Tale of Two Conferences

I had the interesting experience of attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Boston earlier this month not long after I attended the Tools of Change (TOC) for Publishing conference in New York. The TOC conference in February was all about new technologies and business models that can help writers, editors, and publishers keep up with the ever-changing literary landscape. I heard from risky start-ups and fascinating futurists who hurried onto a large stage flanked by two huge screens to the sounds of indeterminate rock music and applause from a ballroom full of people who went immediately back to typing and Tweeting on their laptops. I was one of them. I never heard much mention of, say, poetry, but I was truly impressed by the innovation.

The AWP conference, by contrast, is the largest literary conference in North America with 700 exhibitors and 11,000 participants who mostly just want to write and read and teach and learn and publish and talk about good books, especially poetry. There were cell phones and e-readers, but there were also note pads and well-worn books and backpacks and quiet rooms full of rapt listeners enjoying the words and wisdom of poets and prose writers they’ve come to admire in print. I was one of them, too.

The two conferences can seem worlds apart, but to those of us in the Literature Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, they are simply different points---recurring points---on a fascinating continuum of where literature is, was, and will be. It’s an exciting time to be an advocate for literature.

The TOC conference was new to me, whereas I’ve been to (if I’m counting right) 14 annual AWP conferences. The AWP conference---which the NEA funds and I’ve seen grow threefold over the years---travels around the country. It’s a wonderful way to attract new people and draw attention to the host city. Because it was in Boston, Ira Silverberg (Literature Director), Eleanor Steele (Literature Specialist), and I were able to stop in to see the offices of the journal Ploughshares and the wonderful space that makes up the literary center, Grub Street (where, as it happens, we also got back massages, which I’m now thinking should be a standard offering at every literary center).

We didn’t just man the NEA booth at the conference. We were at panels, in meetings, walking the book fair, trying to make ourselves available to applicants and grantees and educating ourselves about the needs of the field. The panels we presented to individuals and organizations garnered a great crowd and terrific questions. The best comment we heard several times was that we “humanized” what can be a very daunting application process. That was particularly gratifying, as we very much wanted to get across that we care and are available to help.

Most of the TOC attendees, I imagine, were entrepreneurs, or at least entrepreneurial in spirit. So many of them seemed to have a sort of puppy-dog enthusiasm for discussing possibilities. On the contrary, most of the AWP attendees were students, teachers, and nascent writers used to being alone. Judging by the post-conference commentary, they were either quietly inspired to write more and write better, or were crushed by the sheer numbers of writers attending and vowed never to attend an AWP conference again. (They’ll be back.)

My experience touches on both of those sentiments, but mostly falls outside the mainstream. It’s our job at the NEA in part to make sure writers continue to write and readers continue to read good work. To that end, we spent most of our time at the conference with the folks trying to make that happen around the country: e.g., publishers, presenters, festival organizers, translators, agents, booksellers, and other funders. Given the state of the economy and the onslaught of the electronic age, it’s tough out there. We heard that a lot. But we also heard that the field---collectively speaking---is not only up to the challenge, but eager to reinvent itself while preserving the integrity of our literary traditions.

Writing conferences, no matter the focus, can be overwhelming. Conversations continue into the nights and wee hours of the morning. They meander from the panels and book fair to the hallways and elevators and restrooms and hotel bars. It probably should be mandatory at the end to pass through a sun-dappled forest alone and empty-handed for two days before reentry.

Ira, Eleanor, and I have reentered the office, but we’re still buzzing from all the inspirational ideas and energy we took back with us from Boston. I’m thinking for our next staff meeting we read a little poetry, play a little rock music, meditate to the sounds of birdsongs, and start thinking about the 2014 AWP conference in Seattle. We hope to see you there.

Vist arts.gov to learn more about the NEA grants offered for literature projects, creative writers, and literary translators. You can also visit our YouTube channel for an archive of our most recent webinar on Art Works guidelines for literature projects

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