August 15, 2015

In Praise of Transparency & In Support of Laura Mullen

(Above: today's view from my living room window, the Capitol on the far left.)

Once a month, I update this blog. Three times a month, I consider suspending it. Not because I haven't loved the space--and I appreciate those of you who check in for new posts--but because much of my freelancing energies competes for the same stories, interests, and time that were originally central to "Chicks Dig Poetry." Still, this blog persists, part diary & part travelogue. And in part because news comes along, from time to time, that needs a space to be addressed beyond Twitter and Facebook

For the past few years, there has been increased scrutiny toward the annual AWP Conference. In part, this is a positive testament to the conference's influence (it's a fun, productive time for many, and for many, participation is an important part of their career path) and popularity (15K attendees in 2015). In part, this level of discernment is a reflection of critical attention to gender and racial diversity, and other identity politics such as disability, on the literary landscape--most easily evidenced by the annual VIDA Count. After AWP determined the accepted panels for the 2016 Conference in Los Angeles, a technical glitch caused applicants to be able to prematurely view their status (or some telling variation of it). So understandably, perhaps they were on the defensive when the official outcomes were announced.

Like many, I shared this list via social media. Some of the literary community called for a breakdown of who was "accepted" (if affiliation with a panel acceptance equals "acceptance") broken down to race and gender, with an eye toward ratio of application versus acceptance. In example, Laura Mullen's RT to my Tweet~

I am embarrassed to admit, I didn't reply. Not because it wasn't a legitimate question, but because that was a day I was largely offline, and once back online I didn't have the answer, and it wasn't my answer to give. But Mullen had also taken her query to the audience of @awpwriter (AWP's handle) and Twitter as a whole, as is her right~

And, here's what happened:

David Fenza, the Executive Director of AWP for the last 20 years, wrote her a scolding letter. As if she was an obstreperous schoolgirl. And he cc-ed the Chair and Associate Chair of the English Department at Louisiana State University, where Mullen is employed--though her Tweets were from a personal account with no LSU affiliation.

Laura Mullen shares the letter in its entirety on her blog, "afteriwas dead," but let me single out two particularly combative phrases amidst what is otherwise a lot of boilerplate in descriptive praise of AWP's activities:

First, the opening~

We would hope that the director of a member AWP program would support our association rather than cast aspersions upon it via twitter, as you have done. 

Then, this~

We are sorry if proposals your cared about deeply were rejected. Most of the submissions were rejected, including those with many of today's most prominent authors; but it’s unfair to suggest, as you have, that AWP discriminates against women and other groups when the subcommittee has helped to build an extremely diverse program.

Okay, let's clarify:

Requesting additional information is not casting aspersions.
Requesting additional information is not suggesting discrimination. 

As it happens, Laura Mullen is an accomplished author and an established teacher; she is the recipient of multiple Louisiana Board of Regents ATLAS grants and MacDowell Colony fellowships, as well as being a 1988 NEA fellow, a National Poetry Series winner, and a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. 

What if she had been a young voice, a tenure-track hire fighting for security at LSU? 

The fact that David Fenza--an academic who presumably grasps such subtleties--would take such a malicious intimidation tact is deeply inappropriate. 

Just to make clear: I think it might be logistically infeasible (I deleted the word "unfair" here, which is not logical) for AWP to be expected to retroactively gather and provide this information on the racial / gender breakdown of accepted versus rejected panelists for the 2016 conference. In this, Laura Mullen and I disagree. But I think it is completely within her rights to request the information. 

Her request draws attention to a critical opportunity. Because applicants have to draft and submit a bio, meaning there must be a degree of active engagement, AWP can add an optional gender and race survey (ideally with the option of selecting multiple "race" categories, since the signifier is flawed). Already, this would have an advantage over VIDA's struggle to document publication statistically based on--at least, initially--byline alone. 

Just to make clear: AWP does a wonderful job, with a very small staff, serving an extraordinarily large constituency with a plethora of needs. They are often asked to perform duties above and beyond what they were trained for, or are compensated for. I admire wonderful AWP Board and Committee Members like Oliver de la Paz, Ira Sukrungruang, and Anna Leahy. I have attended the last decade's worth of conferences, including getting food poisoning at the Austin conference hotel. The Writer's Chronicle is a really valuable resource. I judged an award for AWP earlier this year. I am scheduled to take part on an AWP panel in 2016, on "Furious and Burning Duende." 

And I think this is a profoundly bad thing that needs to be made right. 

Fenza formally identified himself as the Executive Director of AWP in his email signature. Is this what AWP wants to stand behind? Bullying of those who dare raise concerns about diversity? 

Because, if not, he owes Laura Mullen an apology--with a cc to her colleagues. 

Since it would be disingenuous to raise such a strong objection without direct contact, I am (simultaneous to this blog post) sending an email to David Fenza with a cc to Christian Teresi (Director of Conferences), Bonnie Culver (Board of Trustees Chair), Robin Reagler and Oliver de la Paz (Board of Trustees Vice Chairs).


Jenelle said...

You're doing the right thing. I'd be very interested to know AWP's response. Thanks for keeping your blog alive, p.s.!

Sandra said...

Thanks, Jenelle!

ctgager37 said...

AWP should get over themselves.

charles said...

Thank you. Laura Mullen deserves our support in this matter. And I think the statistics on diversity should absolutely be made public, and don't see why it should be infeasible to do so.

George Vance said...

Agree with your position but would like more editing ('tact' for tack I suppose is what is meant); anyway, best wishes in pushing this cause

Unknown said...

Does not seem like Laura Mullen's request should be onerous to AWP leadership in any way. Why are they being so defensive and dismissive?

Robyn Ringler said...

I will send an email too and we all should. I agree that Laura Mullen has been severely mistreated by just asking questions that mean something to many of us. This should not be intimidating to the administrators of AWP. In fact, they should welcome it. We look to AWP, an important organization for many writers, to support diversity. It is particularly onerous that Laura was scolded and demeaned.

rlcuster said...

I would SO MUCH prefer than AWP concern itself with the representation of AMAZING writing, no matter who wrote it.

Carolyne Wright said...

Thank you very much, Sandra, for this mature and balanced response to a major overreaction on DF's part to LM's having made a neutral request for more information. Having served on the board of AWP, I know Fenza to be fierce in defense of the organization--I was very careful in what I said at board meetings. I didn't want to get jumped on for saying something less than what met his standards--I did get what I regarded as jumped by him on a few times. Walking on eggshells like that was not fun, but I could also see his dedication to AWP--I think it has pretty much become his life. When he took over that post, a decade or so before I served on the board, AWP was truly embattled--deeply in the red and in danger of being closed down. But AWP is no longer fighting for its economic and institutional survival; and even if it were, immediately taking a defensive stance and aggressive tone, and above all, CC'ing to LM's supervisors in response to her neutral-toned tweets for more information on demographics--THAT is not acceptable. Attitudes, habits of mind, and temperament of one person do not represent the entire organization, but alas, when these traits are those of the Executive Director, they DO seem to be more representative than they ought to be..

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Finally I get to the bottom of this. Having come late to the discussion, after your blog was censored, my first intro to the subject was someone's declaration on Facebook that AWP is racist, which seemed ludicrous (and simplistic) to me. Now that I finally have access to this blogpost, I feel the pain, and embarrassment that Laura Mullen must have felt, having the chastising letter forwarded to her superiors and I agree that's not something she deserved for asking a legitimate question. Thanks for shedding light on this situation. I support the AWP 100% but I also support Laura Mullen and her right to make inquiries that are worded professionally. It seems like this situation could have been handled more tactfully on Fenza's end and probably now it would not be such a big deal.