Friday, March 9, 2012

Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat . . . and Host to 10,000 Writers

The Associated Writers  & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference for 2012 was the biggest ever, so big it felt as if I were experiencing only the tiniest sliver of the event, even though I tried to schedule the four days carefully, plotting out all my panels, readings, parties, and receptions, and meetings over coffee, drinks, lunch, and dinner in advance.

I had a great time at the conference in Chicago last week, but am glad it was Spring Break at Florida State, where I teach, when I returned home this week, as I needed the time to recover.

For me, last week’s convention included the annual Pinch/Normal School party, meetings with editors, several great panels and readings, and dinners with old friends from FSU, Purdue and Iowa, and a book signing for my new book, Essayists on the Essay:Montaigne to Our Time (U of Iowa P), but the highlights were the two panels I was on.

Friday at noon, I participated in Why We Need a WPA for the 21st Century along with Miles Harvey, Kimberly Dixon and our capable convener and moderator Sandi Wisenberg. We talked about the history of the Works Progress (later Project) Administration, related New Deal programs such as the Federal Writers Project and Civilian Conservation Corps, Richard Wright, current challenges for arts administrators, and the many strikes, demonstrations, and marches to which Roosevelt and his Brain Trust were responding—working-class activity involving tens of thousands of workers and the rightwing backlash that cost dozens of them their lives. The Q & A was lively and productive, and Sandi has set up a blog where people can continue the conversation.

My research for the panel revealed to me that the WPA and New Deal have been constant, important, even essential parts of my own life. My high school was a New Deal project, so is my daughter’s. My hometown post office featured WPA murals, and the cover art for my book, The American Essay in the American Century (U of Missouri Press, 2011), is a painting titled “Subway 1934” by WPA artist Lily Furedi.

My second panel, The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?, was scheduled for the final time slot, 4:30 on Saturday, and my fellow panelists and I had worried that we wouldn’t have much of an audience. We needn’t have. The Continental A ballroom of the Hilton was packed to overflowing, thanks in large part by the current kerfuffle about truth in creative non-fiction sparked by the release of Lifespan of a Fact, the new book by John D’Agata and John Fingal, which had been featured the previous weekend in both the New YorkTimes Book Review and Magazine.

I thought my fellow panelists – Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Steven Church, Colin Rafferty – and I were taking a measured and humorous, if finally critical, stand on D’Agata’s willingness to fudge the facts in the name of Art, but some in the audience thought otherwise. The Q & A was the most contentious I’ve ever seen at a conference. But, our estimable convener Wendy Rawlings did a tremendous job of moderating the discussion, which in the end forced us all to think more deeply about the issues of accuracy, truth, subjectivity, and the relationship between memory and imagination that have troubled essayists since Montaigne.

Audience members were tweeting from the ballroom during the tension-filled Q & A. In the last few days, many of them have posted about the panel on their blogs, including at the Brevity Blog, where Dinty Moore kindly posted my presentation in its entirety – a “Dear John” letter to John D’Agata.

This debate won’t be going away soon; in fact, I suspect there will be plenty of panels on the essay at next year’s AWP conference in Boston.

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