August 25, 2015

Still Standing / Still Standing with Laura Mullen

Thank you to everyone who spoke out last week, when "Chicks Dig Poetry"--first the specific link to the post below, then the entire blog--was flagged (by who I'll never know) as being "abusive" and was blocked from Facebook. All earlier links to CDP on my personal or Author page were compromised as well. For some of us, the scrubbing of links took portions of a larger conversation with it.

This is a reminder of how easily social media's tools to protect can be misused to censor. Initially, I had no recourse beyond submitting generic forms to contest the decision. But an outcry on Twitter got Facebook's attention, and a friend facilitated an in-house request to investigate. The flag was subsequently overturned, and CDP is allowed on Facebook's pages. 

At no time have I had reason to think anyone closely affiliated with the Association of Writers & Writing Programs triggered the block. Staff members went out of their way to express support. It's important to not conflate what happened here, as frustrating as it was, with people's concerns about AWP leadership; by the same token, having this issue "fixed" should not be false comfort when real concerns remain.

I spoke with AWP Executive Director David Fenza for an hour on the afternoon of Wednesday, August 19. I appreciate him taking the time. We are in agreement on some things, and I respect that he has dedicated years to fostering this organization. 

That said, I return to three points:

-Mr. Fenza interpreted sending and favoriting Tweets, as Laura Mullen did using her personal Twitter account, as public actions in her capacity as an academic. 

-He chose to cc this letter to the Department Chair and Vice Chair at Louisiana State University, where Laura Mullen is the Director of Creative Writing.

My concerns related to these points were not dispelled by our conversation. There were internal contradictions in Mr. Fenza's justifications. There are external inconsistencies with the values I hold as a writer and a member of AWP. 

There has been one thing that everyone who I spoke to because of an AWP affiliation seemed to agree on: the Executive Director acted in error. But there has been no public acknowledgement, even in a statement that mentions me by name. As of checking in with Laura Mullen last night, there has been no private apology either. 

I understand the need for off-the-record conversation, especially when people are gathering facts. But when the gap between what is said behind the scenes and what is said on the record grows too significant, everyone's credibility is damaged. If we let the silence stand, then we send the message that this is all okay. 

This is not okay. 

In the life of any organization, members will have questions, criticisms, even flat-out complaints. Sometimes the most inconvenient ideas yield the most growth. We have to be free to voice dissent without fear of disproportionate recrimination. Our latitude to speak, and our ability to object, should be regardless of our individual rank or stature. If there are not appropriate protocols in place to ensure that, there should be. 

Laura Mullen deserves an apology. 

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).

July 16, 2015


Last week, I did a quartet of readings for Count the Waves in Virginia and North Carolina. The thing about working at home is that you almost never take a "day off." But on the road for a reading, you can explore a new town's shops, restaurants, and people, and still feel like you're putting in a day's work. It is work. You gotta be on time, have book stock in hand, give a good reading, and be ready to answer any question. 

But it's a lucky kind of work, and makes up for many days spent stressing over bills and freelance deadlines. Being a writer is a way to explore the world. 

Whenever I get back from one of these trips, my mind is brimming with ideas. Then someone asks "How was it?" and I never know where to start or what to say. I take snapshots, whenever and wherever I can, as a way of shaping the story.

In other words: Hi Mom! This is for you. 

First stop: Richmond, Virginia, home to Plan 9. They opened as a used record shop back in 1981, and it's lovely to see the focus come back to vinyl--they celebrated their "33⅓ birthday" this year. Since Champneys couldn't come with me, I went album hunting on his behalf. The haul: Darol Anger's Fiddlistics, Flatt and Scruggs covering Bob Dylan, and "Cajun Swamp Music Live: The Clifton Chenier Band."

World of Mirth in Carytown is one of the best children's stores in the country--with a focus on handcrafted, environmentally responsible, and just plain joyous toys. There is a sad story behind the shop: WoM was the vision of Kathryn Harvey, who was tragically murdered, along with her musician husband and their two daughters, during a 2006 New Year's Day home invasion. That crime spree shook the community; if you've ever heard "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," from the Drive-By Truckers' album Brighter Than Creation's Dark, it is about the Harvey family. But the dream lives on, and thrives. You can find every variety of creature, costume, puppet, or brightly colored goo. I'm a first-time aunt, so I went to town. (Let's hope Rhoda-Jane likes the sippy cups made to look like Ramen cups and Sriracha bottles.) 

The moment the register finished ringing, I dashed down the block to Chop Suey.

My reading companions were Simeon Berry & Cecily Iddings, en route to The So and So Series in Raleigh. We were greeted by the bear hug of Ward Tefft, the man behind the bookstore. Simeon read from two new collections; Cecily shared a long poem from Everyone Here, out from Octopus Books, one of my favorite indie publishers. 

There were local friends in the audience, folks from the Blackbird community, an old UVA workshop buddy, and Kent Ippolito, husband to the late great poet Claudia Emerson. When I shared the title poem from the book, the sestina "Let Me Count the Waves," I mentioned that she had seen the very first draft (we were both at the Sewanee Writers' Conference at the time). 

Afterwards, all three poets signed books under the watchful eye of WonTon, House Supercat. We headed to dinner across the street, at The Daily. 

…and later, thanks to poet-Goddess Emilia Phillips and her partner Jeremy, there was pinball. And wine. And more pinball. 
The next morning, I ventured on to Chapel Hill by way of Durham, where I hit another record shop. I also shamelessly offered to sign a copy of Count the Waves when I found it on the shelf at The Regulator, and I bought Jim Fusilli's 33 1/3 guide to Pet Sounds.

There's a shop in Durham that carries Effie's Heart, a California label. I would live out of Effie's closet if I could (the actual designer is named Kimo Frazzitta). Dresses with sleeves! Skirts with pockets! You can never go wrong with pockets. This was my splurge purchase, but it has a practical side: since I'm teaching in an actual classroom this fall (American University), I will have to put on actual clothing. 

By 5 PM I had made my way to the strip mall in Chapel Hill that houses Flyleaf Books. I was intrigued by the restaurant next door, Lucha Tigre. 

The kitchen has a crazy premise of Mexican-Asian fusion, but it sent out the best posole I've had since visiting Santa Fe. With a side of wok-seared bok choy. And a jalapeño margarita. While I ate, I browsed one of three back copies of The Sun that I'd brought down with me. Though I'd read it before, I came across David Hernandez's poem "We Would Never Sleep."  (Pause. Go read this poem, please. This post will wait.)

Afterwards I slipped next door to meet the series hosts. I balanced out my bloodstream with a lemonade, and an espresso, and we headed into Flyleaf. I knew the face behind the register: Jake Fussell, formerly of Oxford. Second shock: Travis Smith, also a friend from Oxford days, also on staff. Their faces made me feel welcome and very nostalgic for Square Books. I can't wait to be back in Mississippi on August 20

I've known Dan Albergotti for years, always admiring his work, but we'd never read together before. The selections from Millennial Teeth were dark, but stunning and timely; it's an helluva collection. One of the poems he read, "Holy Night," won a Pushcart Prize this past spring. 

We had a substantial Open Mic peppered with tributes to James Tate. It's striking to realize how many readers'  lives he touched. The originals were one poem, one page. I particularly liked the chutzpah of Liz--a new transplant from Chicago--who delivered her poem despite having broken off a tooth in the hour before. Ouch. She read a persona poem dealing with domestic violence, re-claiming the absence as dramatic gesture. 

Weird coincidence: I'd lost my own fake tooth in the hour before. It fell irretrievably through gap in the plastic casing of my car and will now forever, creepily, ride along on these road trips. Luckily, I'm due to get the permanent on Tuesday, bringing my expensive and yearlong "damn you, baby tooth" saga to an end. 

Not glamorous to share that, but a poet's days aren't all pinball and shopping. 

Afterwards, I got to chat with folks including Abigail Browning, the founding force behind Tate Street. How did I not know she was in Chapel Hill? I visited with her at AWP, where I talked about my love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee?" for their Favorite Poem Project, an offshoot of Robert Pinsky's initiative. 

Being home-hosted is strange and lovely. You're thrust into the intimacies of a life--you see inside the fridge, you hear kids playing through the wall, and on this particular night, you arrive right as someone's grandmother has passed away. But one thing I admire in so many writers is their resilient flexibility, our recognition that life is nothing but juxtapositions and we grab at what we can--in this case, a conversation over a glass of water, before she headed to the airport to fly home to her family. 

My host suggested I check out Open Eye Cafe in nearby Carrboro. Intriguing little town, with crops and flowers in every yard. I browsed my way through Fifth Season Gardening and almost bought an air plant. (Tillandsia is pretty much the full extent of my gardening; we already have one, named Sangria.) The store had a generous section devoted to growing your own hops. I hit another record store, got a snack, finished another issue of The Sun. 

On the way to Greensboro, I made notes toward a new book idea. Vague, I know. Sorry; that's all I'm going to say about it for now. 

My host in Greensboro was Rhett Iseman Trull, editor of Cave Wall, her husband Jeff, and their young daughter. I've been a reader of Cave Wall since the earliest issues, and they published selections from both I Was the Jukebox and Count the Waves. I'd brought little Audrey a stuffed fox from World of Mirth, inadvertently channeling the mascot of Scuppernong Books

Dan and I had promised each other that we'd change up our sets. I learned a lot from hearing him read two nights in a row. Friday brought out his more playful poems, the ones that use rhetorical structures to riff on relationship dynamics. 

Here we are--Jeff, Rhett, Dan--friendships that, before I know it, will have spanned a decade. One person missing: Terry Kennedy. He's up in the mountains, writing in his cabin. We texted a questioning, "Where the hell are ya?" photo to his cell. Then I discovered he'd left a gift certificate for me at the register, with the invitation to have a Gibb's Hundred on him. Dammit! People that nice take all the fun out of being mean. 

We headed to the Gibb's Hundred tap room and Yes, Terry, the Pale Ale was amazing. 

After doubling back to Scuppernong the next day for lunch and to buy Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station--which I started reading while gnawing on my salmon "bacon" BLT, with squash salad and pickled green tomatoes--I headed Pittsboro. My soundtrack for the drive was Jake's new album ("Jake Xerxes Fussell"), traditionals, and I think PopMatters got it right: "Even with all the history built into these songs and this record, Fussell still emerges as a fresh and vital new voice, as a singer, a musician and a torch bearer for every true sound he’s come across to now." 

I wasn't sure what to expect in Fearrington Village. I found cows. 

Specifically, Belted Galloway cows. Goats. A donkey. And McIntyre's Books. 

When you have three readings with big crowds, three days in a row, it is the will of the gods that you will have all of three people at the fourth reading. 

But what people! A student from the University of Tampa's low-residency MFA program drove into town from his temporary home of Chatham, Virginia. The other two were strangers to me, a young couple visiting Fearrington Village from Norfolk in celebration of their anniversary. I gave an abbreviated reading and then we talked, eventually winding around to a potent coincidence: the woman had studied poetry at Mary Washington with Claudia Emerson. Claudia, whom Gordon, my UT student, is writing a 25-page essay about. Claudia, who I'd already been thinking about since Richmond, the very first one to lay eyes on what became this collection's title poem. 

Thanks to the generosity of the crowd, I somehow sold four books, meaning one more book than audience members. I call that a successful reading. 

I lingered on my way out. I had a long drive home to DC ahead, with a stop off in Richmond to sign Emilia's copy of Count the Waves and to pick up take-out ribs from Fat Dragon.  This will probably be the closest I get to a vacation this summer. It didn't help my tan one bit. But it helped my heart.