Next weekend, over 12,000 writers are expected to arrive in Washington, D.C. for the Association of Writing Programs’ annual conference, the primary gathering of the entire country’s MFA programs, literary magazines, publishers, small presses and local workshops. At a fraught (to say the least) moment for the nation and for the future of free speech, several groups are planning to take action that week and harness the collective power of a conference whose normal activity consists of panels, readings, and schmoozing at a massive bookfair.
It would be surprising for a group of writers who will be presumably talking of little else but Trump for four days to do so in the nation’s capital to convene without taking some sort of action. So it’s reassuring that several groups and unofficial coalitions have stepped up to the task in several key ways.
On the afternoon of Friday the 10th, attendees will be banding together to lobby representatives on Capitol Hill. The mission statement for the event, Writers Resist Trump, reads: “We are writers, poets, novelists, critics, essayists, journalists, playwrights and educators committed to resisting the Trump agenda. During AWP 2017 we will be making a field trip to Capitol Hill to visit the offices of our Senators and Representatives to make the case against the Trump agenda.”
I spoke to Robert Marshall, who decided to organizing the lobbying event because he, like many of us, is furious about the Trump administration’s threat to healthcare, immigrants and the constitution and wanted to seize the moment of a national gathering of writers. Marshall emphasized the importance of reminding conference attendees that their elected officials work for them. “We are people of the word, and we need to go speak those words directly to those who have the job of representing us,” he said. “Congress is where the power lies. They spend the money, they pass the laws, but they are our congresspeople. We have the right to walk in and speak to them.” He said planning the event has been chaotic, with new sign-ups from people who want to join the effort every hour, but that he is excited to take this kind of directed action.
And there’s more action planned, too. The next day, February 11, after the conference draws to a close, a vigil and speakout for free speech will take place in front of the White House. Organized by Split This Rock, a D.C.-based organization devoted to poetry and political engagement as well as 29 co-sponsoring publications and groups, the vigil will feature literary readers Gabrielle Bellot, Kazim Ali, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Eric Sasson.
“We were already debating what more to do at AWP now that a discriminatory, kleptocratic regime resides in the White House, when some fiction writers reached out to us,” Split This Rock’s Sarah Browning, who is organizing the event with a handful of literary figures, told Flavorwire, “They were putting plans in place for a vigil for free speech at the White House. So we joined forces.”
Browning hopes that the vigil will allow writers to connect, show solidarity for comrades in commuities directly threatened by the regime, and gather strength. “We are writers,” she told me. “Authoritarian regimes come after writers and artists, because we ask questions, imagine alternatives to the status quo being enforced, voice the dreams and hopes of the people. We have no choice but to speak out.” Browning adds that at bookfair table#531, Split This Rock will be hosting a haiku postcard-writing activity that allows conference attendees to address elected officials with a bit of literary flair. Other similarly creative protest activities will doubtless crop up throughout the conference.
The larger literary community is taking those free speech concerns extremely seriously. Several leading publishers and publications are paying for half of their employees’ memberships to PEN America, the free speech organization. “At a time when Trump and his highest aides seem all too willing to embrace ‘alternative facts’ and to undermine Americans’ confidence in our most fundamental institutions, book publishing’s mission—to provide Americans with credible, vital information, and to tell the stories that reflect the diversity that is the strength of our nation—is invaluable,” said PW publisher Jim Milliot in his statement about Trump last week.
NOTE: If you are planning other protest actions at AWP, contact the author of this post at Sarah DOT Seltzer AT Flavorpill.com.