Amy King Talks with Christian Teresi, Conference Director of AWP
Christian Teresi is the Director of Conferences for AWP. His poems and interviews have appeared in several literary journals including The American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, Sou’wester, and the Writer’s Chronicle.
We at VIDA were excited to have the opportunity to speak with Christian Teresi, the Conference Director for AWP (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs). AWP’s yearly conference allows writers of several genres (many of whom are either literally isolated from larger literary communities, or simply isolated due to the very nature of our work) the rare opportunity to be suddenly present in the same place so that we may encounter one another face to face. Amy King conducted the following interview with Christian over the past few weeks.
Amy King: Christian, you seem to wear many hats. By way of introduction, would you outline your position within the writing community for us?
Christian Teresi: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you Amy. Well, my education is in English and creative writing. When I was in grad school I started working for AWP in February of 2003 through a part-time work-study program at George Mason. Over several years I worked my way up, first through the membership department, and then through the conference department, to my current position of Director of Conferences. My position within the writing community is simply that I am one of several arts administrators at AWP. Specifically, along with Tricia Gonzales (who oversees the bookfair), and Anne Le (who oversees registration), I coordinate, facilitate, and help produce all aspects of the AWP Annual Conference. More generally, I am just one of many people––from the part-time and full-time staffers at AWP, from the AWP Board of Directors, from the AWP membership––who helps create the community that is the AWP Conference & Bookfair.
Amy King: How would you describe AWP for those readers who haven’t attended the conference? My first experience of AWP was in 2004. Since then, the conference seems to have rapidly grown, and is now regarded as the de-rigeur yearly powwow for poets of all allegiances and levels of visibility. In what ways have you, as an administrator, seen the conference evolve over the past few years – and, as a poet yourself, what service(s) would you say AWP provides to the poetry community – how do the “AWP community” and the “poetry community” intersect?
Christian Teresi: First I would say that the AWP Conference & Bookfair is one part of what the larger Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) does. While the AWP conference is in many ways the public face of AWP because it’s where people have the most direct contact with the organization, the association itself does a lot more than just the conference. AWP is the largest advocacy group for writers and writing institutions in North America. To serve such a large diverse constituency, there is a lot of programming that goes along with that besides the conference. There are over 34,000 subscribers to the Writer’s Chronicle, and there are 503 institutional members of AWP and over 30,000 individual members. In addition to the Writer’s Chronicle, AWP publishes online the Job List for writers, the Guide to Writing Programs, manages the Writers Conference & Centers program, and sponsors the Annual AWP Award Series. This past year, AWP produced the first ever statistically relevant survey about MFA programs that detailed average tuitions, class sizes, professor’s salaries, TA stipends, etc. Additionally, AWP is one of the largest supporters of LitNet, the national lobbying group for writers, and helps LitNet advocate on behalf of (and advance the causes for), all writers to both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
I don’t mean for this to sound like an advertisement for AWP. It’s just that this is something I hear a lot, that when people refer to AWP they are only referring to the conference when there is so much more that AWP does, and personally I know how much effort is involved in producing those projects. David Fenza complains sometimes that the conference has become the snake that swallowed the snake charmer, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that the conference is just one part of this dynamic nonprofit organization that still struggles to find support for its other projects.
AWP is a great arterial for networking, advocacy, and building communities with writers, and, to get back to your question, the annual conference and bookfair does exactly that. The AWP conference is one of the two largest literary conferences in North America. But we know that contemporary literature in North America varies wildly, and is made up of so many different genres, groups, communities, and abilities. The size and scope of the conference allows for all of these various groups to come together, to share ideas, to learn from, and communicate with each other. The conference has grown 700% since 2000. Back in 1992, the AWP conference had 15 events and 40 presenters; that’s hardly representative of the diversity of contemporary literature. Last year, in Denver, the conference had 400 events with over 1500 presenters (60 more events and 270 more presenters than in 2009), and in future years I hope it continues to grow. It’s impossible for any of us to fully comprehend how complex and diverse contemporary literature is, but if we want to be better writers, if we want to support literature and its practitioners, then we owe it to each other to try. The conference is not just about community, it’s about communion, it’s about a shared experience with writers you admire and writers you may never have heard of––with people you’re ultimately not all that different from in regards to your artistic struggles, artistic experiences, and artistic desires.
The poetry community is a large part of the AWP community. The two are inseparable. The conference helps poets by introducing them to other poets, writers in other genres, and publishers. It’s very sweet to see poets meet their editors at our bookfair for the first time. I can’t tell you how many wonderful poets I first came to recognize either through the events or walking through the bookfair. It makes me enormously happy to hear that you think some people “of all allegiances and levels of visibility” find it important, because I really do want it to be a conference for all writers from all different kinds of backgrounds and experiences. That is how I’ve seen it evolve. When I started working at AWP, the conference and the bookfair were less than half their current size. Again, that is a poor representation of what contemporary literature can accomplish. As the conference continues to grow, I think it becomes a more accurate representation of how important and thriving the literary arts are. Nothing pleases me more than when I see avant-gardists working in the same environment as neo-formalists, when there is a panel with two poets who have never sat down with each other to have a discussion before. I think it is invaluable to our development as writers to see not only poets, but writers of various genres from all over the country, writers of different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds, different writing organizations, and from all the various and important ways we define ourselves come to the conference and honestly and thoughtfully communicate.
Amy King: On a technical note, you acknowledge the diversity of the literary community as a whole; do you think the conference should somehow represent or include that range in proportionate ratios, and if so, how does AWP attempt to be inclusive? In other words, how do you go about selecting panels? Does AWP actively seek to attract and solicit participation from nonmainstream literary communities? How do you determine the number of panels? I’m interested in the ins and outs of organizing such a mammoth and significant occasion; it would seem the more the conference’s profile is enhanced, the greater the expectation to offer a representative cross-section of the literary community while attempting to maintain that collegial feeling that perhaps other conferences like the MLA do not foster. Do the responsibilities weigh on you as AWP grows?
Christian Teresi: In terms of the conference, the most important way AWP is inclusive is we have an open panel proposal process. Anyone, member or nonmember, is welcome to submit a panel proposal. Another way AWP is inclusive is that we have a democratically elected board. The AWP Board of Directors is elected by the membership. Diversity and artistic excellence are the chief goals of the AWP conference. We have over 500 institutional member programs that are all generating diverse proposals. The 500 plus bookfair exhibitors we have annually at the conference also generate diverse proposals. AWP is a service organization, and because of that it’s the conference’s job to accept the highest quality programming possible that best serves the AWP membership. To do that, AWP assembles a committee of board members, staff, and members from the organization. AWP brings together a qualified group of people with varied backgrounds, and as a result the opinions about what the highest quality programming is will vary from person to person. More importantly, because the board members rotate off the board, and they rotate on and off the committee, the committee and the collective point of view of the committee is always changing. When you look at the totality of the number of events we produce, in many cases there is a lot of variation in the accepted panels from year to year. What is thought of as a high quality event one year is not necessarily going to make the cut the following year. The process is a little like having a guest editor at a magazine, except that we have many guest editors in any given year.
The process for ranking the proposals is based partially on how most arts councils rank their proposals. We want the process to be as democratic and transparent as possible. We are always thinking about ways in which we might improve those goals. A detailed explanation of the “Selection & Scoring Process” can be found on the AWP website, but in short what happens is each committee member ranks the proposals within the given modules based on a set of defined criteria. The committee’s aggregate scores are then averaged, and the highest scoring proposals within each module are accepted. AWP developed the system of modules, or “Types of Events,” to help ensure a balance between the variety of issues and topics that interest our constituents. The number of panels is simply determined based on the amount of space we have available at the hotels and convention centers to accommodate those events. I always wish we have more space, and though we have expanded the conference greatly in recent years (and are continuing to do so), meeting space in hotels and convention centers is expensive, and so we have to weigh the costs of expanding against what that would mean to the attendees. That is to say, we have to expand in a responsible way where the costs of expanding are not going to negatively affect the conference attendees and AWP’s members.
Current and past AWP conference committee members have reached out to all kinds of literary communities outside of AWP. The publishers, especially, don’t represent academe, but countless writers outside of AWP. I’m sure some of those communities would be considered nonmainstream, and some of them wouldn’t, but that would depend on whom you were speaking with. Almost all poets are nonmainstream since their readership is tiny, compared to broadcast media, films, and other literary genres. Even the most popular poet struggles in a lifetime to sell as many books as J.K. Rowling sold in the last twenty-four hours. Because the totality of contemporary literature is vast beyond any one individual’s comprehension, “nonmainstream” means different things to different people. The AWP board and conference committee members reach out to individuals and organizations to encourage them to submit panel proposals. I have also encouraged individuals and organizations to submit proposals. The thing to remember is that the panel proposals process is an open one adjudicated by representatives of the AWP membership for the AWP membership, and for lovers of literature. If you look at the list of Sponsors and Literary Partners for this year’s conference, there are a lot of different groups represented, there are a lot of different voices; we listen to them all, and there are a lot more voices when you consider the overall landscape of the accepted events.
The responsibilities involved with organizing a growing conference of this size with the resources we have available to us are enormous. I lose a lot of sleep thinking about them, but I also feel extremely privileged to have those responsibilities. The panel proposal process is incredibly competitive, so we’re always going to disappoint someone. I know the conference committee members find the process hard because there are always going to be good panels that do not make the cut simply because we do not have the space. All we can do is constantly be thinking about ways in which the conference can improve. I feel privileged to be able to have conversations about how to improve the conference. At the end of the day we’re talking about helping artists, and more importantly, we’re talking about facilitating art, and in my mind there is no greater community to be involved with.
Amy King: I think some folks go for the bookfair alone; it’s such a fantastic scene with mainstream and indie presses sitting side-by-side, often offering rare and forthcoming books not easy to find elsewhere. Is there a rhyme or reason to how these folks are organized?
Christian Teresi: The bookfair is such an important part of what the conference does. Our annual conference survey regularly ranks the bookfair as the number one most helpful component to the attendees. The past several years have yielded tremendous growth, not only in size, but also in the scope of what the bookfair is able to accomplish. This growth is due, in large part, to the involvement of the exhibitors. Frankly, the conference would not be possible in its current state without all the journals, magazines, trade publishers, independent presses, and literary organizations that make up the bookfair and represent what I believe is the best of contemporary literature. Obviously, the conference would not be nearly as vibrant or interesting without them. We’re always working on keeping the fees for the bookfair as low as possible as both a way to help our exhibitors and to encourage new exhibitors.
To be able to produce an exhibit as large as the AWP bookfair organization is the key. Last year in Denver, we nearly sold out a space that was 105,000 square feet. Years ago we developed the Placement Point System to help us organize the tables and booths in a transparent way. The system relies most heavily on the date of purchase and sponsorship, but also factors in credit for those organizations that have participated in the bookfair for multiple years and have supported the conference in other ways. Simply, priority placement is given to the exhibitors who have the highest total points, and then we work our way down the list from highest to lowest. The system provides advantages to both new exhibitors and returning exhibitors to allow them to get good placement. The primary reason you’ll see such different presses, journals, and organizations adjacent to each other is because the system allows for such movement. That sort of systematic variety, in my opinion, is an important aspect to the bookfair because it helps create conversations between groups that might not otherwise have an opportunity for dialogue.
Amy King: I know a few of the larger conferences now offer childcare. Will AWP do the same soon? Is it in the works?
Christian Teresi: AWP received twenty-two requests for on-site childcare at the conference as part of our 2010 Annual Conference Survey. While we certainly appreciate the needs of our members with young children, on-site childcare is unfortunately unfeasible for financial reasons. This is something that we’ve looked into several times over the years, and it’s something we will return to, but at this point, with a professional conference of AWP’s size, the insurance policy alone for on-site childcare would force us to dramatically raise conference rates for all attendees. When we last looked into it, it was a $50,000 project, with liability insurance comprising the bulk of that, and, in spite of the insurance, the liability exposure remained very high. It is also important to keep in mind that in order to conduct on-site childcare at this level we would need to hire professional fully licensed providers who work at a premium in any of the major cities the conference visits. Because of these reasons, and because AWP is a nonprofit that must be constantly concerned with the costs of conference services and their effect on our attendees, on-site childcare is simply not possible at this time. I spoke with an MLA administrator a few months ago, and it’s for exactly these reasons that they stopped offering childcare at their conference. However, whenever possible we will provide information on local childcare providers as recommended by the hotel, and attendees can contract with them individually. We will work toward making this information available both on the website and in the conference program.
Amy King: Do you have any standout conference moments that you might share? I mean, most people strive to love the job they do, and you are obviously invested in cultivating this conference so that it continues to grow constructively and inclusively. But on a personal level, what are some of the interactions, panels, speeches, or readings that made an impression on you? Additionally, do any specific facets or features of the conference make your work feel particularly worthwhile each year?
Christian Teresi: The 2011 conference in D.C. will be the ninth I’ve worked for AWP. I’ve never been to the conference as an attendee. I actually haven’t been able to sit through an entire event since the 2003 conference in Baltimore when I was only an intern. I almost made it through the entirety of Michael Chabon’s keynote address this year, but was called away towards the end. I was also happy to see a little of events with Rita Dove, Robert Hass, Barbara Ras, Gary Snyder, and Anne Waldman, among others, but not as much as I would have liked. The problem is that during the conference I’m working the entire time. I’ll get calls from AWP staff, or the hotel, or the convention center at all hours. During the conference my phone doesn’t stop ringing. It’s kind of the worst part of my job that I get to help produce this great thing and most of the actual outcomes I only see from behind the scenes. I was particularly moved when I saw Lucille Clifton speaking at a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks at the 2009 conference in Chicago, but unfortunately I was also called away then and didn’t see the entire event.
So in terms of standout moments, I have to rely on other people’s opinions to see what they’re enjoying. I talk to a lot of attendees––strangers, colleagues, and friends––about which events standout and which events they think didn’t work particularly well. Ultimately, the AWP conference has very little to do with what I think anyway; what matters is what the AWP members and the conference attendees think. Though I don’t get to see much of the conference, I feel very lucky to be able to honestly say I love my job. I particularly love my job when I’m at the conference and people look like they’re having a good time, or when after an event they seem inspired; the standout moments for me are when an attendee tells me how much they’re enjoying themselves. I don’t get to see much, but I do have the great privilege of meeting a lot of people whose work I deeply admire. So when I get to meet people like Charles Baxter, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, Marilynne Robinson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and C.K. Williams, those are really good moments. For the upcoming conference, I’m particularly looking forward to events with Rae Armantrout, Adrian Blevins, Junot Diaz, Stephen Dunn, Susan Howe, Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, Claudia Rankine, and Charles Wright, to name a few. Hopefully I’ll be able to see at least part of some of those events.
Amy King: Let’s switch gears now. You’re also a poet who conducts the occasional interview. Do these roles complement your duties as Director of Conferences?
Christian Teresi: I’m not sure how much my role as an interviewer complements my role working on the conference. The interviews aren’t in any way part of my job, and are really only kind of a selfish thing on my part in that they all initially begin for my own education. Most of the day to day activities of the way I make a living don’t directly have much to do with literature, but one of the great things about my job is I have contact with amazing writers. As a lover of literature, to be able to sit down with some of these people and have a conversation about their lives, and about literature, has made for some really cool moments for me personally. The interviews are really just one way for me to continue my education now that I’m no longer in school. So to be able to sit down and talk with Marie Howe, Alan Shapiro, or Natasha Trethewey and listen to them talk about their influences or inspirations, or about craft, or process, has been incredibly influential to my own poetry. Then, of course, it is really nice to have the opportunity to share those conversations with an audience.
The fact that I’m a poet complements my work for AWP in the sense that it’s probably helpful to have someone in my position who is passionate about literature and its practitioners. Poetry is a spiritual sort of thing for me. The value of art to society is one of the few things I have blind faith in. Poetry is the thing I return to for solace and guidance more than anything else, and so for me it’s a fortunate thing that the sphere of my job sometimes intersects with poets.
Amy King: What have you learned through conducting interviews with established poets like Marie Howe and C.K. Williams? Do you have any future interviews on the horizon? Who would you choose to interview if given the opportunity?
Christian Teresi: Conducting those interviews has been extremely meaningful to me. Each one has been so beneficial. It’s one opportunity I would highly recommend to younger writers looking to mature. I think writers sometimes get caught up in the solitude of writing, and they forget the act of making art is really just the act of having a conversation, of communicating; writers sometimes forget they’re just one small part of a much larger community. The interviews are another way for me to spur new conversations and explore that community. To be able to listen to Marie Howe talk about ethical representations of violence in art, or Alan Shapiro talk about the necessity of the sympathetic imagination, or Natasha Trethewey talk about the ways she works against historical erasure––these are just a few moments that radically changed my own writing process. Those were really generous moments for me that I think made my poetry more honest and balanced. To be able to talk to writers about what does and doesn’t make for good poetry is something that’s been invaluable to me.
The interview with Natasha Trethewey is the one I’m currently working on, and hopefully that will be published sometime within the next year. But I’m constantly reading, and I’m constantly thinking about people who might be interesting to interview. I only wish I had the time to do more interviews. Between everything I have going on I am only able to do about one interview a year. I had the opportunity to meet Barbara Jane Reyes and Jay Wright at a book festival at George Mason University recently. I’ve been an admirer of Wright’s poetry for a while now, and have recently become familiar with Reyes’s, but I think both of them would make for a really interesting interview. Very high on my interview wish list would have to be Lynn Emanuel and Mary Ruefle.
Amy King: You mention being very busy with your AWP and meta-AWP activities, interviews, and writing. I’m curious: what does a typical day in the life of Christian Teresi look like? When do you find time to write and read? Do you have a creative routine/practice alongside your professional one? This query is a common thread among us active with VIDA as so many of us are writers in academic and professional jobs, doing a daily juggling act.
Christian Teresi: We all have obligations to our family, to our jobs, to our friends. We all have many important things competing for our attention. So I do what everyone does and try to find balance and prioritize. I sometimes think about how tricky it is to balance my creative life with my professional life, and then I think about my parents who managed to raise four kids while maintaining successful careers. I have no idea how they did it, but while I’m amazed by them they’re also not that unusual. Many, many parents are amazing at both their job and parenting, but because it may be common doesn’t make it any less impressive. I think about my sister who is a lawyer and has two children. My sister is a talented painter, though she hasn’t painted for several years. She stopped when she had her first child. Though I think most people have creative aspects to their jobs, when my sister was painting she was my only other family member who did something directly artistic, and so it upset me when she stopped. And yet, when she had her first child she prioritized––she did what she needed to do because the painting wasn’t as important anymore. I understand and admire that. I still wished she painted (and one day down the road she probably will), but I understand.
We all struggle to find routines that allow us to do what we want to do. David Fenza warned me when he hired me for this position that I wouldn’t have as much time to write, but being the conference director is one of the things I want to do besides writing. And so I find a balance. I write less, but I have a job that I love. I’ve always stayed up late anyway, and so I’m mostly reading and writing late at night. Even after a full day of working, when I’m too tired to read, or work on poems, or an interview, I’ll try at least to read a few poems before I sleep.
There is no real creative routine. I read and write when I can, when I have the time and energy to give it the intensity it needs. But to me, both reading and writing poems have always been a luxury, an essential luxury, but a luxury nonetheless. Think about all those people who have a minimal amount of art in their lives, let alone the people who don’t have any. Many of them don’t understand what they’re missing, but a lot of them don’t have time for art because other things are more important. Think about my sister. She’s a pretty happy person, but I still wish she had time to paint.
I’m pretty lucky. Though I’m not writing every day, I’m surrounded by people who are passionate about literature. I wish I had more time to read and write poems, but I’ll take what I can get, and I’m lucky to have that.
Amy King: In closing, can you tell us a little about your own poetry? How would you describe it and who (or what) are your influences? Also, do you have any aims or hopes for your poetry, or for poetry in general?
Christian Teresi: My poems have been described to me as meditative and lyric, and that may be true, but I don’t really think about how my poems might be categorized when I’m writing them. Allegiances to particular kinds of poetry, or to groups of poets, or to have an ideology about what kind of poetry I want to write is not particularly helpful to me. Poems require more thoughtfulness about the possibilities than a specific allegiance would allow. It doesn’t make sense to me to have a theory about poetry that says you should do this and not this because sometimes that thing will work and sometimes it won’t. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. Why would anyone want to close off the possibilities?
I’m influenced by everything I read––both the good and the bad. Sometimes those influence are easy to see, and sometimes they’re invisible. But I’m not only influenced by writers––there are movies, and visual art, and baseball, and politics, and National Geographic; it could be anything really. If I keep an open mind then inspiration, and subsequently influence, doesn’t really discriminate.
I hope that my poems speak to the largest audience (both poets and nonpoets) possible. I suspect my hopes don’t line up with reality, but I’m interested in talking to as many people as possible. Even if only one other person gets to see my poems, well then that makes it worthwhile too. I’m sometimes bothered when I’m reading poems and I feel like the poet has no intention of trying to speak to a diverse audience––or when they are only writing poems for themselves, or for a particular kind of poet or reader. Poetry is not for everyone, but the idea that a poet would write for a specific reduced audience strikes me as odd and counterproductive.
I’ve also noticed that some poets persist in writing something beautiful without a whole lot of thought as to what they are actually saying to anyone besides themselves. In my opinion, that kind of thing is a disservice to the reader. One of the things it does, I believe, is create situations where a poet is writing about tragic circumstances and there is such an effort to prettify those circumstances that the poem becomes dishonest. Tragedy is supposed to be ugly, and sad, and horrifying, and to prettify it only falsifies the representation. But this is a problem with how we’re taught at an early age that poetry is supposed to be beautiful first and foremost, and that may be true in terms of form, but that is not always the case with subject matter. If someone is writing about tragedy, I want to be able to see that tragedy for what it is instead of only how beautiful the poet can make the phrase or the line. I’d much rather have an idea about what the poet is talking about than only see how lovely they can articulate themselves. When they’re done well, even the most complicated abstractions embrace the reader in a share experience. I’m reading Anne Carson’s Nox right now and she does that. Pound at his best does that. You can be a difficult poet and still embrace a wide audience. Solipsistic writing, and writing that prettifies for the sake of prettifying, are mistakes that all of us make when we’re first learning how to write poems, but when I see those kinds of gestures in established poets that’s just unfortunate because I don’t think it does much to advance poetry.