Last week, 12,000 writers descended on Washington D.C. for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (AWP). AWP, which is held every year in a different city, is like a four-night literary ComicCon, with a massive book fair, panels, and readings from writers like Eileen Myles, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ta-Nehisi Coates and hundreds of others scattered throughout the host city.
This year, AWP was held in a convention center a stone’s throw from the White House. I expected to find the conference charged with fear, rage, and dread, since Donald Trump’s administration is inimical to free speech, by which the writer plies her trade.
But I was also wary of entering an IRL Facebook or Twitter conversation, worried I’d see a lot of internecine liberal squabbling or, worse, a pageant of performed woke-ness. Absent a contest of ideology, discourse can devolve into a contest of volume.
Outside the convention center, D.C. maintained it’s stately and apolitical façade. Looking in from the outside, it’s easy to imagine D.C. as rancorous and exciting, but downtown is dull. If, like me, you grew up in or near D.C., you understand that politics often seems like a tourist attraction, replete with the banal economy of memorabilia.
Thursday it was so windy that the souvenir vendors took the day off, but on Friday they were back, hocking Donald Trump beanies, buttons, shirts, scarves, mugs, belt buckles. In a Hudson News at Dulles International Airport I found a tin of peppermints emblazoned with Trump and Ronald Reagan’s faces. The tin read “From Ronald to Donald,” which, depending on your party affiliation, is either hagiography or trenchant political analysis.
Happily, the vibe inside the sprawling exhibition hall was outwardly cheerful, almost relieved. In the handful of AWPs I’ve gone to, there’s always been an underlying sense of grumpy, hung-over obligation. This year, there was an extra bit of gusto in the way writers shouted each other’s names, an extra bit of force in every embrace. Everyone seemed to realize that they were among their people.
Politics permeated the room in a more formless, miasmatic way, as it so often does. I overheard snippets of the conversations I’ve been having with my friends for the last few months. While transcribing an interview for this story, I realized my phone had picked up an exchange adjacent to the one I was having: “The ACLU,” an unidentified woman said, “is dealing with some really hectic shit right now.”
For Seattle writer Elissa Washuta, that “really hectic shit” had to do with proximity: “Bannon and those people are in the city I’m in, and I feel this dread of the processes that are happening so close by,” she said.
For Washuta, who has written powerfully about the election, the atmosphere of D.C. was simply too oppressive. She moved her flight up and left the conference early.
When poets stepped in front of the microphone at the countless readings held in bars and art galleries all over the city, they talked politics. At an event on Thursday called “We Write, We Fight,” poet Jericho Brown opened with his poem “Bullet Points.”
“I promise that if you hear / Of me dead anywhere near / A cop, then that cop killed me,” Brown intoned in his distinctive, clipped delivery, which sounds so much like prayer.
Some deconstructed the way we talk about politics. Later on that evening, Morgan Parker read “Now More Than Ever,” an exegesis of well-meaning white people’s new favorite phrase written in the style of a clinical diagnosis.
Others, like Seattle poet Sarah Galvin, acknowledged that everything now is inherently political, and so we might as well read poems about “an orgy of grandparents.”
Writers also put bodies in the streets. On Friday a handful marched to the Capitol. On Saturday night, a few hundred stood vigil outside the White House, which was ringed in chain link fencing and partially obscured by enormous wooden bleachers left over from the inauguration. Earlier that day, Pennsylvania Avenue had been full of construction workers taking apart those bleachers. It seemed like a premonition of the next four (or forty) years: disassembling a spectacle most of us didn’t want.
There’s a chance that take is too optimistic. The poet Ed Skoog, who lived for a few years in D.C. and many more in Seattle, offered me a bleaker perspective. When asked what the writing of the Trump era would look like, he first let out a sustained scream.
Then, he invoked the Salvadoran poet and activist Roque Dalton. “The poet has three choices in his relationship to power,” Skoog explained. “There’s the person who goes along with it, who capitulates to power. There’s the clown, who has the appearance of resistance, but who is doing the work of power. And then there is the real revolutionary.”
“So, Dalton was killed.”