The Early Days of AWP

September 11, 2012

by Robert Day

In the beginning, at the dawn of the 1970s, there was Verlin and Kay Cassill at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.  On the second day, there was Bill Harrison at the University of Arkansas and George Garrett, then at Hollins College.  On the third day, there was the poet Leonard Randolph, recently appointed head of the Literature program at the National Endowment for the Arts. On the fourth day, I was on a plane to Providence to meet Verlin and Kay.  On the fifth day, there was ten thousand dollars.  On the sixth day, there was Kathy Walton as executive director.   On the seventh day, AWP was at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. Nobody rested.

Robert Day and John Barth at the offices of AWP at Washington College, Maryland, circa 1970. That’s the gist of it; just as when my American Literature Professor asked us to write the “gist” of Moby Dick in twenty-five words or less and, over tomato beers at the Gaslight Tavern in Lawrence, Kansas we came up with:  You always hurt the one you love.  Now here is the rest of story, minus the cetology chapters.

When I met him in Providence, Verlin was having a bad day. Esquire had just published his piece “Up the Down Coed,” and the student newspaper at Brown had run the headline:  Verlin Cassill:  Another D.H. Lawrence or just a Dirty Old Man?  Kay  was not amused.  But both were glad to see me because some months before they had sent out a plea for help in refurbishing AWP—an organization they had started but could now not continue for various reasons. And no one had answered their call.  Only Walton Beacham and I; Walton was to famously rescue INTRO, and it was my duty to take on AWP). 

Over lunch and then again at dinner, Kay and Verlin talked about their idea for AWP:  an organization of graduate programs in Creative Writing established for the mutual benefit of those programs that joined, and especially the student writers enrolled in those programs.  It was one of those vista visions that only those not encumbered with pragmatism (much less incrementalism) have: After the organization existed, the facts of life would evolve.  Being such a person myself, I was harpooned.  Plus the food and wine were excellent, especially in excess. 

“Here,” Verlin said as I was about to leave the next day, as he handed me a shoebox of three-by-five index cards.  “These are the names and addresses of all the creative writing teachers at graduate programs in the country.  This is AWP.  It will need to be many things to many people, but at its soul it should always be for our students to find their life as writers, and less for us to establish our academic careers.”  Even with a hangover, I knew there would be work to do, and that sooner or later—better sooner—we’d need to find someone beside myself to do a large share of it.  Enter Kathy Walton.

But first, true confession:  My memory these days, when not a sieve, is a muse. In the main, I am true to my impressions. Everything that happened, happened.  It’s just that, to paraphrase Montaigne, writing it out, I’m not sure I believe it myself. 

What happened most was the presence of Kathy Walton, recruited by Bill Harrison out of the University of Arkansas Graduate Writing Program where she (like me) had been one of his students.  It was George Garrett who had picked the pocket of Len Randolph of the NEA Literature Program for the ten thousand dollars that was to pay Kathy’s salary.  In this manner, Days Two, Three, and Five dawned, and lo! Kathy Walton arrived at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland to be greeted by me holding that shoebox. 

From the start and well into many months, Kathy was everything there was to AWP, so much so that her title as Executive Director was bogus:  that is, she had no one to direct (except me, and I was pretty hopeless, which is why I made myself Acting President).  Kathy typed letters, cranked the mimeograph machine, set up phone lines, helped me “commandeer” furniture for the office (more on this later), put up shades and blinds, bought office equipment, wrote a newsletter, and took lessons in double entry bookkeeping—whatever that meant.  She also raised more money—here I helped—from various sources so that we could pay our postage bills and, finally, months into her work, hire a part-time secretary.  In the beginning, Kathy Walton was all things to AWP—and more.

We had settled into a Victorian dump of a three-story house on the edge of the Washington College campus where I had started a literary center, complete with dorm rooms for student poets and writers.   Called Richmond House, it had been for years, the home and office of Dr. Richmond, an African American.  His waiting room was Kathy’s office.  Down the hall was my office (Dr. Richmond’s old office) and a meeting room (his examining room).  In between was a kitchen used—as one wit put it—“by the student poets to breed their yogurt and the hairy-chested fiction writers to burn their hamburgers.” There was also coffee pot éternel whose caffeine fired up arguments  about free verse and formal verse. 

The college would not allow co-ed living then, and by chance the first group of  “Literary House” writers were men.  But that did not stop the women from using the place as well, and it wasn’t long before they integrated it by simply moving in with the men; as friends with or without benefits, I never asked.

Kathy Walton became a literary présence among these young writers: mending their artistic egos; hiring them via Work Study funds; and suggesting authors they might read to improve their own work.  

Often, very early on warm mornings, she would be sitting with them on the wide front steps that lead into the house, coffee cup in hand.  One morning, a young male professor came up the sidewalk and, seeing the men and the women assembled there, said:  “Ah, the writers and the camp followers.”  The women stormed off, the professor was shunned, and it was Kathy Walton who resolved the crisis—by what persuasion I never knew.  Soon everyone was reassembled and the argument of whether John Updike or John Cheever was the better writer took up where free verse and formal verse left off.

While George Garrett was picking Len Randolph’s NEA pocket for AWP, I had my hand in Washington College’s till: free rent, free utilities, some supplies, work study funds, and, as one Vice President of the college put it, “commandeering” furniture (he was a recently retired Army Captain).

Behind the Literary House was the Green Shed, a storage building with all kinds of cast-off college furniture: desks, tables, lamps, bookcases, file cabinets, beds, and mattresses.  Beyond this treasure trove, there were broken-down love seats and chairs to be found in dorm lounges, and a coveted red leather couch in the hallway just outside the nurse’s station. 

True, the college had delivered a pick-up load of basics for the students living in the upstairs rooms, but not enough—especially after the women writers moved in.  Late afternoons or nights, Kathy Walton and I would poke through the Green Shed or roam the campus looking for “basement bargains” as she put it.  Then, over the lunch hour, I would round up a few students, “commandeer” a college pick-up, and loot the campus as we went.  Once, driving though the back of the college grounds so as not to get caught, we did get caught, the truck piled high with chairs, desks, lamps, and on the tail gate, that red leather couch with three students sitting on it drinking beer and (by their account) talking about the scene in Five Easy Pieces where Jack Nicholson plays the piano in the back of a truck.

“You,” said the ex-Army Captain, cum Vice President,  “are the main reason why inventory control at Washington College is impossible.”  One of the students offered him a beer.

Early on, Kathy Walton and I had to assemble an AWP board.  For this we turned to both Bill Harrison and George Garrett who came to our offices one Fall weekend.  I found funds for them to give readings and meet with students in manuscript conferences, and in this fashion paid their way to campus.  In those days, we had no money for much beyond our monthly expenses.  In the meantime, Kathy had written a shoebox full of letters and we were getting responses:  Yes. No. This graduate writing program would join, this one would not.  But with almost all of the responses there was this query:  Can AWP find jobs for our MFA graduates? And P.S.:  Can AWP get the MFA certified as a terminal degree for writers? The facts of American literary life were beginning to evolve.  As was the Board of AWP.

I think the first Board of AWP was not elected but assembled.  George Garrett and Bill Harrison, along with Kathy Walton and myself sat down over dinner one night at Washington College (cooked by Kathy in Richmond House) and drew up a list of names. George and Bill were on the Board, but who else?  Somewhere along the line John Williams also became a Board Member, as did Jim Whitehead.  I remember Ray West.  Bill Pedan from the University of Missouri was included. Marvin Bell.  I think we asked Verlin but he declined.  Walton Beacham, who by now was far ahead of us in his efforts to reestablish INTRO  (and put flesh on the “soul” of AWP), was a member.  George put me on the Board if I agreed to resign as Acting President and be nominated for President.  I accepted as long as I could withdraw my nomination for President the moment a full board (whatever that meant) was selected and they could vote their own President, which I think was George (that taught him). In the end, perhaps even at the end of dinner that night, we had a Board—not that everyone on it knew they were members; Kathy Walton would send them the news the next morning.  And a month or so after that, the first meeting of the AWP Board would take place at Washington College in Dr. Richmond’s examining room.

Robert Day and Allen Ginsberg on the porch of AWP former headquarters, in the 1970s,  at Washington College, Maryland.

Washington College and AWP were an odd couple.  Being a seven-hundred- student liberal arts college in those days, it did not have a graduate program of any kind, much less an MFA program.  Nor did it have an undergraduate creative writing program.  There was one course in the subject and, counting me, one teacher.  Over the school’s recent history, very few writers had come to campus.  Encore:  Len Randolph.

Not only was Len AWP’s patron, he began the Audience Development programs whereby small colleges in small communities (like Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland) could get matching funds to bring in poets, playwrights, and prose writers of national stature.  With Kathy Walton and the AWP Board’s help, Washington College applied with glee and success. 

Over the next ten years, there came to campus (and not without design, to AWP’s head quarters) what the Washington Post called a Carnegie Hall of poets, playwrights, novelists, and translators—including four Nobel Prize winners and scores of National Book and Pulitzer Prize winners:  Dee Snodgrass read “April Inventory” under the Catalpa Tree just outside my office; Edward Albee came with his play “Counting the Ways”; Toni Morrison read from her then unfinished novel Beloved; a drunk James Dickey read two poems in five minutes and claimed he had been reading for an hour and ten minutes and stopped; Katherine Anne Porter more or less recited “Maria Conception”; Joseph Brodsky and his translators Derek Walcott and Anthony Hecht read Brodsky’s poems in the original and then in various translation; William Stafford recited “Ask Me” (What the river says / That is what I say) to the Chester River with a phalanx of students behind him; Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlofsky tried to levitate the college administration building (the one with the retired Army Captain) and failed;  Kurt Vonnegut did not come, but was invited… and so it goes. 

Washington College may not have had a graduate program in Creative Writing (and still doesn’t), but because of AWP’s headquarters (and with grants matched by a generous literary endowment bequest the college had recently received), we developed a vibrant literary culture.  John Milton’s opening of “Of Education” First, to find out a spacious house, became the motto of our Literary House in those days—and remains so today. 

Well, in the end it is not as it was in the beginning: a shoe box is now a membership in the thousands; NEA grants have been supplanted by full-time fund raising; the Executive Director has plenty to direct; the hand-cranked mimeograph machine newsletter (whose name I have forgotten) has become the Writer’s Chronicle and this cyberspace site; the Job List is the answer to that first question; because of AWP, the MFA is now considered a terminal degree for writers; and the annual meetings now attract thousands.  Which brings me to the first meeting. 

Was it at the Drake Hotel in Chicago?  Or in Washington?  Or Boston?  I think it was at the MLA.  Kathy Walton might remember.  But I do recall this: there were as many members of AWP attending the meeting as Board Members (about six each) and so we all became one in whatever room we had reserved.  Then there was a knock at the door. 

“Yes,” I said.  Two students walked in and introduced themselves, saying they were writers who wanted to start a literary magazine but their school had no funds.  They needed one hundred dollars for a mimeograph machine of their own. Could AWP help?  We could not as we had no money for such projects.

Was it George Garrett (and it probably was) who opened his wallet and gave them cash? And in so doing, so did the rest of us—and in this way it came to pass that Verlin Cassill’s vision  of AWP’s soul living for the benefit of young writers arrived on terra firma. 

Not the end.


Robert Day is an adjunct professor of English at Washington College and the author of  The Last Cattle Drive, a novel, Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of stories, and The Committee to Save the World, literary nonfiction.

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