The AWP/ODU Years: Occasional Grace

April 19, 2012

by Philip Raisor

Philip Raisor

Since its inception, AWP has relied on a "host institution" to provide the organization with office space and other support. AWP was based at Brown University, first; Washington College, second; then Old Dominion University (ODU), where it enjoyed its longest stay, until moving to George Mason University in 1994. Like many nonprofit organizations, AWP has struggled to do a great deal with meager resources, and AWP would not have succeeded without its host institutions. Phil Raisor, in this essay, encapsulates AWP's history at ODU, and he notes a few of the people that enabled AWP to deliver new projects and services as it became a stronger association.

In July, 1978, The Virginian-Pilot announced that the Associated Writing Programs was moving its headquarters from Washington College in Maryland to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Seventeen years later, July, 1994, the same newspaper recorded the departure of the AWP for George Mason University near Washington, DC.

AWP at Old Dominion was dead. Literally and chronologically that was true. Journalism got the history right. But not the metaphor. No headstone marks a burial site. In reality, AWP still lives at Old Dominion, not as nostalgia or memorial, nor even as family occasionally returning for a reunion, but uniquely. Let's say, as one fetus lives in the womb with another. Superfetation. Yes, that's the figure I want. Hugh Kenner set me on to that term years ago, when I was reading his discussion of the literary kinship between Joyce and Beckett. Joyce had brought the novel to an impasse. Where do you go next? Beckett, said Kenner, "by an act of superfetation, sought to solve the general problem of the impasse." Instead of going beyond Joyce, Beckett slipped into the womb with him. Beckett became, said Kenner, "the comedian of the impasse." Comically, perhaps, my connection of superfetation with the relationship between AWP and ODU may seem strained, the point in the skit when the audience borders on leaving. I'm not a comedian, and maybe the wrong person to tell this tale, but something happened to me on the way to the forum. As I sat last October at one of the sessions of the 24th Annual ODU Literary Festival, I realized that only the names, brochures, podiums had changed from the first one, which had been co-sponsored by AWP. Going back to the beginning was like staying where I was. I saw the story all over again, and it had a point. For all the staff disruptions, bruised feelings, organizational confusion, and the sad collapse of the AWP/ODU International Writers Center that came with the AWP relocation to northern Virginia, the move AWP made to GMU was sister to the one it made from Washington College. A chronology within a cycle seemed to define AWP, rather than where it went next.

I thought I would try to explain that.

I remember the arrival of AWP at ODU in 1978 as a heady time. The English Department had just begun to develop a creative writing program, and when board member Walton Beacham informed us that both AWP and W. D. Snodgrass might be looking for new homes, we leaped with interest. On our agenda already were a search for a fiction writer and a mini-literary festival we called the Poetry Jam. With support from our President, Alfred Rollins, a former history professor with an unfinished novel in his cedar chest, and David Shores, English Department chair, we made offers. AWP negotiator Harry Antrim asked for space, staff support, postage, printing, supplies, and no overhead costs, adding that the AWP board had cautioned him that there was "no need to relocate the office unless the move in someway enhances AWP's operation." In kind, the ODU Provost asked, "What's in it for us?" The negotiations went well, each party seeking to accommodate the other and protect itself. When AWP agreed to hold an annual board meeting in Norfolk and participate in our literary festival, ODU agreed to Antrim's request and added office furniture and some administrative support. Informed that AWP was moving to Norfolk, W. D. Snodgrass agreed to join us as our first Distinguished Visiting Writer.

On a hot August day, the kind that makes thinking syrupy, AWP Executive Director, Kathy Walton, moved to Norfolk. Jim Whitehead and Bill Matthews, AWP President and Vice-President respectively, agreed to help, stipulating that the host institution should do the heavy lifting. Tony Ardizzone, our newly-hired fiction writer, got the top of the cabinets, and I got the bottom. Whitehead, Matthews, and Snodgrass directed. Tony and I sweated hard, while Snodgrass sang stanzas of "The Ancient Mariner" to the tune of "McNamara's Band." Matthews plunked squeaky sounds on a bedspring before he handed it to me to lift around a corner. Whitehead groaned a bad imitation of Tom T. Hall while he stacked records in a bookcase. Then, to show off, he collected all of his 6 foot 2 inch, 230 pound frame and muscled a half dozen pieces of dead-weight furniture up the stairway by himself. When we were done, Kathy gathered us for sandwiches and cold beer, and we listened to Snodgrass's tales of Iowa and Tony's rambles about his beloved Chicago Cubs. Departing, I popped Jim on the shoulder, congratulating him on finding his way to Norfolk from Arkansas. He smiled, a cunning cat with a full stomach: "It was your printing office that got us," he said. "Now watch what we do with the Newsletter and the Contemporary Poetry Series."

I got a call two days later from De Snodgrass that my tap on Jim's shoulder had dislocated it. "You won't live past sunset," he said.
I did, only because an understanding Whitehead said his oft-injured football shoulder could be rearranged by a heavy wind. But he let us move the office furniture, minus his directions, into the new headquarters on the ODU campus. The AWP settled in, and for the next two years danced like a parrot on a pole, expanding its wings, squawking its name. Kathy hired Gale Arnoux, who worked part-time, handling mail, phone calls, job application requests. Then came new staff members Susan Voorhis and Larry Moffi to upgrade publications. A new printer arrived, mail and manuscripts flooded in, student interns squeezed into corners, and the headquarters grew from one to three office-sized rooms. Intro, the Job List, the Newsletter, the Award Series in poetry and short fiction, the AWP Catalogue of Writing Programs, and the annual meeting remained the central focus, but beware the unexpected. Since the board membership turns over every three years, new ideas and projects accompany each wave of enthusiasm. Here came an Award Series in the novel, a book distribution plan, a reorganization paper, a full-scale membership drive. It worked. By 1980, over three thousand individuals, in and outside the academy, were members of AWP.

ODU's fledgling creative writing program caught the AWP draft. Snodgrass's graduate workshop drew writers from all over the community. Ardizzone's fiction courses were full, and he quickly redesigned the undergraduate creative writing offerings. The first annual literary festival with Snodgrass, Anthony Hecht, Michael Harper and seven AWP board members, among others, was a huge success, drawing surprised audiences to a mixture of readings, panels, workshops, book exhibits, staged performances, multi-media presentations, and even poetry in the planetarium. Linking arms with a new state-wide literary and visual arts organization, New Virginia Review, Inc., the ODU program, already identified with AWP, presented itself as willing to share resources and activities with other organizations also involved in bringing contemporary literature to the community. In recognizing that Virginia feared academic duplication as much as it did a budget deficit, ODU joined with George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth to propose a uniquely designed state-wide MFA that provided cooperation rather than competition with each other.

For three years AWP and ODU's creative writing program snuggled warmly, each developing on its own, but gaining support from the other when needed. Iowa had courted the AWP when it wanted to leave Maryland, but the newness and smallness of ODU's program was attractive to the board-no fear of being used by a large and established Goliath, no danger of being caught in workshop politics. In 1981, both would have to draw even more closely together, because assaults from outside began. ODU's trouble came first. In spite of the fact that the President and Provost supported the MFA initiative, the English Department, by one vote, rejected it, leaving the MFA proposal dangling for ten years. George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth moved ahead on their own. While ODU writers and AWP staff watched this setback in amazement, the NEA, under Reaganomics, began its budget cuts, reducing the AWP support from $79,000 a year to $39,000. The cuts, AWP President Lee Zacharis wrote to the board, "will hurt us even more significantly than we anticipated . . . and it is imperative that emergency measures to save money be taken." For both AWP and ODU the pungent smell of decline mixed with the sweat of building to force the defensive posture familiar to anyone who can't tell which way to run.

The timing was terrible, not only for AWP but also for Kathy Walton, whose dedication to the organization was complete and continuous from its beginnings. Having decided to move to a position in New York, she worried that her departure might be viewed as a bailout in tough times, thereby making her replacement as Executive Director a difficult one. But with the wrecking ball swinging erratically beyond their control, the board and Kathy worked efficiently, interviewed quickly, and expressed gratification at their good fortune. In early 1982, Eric Staley, who had impressive administrative experience, was hired. Your primary responsibility, he was told by the board, is fundraising. Do it.

For the next three years, he tried. The board tried. Since the emergency arose because of the organization's dependence on federal and state funding, the new strategy shifted the balance toward private sources, in-kind services, cost cutting, and innovative programs. One could dream that out there was another James Michener (or maybe Michener himself) who, in 1978, on an impulse he says, provided seed money for The National Poetry Series. Maybe there were benefactors or ambassadors who would support the organization. "My goal," said Staley, "is an endowment trust that would be developed by gifts from corporations, individuals, and foundations." His target was $2 million in five years. It was the kind of language the board wanted to hear.

But the reality was a challenge. Since writers and professors comprised the board, access to prospective wealthy donors was limited. The strength of AWP's board was that it was democratically elected; but this was its weakness too. Membership elected representatives who were accomplished as writers and teachers but who were often strangers to wealth, fundraising, board service, and financial management. In the last quarter of the 20th century, arts organizations shuffled between feast and famine. Their souls were devoted steadily to service, but their bodies were tossed about by funding agencies, patrons/donors, earned income, and membership revenues. AWP, Poets and Writers, the Author's Guild, PEN, the Academy of American Poets, and others, all serve writers, and all compete with each other for funds. Strategy is crucial. How do we get to the underwriters? I suppose in all writers' organizations that question leads to another. Are there any taboo sources? Do we go to Philip Morris? Do we go to Hustler? Money is money, some will say. Others will want to make sure no whiff of David Duke is on the doorstop. Some proposals fly, some fall. Eric thought a U. S. Forces Poetry and Fiction Competition would be a good idea. He suggested that a $25,000 subvention from the Department of Defense to manage the contest would make 4 million active military personnel eligible, at $5 a submission, for the awards. "NOOO!," said one board member. No Department of Defense! "I think the idea brilliant in terms of the projected financial rewards, but I think it would be a disaster for our image with our membership." Image, moral compromise, strings attached, job profiling, all and more were raised as objections to the proposal. Big-time fundraising, the AWP was discovering, was a defining enterprise, requiring more than time, corporate contacts, and letters to cushy friends.

Gale Arnoux remembers that in the spring of 1983 her daughter had just dyed her hair purple and started dating a guy with a '65 Thunderbird and a bad attitude. Her husband, Pat, an executive at the local public radio and television station, was deep in annual marketing. "It's not a good time," he told Gale. "Contributors have gone fishing." But Gale had just been appointed AWP Coordinator of Special Projects, a position that allowed her to oversee the annual conference and extend her travel beyond the home office. She welcomed the additional responsibilities, and in-between the occasional angry and pleading phone calls from her daughter, Gale set up the St. Louis convention, garnered support from local universities and bookstores, and responded, with the help of interns, to the ever-increasing membership. Boxes were jammed in corners, people's feet got in the way, space was at a premium. "More space," Gale told new ODU/AWP liaison Tony Ardizzone. "We need more space." He told the chair who told the Dean, and together all lobbied higher administration for new space. In the spring, Gale was able to get calls from her daughter in her private office. The AWP now had its own house on 49th street.

In 1983-84, the organization had a clear set of goals. Sure, board and staff would come and go, membership change, and AWP's finances face the challenges of any nonprofit arts organization. But no one thought of the organization as anything but successful and focused. Eric Staley looked back over the first fifteen years of AWP and, comfortable with it, gazed toward the future: "The purpose of AWP in the 80's will maintain the vision of 1967, but the organization will also respond in a number of ways to new needs of the membership." Plans for an AWP Book Club, expansion of the Award Series, Job List, and Newsletter, more avenues for communication with the membership, and the successful establishment of an AWP Endowment were projected. Watching your back wasn't necessary; clearing the forest was. Then, the NEA closed the doors on a Challenge Grant and cut, once again, the Program Grant, and by 1985, for a whole series of reasons emanating from those cuts and unsuccessful fundraising ventures, the AWP had a $58,000 deficit. Neither the board nor the new President of ODU, an engineer, were happy. AWP was in jeopardy.

So was the creative writing program at ODU. Head-knocking power struggles were going on between writers and scholars, programs and university resources. Some senior faculty, curious at first and then apprehensive about the energy of the new wave, retreated to defensive postures. All would be well, they argued, if the university would provide new positions for the writing program. Otherwise, growth would require more pillaging of literature and linguistics. The pillaging had begun in the early eighties, when the English Department included rhetoric and composition, the teaching of English, and journalism as majors. Creative writing was the youngest off-spring, already impatient and assertive. Rhetoric and comp was clever. Teaching was required for secondary education. Journalism was boisterous. All the kids on the playground were restless. Creative Writing, with its literary festival, got to show-off. Well, then, Journalism needed a conference. Linguistics too. Some proposals flew; some fell. In time, the overall effect was to warn all the children in the neighborhood not to fly too high. The message was in the medium, in the structure itself. Ironically, the AWP was now housed at a university whose in-house fighting and response to the MFA replicated the conditions that years ago had spawned the organization itself.

Yet this was a curious impasse, both for the AWP and the ODU creative writing program. No one wanted anyone to fail. At this stage, good will remained. The ODU President was persuaded to carry the deficit. An embarrassed AWP board demanded closer scrutiny of the budget. In the English department, professional support continued. A sequence of chairs, Conrad Festa, Nancy Bazin, and Charles Ruhl, all scholar/teachers, advanced the creative writing cause whenever possible. Poets Carole Oles and Bruce Weigl often appeared at lectures on phonetics or Renaissance drama. There was no shouting in the hallways by colleagues, no vitriolic department meetings. Still, each Emphasis had a mandate to succeed. Inevitably, backroom caucusing and suppressed anger evolved as a way of life.

About then, late 1986, a gunslinger came to town. Bewhiskered and disheveled, quick as a New York minute, he didn't tread lightly. He slammed into rooms, redirected conversations, and fired off monologues in breathless succession. A veteran of literary wars, Liam Rector, new AWP Executive Director, was strategically tactful, but mainly an urban cowboy looking for a fight. His enemies were bad principles, bad programs, bad writers, and bad people. He understood he had been hired by the board to direct AWP; he felt he'd come to clean up a mess. Liam calculated, when he rode in, that AWP was still $24,000 in debt, bereft of energy, and organizationally decrepit. He expected to step on toes; he thought he'd get bloodied some.

Not everyone was ready for a shoot-out, nor had such a frontier view. Arthur Robinson, AWP's accountant, urged the time-honored solution to debt: cut costs, increase revenues. Long-time board members Ed Ochester and Ellen Bryant Voigt made concrete proposals for belt-tightening. The board dug in. Board subsistence for meetings was reduced. Mail, when possible, was sent fourth class instead of first. Paying screeners for the Awards Series was ruled out for the year. One of the board's more difficult decisions came at the spring conference in San Francisco when it voted to terminate support for Intro, an action which raised the ire of program directors, and initiated an eventually successful campaign to have it reinstated. On the revenue side, increasing memberships, advertisements in the newsletter, distribution of the program catalogue, benefit readings, corporate grants, and private donations were all targeted as possible resources. By 1990 the deficit was retired, and, once again, AWP's resourcefulness prevailed. What it had not done was to find a mechanism to wean itself from this cycle, to actually have and preserve a cash reserve and funding sources which would ensure growth.

Liam had, however, gnawed away at organizational weaknesses. He pushed for a Board Handbook, a Staff Manual, new xeroxing and computer capabilities, and widened the net for memberships. When AWP received an NEA Advancement Grant, the North Group, a professional consulting firm, gathered the board for a retreat. The resulting five-year plan and a fundraising guide, written by former board member Reg Gibbons, provided the board and staff with renewed energy and a firmer sense of structure. In the spring, buoyed by an 80 per cent increase in institutional and individual memberships, AWP moved toward an audacious expansion (or reinterpretation) of its mission.

Advocacy for writers had always been a part of its purpose. Implementation had meant development of its core services. But in 1989-91, the conservative attack on the NEA forced agency supporters to respond. To assaults on NEA funding for the Mapplethorpe and Serrano exhibits, and the escalating attempts at censorship that followed, AWP pursued a high profile course of protest. When the Washington Post ran such headlines as "Helms Wins Senate Vote to Restrict NEA Funds," the arts community cringed. Dance coalitions rose en masse. Symphony groups sounded alarms. Where were the writers? Individually and as separate groups, the writers were writing letters, but no national lobby existed. With the support of the board, Liam pursued the possibility of AWP aligning itself with other writers groups. Successful, Liam co-founded COWO (Coalition of Writers' Organizations), which not only focused on NEA funding practices, but also challenges to first amendment rights and freedom of expression. In a public debate with Ralph Reed, executive director of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, who argued that the NEA shouldn't be funded if it refused to be a censoring agency, Liam replied, raising the bar, that the primary issue was not the NEA or even censorship: "we're in the middle of a cultural war here about values. About fundamental American values." The usually disparate writing communities had banded together to launch an effective political voice against the right-wing's dissembling rhetoric.

Yet, equally committed to American values and to the traditions of AWP, some board members and program directors, while not challenging the use of resources for trench warfare on the national level, raised voices for services they felt were being short-changed. Writing programs were under attack, board member Janet Burroway argued, and time and effort should be spent on defending AWP's primary constituency. The debate raised a significant issue, one not explored previously. What, in fact, was that constituency? Who were the people and programs in AWP, today, now? In the beginning, says John Williams, founding AWP board member, "AWP was comprised of a few people like Verlin Cassill, who began the program, and me, and Jim Whitehead, and Ray West, and William Peden and . . . a wonderful lady named Kathy Walton, who acted as Executive Director, who really kept the whole thing together." Williams remembers that getting recognition for writing programs in English departments and universities, to make them good and honorable, and getting "some recognition for the students," that's what and who AWP was.

In 1990, a board planning document identified the constituency as follows:

  • poets, fiction writers, dramatists, journalists, professors and lecturers,
  • undergraduate and graduate students, literary agents, administrators,
  • editors of journals and magazines, high school teachers, large and
  • smaller press publishers, those involved in summer conferences or
  • arts colonies, and others looking to connect themselves with the
  • vortex of writing programs.

Nonetheless, to many current members, the expansion of membership outside of the academy, did not dismantle the organization's basic identity and purpose. Board member Peggy Shumaker, speaking for many, said that she was hopeful AWP had skill enough to manage both kinds of advocacy. After all, the NEA's support for small presses was crucial to the well-being of our literary culture, and the NEA's support to writers by way of fellowships was especially important to many young and emerging writers.

Teetering inside its own castle of cards, the ODU program needed only a strong wind to blow it apart. Yet the pressures on it were probably no different from those that strained hundreds of other new efforts to establish writing programs. From 1975 to 1990 the number of BA degrees in creative writing swelled from 24 to 264, MA's from 32 to 140, MFA's from 15 to 48, and PhD's (with creative dissertation) from 5 to 33. Clearly, creative writing was in demand. New faculty, higher enrollments, visiting writers, student journals, and bulletin boards flush with job opportunities stimulated interest. But with divided resources in a department, and without new revenues, creative writing faculty had to teach, administer, oversee adjuncts, and fundraise more than they had expected when they came in. Many of the young writing faculty drawn to ODU because of the presence of AWP found that the workload, uneven salary scales, and uncertain future for the program was disillusioning. Some felt mistreated, some misled. They sought other jobs, and found them. A revolving door developed. Over a period of fifteen years, some left cordially. Some left graffiti on the wall-aggrieved shouting over program development, and one poet, at her final reading, dedicating a William Heyen poem on Nazi duplicity to two literature faculty. Even the entrances became difficult. The department was most stunned when a leading poet, given Eminent Professor status, signed a contract in the spring and broke it in the summer. Writers can mistreat as well as scholars and administrators. Universities are places where disillusionment or self-importance does that, and it can bring people and programs to the brink.

I grew up in Muncie, Indiana, and one of my favorite moments during a winter snowfall was to find a single flake, as high as possible, and track it to the ground. Time and time again I would lose sight of my prize and have to start over. I think the practice, the concentration, improved my watching, my jump shot, and even helped me understand what Stephen Dedalus meant when he said, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the eye must see a thing clearly, separately, for it to exist: integritas. Among the risings and fallings of both AWP and ODU, and their superfetational stages of growth, I think I saw the moment when they were both closest together and doomed to divide.

In late 1991, the burning of the culture wars decreased to a steady smoldering, and Liam, who had taken a brief leave to attend the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, resigned to continue that pursuit. He left a small deficit, and a legacy that AWP's role in American letters could be more important than it had been. He also left an idea in the minds of board and staff that being closer to the political hub, the Washington beltway, could facilitate the mission of AWP. Some on the board and staff leaped to the idea for personal reasons, I think; they had been at ODU, suffered during its growing pains, and carried scars. But even they, with objectivity, could join other board members to discuss the pros and cons of leaving a university which, from the beginning, had increased its support and provided a net when AWP needed one.

When gratitude, ambivalence, and a vision of a larger destiny mingled around a board table in spring, 1992, I realized a relocation might be painful but was more than possible.

Ironically, home-grown and determined to stay at home, Gale Arnoux was appointed Acting Director. For fourteen years she abided the whirlwind, and was now asked, in the midst of frenzied debate, to hold the house together. Some heroes initiate, create, and leap to the edge. Some preserve, rebuild, and catch what falls from the skies. AWP has had its share of both. Gale settled in to assure the board that the office would run efficiently and within budget. Andrea Collins, Development Director, had been hired and charged with fundraising. Gale realized that another year of deficit spending would alienate potential funders and the host institution. Gale badgered and reasoned to hold the line. She had provided AWP with continuity while the board and staff went through its many changes. When, a year later, Gale turned over the Executive Directorship to Mark Johnson, Andrea had increased the Benefits Reading series substantially, the Annual Conference revenues exceeded projections, and all services had been maintained. Gale had even persuaded ODU to do some home office repairs.

But the intellectual direction of AWP was drifting more toward external advocacy, toward shaping literary culture. Critics, like Joseph Epstein, had often portrayed writing programs as cozy and insular networks, and many among the board, staff, and membership wanted to reply more forcefully-to argue that writing programs were an intergral part of our culture, not clubs of the self-involved. Meanwhile, the think tanks and politicians of the conservative right seemed to be intent on turning back the clock so that America's culture and self-awareness resembled the zeitgest of the 1950s. Wasn't it a writer's job to address this? And the job of a writers' organization?

It was a matter of emphasis. The program directors kept policies focused on writing programs, but a diverse membership called for more eclectic subjects at the Annual Conference and in The Writer's Chronicle. In its early version, called AWP Newsletter, the in-house publication was four, then sixteen, pages of copy which included program news, workshop strategies, job markets, and other services. It was improved steadily, both in content and design, by Larry Moffi, Kate McCune, and David Daniel, but remained primarily an informational venue. In 1988, David Fenza was hired as Publications Editor, and partially at the board's behest and partially because of his own vision, The Chronicle became, not only an information resource, but also an expression of the issues and ideas central to writers both inside and outside of the academy. By 1993, its thirty-six pages were full of advertisements from writers' colonies, national competitions, publishers, summer retreats, performance centers, and writing programs. Fenza's editorial position on The Chronicle was, in fact, the direction the organization was taking: "We publish essays, reports, and interviews about the publishing industry, about the making of stories and poems, about our culture as it influences our literature, and about the teaching of writing and literature."

That motley group arrived, in spring, 1994, for the Annual Conference, held at the Radisson Hotel in Tempe, Arizona. Waterfalls, open-air spaces, and desert designs dotted the lobby as we crossed to get our name tags. We traveled up and down escalators to festive music. The Schedule of Events included panels on Formalism and on the Writing Program at the Two-Year College, but at jammed coffee tables and cavernous bars impromptu discussion turned to gay rights issues, exploited adjunct faculty, and promises coming out of Washington, D. C. In the mid 1980s, the Annual Conference had sought the openness of a town hall meeting, fully democratized, with more panels on wide-ranging subjects. One of Markham Johnson's important contributions to AWP was that he marketed that association's services more agressively. AWP has invited more people to join AWP, and attendance to the conference more than doubled under Johnson's supervision. In Tempe, some of the panels were superfluous, as a self-monitoring order gave way to spontaneous gatherings. The disparate membership had come to the hot and friendly sun of Arizona to express its disparateness. Someone leaked the rumor that the NEA staff was here, supportive of this direction and looking for a closer relationship with AWP.

The board knew the rumor was true. Gigi Bradford, the director of the NEA Literature Program, met with the board and encouraged AWP's policies. The broader the audience, the better chance AWP had for funding. Mark Johnson, she said, was doing an excellent job for AWP. Mark understood his role. Fundraising, he had been told, was his primary responsibility. Do it. This time the board supported him in his courtship of the Lila Wallace Foundation, his work on the initiative to fund creative writing programs at historically black colleges and universities, and his efforts toward consolidating the Summer Creative Writing Seminars. Then, he and Gigi unveiled his coup de grace: through the NEA, he had garnered funding from President Clinton's AmeriCorps program. When Mark told the board that of the nine grant proposals submitted to various agencies, eight had been awarded for a total of $1,100,000, the board and staff responded in a burst of applause. You could almost hear Amazing Grace in the background.

There was no stopping the momentum, nor did there seem to be a need to. With the NEA and AmeriCorps dramatically increasing its involvement in AWP, encouraging the board and staff to consider a move closer to Washington, the exit from Old Dominion seemed assured. In fact, after Bradford's presentation, AWP President Carolyn Forche, supported by Mark and most of the staff, proposed that AWP move to her home university, George Mason, in northern Virginia. ODU, ostensibly, was given a final chance to find more space for the home office, a request AWP had made several times in the past two years. But the clear feeling was that AWP, finally, had a chance to be a major player-to serve the whole writing community, to influence national decisions on funding, to keep a closer eye on lobbyists and censors just down the street.

When, three months later, the last filing cabinet was packed in the moving van, I swept under the furniture, emptied the trash cans, and posted the new sign out front: AWP/ODU International Writers Center. AWP was leaving, but not leaving. The board and ODU had accepted my proposal, admittedly a last-ditch effort, to preserve the resources and expertise still in place at ODU. In our discussions for joint-funding, it seemed reasonable that if the AmeriCorps program would provide jobs in communities for MFA graduates, and Summer Seminars could improve teaching of creative writing in high schools, then a study abroad program and international exchanges of writers would further the AWP mission to expand its membership and ODU's commitment to international education. Maybe the founders of AWP would not recognize what was happening in their organization, but we hoped they would approve the results. More writers were included, more programs, and more support for the writing community.

In 1995, ODU's creative writing program was recovering from its latest debacle. A year earlier, a young fiction writer, Wayne Ude, had dusted off the old MFA proposal, revamped it, marshaled the troops to get it passed, and, even with the strong support of the department and a letter from AWP, failed in his bid for tenure. The Dean and Provost supported the program but not the person. Figuratively, they were hanged in effigy. Wayne left in place, though, a solid terminal degree, and when poet Scott Cairns and, later, nonfiction writer Mike Pearson took the administrative reigns, they guided it past minefields until its reputation began to speak for itself. Solidly constructed courses and workshops, increased assistantships, visiting writers, students publishing, an enduring literary festival, a writers-in-community program, an international writers center, and a cadre of writers (now six of them) who supported each other, all formed a circle of wagons against the few remaining unbelievers. When Janet Peery's novel, The River Beyond the World, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Sheri Reynolds novel, The Rapture of Canaan, became an Oprah selection, the public had enough evidence to recognize creative writing as a special program. In celebration, poets Tim Seibels and Louisia Igloria gathered together playwright Brian Silberman, some graduate students, and the other writers for a beer at Fellini's, Janet and Sherri paying the tab. To this point, in 2002, Mike Pearson, with savvy and a unique sense of partnership, has been able to hold together a university-wide consortium of approval.

Yet, maturity of people and programs does not assure stability, and that is the final twist in this story. Within eighteen months of the move to George Mason, the AWP dream of summit leadership in literature collapsed. No one had anticipated the great emotional and financial cost of the move, nor that, once again, the NEA would moderate its support by taking over administration of the AmeriCorps writers project. The Summer Seminars program lost money. The Intro Journals Project and the Award Series in the Novel were in trouble. Internal fighting sapped the strength of staff and board. By Fall, 1995, AWP suffered a cash shortfall of $120,000 and a accrued deficit of $330,000. The Executive Director had resigned, the board restructured the staff and cut expenses deeply, and George Mason University required fiscal control until the debt was paid off. Reality was a scream in the dark. In the silence that followed, those who had been hurt most disappeared, including Ron Wray, the year-long director of the International Writers Center, whose early projects had drawn rave reviews but could not withstand AWP's, and finally ODU's, withdrawal of funds. IWC was dead by the end of the year.

But there again is that dead figure. And it's still wrong. My journalism is no better than The Virginian-Pilot's. I have to remind myself that the house on 49th street, now a Filipino-American Cultural Center, was only the visible body and not the spirit. The spirit is alive at George Mason University. AWP is fully out of debt, chastened by a crucial self-study, and led by a board and staff that now includes an attorney and a fiscal manager. It has built a cash reserve, a new system of governance, a new staff, endowments, and assets of almost half a million dollars.

Its Executive Director, David Fenza, soared with the spirit and learned how to catch when it fell. I know that organizations have lives, body parts. A hand must lift if it's a hand. AWP had to leave Washington College or turn on itself. The same at ODU. People, place, physical and financial resources, programs, and goals form histories, and histories lead to conundrums. The AWP departure was a release from a current impasse, not a separation, not a destruction. While at ODU, AWP gained patience, resiliency, and a broader spirit. ODU learned how to grow up. We're still kin. Now the home office is down the road from us a piece. We drive by Williamsburg, some Civil War battlefields, and a comically flat bridge with no water under it. I know how to get to the headquarters, but I know something else.

Last week, I saw a first-semester MFA student sitting on the steps outside our building, thumbing through The Writer's Chronicle. As I passed, she asked me if I knew who the AWP was. I didn't have to think. "You are," I said easily. "You are."


Phil Raisor served as the AWP/ODU Liaison on the AWP Board of Directors for 17 years. Before devoting his life to literature, James Joyce, and the writing and study of poetry, Raisor played basketball with Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas University. His recent book is Tuned and Under Tension: The Recent Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass.

Previous Story:
FSG Novel goes to Netfilx
April 3, 2012
Next Story:
Novelist Doris Betts Has Died
April 23, 2012

No Comments