The Rules of the Dance:
Proposing an AWP Panel Like You Really Mean It
The Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual convention is a big party. It’s one of my favorite gatherings, and I look forward to it every year like it’s a holiday. Over ten thousand writers, hundreds of presses, hundreds of exhibitors, and a handful of celebrities join in the affair, and I’m sure you want to be a part of it.
One of the most gratifying ways of participating in the conference is as a panelist. The panel process itself can seem daunting, but as someone who’s served on the conference committee for several years, I can mention a few things that will put you on the right track to serving up a solid and competitive proposal. What I’m revealing to you aren’t trade secrets. In fact, much of what I’m telling you is already included in the Event Proposal Guidelines found on AWP’s website. Hopefully, though, by repeating and perhaps rephrasing some of what’s found there, I can provide you with some clarity.
1. . A party needs people
Never propose an event with fewer than the maximum number of participants. A panel can have a moderator and four participants. That’s five people. Fill all five slots for your proposal. No more, no less. Here’s why—the organization is limited by the spatial capacity of the venue to host only a certain number of events. Space is at a premium, so the conference committee has a mandate to actively look for and weed out panels that have fewer than the maximum number of participants. If you have only two or three people on your panel, expect to be rejected right away. Now, there are always exceptions, but usually those exceptions are made for features, keynotes, and major literary sponsors.
2. .They’re asking your age, not your shoe size
I figured that since we’re talking about parties I’d drop a little Prince in the section heading. Anyway, the Event Description and the Statement of Merit are different items. I’ve seen it over and over—an Event Description that includes a statement of merit and a Statement of Merit that includes an event description. These two categories need to be framed differently, I think. You see, the Event Description is really what you plan on doing right at the moment when you’re actually on the panel, whether that’s celebrating a writer’s work, discussing manuscript organization strategies, or talking about pedagogical strategies. It’s a short description of what you’ll be doing on the panel. However, in the Statement of Merit, you discuss why it’s essential that AWP host this event and how your event reflects a current concern, a subject in contemporary letters that warrants closer examination, or perhaps the regional relevance of the subject. I’ll talk a little more about regional relevance next.
3. .When in Rome
If you’re in Washington, D.C., don’t propose a panel about a Washington State artist unless there’s a big anniversary, a celebration, or something of that nature. For example, when Carolyn Kizer passed away, AWP accepted a memorial panel for her, even though the conference was not being held in Seattle. However, if there’s no hallmark event, commemoration, or celebration, the conference committee generally steers away from the event. (There are always exceptions; I’m just telling you about selection committee tendencies.) The conference committee is composed of a number of writers and organizational representatives from the regional site of the conference, and they are tasked with giving the conference a regional flavor.
4. .Invite the neighborhood
For the best parties, everyone’s invited, and that’s the case with AWP. Unfortunately, the room can only accommodate a finite number of people, so AWP wants to have as diverse a showing as possible. But what does “diversity” mean in technical terms to the conference committee?
Well, for starters, we’re getting that term changed to reflect who we are in this current climate. It’s going to become “inclusivity,” and it means a particular thing to the organization—a wide demographic. And the organization thinks about demographics because it also thinks about the ways the landscape of writing is changing, evolving, etc. It wants to know who’s teaching where and how many students of color are attending that MFA program. But AWP also wants to know other things, such as how many students are participating on panels. After a certain age, are members still participating? When you’re thinking about whom to include on a panel, think not only about the gender and cultural makeup of the participants, but also about region, age, level of experience, and genre. A panel with an inclusive group is more likely to be favored over a panel with a similar topic and a less-inclusive group.
Here’s an example: say you’re putting together a great panel on writing effective dialogue. And let’s say that on that panel you’ve included your teacher, yourself, writer #1 from California, another student from Antigua, and writer #2 from New York. And let’s say your panel is similar to another panel proposed by a group of Indiana University students with basically a roster of five IU students. Your panel would get higher marks because you’ve populated your panel roster with a fairly inclusive group. Now, this is a flawed system, I know, but it’s essentially the system that the conference committee uses—and the conference committee members, with the exception of board members, change for every conference.
5. .Be there or be square
Simple idea for this one, really—make sure all of the participants on the panel know they are on the panel and can attend that specific AWP prior to sending in the proposal. There have been years in which certain famous authors were placed on panels without their knowledge. Don’t do that. And for the people who are actually on your panel, make sure that you have all of their bio and contact information early in the process. The biggest headache of the proposal process is wrangling all the contact information and inputting the data into the online forms.
6. .The rope’s not velvet
There’s no bouncer at the front checking to see if you’re appropriately attired. There’s no one purposely trying to exclude you. In fact, the people on the conference committees I have worked with in the past are helpful, outstanding writers in their own right. If you’re ever confused about panel categories or have other panel proposal questions, ask the committee for clarification. They want the best panel proposals they can get, and they may even help you draft a proposal. Now, the assistance is never a guarantee of acceptance, but knowing the culture of the AWP panel proposal goes a long way, and what better teachers than the people on the committee themselves.
Of course, you’ll want to read and reread all the guidelines on the website. And understand that you can be on three proposals, but can only serve as a panelist on two accepted proposals. If, say, all three of the event proposals that you were on were to be accepted, then the Director of Conferences (currently Christian Teresi) will call you and ask you to bow out of an event.
Outside of all these tips, make sure that you watch awpwriter.org for more hints, deadlines, and ideas. The next convention will be held March 7-10, 2018, in Tampa, Florida. New proposals are due May 1, 2017. I hope to see you in Tampa!
Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard (winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martín Espada), and Post Subject: A Fable. He is the coeditor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry, and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board of Trustees. A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, he has published work in journals such as Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, and Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.