August 5, 2009

WILA (Women in the Literary Arts) Association & Conference

The Facebook group has over 2,000 members already; become one?

Dear Friends,

A few days ago, Cate Marvin sent out an open letter to a group of women writers detailing her concerns about certain aspects of the AWP conference and asking if other women felt the same way. She then suggested the brilliant notion of a women's writing conference and wondered who would be interested in such a thing. The letter has since gone out to hundreds, has been posted in many places, and the response has been absolutely tremendous. This leads us to believe that our moment is definitely NOW (pun intended). Cate has asked me to be one of the co-directors of this potential conference and she and I have spent the last several days working on a model for such a thing and beginning the organizing process. We have quickly moved away from an initially (and understandably) reactive pose to envisioning just how positive and constructive this is going to be. We believe AWP serves a good and important purpose, but we intend to serve another.

I'll include her original email at the bottom of this post. If you find that you're interested in the ideas she lays out here, I'd ask that you reply to this and join our Facebook group. We are actively seeking every kind of support for this venture--people to help organize by region, to spread the word to other women writers, to potentially volunteer their time on site when this thing comes together. We're also looking for people who have backgrounds in grant writing, accounting, arts administration, fund raising, web and graphic design, database management and non-profit law to possibly volunteer a little time to help us get this off the ground. If you are one with these skills and are willing, or know someone who might be, please let us know asap.

Ideally we would like to have a number of university sponsorships to help support the costs of such an undertaking. We hope that some of you who are interested would be in the position to approach your schools about sponsorship when the time comes. I don't think this will be a hard sell to most places and we are quickly putting together a heavy hitting board of directors that has the star power to attract universities and colleges. And my thought is, hey, all they can say is no. No harm, no foul there. Participating schools would be advertised in every conference promotion, program, t-shirt, foam finger, beach towel and coffee mug. Even small sums would be incredibly helpful. You can tell them a little money will get them in cheaply on the ground floor of something that's going to be big!

Obviously you would need details of our organization and funding structure (we'll be applying for non profit status just as soon as possible), so be in touch for more information on this if you decide that you can speak with your school about sponsorship. Of course private donations will also be gratefully excepted. We don't discriminate against the financially-abled!

Finally, we're very interested in making sure ALL women of every race, creed, socioeconomic situation, sexual orientation and physical ability are included in this invitation. Oh, and we need more fiction and non-fiction writers. Cate and I know a lot of poets, but could use some help reaching women in other genres. Please feel free to pass along this email to anyone you think would like to know. Cate's letter follows...

Remember, it takes a nation of millions to hold us back. Imagine what will happen when we come together...


Erin Belieu, Associate Professor
Director of the Creative Writing Program
English Department
Florida State University


Dear Friend,

I just experienced a moment of vicious self-mockery, in which I imagined myself in the same pose of concentration over the laundry I had spread over my bed as the narrator of Tillie Olsen's legendary piece in which a mother's considers the circumstances of her gender as manifested in her daughter's (lack of) self-confidence . . . I was dwelling on a thought not entirely different. You see, I had an AWP panel proposal rejected today. Big deal, right? Everyone has their proposals rejected. Yet, this rejection really nagged at me. I proposed on a topic concerning the narrow field (sarcasm intended) of contemporary American women's poetry . . . I've had a lot of panels accepted over the years. Last year, one on Wallace Stevens. The year before that on the elegy; before that, the crafting of an anthology. Then transgression in poetry. Ahah! This was the first panel I ever
proposed that concerned women's work exclusively.

It was an excellent proposal. Because it was interesting. I just honestly can't see HOW it could be turned down. Here it is:

Title: Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women's Poetry

Six contemporary female American poets explore how sentimentality is deployed in twenty-first century women’s poetry, with regard to both content and rhetoric, as a means to counter traditional assumptions regarding female desire and identity. What personal and political alchemies occur when the affectionate address verges on acerbic? What transformations are sought when a female speaker, once familiar as
mother, daughter, sister, wife, or lover, employs sentiment to reveal herself as Other?

The first female American poets to be respected for their intellect, Marianne Moore and her protégé, Elizabeth Bishop, were careful not to express an excess of sentiment; poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath would make a stark departure from this mode by channeling emotional extremity. It is now important to explore how twenty-first century American women poets understand and reinvent these opposing traditions in their work.

By the way: I had a stellar group of panelists (VARIED and FAMOUS) lined up for this.


As I stood rolling my socks into balls and shoving folded shirts into drawers (warning: dangerously clumsy use of heavily figurative language in use: the women are the clothes, get it?? Being shoved into drawers, i.e. repressed!), I considered how another panel proposal I was on was accepted. It concerns the uses of criticism, harkening back to the New Critics, Eliot in particular. Nothing WRONG with that . . .
but hasn't it been done?

And I thought, too, of how often I see more men's names in prominent magazines than women's, how I see men getting prizes more often than women, how even though female students would love to read newer work by female writers, they are rarely taught the work of women-- except for the usual suspects.

And I thought about how a male poet friend of mine discouraged me from getting involved with editing a book of feminist poets/poems from the past two decades because it would be "dangerous" and "divisive."

And I thought about how one male poet friend of mine only refers to Ellen Bryant Voight and Louise Gluck when he speaks of female poets. Not that I don't love these two poets-- but I am sure these two women would be none too happy that they are the sole representatives of where women's poetry has arrived (and, practically, to this
male-poet's mind, where it comes from).

I am, in short, irritated, and it's not just because I'm on the rag.

Here's the thing: why can't we have an organization of female writers (poets and fiction writers) that has a conference every year? Where we writers of women's lit can get together and talk about issues that affect our work as women? An organization that would be very open aesthetically, one that would really be a forum for discussion along any lines of the female writer's experience? An opportunity for women writers to be exposed to everything (or almost everything) that's going on in our country with regard to women's literature?

Like AWP, it could be an organization for writers, not scholars. And in that way different from some organizations that no doubt already exist.

Perhaps this organization could also produce a literary journal to present women's writing (prose) on what it means to be a woman writer in our time? An overview of some of the presentations from the conference itself?

Perhaps we could have a retreat at which established female authors MENTOR younger women writers? (Like Cave Canem does for younger African American poets.)

We'd have to start out small, and we'd necessarily become big (there are lots of women writers!). We'd need grants and the help of our affiliate universities. We'd have to be national, with representatives from all over the country. And our organization would have to be DISTINCTLY different than those of the past that have the lingering smell of post-feminism and the eighties hanging over them.

We need not even announce ourselves as a feminist project. The very definition of feminism in women's work could be discussed at our conference. (By a panel, naturally.)

Eventually, we might think of creating a press or an imprint of female writers.

But, first things first . . . are any of you as "concerned" as I am? I really do think we need unity as females more now than we have for some time.

You are welcome to tell me I'm crazy. Or offer ideas. Am I crazy? Am I?????

Your friend,


Cate Marvin, Associate Professor
Department of English
College of Staten Island, CUNY