Q&A with Dave Fenza, Executive Director, Association of Writers and Writing Programs

Posted: March 11, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

Dave Fenza
Dave Fenza
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Your organization is located off campus, so many people might not know what it is you do. Could you explain the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), its mission, and a little of the history?

Before the 1960s, departments of English generally preferred their authors to be dead and safely entombed in anthologies. Places in academe for living writers were rare. As [poet] Allen Tate once complained, literature was taught as if no one planned to make any more of it. At Harvard, one faculty member even complained that it was no more appropriate to have a living author teach literature than it was to have an elephant teach zoology. And this faculty member was protesting [writer] Vladimir Nabokov’s appointment to the department!

AWP was established in 1967 to promote the teaching of literature as a living art, and AWP was also established to support writers in academe.

AWP has grown from 15 writers representing 13 creative writing programs to 24,000 writers and students of 370 programs in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Creative writing is now taught at the vast majority of colleges and universities. AWP supports these writers and their creative writing programs.

What is AWP’s exact relationship to George Mason? Are you a part of the university? Do you have a separate budget?

AWP is its own nonprofit corporation, but AWP has always been affiliated with a university, in what has proven to be a good partnership. We support the local Fall for the Book Literary Festival, and we provide internships and jobs for students in the MFA writing program. Most of our employees and interns are George Mason students or graduates. We’ve helped many gain their first experience as editors, graphic designers, and administrators.

It’s a great advertisement for George Mason and its MFA program that AWP’s national headquarters is based here. Along with the terrific MFA faculty here, AWP demonstrates that George Mason contributes to contemporary letters at the highest national level.

What kinds of services does AWP offer to its members?

Our conference is one of the nation’s largest gatherings for readers, teachers, writers, and publishers of contemporary literature. We conduct literary competitions to discover, reward, and publish excellent new poems, novels, nonfiction, and short stories. AWP also offers numerous publications beneficial to writers: AWP Job List and the Writer’s Chronicle. We publish the AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, which is the largest compendium on places where an aspiring writer might study the art of writing. We have a great web site (www.awpwriter.org) that provides a lot of good professional, pedagogical, and artistic information for our members.

What difference has AWP made to the lives of its constituents? Is it fulfilling its mission, and how?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern that our culture is accelerating the speed of its diversions and its vulgarity. Special spaces need to be made for the slow and profound pleasures of books. If you read an entire book or more a week, you’re in a very small minority of U.S. citizens. AWP is a proud outpost and conservatory for literature and its makers–an oasis in a vast electronic wasteland of silly entertainments.

AWP’s many programs and writers have helped to nurture the next generation of authors and readers. Dozens of Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award Winners learned at least a trick or two while studying in our programs or conferences. AWP has helped North America make a diverse literature that more closely resembles the diverse experiences of its people. And many readers have found a new enthusiasm for literature after they have tried to make a few poems and stories themselves.

I understand that AWP used to be “attached” to Old Dominion University. How and when did AWP come to George Mason?

AWP moved to George Mason in 1994. We had outgrown our office space at Old Dominion, so Carolyn Forche [professor of English], our president then, engineered our relocation. Our new offices here gave us the opportunity to grow. We launched WritersCorps, which was part of President [Bill] Clinton’s AmeriCorps initiative. Our proximity to Washington, D.C., and the highly educated workforce in the area has been very helpful to us. It was a brilliant move; it helped AWP to mature as an organization.

You have a major national conference coming up at the end of this month. What kind of preparation is involved in that? What writers will be headlining the event? How is it different from the better-known Modern Language Association (MLA) conference?

Our conference in Chicago will feature a keynote address by poet and critic Dana Gioia, who is also the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Lorrie Moore, Jane Hamilton, Sandra Cisneros, Reginald McKnight, and Sena Jeter Naslund are among the other writers rounding out the schedule. About 270 literary publishers will be exhibiting their works at our book fair. We offer about 250 panel discussions and readings. About 3,000 people will attend, with many best-selling and award-winning authors among them.

AWP believes authors are primary and theorists and critics are secondary. But many members of the MLA believe theorists and cultural critics are far more important than mere novelists or poets. So the focus of our conference is very different. The MLA conference is mostly dedicated to the systematic humiliation of literature, whereas the AWP conference is dedicated to the celebration of books and authors.

The MLA’s conference is rather grim, I feel. It’s one of those places where you can come out of the elevator and smell the fear of academic professionals as they negotiate the academic job market. Our conference is educational, but a great deal more fun.

How did you become director of AWP? What is your favorite part of the job?

I began working for AWP in 1988. I started as AWP’s publications manager, and I’ve just moved up through the ranks.

Writers are exasperating, entertaining, terrible, and wonderful to work with. I love working with them. If our culture is to have a strong conscience and receptiveness to beauty, it must have a strong literature, so it’s a great satisfaction to help writers do their important work.

Are there other upcoming events or projects that your staff is planning?

We have lots of things in the works. AWP has just established an endowment for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. The prize will be a $4,000 award plus publication for an outstanding collection of short stories. Next year will be the first year we conduct the competition, and your readers are now among the very first to know. We will be launching new projects as our resources permit, but right now we’re concentrating on improving our Award Series literary competitions.

As [philosopher] Friedrich Nietzsche says, “To remain the same is to become a diminished thing.” AWP has no intention of remaining the same.

AWP staff
Dave Fenza with AWP staff.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

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