Friday, April 24, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #5

Literary Citizenship: It’s Not About You

Sam Kelly writes: This event on the final day of #AWP15 was one of those I most eagerly anticipated - and it was the one I found myself fearing, the nearer it approached.

This phrase “Literary Citizenship” has, over the last couple of years, become central to my thinking about our Creative Writing MA. I use it to describe the foundational ethics of our shared practice, and to describe the place of the MA in its wider community. And (invariably accompanied by variations on a theme of “it’s not about you”, with more or less admonishment) I also use it as a perpetual challenge to students. It underpins an entire trimester of learning and assessment on a module I teach called Innovation and Authorship.

So why was my excitement at this discussion, on a concept so close to my heart, tinged with utter dread? Because it’s a phrase I nicked from Stephanie Vanderslice (someone I haven’t yet managed to meet, though her influence on our programme is mighty). I stole it with little forethought and scant research. I knew what it meant to me, and what it could do for students as an idea, and – since nobody else in the UK appeared to be using it – I just went ahead and attached to it all the values and aspirations I wanted it to express.

What if I was wrong? What if the first opportunity to hear people actually talking about this thing sent my beloved version straight to the bin, and my module along with it? The panel was to be chaired by the formidable Lori May who has done no less, it turned out, than write an entire book on the subject. Yikes.

The ensuring five-way discussion touched on more aspects of literary citizenship than I can possibly summarise here: the task is, in any case, made harder by the rash of increasingly jubilant exclamation marks all over my notes. So what follows is just a few quotes from the varied definitions offered by the panel.

It’s a way of creating communities, through active engagement in writing, reading, editing, project-creation and entrepreneurship. Its purpose is to enable change.

It’s an opportunity to “pay it forward”. Generosity is the new currency.

It’s an ethics of co-operation, not competition.

It’s a practice of humility; of learning from others.

It’s a way of finding out who you are, by discovering what you have to offer beyond the pages of your work.

It’s a way of sustaining yourself in the times when you can’t write, by attending to the relationships that nourish your practice.

It’s related to the Eight Stages of Charity.

And it can be neatly encapsulated in the following simple instruction from the panel: “don’t be an ass”.

But what do literary citizens actually do? The participants described an inspiring range of projects, enterprises and practices. 
If you’re looking for literary citizens, they’re the people creating mentoring relationships, fairer business models for literary journals, writers’ groups, accessible MFA programs, websites, residences, prizes, college scholarships and pop-up conferences. They repurpose buildings, set up small presses, run free community workshops, and invent new social justice projects. 

 Really, they’re everywhere.

Here at Edinburgh Napier, literary citizenship means all of this; maybe even a little bit more, because we also use it as a tailored journey of self-questioning, self-definition and self-development for students. As the session drew to a close, it was good to feel part of this community of literary citizens, and to feel that we too have something to offer to the growth of this concept. And now we even have required reading for next year’s cohort: Lori May’s The Write Crowd.

Perfect end to a wonderful conference.

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