Friday, April 01, 2016

How the AWP Disability Caucus Came to Town

On the urging of my husband, Jim, I decided to write this “essay” on disability, AWP, and the disability caucus. There have been rumors and misinformation flying left and right about disability, the caucus, and accessibility at AWP. There have been many posts and articles criticizing the caucus. There have been just as many articles and posts about the treatment of disabled writers at AWP from people who are very mad, yet refused to help with the caucus. There have also been things published that are factually incorrect.

I want to be clear. This article isn’t about shaming people; hence, no names will be referred to other than in positives ways and no links will be put up. It isn’t about putting down the choices of others, or the way others have chosen to deal with the issues of AWP and the world. This essay is absolutely not about trying to trump the many, many people who have come before me nor to belittle their work. Nor is this essay about my ego.

This essay is about the story of what happened, and the work that me and six or seven others did. If only to congratulate and remind myself. No need to join or even congratulate us, but I would like people to read before they continue to criticize, spread rumors, and protest.

If you want to skip the blather- scroll down to the “timeline.”

Before I continue. A bit about me. I am passionate activist and poet. I live in NYC with my husband, one son, and four animals. I have been an “outsider” poet all my life. My father is a ‘famous’ critic, so I grew up with literature, but my entry into the poetry world has been slow. I was writing for 10 years before my first book, and twenty before any recognition.

I am the author of three books of poetry, co-editor of Beauty is a Verb, and independent scholar/biographer of the poet Larry Eigner. I have no institutional backing. I do not have an academic job. I am able to support my work through SSDI and my husband’s teaching salary – neither of which are large. I was a NYC high school teacher for 4 years, but unable to deal with the prejudice, so I left. I adjunct and enjoy it. But, due to the fact that I have cerebral palsy and a speech impediment, I’ve found navigating the New York job market nearly impossible. In short, I equate myself to Sylvia Plath. I am a writer/housewife. All the work I have done with AWP has been solely funded my own household and initiative.

Here is my story:

Last year, I was invited to do a disability panel for Poetry magazine by my friend Don Share. I do not like AWP and have to fund my own trips, so I didn’t really want to do it. However, I have a good friend from Winona and desperately wanted to experience Minneapolis, so I packed up my 10 year old son and off we went.

The morning of the panel, my cell phone rang. I got the call that one of my best friends had died of a brain tumor. She moved to Russian previously and we had lost touch. Needless to say, this was all not fun… a lot happened next… but I will skip ahead.

Jeffrey and I were in the book fair, and we met two wonderful disabled writers:  Leslye Orr and Katie. They said to me, why doesn’t AWP have a disability caucus? I said, “What is a caucus?” Also, after the panel, a wonderful writer named Kelly Davio approached me. She told me that she knew someone on the AWP staff. I believe this was Christian Tersi. She had asked the person to come I and watch the end of the panel. This person was interested.

I went home and emailed my “true partner in crime,” Sheila Black, and said “What is a caucus?” She didn’t really know either, but we decided that if other minorities had one… hell, even elementary school teachers had one, we needed one too. We turned to our friend ‘Facebook” for help.

Meanwhile, our third, Michael Northen, was way ahead of the game. Early on, he began working on the Disability Consortium Table and a reading for AWP. He had a successful fundraiser to make this happen.

Here is the next chain of events:

I cannot find the original post, but just days after AWP 2015, I got to work, with Sheila’s urging. I put a post on Facebook to build a caucus.

On April 14, 2015 I posted a Facebook message asking for 30 regular attendees to sign a petition for a disability caucus.

On April 15, I had collected about 20 signatures; the first on my list was Lynn Melnick of Vida. There were a number of trans writers on the list and the list was primarily able-bodied people.

Later that day, Meg Day approached me via email and expressed interest in helping form the caucus.

By April 27, 2015 Meg, Sheila, and I had exchanged 30 emails. Meg had drafted the caucus proposal to AWP. This added up (already) to numerous unpaid hours.
On April 15, 2015 I started a Facebook group for writers with disabilities.

By May, we three, with Meg doing most of the paperwork, had submitted the caucus to AWP. So, the recent article that the caucus was put together AFTER the outcry simply isn’t true.

Then came the scandals. I am not going to dwell on those because, frankly, most people were following those versus the work we did for the caucus.

A primary complaint was that there were no disability specific panels accepted to AWP 2016, with the exception of the caucus.

Later, turned out this wasn’t completely true. The truth was more complex. There were actually a few panels based on trauma and illness and other panels with disabled writers on them.

Also, I was hesitant about signing the petition because it insisted retroactively that a disability panel be accepted, and personally, I did not agree with that. But, I am thrilled the petition got out there and helped.

On  August 1st, I reached out to Christian Teresi via facebook.  (Also, messaged David Fenza who did not reply). This started a 12 page correspondence about accessibility at AWP. I pressed hard on issues of getting a disabled activist on the Board, in the subcommittees, and accessibility issues. Meanwhile, Sandra Beasley, who lives in DC, and Sarah Katz, who works for AWP, were also working on these issues.

On August 3, 2015, Christian approached Sheila, Meg, and I regarding all the negative media attention that AWP had received. This (again) began a 20 plus email exchange. I posed question based on what I had read of other’s experiences, my own experience at Bronycon. and Meg and Sheila’s suggestions. Some of these were:

1. Is there a possibility of getting a person at registration to help people with disabilities so that we don't have to wait in line?

2. Is there a possibility that the person people connect with via email can ask as a liaison for folks if hotels give them trouble?

3. Is there a possibility that the language on the website can reflect the MLA language?

4. Is there a possibility that AWP can apologize for past inaccessibility issues?

5, is there a possibility that it be a REQUIREMENT that panelist bring print outs to panels? I don't even think that this should be in accessibility, but in general rules...

6. Could AWP consider using CART?

Because it is email, I cannot post the answers without CT permission. If he gives it, I will.

This led to a 2-hour telephone conference with Christian and others at AWP. Hopefully, I’m getting my point across. This was a lot of work and time. All along the way, we asked people to post complains, suggestions, and be involved. Many complained. Few helped.

But now we had a caucus and we needed to get organized. We quickly learned that Meg won a grant and was leaving for Australia. Over the next few months, Meg put countless hours into making bylaws, building a website, forming twitter, and Facebook pages and so on. Meanwhile, Sandra Beasley, Sarah Katz, Jillian Weisse, Michael Northen, Kelly Davio, and Ellen McGrath Smith all were working steadily on preparing for the caucus. Jim Ferris agreed to be nominated for president. I kept reaching out to people to address specific issues.

Through countless emails and hours, as a group, we were able to

1.     Build a caucus with a website, bylaws, a Board and social media.
2.     Get AWP to put more benches in the convention.
3.      Put a disability activist on the 2017 selection sub-committee.
4.      Meet numerous writers through social media.
5.     Make AWP very much aware of the issues of disabled writers.
6.     And agree to only list accessible sites on the off-site schedule (although this didn’t pan out as we intended).

Now, that I write this. I feel we haven’t accomplished as much and as vast as we set out to do. Although, just having the attention of the Directors, forming a caucus where there was none, and getting an activist on the subcommittee was a lot. Next year, it will be an even bigger splash.

What I mainly would like to point out is that I do not deserve to be put down or attacked. I, and many others, did hours and hours of work. We asked many to help. Many declined. We still went ahead. The work surely isn’t done. These are just baby steps.