Is it ever possible to go against the grain, particularly in an industry so thick with sexism that it is a veritable live model of exploitation where the masses who write, read and purchase books (women) support the few who judge, award and critique them (men)? Apparently, not only is it possible, but it can be a whole lot of fun. The first rock-concert styled public reading and national kick-off for WILLA (Women In Letters & Literary Arts), took place at the Denver Press Club last Friday night during this year's conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), held in Colorado. After two days of panels and readings (approximately twenty-four during each of six time slots; do the math), plus a full slate of off-site events ranging from a reading hosted by several literary journals, Counterpath Review, Drunken Boat, Guernica, and Persea Books to one by Cave Canem/Kundiman to the Con Tinta Celebration which involved one of those rarities in the usually expensive AWP world, free food, and two popular parties on the same night, one by über literary agent, Julie Barer and the other by Granta, one would imagine that participants would feel an eyes-glazed-over effect in their entire bodies at the prospect of listening to 31 writers from 9 to midnight. Instead, through the course of the evening, nearly 400 people showed up.
In the WILLA world, which boasts over 7000 supporters for its cause, gathered over the course of six months, 400 is a modest number that indicated the constraints of space - most of the audience had to stand or crouch along the walls - rather than the reach of its remarkable voices which included poets Patricia Smith and Kara Candito alongside fiction writers Antonya Nelson and Jennine Capó Crucet. From the well known, like Susan Steinberg and Cate Marvin to the lesser known, like myself and Mary Akers, whose act included a Kanye West style moment from writer Charles Rice Gonzalez who leaped up to declare that his girl Toni had the best story of the evening, the evening hit a welcoming cadence that revivified the great stream of women's words into which we all step, each in her own moment, echoing the voices of our mentors while we find the perfect pitch for our own.
The fact that the three sets of readings were split between three burlesque performances by Black Box Burlesque, added to the sense of celebration that pervaded the tightly packed space. For the men in the audience, it was a powerful experience where the seductive portrayal of women within the burlesque tradition was juxtaposed with the strong and passionate voices of women poets and writers, who read work that was often unflinchingly frank about the way in which women are broken up by men and just as honest about the ways in which they resist that assault.
As co-founder of WILLA,Erin Belieu, pointed out, younger women in particular, women writers to be more specific, are largely "uninterested in the cartoonist, dry version of feminism that frowns at celebrations of womanhood" that appear to pander to the sexual desires of men. Indeed, the women who performed for Black Box Burlesque and the Denver Roller Dolls (hired to roll-away any readers who went over time), had much to say about the ways in which the struggle faced by women writers is not that different from what they experience in the world of performance and sports. To own ones athleticism, competition and sexuality is in the same realm as owning ones words, vision and poetic statement; to put it in "our" terms, it is a matter of genre within poetry or prose literature rather than the divide between commercial and literary within the larger publishing world.
"Everything we do has been a choice," Belieu notes, "a way to generate a conversation. We don't own the answers and it would be intellectually illegitimate to claim that we do." As an organization that prides itself on being inclusive and non-prescriptive, co-founder Cate Marvin adds, "We don't censor anybody. We trust other women, and remain open to what they may contribute as well as to how they may respond." It stands to reason then, that when the Black Box Burlesque women asked to include a somewhat dark and unusual mime act from Chicago, WILLA welcomed their idea. "Feminism means many things to many people," Marvin continued, adding, with a poetic turn of phrase, that "the point is to be able to receive the unexpected which is true for aesthetics as it is for political movements."
WILLA has grown through the commitment of its founders, Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, who each experienced years during which they struggled to gain credibility within the rarefied world of poetry and literature that never seems to tire of questioning the motives of strong women writers. Marvin and Belieu are supported by a much larger number of women who have stepped forward to help chart its course through the literary world, from the two pro-bono attorneys who help the organization with its legal issues to those like Joanna "jojo" Lazar and Ana Božičević, who help with new media. The organization intends to host its own conference down the line, with some important differences to the AWP structure which includes institutional memberships which, in turn, creates an academic climate that isn't necessarily friendly to women. "Child care and a flat fee would make the conference much more accessible to women," Marvin says, noting that WILLA is not attempting to host a "mommy-focused conference," (both Belieu and Marvin are mothers), but rather that the group wants to eliminate one of the most significant barriers to participation for women who are mothers.
Indeed, this year at AWP, there was an increase in the number of women with babies in tow, and the suggestion has been made that the empowerment that WILLA brought to women through its organization and numbers contributed to that fact. WILLA appears to provide women with a safe space, where women are in charge, in which to discuss a range of issues particular to women writers. And the conversation regarding the recognition of books by women as opposed to those written by men is one of those. "The numbers say it all," says Marvin, "the top rated books on Goodreads, whose members are mostly female, are written by women, whereas the mainstream, like Publisher's Weekly, dominated by men, flips in favor of men." As Belieu puts it, "there have to be more women joining the critical conversation, in reviewing in the public arena." That is, quite possibly, a difficult task within an industry that has girded itself with a phalanx of men, but WILLA's success thus far is a good indication that no castle is impervious.
The question for AWP administrators (whose initial rejection of a panel, 'Arsenic Icing: Sentiment as Threat in Contemporary American Women's Poetry,' proposed by Cate Marvin lead to a letter with the subject heading, 'As I Stood Folding Laundry: Women's Writing Now,' which garnered such a tremendous response that it lead to the creation of WILLA), is what they are going to do about the gap that has been pointed out, literally, by women and men voting with their bodies. I'm hoping that it will be something that is equal to the creativity and brilliance that the WILLA women have brought to the table.