Annual writing conference draws LGBTQ+ authors to Philly

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) will hold its annual conference at Philadelphia’s Convention Center from March 24-26. Panels, networking events, one-on-one mentorships, a book fair, keynote speeches and offsite parties are in store for conference attendees. For the first time since 2020, AWP will bring together writers from all over the country, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“It’ll be really exciting to be physically together and see lots of friends and just have that experience of fellowship and being with one’s people,” said Emma Eisenberg, a Philadelphia-based writer who co-directs the literary hub Blue Stoop. “I think there’s a lot of exciting changes and innovative new work by queer writers coming out. I think even though AWP is not a particulary queer conference, it celebrates a lot of exciting writing, which is being produced by a lot of queer authors at the moment.”

Eisenberg and other members of the Philly writing group The Claw will speak on the panel “Both/And: Boosting Women, Genderqueer and LGBT Writers.” Created by authors Carmen Maria Machado and Liz Moore, The Claw is a group of queer women and nonbinary writers, most of whom write prose. They foster community through regular meetings where they talk about their writing, share resources and support each other.  

“The panel is just talking about the need for those kinds of community resources and some offerings about how we do things, if there’s other communities of writers who could benefit from thinking about the kinds of communities they want to see,” Eisenberg said. “We just kind of made [The Claw], there’s no official structure.” 

Other LGBTQ-oriented conference panels include “The Queer Art of Problematizing Masculinity,” “Contemporary Feminisms,” which touches on world and identity-making as a genderqueer pratice, “N/evergreen: Arab/Indigenous Ecopoesis & Environental Literatures,” “Living & Writing the LGBTQIA Rural Life” and “Is My Writing Queer Enough?”

Estela Gonzalez, who writes about social and environmental justice issues from the experiences of Latinx and LGBTQ people, will speak on the panel “Living & Writing the LGBTQIA Rural Life.” She told PGN that she thinks that rural LGBTQ writers, and rural life on the whole, have been overlooked by the rest of the community. 

“My co-panelists Catharine Wright, François Clemmons, Alex Bacchus, Patricia Powell and I are aware of a number of stereotypes that seem to privilege city living as opposed to rural living,” Gonzalez told PGN. “We want to say that not all rural places are unlivable. We each have very different perspectives and walks of life, and believe this will add some nuance to the conversation.” 

Gonzalez will be coming to the conference from Vermont, where she lives with her wife. While in town, she plans to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art with her son, and will present her new novel “Arribada” on Thursday, March 25 at Philly AIDS Thrift at Giovanni’s Room. She also hopes to visit the historical marker honoring LGBTQ rights activist Edie Windsor, who was the lead plaintiff in the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned section three of the Defense of Marriage Act, which ultimately led to more rights for same-gender married couples. 

“Thanks to her, my Dutch wife was able to immigrate to the U.S. after our wedding,” Gonzalez said. “She and I married about six months after the Supreme Court decision.” 

Writer and filmmaker Celeste Chan will speak on the panel “Is My Writing Queer Enough,” which features writers of diverse genres, genders, sexual identities and walks of life discussing how they set themselves up for success as writers in the LGBTQ community. 

“I hope attendees and fellow writers experience the richness of queer culture and writing and identity,” Chan said in an email. “To know that there’s a rich history of queer and trans cultural heritage, from James Baldwin to Adrienne Rich to Michelle Tea and Alexander Chee and Ryka Aoki. We come from traditions of innovation. At a time when Budweiser and Oreo cookies want to commodify and flatten queer experience, it’s vital to hear our full, freaky, complex stories. Our stories are ‘not a sanitized gay identity that is universalized as white,’ to quote the late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz.”

Despite the challenges to queer community arts organizing, which Chan cited as a need for more funding, she discussed the beauty she’s experienced in many community arts spaces.  

“I have learned so much from hanging out 12 hours a day in festivals like MIX NYC, waiting for the next round of experimental films projected on the walls, seeing giant warehouses transformed into glittering art palaces – rhinestones dripping down from the walls like honey,” she said. “Queer community spaces create vital belonging — where we are not marginal, we are the center. Where every kind of queer voice exists.” 

In the spirit of fostering belonging in queer spaces, attendees can check out a variety of more casual, community-centric offsite events, many of which are free. 

“Offsite events are my favorite part of AWP,” said writer and PGN editor Jason Villemez, who will be attending the conference. “The panels and other official conference events have more of a business and networking vibe that can feel alienating, especially for newer writers, but offsite events can be way more welcoming. There’s a big difference between meeting people in a huge convention center versus a neighborhood bar, coffee shop or community space. After two years of only virtual literary readings, it’ll be great to hear writers read their work in person.”

Some of the events that Villemez highlighted include a reading at Tabu hosted by Office Hours & Bespoke; an event at Yards Brewery hosted by The Rumpus, Coffee House Press and Feminist Press; and a reading of poems and stories by women and nonbinary writers who are emigres/refugees from the Soviet diaspora, hosted by the Cheburashka Collective. 

In addition, Blue Stoop is hosting a party featuring an author advice panel with several Philly authors including Asali Solomon, R. Eric Thomas and others, as well as a Gritty impersonator played by Kristen Arnett. In an effort to be COVID-conscious, space is limited and the event is at capacity. 

“It’s going to be a celebration of the kind of scrappy and maybe a little bit irreverent Philly literary community,” Eisenberg said.