AWP 2020: Two Panels and a Reading

Every year, thousands of writers flock to the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, the largest literary convention in North America.

This year, however, was special. The coronavirus pandemic cast doubt on this giant event until March 2, just two days before its start, when the organizers and the host city of San Antonio, TX, confirmed it was going forward.

Despite many attendees’ choosing to stay home and the cancellations of up to a half panels – quickly dubbed on Instagram as #AWPocalypse – #AWP20 was still a vibrant event. Many panels reconstituted themselves with new panelists, while the readings and the Bookfair proceeded as planned.

I spoke on the panel “More Than Me: Memoirists Looking Outward,” which focused on memoir as a tool to spotlight larger social issues like the ethics of science and medicine, drug policy, race, sexuality, and, in my case, family formation and public adoption systems in America today. Our panel’s 200 attendees asked probing questions and stayed on afterwards to discuss the issues raised in our books. The panel was organized by Alia Volz (far right), and included (R-L) Barrie Jean Borich, Samuel Autman, Ming Holden, and me.


The next day, I moderated another panel, called “Nurturing Future Danticats, Nabokovs, and Vuongs: Engaging Multilingual & ESL College Students in Creative Writing.” Counting a last-minute replacement of a non-attending panelist, our panel had four English instructors – Marlys Cervantes, Sharon Romero, Carla Sameth, and me – sharing working strategies on how to destigmatize these students’ voices and tailor writing pedagogies to their needs. Besides presenting the strategies and examples that we brought with us, we fielded some great questions from the audience of, roughly, 30.

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As a memoirist, I couldn’t miss the panels related to my field, but also some that satisfied my professional interests, such as how to finish a long-term writing project, keep the readers’ interested past the first 70 pages, or navigate the publishing world after a book deal.

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AWP is also a great place to have your writing heard. Friday, March 6, I read “When the County Is the Parent,” an essay excerpt from my memoir Dispositions, at the group reading of the AWP 2-Year College Creative Writing Caucus off-site. The reaction, just as when I read a portion of it at the memoir panel, was visceral, and I was asked numerous times when the book would finally be out.
This was a most unusual AWP, that barely made under the wire of the pandemic curfew, but still a deeply gratifying experience.

AWP20 Panel on Engaging College Students in Creative Writing

If you are at AWP 2020 in San Antonio, please stop by our panel, which features five community college professors from across the country (California, Kansas, North Carolina, and Texas) sharing approaches and activities to involve these students in writing and cultivate their often underrepresented voices. Please see the panel description below.

AWP 2020 Conference

San Antonio, Texas
Henry B. González Convention Center
March 4–7, 2020

Nurturing Future Danticats, Nabokovs, and Vuongs:

Engaging Multilingual & ESL College Students in Creative Writing

Panel Number: S225
Date/Time: 1:45pm – 3:00pm on Saturday March 7, 2020
Location: Room 210A, Henry B. González Convention Center, Meeting Room Level

Multilingual and ESL students, a sizable segment of college populations, are traditionally underrepresented in writing courses. How do we help them develop their voices? How can we tailor writing pedagogies to their needs? Community college panelists from around the country (California, Kansas, North Carolina, and Texas) will offer various modalities that help engage these college students in creative writing, including teaching writing and publishing to migrant farmworkers, utilizing poetry translation in multilingual classrooms, refocusing grading policies to foster student creativity, and writing contest and journal inclusion.


Non-native and multilingual speakers constitute a large segment and often are a majority on community college campuses these days. Traditionally, colleges offered concurrent curricular tracks leading to Freshman Composition (transfer-level English course), which serves as a benchmark for community college graduation and university transfer, as well as a pre-requisite for most literature and writing courses.

Despite different paths to language proficiency, in linguistic terms, second language acquisition, at the advanced stage and in formal learning settings, in many aspects, merges with first language acquisition in many aspects (Igoudin 2017). Reasons for such convergence include:

  • Advanced SL learners are bilingual, sharing, at the very least, beginning and intermediate grammar and a wide range of vocabulary – shared lexicogrammar.
  • Native English population in community colleges is largely bilingual too.
  • The line between these two populations is blurred, leading to, for example, the Generation 1.5 phenomenon.

One other unfortunate commonality among these multilingual students is their assumed lack of ability – perceived both internally and externally – to express themselves creatively in English, leading to their underrepresentation in creating writing courses and activities.

Their English language proficiency appears to be an obstacle, but is it really?

Historically, multilingual writers flourished in English: from Chinua Achebe, Joseph Conrad, Kahlil Gibran, Vladimir Nabokov, or William Saroyan of the past to Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Masha Gessen, or Ocean Vuong of today. What can be done to engage these new generations of multilingual speakers in English writing?

This Panel’s Contribution

The panelists will share successful strategies from around the country to destigmatize these writers’ voices and to engage them in creative writing.

Some of the questions proposed for discussion are:

  • What are multilingual students’ challenges in engaging in creative writing?
  • What practices can be used to help them overcome such challenges and start writing?
  • How do they perceive writing in English vs. how do the others perceive their writing?
  • What does it mean to have a voice?
  • How do these students’ voices fit in today’s sociopolitical and literary environments?

Panel Participants

Emma Burcart is a graduate of the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA program. She teaches composition and creative writing at a community college in rural North Carolina, where she also heads up the creative writing club on campus.

Marlys Cervantes serves as Department Chair of Humanities & Communication and director of the Creative Writing Program at Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kansas. She teaches literature and writing courses, as well as serving as co-director of the Multi-Cultural Scholars Program. Contact:

Sharon Coleman teaches creative writing at Berkeley City College. She directs the journal, Milvia Street. She’s a contributing editor at Poetry Flash, a member of the Northern California Book Reviewers, and a curator the reading series Lyrics & Dirges. She was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.

Daniel Rios-Lopera holds a degree in Audiovisual Communications and a Creative Writing MFA from the University of Texas in El Paso. He´s a Spanish, English, and Creative Writing teacher in different universities in El Paso area. Daniel also serves as Director of Memorias del Silencio, Creative Writing Workshops for Immigrant Farmworkers

Panel Moderator

Lane Igoudin, MA, PhD, is a non-fiction writer and Associate Professor of English/ESL at Los Angeles City College, where he teaches writing, reading, and linguistics, and a recent Andrew W. Mellon Fellow with the Humanities Division of UCLA. His memoir Born in the Shadow of the Court is under contract with the University of Wisconsin Press. Contact: