Q&A: A New Editor for the Rumpus

Priscilla Wu

This winter the Rumpus announced a new chapter in its editorial leadership as Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn stepped to its helm as editor in chief. Sawchyn had been transitioning into this role since September 2021, succeeding former owner and top editor Marisa Siegel. Also an essayist and educator, Sawchyn got her start in literary magazines at the University of Tampa’s undergraduate literary magazine, Quilt, continuing on at other magazines in a variety of roles while earning her MFA and later coming to the Rumpus as features editor in 2019. She has taught at the University of Maryland and recently joined the undergraduate creative writing faculty at Warren Wilson College. She spoke about what makes the publication unique and what readers can expect from the magazine in the future.

What sets the Rumpus apart from other literary magazines?
The Rumpus is a place for stories that may not have had a home elsewhere, and we really try to prioritize marginalized voices. Having a diverse masthead is important if you want to publish these voices. When we’re bringing on new staff, we want to give opportunities to people who don’t necessarily have the traditional education or background that would get them into a position like this. We intentionally seek out people who don’t have an MFA or as much experience, and we work with them as they hone those editorial skills. 

We’re broader in terms of our aesthetic sensibilities than other online literary magazines. One of the things that I think sets our editors apart is they’re very aware of their own sensibilities and make a concerted effort to not let their taste overpower the writer’s intentions for a piece. In addition to the individualized care that editors give to the writers, there’s also an attention to the magazine as a whole and how all the voices harmonize.

Tell me about the Rumpus’s revenue model and how your role supports that work.
When Marisa Siegel bought the Rumpus in 2017, she did a lot of work to stabilize it. One step was setting aside the same amount of money each month to be divided up among the contributors. Since Marisa sold the site to Alyson Sinclair, Alyson’s top priority as the new owner and publisher has centered around figuring out how to make more money so that we’re able to pay our contributors and our artists and start to pay the staff. We’re beginning to do a couple of things—one is a membership or subscription model. We are going to keep content that has always been free available, but we are going to create new paywalled content. We may do a fund-raising drive. Our readership is currently over 125,000 people a month, so if 1 percent of our audience gave five bucks a month to us, we would be set for a while. 

As Alyson is figuring out how to make the magazine sustainable and equitable, my job is figuring out how we keep getting great content and valuing the huge all-volunteer staff who are dedicating their time and energy to creating this site. I also have a lot of grunge responsibilities—a lot of back-end stuff like managing workflows, creating documentation to capture fifteen years of institutional knowledge, and standardizing processes.

What are you most looking forward to in your work?
I’ve been working to make space for the editors and the sections to talk about what they’re interested in and steer that conversation. We have three themed months coming up this year: a mental health awareness month in May, a disability in education month in September, and an adoptee awareness month in November. For all of these there is an editor on staff who had an interest in pursuing the topic. It’s a way for them to put their names on something more than just the masthead. My role is mainly tending all the gears so that the staff can do really cool stuff. 

 

Priscilla Wu is a writer, editor, and nonprofit communications worker living in Portland, Oregon.  

Q&A: David Treuer of Pantheon

by

Laura Da’

2.16.22

David Treuer is a writer and teacher who radiates curiosity on and off the page. The author of seven books, he grounds the reader with precise intelligence and generous humanity in both his fiction and nonfiction. His most recent book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present (Riverhead Books, 2019), was shortlisted for the National Book Award and longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. He is now also bringing his talents to the other side of the publishing equation: In November 2021 he was appointed an editor-at-large at Pantheon, where he intends to focus on acquiring books by emerging and Indigenous writers. Just before the New Year, he spoke about his ambitions as an editor and for the future of Native literature. 

In your book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee you have an insightful statement about intent: “This book is meant to tell the story of Indian lives, and Indian histories, in such a way as to render those histories and those lives as something much more, much greater and grander, than a catalog of pain.” Do you see this call to expansiveness as a liberation of Indigenous story from prescribed narrative patterns? 
I absolutely see my work as a call to liberate Native literature—and self-regard and even our collective identity—from overreliance on tragic narratives. Tragedy is the dominant narrative that has been used to imagine Native realities. And frankly the narrative of loss—the idea that we as Native people have a great future behind us—participates in our continued erasure. I’m not here for that. 

Your work is influential in creating a pathway for Indigenous scholars and writers to approach research from a culturally responsive position. Sometimes folks talk about this as the work of decolonizing the canon and embracing Indigenous methodology. Do you think you will bring a similar movement to publishing? 
I am fundamentally skeptical of the way the whole idea of “Native methodology” is used as a way to push back against the canon. I’m skeptical, I think, because our insistence on our difference—cultural, linguistic, social—oftentimes encourages us to engage in a kind of self-essentialization. And I’m not here for that either!

For many Indigenous writers, working with a fellow Indigenous person in the world of publishing is a revelation. Stuck between the essentialization you mention and callow patterns of institutional racism, so many writers are burdened with protecting their story. What possibilities do you think your role as an editor will unlock for readers and writers?
Hopefully endless ones! I think it’s indicative of a kind of monolithic structural exclusion of Native people and voices that I never once—not from grade school through grad school—had a single Native teacher in any subject. I have had plenty of tribal mentors in other parts of my life that have nothing to do with writing, and I’ve had mentors—mostly women and very often women of color—in my writing life. They were teachers, editors, and allies. But as an editor I hope to begin to change not only the narrative, but also the gates to publishing and the path of being a writer itself. That is something I am here for. And Pantheon is, I think, a wonderful place to engage in that work and nurture a new generation of writers.

What are you looking forward to in your own writing practice?
I’m forging ahead on both a new book of nonfiction and another novel. A bit early to say much about either of them, but I am invigorated by the work ahead of me. I think, generally, that the role of the writer and the role of the editor—while different in many ways—both involve making meaning. And I’m excited, doubly, to keep on making it.

 

Laura Da’ is an Eastern Shawnee poet and teacher. She is the author of Tributaries, winner of the American Book Award, and Instruments of the True Measure, winner of the Washington State Book Award.

David Treuer (Credit: Nisreen Breik)

Q&A: Anitra Budd of Coffee House Press

by

Priscilla Wu

12.15.21

Anitra Budd began her tenure as publisher and executive director of Coffee House Press this past October, but she first put down roots at the Minneapolis-based publisher as an intern more than two decades ago. Budd subsequently served as a managing and acquiring editor at the nonprofit press from 2009 to 2014, and also sat on the board for several years. Outside of Coffee House she has worked as a freelance copywriter, an editor, and a public speaker. Committed to supporting future generations of editors, she has also taught editing classes for MFA students at Sierra Nevada University and undergraduate courses at the University of Minnesota and Macalester College. During her first month at the helm of the press, she spoke about the strength of Coffee House’s legacy and backlist as well as her commitment to putting people before profit. 

What are the present challenges and opportunities for Coffee House Press?
Industry consolidation is a challenge and threat. In Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, John Thompson describes how big publishing is built on economies of scale, and small independent publishing is built on an economy of favors. As more small and midsize publishers get snapped up by bigger presses, where does that leave us for acquiring authors, getting attention in the marketplace, and soliciting support from our peers? Because we certainly can’t command scale, not if these places are getting bigger and bigger. An opportunity is that our size makes it easy to be nimble, to test ideas and iterate really quickly.

Fatigue is the other big challenge. Almost two years into the pandemic, we’re thinking about how many ways tiredness can affect an organization our size: staff burnout, donor fatigue, market demand. Human beings are looking for comfort right now. Will our readers go toward a work that provokes them, offers deep inquiry, and needs to be engaged with fully?

Why are you prioritizing the Coffee House backlist?
Our backlist is more timely than ever. Our communities are talking about immigration, labor, class, race, and religion, and we’ve been publishing the people who were first talking about these things in the sixties and seventies. People are reengaged with the issues we’ve been exploring at Coffee House for so long, and that’s hugely exciting to me.

Our books can help people think about our life, our humanity, and our world. I think about every book I read as chipping away a new facet of understanding. Like a diamond, we are more valuable the more facets we have. That’s how I want people to feel our books in their lives: Every time they read a Coffee House book, it’s changing them in some way, making them more multifaceted.

What is your approach to leadership?
Two big pieces of my leadership are clear boundaries and expectations. The pandemic has made me reevaluate what’s truly urgent. When you’re in a nonprofit, you’re working for a cause that can loom so large it injects everything with urgency. As a leader I want to bring a calming perspective that we take our work seriously, but we know that it’s not more important than our lives, our well-being, and our happiness. It’s just not. I have a lot on my mind besides books, and it makes me a better worker to have healthy boundaries in place and a life outside of publishing. Even jobs like this, which I am beyond thrilled and shocked to have, come and go. But my family, my life, isn’t going away. 

I also don’t see my position as being the main artistic voice of the press. I believe that’s something we build together. 

What are your thoughts on access, or the lack thereof, to careers in publishing?
I love giving informational interviews and teaching and writing recommendations. But when I have those conversations, I tell people that I would never have had access to publishing if my wife hadn’t been able to feed me on her entry-level office-job salary while I took two unpaid publishing internships. I essentially needed a fiscal sponsor for publishing to be a possibility. That is a massive barrier.

We could get into capitalism. If the goal is to always be growing, you’re going to see problems with low pay, burnout, too many books. There’s nothing wrong with being the right size, and strategy is as much about what you choose not to do. If you’re always racing toward profit, it becomes almost impossible for for-profit companies to support workplace well-being, recruitment, diversifying the industry.

At a webinar for Black editors, we talked about how none of us had a nonwhite mentor. We are now the nonwhite mentors for other people, but we didn’t have an older generation—there’s a layer missing. Where I try to make the most impact is teaching and making information about publishing as widely and freely available as possible. We need to make sure we go back even further in the pipeline to reach people coming up behind us and demystify the industry for them.  

 

Priscilla Wu is a writer, editor, and nonprofit communications worker living in Portland, Oregon.

Anitra Budd (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Q&A: Abdurraqib Edits for Tin House

by

Julian Randall

10.13.21

Hanif Abdurraqib trusts writers to be abundant—in our ideas, in our talents, and in the communities we build with them. In July, Tin House announced that the New York Times best-selling author of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021) will join the publisher as an editor-at-large acquiring nonfiction work. He recently sat down to talk about his exciting new role, the rewards of collaboration, and his faith in marginalized writers.

How did you come to this position, and what are your responsibilities going to be?
I am mostly always looking for an opportunity to add to what I believe is the real abundance and wealth of writers. Certainly Black writers, and writers of color, who are writing things that I am excited by, and that they are excited by, but that presses might not be as eager to give a chance. We agreed that I would bring in three books a year, one every season, and then help bring them to life. So many of my opportunities exist because somebody took a chance on some work that I didn’t fully believe in myself, but someone saw it and believed in it. I feel like through that I’ve really learned to get excited about work I believe in, from folks who are maybe sitting on a first book that they don’t even know is a first book. I’m not saying everything I acquire will be a first book, but that is one of our main focuses.

You’ve worked with every kind of shape and size of press, from Big Lucks to Random House. How will these experiences inform your work in this position?
I am someone who hopes and believes myself to be a really hands-on person. With A Little Devil in America, I worked with an editor named Maya Millett, who is the greatest editor I’ve ever worked with. Through that process I think I learned how to edit. I learned how to be a person who first subscribes to the needs of the writer before imposing my own desires onto their writing. I think there’s a part of any editing practice that requires an engagement with the personal and the person who has created the work. And there’s a part of the editing practice that is something I believe to be collaborative, steeped in curiosity and wonder and pleasure.

I don’t ever want to make a writer dread something they’ve created in the process of editing, which I think so often happens. I think the best way to do that is to approach it with generosity and curiosity; to say, “I’m here and invested in this work because I care about you as a writer, and I care about you as a person outside of what you produce. And with that in mind, we’re going to work on something great.”

How long have you been curating your music website, 68to05? How has that experience been
I dreamed it up in January of 2020, but I’ve been working on it for about a year and a few months. I brought in an assistant who now helps because I wanted to honor [the project], and honor people who were submitting to it, so I brought in someone to help. But I get to say what that space looks like, which is exciting. That is something I’ve never had before. I never had the freedom to self-determine what a space that I was curating fully looked like, from start to finish. And that’s thrilling.

68to05 will always be unlike anything else that I do because I am really taking the time to build it the way I dreamed it, and the way I continue dreaming it. It’s an ongoing process, right? The dreaming hasn’t ended. The dreaming only continues. It’s like, the more time I spend with it, the more I see. And because of that, it teaches me what I love. I’m bringing that teaching everywhere. I’m going to undoubtedly bring that learning to Tin House.

You’ve talked about Toni Morrison as an editor and her commitment to moving away from the model of a singular Black genius. I’m wondering how you would like to see publishing move away from these kinds of scarcity-based models.
Well, I think I don’t trust publishing to do it because publishing relies on it as a type of propulsion. But I trust us to do it. I say “us” and I mean writers, particularly marginalized writers. I believe, personally, that I owe people, writers, an understanding of abundance. They deserve that. No book that I’ve put out is something that has happened on my own. I just haven’t done anything alone. And because I haven’t done anything alone, I rely on a great many things, living folks and ancestors.

The fact that I could reach back to ancestors tells me that scarcity is flawed, right? That these ideas around scarcity exist to trip us up. If I have an abundance of ancestors—and I have an abundance—it strikes me as evident that I would have an abundance of living people to whom I can also reach toward and say, “Okay, what can we make together? What can we do together?” And that feels only right and only fair.  

 

Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He is the author of Refuse (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018) and Pilar Ramirez and the Escape From Zafa, forthcoming from Henry Holt in March 2022.

My Past and Future Assassin: A Profile of Terrance Hayes

by

Hanif Abdurraqib

6.13.18

One can make a home wherever the body finds itself at rest. I imagine this to be true always, but especially now, while taking in the large plastic novelty fish hanging high on the wall above the head of Terrance Hayes. Even while slouching in his chair, Hayes towers above the table in front of him, so that the fish, a marlin, appears as a crown under the glow of red light humming overhead, darkening half of the marlin and half of the face of the poet. We are at Great Jones Cafe in lower Manhattan, a place Hayes told me is his “go-to spot” when we spoke earlier, trying to nail down where to meet. When I arrive, I find him alone in a corner, drink already on the table. Hayes is a Southerner at heart, having spent his childhood and early adulthood in South Carolina, so it comes as no surprise to find out why he has led me here, to this place he tells me he comes to every weekend, often alone. “I didn’t know how quiet it would or wouldn’t be in here,” he tells me as I sit down, in reference to my request that we find a low-key location for our interview. “But it’s the only place in this city where I can get good grits, so it’s one of the few places in this city I love.” I imagine this to be his way of welcoming me into a small corner of his home.

We are talking about primary colors, Hayes and I. He is describing for me his most recent project. His poems were commissioned by composer Tyshawn Sorey for Cycles of My Being, a song cycle that “explores the realities of life as a black man in America” (or so it is described in the publicity material), performed by renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee at Carnegie Hall, Opera Philadelphia, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. So Hayes sent Sorey some work to be played in front of a mass audience. He tells me he agonized over which poems to send—“you know how I am with this shit; nobody knows what poems are except for poets,” he says—and eventually bent to the will of the composer, who had asked Hayes if he had any poems about hope, or about hate. Hayes balked at the idea. 

“They wanted [it] to be hopeful, but a hopeful poem isn’t my tendency,” he says. “And a hateful poem isn’t my tendency either.” He eventually wrote a poem specifically for the show but then set it aside. 

This story is less about the song cycle for me and more about what is happening with the interior of Terrance Hayes. “I’m not interested in primary colors,” he tells me when I ask him why he has no interest in hope or hate. “It’s not nuanced enough. I’m interested in the spaces where colors overlap. It’s like when people call someone a racist and think that’s the end of it. That ain’t the end. Racism is a symptom of fear, or greed, or some other bullshit. So even if I wrote a poem about hate, it ain’t gonna be about hate when I’m done with it. My personality likes a challenge, so I can write a poem that many would consider hopeful.”

“But aren’t you a hopeful person?” I ask. 

“Am I?” he shoots back playfully, smiling before sighing and stirring a small tornado into his drink with the tip of his straw. “I mean, the endgame is always going to be death, so how hopeful can anyone really be?”

We are talking about death, Hayes and I. Or, it seems, death is the river’s mouth our conversation is flowing into. This makes sense, in some ways. We are here to talk about his new book of poems, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published by Penguin in June, which is overwhelming in every sense. Overwhelming in its brilliance, yes, but also overwhelming in its pacing, its style. Each poem is the exact same length—a sonnet’s requisite fourteen lines—and carries the exact same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” The book, despite its breadth and clever turns, is a confrontation. Not an unwelcome one but a confrontation nonetheless. Hayes is too crafty to force his way, unwanted, into a room, so his poems are like the slow and steady picking of a lock, until the door handle clicks. Instead of entering, the poet stands outside, satisfied with his work.

Hayes began the process of writing the sonnets with inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets series. Coleman’s sonnets, much like Hayes’s own, are winding, endlessly questioning, and rich with syntax and alliteration. A stunning formalist, yet inventive and often two steps ahead of her peers, Coleman, who died in 2013 at the age of sixty-seven, spent much of her life as a poet struggling to make a living from her craft. Born and raised in L.A.’s Watts neighborhood, Coleman worked several odd jobs until her poems began to take off, and even then it was hard for her to make ends meet. Her hustle manifested itself in her poems; chasing new ways of crafting a poem became a form of survival. She was a mentor to some and an inspiration to many more, but Coleman wasn’t always granted the acclaim she deserved. Her work—unlike the work of Hayes—wasn’t fully celebrated until after her death.

Hayes is gathering his roses while he is still alive to grasp them—thorns and all. One such thorn: Hayes, who now lives in New York City after several years in Pittsburgh, where he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and was codirector of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there, appreciated the love he was shown in the smaller city but notes that it became overwhelming. “They had my face up in the airport,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it.”

This is not to say that Hayes is entirely humble, however—nor should he be. But he is grounded, possessing a healthy blend of logic and confidence. You know the long list. The author of six poetry collections—Muscular Music (Tia Chucha Press, 1999), Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002), Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006), Lighthead (Penguin, 2010), How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015), and now the new book—he has won much of what a poet can win, including the National Book Award for Lighthead; the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Muscular Music; a Whiting Award; an NAACP Image Award; and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. He is also a chancellor at the Academy of American Poets. All that and he’s still relatively young, just forty-six years old. Young enough to have decades of future success but old enough to have watched skilled but less decorated writers die, without much control over their legacies. 

As for his own legacy, Hayes tells me that he is most concerned with how he’s viewed as a teacher. He is at NYU now and finds himself at home in the classroom. He tells stories about his talented students and how there is a mutual pushing and pulling forward. None of it is about money, he tells me. 

“This is why I just want to leave my kids my poems,” he says, referring to his two children. “I want to leave them art.” He pauses and references something he recently mentioned to his ex-wife, the poet Yona Harvey. “Money is nothing to be governed by, because once you get it, it’s never enough. When I die, I want my kids to have my art. Surely that will be worth something one day.”

Confidence and logic.

We are talking about Wanda Coleman again, as the darkness falling on Great Jones Street becomes richer, nighttime beginning to flood in through the windows. “I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman,” he tells me, picking apart the catfish on his plate. “And I sent it to her. We exchanged letters, and then suddenly she was ill. She died in 2013, and I registered that, and then,” he pauses, “and then around the election I decided to do something else.”

Hayes says he had a “reaction” to the election, and I understand instantly what he means, as I felt it too. For all of the “now more than ever” tropes about writers and poets being needed at this particular moment—particularly writers and poets of color—the election did create a sense of urgency for many, not necessarily to share all of their work at once, but to establish a legacy of work, something that might be left behind, if there would be nothing else left of us. If things got “real bad,” whatever that meant. For Hayes, though, the week of the election also had another emotional touch point: Wanda Coleman’s seventieth birthday would have been on November 13, 2016. 

“I had this obsession with writing these shorter poems, because I had been writing long poems,” he says, referring to the work in his last book, How to Be Drawn, which included a number of multiple-page poems such as “Who Are the Tribes” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” He continues: “And I thought I could do this for her. I thought to myself, ‘Can I access the thing I most love about what she did, in these times?’” It became something he chased after relentlessly. “Also,” he smirks, after I ask him what other motivations existed for his use of the form, “I like a volta.”

It seems, at least to me, that a volta is defined best by the hand that crafts it, and so therefore a volta can be anything. Formalists will define it as the turn, or the rhetorical division, the shift, between the sonnet’s first eight lines and the final six. For Hayes the volta is in the project itself, tethered to his always shifting definition of the assassin in the work. “I’m trying to go in one way and come out another way. So, yeah, I’m trying to see how many turns I can fit into a poem, but also I like the sonnet as a way of addressing an idea: How can I write a traditional love poem to someone or something I don’t deem worthy of my love?” After a long pull of his drink, he adds, “I just don’t know what other form would be able to hold this particular moment.”

A love poem for an enemy or a foe is largely about restraint, I suppose. Which makes the project of the book and the restraints on the poems themselves even more fascinating. The central conceit is this: How can I reach out and gently touch that which might not be so gentle toward me? And how can I be sure that in honoring these foes with love, in my turning to face them, they won’t change?

Sometimes the foes are invented, and sometimes the foes are direct and predictable—country, or president, or racism. But the book is most interesting when the foe is Hayes himself. “I’m in a different phase of my life now,” he tells me after we talk briefly about what it is to want to love yourself when you are your own enemy. “Having been married and not being married [now] also bears on the sonnets,” he says, staring into his drink. Hayes is recently divorced from Harvey, though they remain on good terms, he insists, raising their children, a son and a daughter, shuttling between Pittsburgh and New York. “I haven’t talked…. People been asking this shit, but I don’t wanna talk too much about it. But what I will say to you is that sometimes the assassin is you, or sometimes the assassin is a beloved, and that role feels transferrable. It’s like the stuff in the book about Orpheus and Eurydice.” He pauses here, which is rare for Hayes when he gets into a stream of conversation. He is talking about a series of poems in the book that detail the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The poems are decidedly distinct from the others, in both tone and what they are attempting to unravel. They are the poems in the book in which Hayes is hiding the least, taking himself to task, or taking the idea of love to task, or taking the idea of forever to task. 

In one of the sonnets he writes:

I tried to tell the woman

Who sent me songs, it’s departure that makes company 
Hard to master. I tried to tell her I’m a muser, a miser
With time. I love poems more than money & pussy. 
From now on I will eat brunch alone. I believe 
Eurydice is actually the poet, not Orpheus. Her muse
Has his back to her with his ear bent to his own heart.
As if what you learn making love to yourself matters 
More than what you learn when loving someone else.

 

“Most of that is me tying back to a different kind of relationship,” he says. “Who is the assassin between Eurydice and Orpheus? Who is the poet between those two? I’m thinking about…what does it mean to be married to a poet? What does it mean to be married to a motherfucker who’s gonna be playing his music no matter what? He’s a poet. It’s what he’s gonna do. But there are consequences to that. And so you might say, well, maybe she’s the poet then. I’m just…I’m wondering about the beloved as an assassin.”

This sits between us heavy on the table, the most open Hayes has been to this point in our talk. We leave it there, untouched.

I write the poems so I don’t have to talk about this shit,” Hayes tells me when I ask him which part of the response to his work he values more: his playfulness and precision with language or his sentimentality. He is not saying this to dismiss me, and we both understand this. It’s a moment in the conversation when he is talking to me as a writer, someone who he knows has likely had similar responses to questions like this. “Anything I say in a poem, I mean it,” he says. “Feeling and intuition is the only important thing to me. You can persuade someone through logic that perhaps what they’re thinking is wrong. But you can’t persuade someone that their feelings are wrong. You can’t tell a motherfucker that they ain’t hungry if they’re hungry. No words in the world can do that. So I trust feeling as a bedrock thing. Can you want to kill a motherfucker and simultaneously love them?”

To trust one’s feelings can be all-consuming, especially if those feelings are brought into a harsher light by a mess of a political moment. Hayes is invested in his obsessions, even if his obsessions are about the nation unraveling. 

There are poets who are slow and deliberate speakers, working to make sure every sentence holds weight. But Hayes is a rapid-fire conversationalist, spreading his long arms wide, or gesturing with one massive hand. Like his work, he is challenging you to keep up with him and to pick out what’s worth expanding on. And if you don’t catch it, he’ll expand on it for you anyway. And in this moment the topic worth expanding on is Donald Trump. 

“Everything I do has to be in service of poetry,” he says, with a little more excitement in his voice. “I can’t be waking up and thinking about Trump all day. And if I do, I have to do it in service of a poem, or else he’ll be a block.”

He is talking about boxes and how every box, like every poem, has multiple sides through which it can be entered. He decided to put Trump in a box and kept turning the box until his truth looked different from every angle. He found this to be more interesting than it would have been with, say, Barack Obama. 

“Obama is super interesting to me, but I already know some of the sides to that cube. He’s a six-sided truth, but I know about half of those sides. As a brother, as a dude who loves basketball, as a dude who got old. To look at something and see yourself in it is easy. I’m not moved by that. With Trump it’s about power and the way his power has a bearing on everyone else. I can meditate on that for at least six months.”

The restraints of the sonnets have been liberating, he tells me. This is only interesting because of how the book wrestles readers inside of it and gives them little room to move within it. If anything, a reader then becomes a part of the interior of the box, which Hayes is turning around in his hand. I don’t mean this to sound negative: One of the book’s strongest points is how readers have to fight their way into and then out of it. Like all of the work Hayes has offered in his career so far, it is both inviting and asking a reader to earn enjoyment of it, in this case through a means of discomfort with the repetitive nature of the poems and their aim.

Hayes tells me he has become so obsessed with the project that he can’t unravel himself from it, which makes sense. He is conflicted, because he knows he can’t do another book like this, but he also knows that he isn’t done with the fascination. “I mean, I got seventy good ones, and I don’t want to overdo it,” he says, blending his usual cool and confidence with the anxieties he holds. “It’s like [ John] Berryman, right? He put out 77 Dream Songs, and then later he put out all of them. And like, there were some all-right ones in there, but shit. I was good with seventy-seven.”

It is political, in some ways: Hayes is surviving the world by writing against it. When I ask him if the work has made him feel any better, he matter-of-factly states, “Well, the shit is still going on, you know?”

There are other ways out, Hayes says. He draws, going to a class once a week and trying to improve his hand as a visual artist. Hayes has experience in the craft, receiving a BA from Coker College in Hartsville, South Carolina, where he studied both English and painting. His drawings and paintings provide the artwork for the covers of his books. It’s easy to get lost in the visual form, but he keeps returning to the sonnets. Twisting a forkful of mashed potatoes around, and up toward his mouth, he pauses.

“There’s no law that says an obsession can’t continue beyond the production of the obsession, you know?”

It’s getting late, and the fish over the head of Terrance Hayes has begun to droop its long face lower. This is a trick of the eye, I’m sure. Perhaps Hayes is growing taller, more excitable with conversation, and the fish is shrinking in the face of that. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is playing through the café’s speakers, and small crowds of revelers have started to filter in, the way one might expect as a night stretches its palms wider. It is perhaps late only for me. Hayes insists he doesn’t sleep much. “I go to bed around two or three in the morning and wake up around seven. I’m good with four hours a night,” he tells me, as my body involuntarily trembles at the prospect of such little time in bed. He does his best work in the hours after these, when even the revelers beside us begin to lose steam (“I like a nap, though,” he insists). This disclosure makes for an interesting moment between us: me winding down, and him warming up.

Hayes and I find ourselves in the golden hour of our conversation, too. The talk about poems and craft has perhaps drawn all it can draw from the two of us, and now we’re just talking about basketball. Hayes was an Academic All-American basketball player during his time at Coker and has remained attached to the sport. Throughout the conversation Hayes insists that he is always thinking about poems, no matter what else we’re speaking on, but he seems at ease here talking NBA. The plates are cleared off the table, and he has leaned over his drink, swinging his massive palms in one direction or another as he makes a point. An athlete and sports fan and writer, Hayes has an intimate relationship with the game. Like me, he is in it for the narratives, which I do suppose means that even in our talk about basketball, we are talking about poems. 

“LeBron James shoots free throws every day,” Hayes tells me. “And you gotta think, ‘Why is this dude shooting free throws every day if he gets paid to shoot free throws?’ He’s doing that shit with no one watching, because he’s after something different.”

I nod, and Hayes continues.

“I think about that versus someone like [Philadelphia 76ers rookie] Ben Simmons, right? Ben Simmons should be a huge star right now, and he’s perplexed by that….”

I take the opportunity to interject that Simmons isn’t a huge star yet because he can’t really shoot, but Hayes is off, sprinting a mile a minute to reach the end of his thought. 

“Yeah, but Kobe Bryant struggled with that same shit too, right? Kobe had to fight through the same thing of doing the things that should make you famous and expecting fame. But it ain’t about the fame, though.”

In many ways, I know what’s coming next—Hayes the speaker is rarely separate from Hayes the poet—but I let him draw back the curtain with his own language. “It’s about the glory. There’s a difference in fame and glory. Fame is when everyone else is peeping what you’re doing, but glory is when your peers recognize the work you’re putting in. Glory has to be number one. Glory has to be number one, because no one else has to be there.”

I ask the obvious question, the one about whether or not an artist or an athlete or a parent or a construction worker can have glory without fame. Because this is the thing with Hayes, who is undoubtedly famous and has basked in his share of glory. It has created a mythology around him that he seems equal parts thrilled to revel in and sometimes uncomfortable with. Minutes before the conversation took this turn, we were speaking about pressure, and in the middle of a response, Hayes shook his head and said, “God forbid I ever start writing bad poems,” and one ear might hear I know all of my poems are good, but to another, the poet is saying I don’t know what I would be without my insistence on living up to my own standards. So I wonder out loud how you survive at the intersection of fame and glory, or if you can cut one off in service of the other. Hayes takes a moment.

“Yeah, I think so. On the days I’m writing and I’m in a good groove, I hit moments where I think, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It’s the closest I can get from this,” he says, gesturing toward his head, “to getting it together on that page. And that’s glory. I’m doing that for me, with no one watching, knowing that the people I’m writing for—poets—are doing the same thing. And it only happens a few times, but when it happens it feels good. I did a 360 dunk once, and I was alone in a gym. No one saw it but the other guys on my basketball team, and those are the only people I cared to see it. A 360 dunk is fucking hard. I want the people who know how difficult the work is to bear witness to the work.”

The red light above our heads has only become more aggressive in its lapping up of the darkness, and by now we are both radiating in its shine. Hayes casually regales me with a tale of watching basketball with former NBA player and coach Phil Jackson last April, a story that few poets would have in their back pocket. “We talked about Buddhism and shit. You know, it was a good afternoon,” he says in an “Isn’t New York wild?” kind of way, to which I nod, thinking about the times I’ve been to this city and felt tiny. The gist of the story is that during their first basketball-watching excursion, Jackson insisted that Hayes not mention LeBron James, whom Jackson had found himself feuding with over a Twitter debate. When the 2017 NBA Finals came around, Jackson invited Hayes to his Manhattan apartment to watch them with him, and Hayes balked. “He invited me back to watch the NBA Finals and told me I couldn’t talk about LeBron James!” Hayes says, half-yelling and half-laughing, as energetic as he has been all night. “I can’t talk about LeBron James during the NBA Finals? I like LeBron James! So I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll pass.’ I watched the Finals alone.”

It’s the kind of casual story told by Hayes during which one realizes that he moves through multiple worlds in a singular way, something that can’t be said for many of his peers, though he is still very much among them and often in service to them. He blurbs books vigorously, he reads poems endlessly, and until recently he served as the poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine. (Rita Dove took the reins in June.) He derives great pleasure from teaching—during our conversation he is most excited when talking about the ways his students show him to and through poems. But he is also someone who pens work for operas and has his face in an airport and casually watches basketball with one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. And it all seems simple to him, something he has been working toward since he began working. Both fame and glory.

We are talking about death and isolation again, Hayes and I. It’s a fitting end to our time together. Hayes says his true inclination is to stay inside; he likes New York because he feels like he can do that here, and not many other places. He tells me he both loves and hates the way the city folds around him—loves it for its many options and hates it for its many options, all at once. 

When we get to the topic of rap, Hayes is succinct, melancholic. “I think when it comes to rappers, Biggie Smalls is closest to my sensibilities,” he insists, spinning the last bit of ice around in his drink. “He scares me, and the consequences of his art, too…. The consequences of his art informed his life. I think of this like Sylvia Plath. The fact that Sylvia Plath would write ‘Ariel’ and then put her head in an oven, or the fact that Biggie Smalls would say he’s ready to die and then die. There’s something closer to the truth for me. Closer to my understanding of the consequences of what we do. The body’s relationship to the art’s consequences.”

I nod, and look at the time. When I look back up, Hayes is looking outside, while the street, drenched in sirens, howls. 

 

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and critic from Columbus, Ohio.

(Photos: Tony Gale)

Episode 20: Terrance Hayes, Lauren Groff, A. M. Homes & More

In the twentieth episode of Ampersand, editor in chief Kevin Larimer and senior editor Melissa Faliveno preview the July/August 2018 issue, featuring a look at how authors, agents, editors, booksellers and publicists work together to reach readers; the secrets to maintaining a long-term author-agent relationship; the summer’s best debut fiction; a profile of poet Terrance Hayes; author Lauren Groff on her new story collection, Florida; self-publishing advice, writing prompts; and more.

00:01 Terrance Hayes reads an excerpt of a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

01:12 The cohosts discuss Lauren Groff’s complicated relationship with her state of residence, Florida, which serves as both backdrop and inspiration for her new collection of stories of the same name, out this month from Riverhead Books. Contributor Bethanne Patrick, otherwise known as @TheBookMaven, profiles Groff for the new issue of the magazine. Kevin and Melissa talk about some of the stranger aspects of Florida (hat tip to the website Florida Man) and share some of their own stories about the Sunshine State, which involve hair removal, Tinkerbell, sunburn, and unsupervised teenagers on the loose. 

07:22 Lauren Groff reads an excerpt from one of the stories in Florida, “Dogs Go Wolf.”

 

12:55 Terrance Hayes reads a poem from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, out this month from Penguin. Hayes is the cover profile of the new issue, and poet, essayist, and critic Hanif Abdurraqib, author of the essay collection They Cant Kill Us Until They Kill Us (Two Dollar Radio, 2017), interviewed Hayes at the Great Jones Cafe in Manhattan for the piece. 

14:56 Hanif Abdurraqib reads the opening section of his profile on Hayes from the new issue, “My Past and Future Assassin.”

 

18:52 Terrance Hayes reads two more poems from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

22:18 A. M. Homes, the celebrated author of more than ten books—including novels, story collections, and a memoir—reads an excerpt from the title story in her new collection, Days of Awe, out this month from Viking.

28:31 In honor of the twentieth episode of Ampersand, Kevin and Melissa compose a celebratory haiku. (With sincere apologies to the masters of the form.) If you can do better—and we’re pretty sure you can—send us your Ampersand haiku at ampersand@pw.org

 

Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast is a production of Poets & Writers, Inc., and is edited and mixed by Melissa Faliveno. Music for this episode is provided by Podington Bear, Blue Ducks, Audiobinger, and YACHT. Comments or suggestions? E-mail ampersand@pw.org.

Q&A: House Celebrates Broadside Lotus

by

India Gonzalez

10.7.20

After founding the Detroit-based Broadside Press in 1965, Dudley Randall wrote: “We (Africans in the United States) are a nation of twenty-two million souls, larger than Athens in the age of Pericles or England in the age of Elizabeth. There is no reason why we should not create and support a literature which will be to our own nation what those literatures were to theirs.” Broadside grew during the Black Arts Movement as a leading press that introduced unknown voices in poetry to the literary world and in 2015 merged with fellow independent publisher Lotus Press, becoming Broadside Lotus Press. Today, Dr. Gloria House, senior editor and vice president at the press, continues its mission to celebrate African American literary excellence, work she began as a volunteer at the press in the 1970s. A poet in her own right, House has published four books under her chosen African name, Aneb Kgositsile. She is also an educator, a mentor, an activist, cofounder of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, and the 2019 Kresge Eminent Artist. Recently House spoke about the history of Black independent publishers and the future and legacy of Broadside Lotus Press as it celebrates fifty-five years.  

Has your social justice and civil rights activism influenced the editorial work you do at Broadside Lotus? 
What I’ve been led by is that, when Mr. Randall was editing, he wasn’t applying his own political perspective. He was looking at the quality and the excellence of the poetry itself, and accepting poets from very different political backgrounds. I try to continue what I have learned from him about being open to the beauty of the poetry of whoever is writing. Wanting more Black voices to be on the world’s stage, maybe that is an aspect of my politics. We have all this talent and very few people know about it. 

What role have Broadside Lotus Press and other independent Black publishers played within the literary community over the years?  
Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight—all of these poets we know now were first published by Dudley Randall and later picked up by the major publishing houses, so Broadside was sort of the bedrock. Then Naomi Madgett opened her publishing house, Lotus Press, right here in Detroit. In the nineties jessica Care moore started publishing poets of her own generation [through Moore Black Press]. Detroit has been like a mecca of Black independent publishing. We’ve influenced Third World Press in Chicago. Without these independent presses, I don’t know if America would know very much about African American literature.

During this critical time in American history, how can writing best serve our society? 
Writing that digs deep for a certain authenticity and truth-telling is very important for this period, when we’re inundated with so much that is false or a misrepresentation of things. For a writer to be as honest as possible with herself about what she’s seeing, how she’s responding to that, and not attempting to disguise anything, I think that’s the most important path for a writer nowadays.

What do you envision for Broadside Lotus Press in the coming years? 
I’m hoping that younger folks will take the press in hand, that they’ll use the works in our repertory and get them out in all kinds of new ways. The whole tradition of the single poet standing in front of an audience all by herself and reading from text—we’re way past that, and we have the capacity to move this beautiful literature in so many exciting ways.

From your tenure at the press thus far, what is one memory you cherish? 
At a certain point Dudley said to me, “I have a feeling you must write poetry. Don’t you write poetry?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “I’d really like to read the poems. Will you let me read the poems?” I said, “Yes, of course,” but I was reluctant because at that point I hadn’t begun to think of myself as a poet. One day Dudley appeared at my house and said, “I just came to pick up the poems.” I went upstairs and found my little folder that had followed me all over the world from UC Berkeley to down South when I was working at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and up to Detroit. Not too long after that, he came back with a proof of my first book. The icing on the cake was that while he was going through the poems, he called Gwendolyn Brooks—they were good friends—and he read some of the poems to her. She said, “Oh, this isn’t a new poet; this is a developed poet—this poet is already on her way.”

 

India Gonzalez is a poet, educator, and artist. She lives in Harlem, in New York City.

Dr. Gloria House (Credit: Shawn Rochelle)

The Clifton House

by

LaToya Jordan

10.7.20

On the ninth anniversary of poet Lucille Clifton’s death, her eldest daughter, Sidney Clifton, felt a strong desire to be back in her family’s former home in Baltimore. She decided to call the owner, who told her the house had been put up for sale that very day, February 13, 2019. A reunion with the house seemed fated, and Sidney Clifton jumped at the chance to buy her childhood home. Soon the space will once again be filled with the energy and cheerful noise of artists at work and in conversation as the poet’s family develops the Clifton House as a place where new generations of artists can flourish.

In 1968, Lucille Clifton and her husband, Fred, a professor and activist, bought the house at 2605 Talbot Road and moved in with their six children. It was there that Lucille Clifton launched her prolific poetry career. Her first collection, Good Times (Random House, 1969), was published a year after the family moved in; Good News About the Earth (Random House, 1972) and An Ordinary Woman (Random House, 1974) followed soon thereafter. While living at the house, she wrote countless poems, a memoir, and children’s books, earned fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1970 and 1973, and began her term as poet laureate of Maryland in 1979.

The Clifton family lived in the house in the Windsor Hills neighborhood for almost eleven years before they lost the home to foreclosure. Buying the house last year was profoundly meaningful for Sidney, because with both parents and two of her siblings gone, the years they shared there represent a moment when her entire family was alive and together, happy and whole.

At first her only plan for the home, she says, was “the reclamation of my family’s history. It felt like a triumph for my family to reclaim a house and a history that was lost.” But as she reminisced about watching her mother write award-winning poetry at their dining table and her father create sculptures and paintings, she knew she wanted to do something to honor their legacy. In the seventies her parents threw bustling social gatherings, at which writers, artists, and activists were welcomed and supported in their creativity. Sidney and her siblings mingled with the children of her parents’ friends to the sounds of percussionists drumming while the adults ate and talked about how they were making a difference through their work. 

Today Sidney envisions a second life for the home as a creative safe space for emerging and established writers and artists to participate in residencies, in-person and virtual workshops, and cultural events, as well as to display art in gallery space. “This house will be for a wider community what it was for my family and me when we were growing up: a place for artists,” she says.

Sidney, an Emmy-nominated producer of animated and live-action content, also plans to draw on her more than twenty years of experience to develop a series of cultural conversations between emerging and established artists. She’s not the only Clifton involved in the work of bringing this project to fruition; it is a multigenerational family affair, with her siblings involved in the project and plans for their children, artists in their own right, to possibly teach workshops and show their art.

With the house scheduled to open in 2021, the Clifton family aims to support and launch the careers of artists as they experience and learn what it is to live a creative life. Future residents and participants are likely to be inspired by Lucille Clifton’s illustrious career, built throughout the years she lived at the residence, during which she published numerous collections and won prestigious awards and accolades, including the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988–2000 (BOA Editions, 2000), the 2007 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, and, posthumously, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America for a “distinguished lifetime service to American poetry.” (In September, How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton, edited by poet Aracelis Girmay, was published by BOA Editions.)

Initial funding for the Clifton House was provided in August 2019 by the V-Day campaign, which supports programs to end violence against women and girls, including arts programs and organizations. In July 2020 the Clifton House received a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which strives to preserve African American history in order to tell a more rich and complete story of the American experience. The grant will support staffing and in-person and virtual program planning. 

During a tour of the home with the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund team, Sidney opened a closet door and discovered her name written on the wall from when she had been practicing cursive as a child. It seemed another portent that she was meant to share and preserve the family’s legacy. 

Writers and artists interested in participating and developing Clifton House programs may contact Sidney Clifton at cliftonhousebaltimore@gmail.com.

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

The Clifton House, now and then. Sidney Clifton (above, center) and siblings (from left) Gillian Clifton Monell, Alexia Clifton, and Graham Clifton, gather on the steps in 2019, much as the family did with their mother, Lucille Clifton (right, top center), around 1969. (Credit: Sidney Clifton and Rollie McKenna)

No Ordinary Woman: Lucille Clifton

by

Hilary Holladay

3.4.10

On February 13, 2010, American poet Lucille Clifton passed away. This interview with her was published in an April 1999 special issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, on which she graced the cover.

Born in Depew, New York, in 1936 and reared in Buffalo, Lucille Clifton published her first book of verse, Good Times, in 1969. She went on to publish Good News About the Earth (1972), An Ordinary Woman (1974), Generations (1976), Two-Headed Woman (1980), Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987), Next (1987), Ten Oxherding Pictures (1989), Quilting: Poems 1987-1990 (1991), The Book of Light (1993), which contains “brothers,” a transcendent sequence written from Lucifer’s perspective, and The Terrible Stories (1996), which reflects on Clifton’s survival of breast cancer. She has also published numerous books for children. Her most popular poems include the gracefully meditative “the thirty eighth year,” the amusingly affirmative “homage to my hips,” and the scathingly witty “wishes for sons.” The special brand of instruction in her magical lyrics depends on keen social awareness and a disciplined intuitionboth hers and ours. Her poems about race relations, womanhood, and self-affirmation often seem like parables that only our hearts fully grasp. She has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and is the recipient of many other honors, including a 1999 Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. Currently at work on a collection of new and selected poems, she is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. This spring she has a visiting position at Duke University as the Blackburn Professor of Creative Writing. Her home is in Columbia, Maryland, where this interview took place on a brilliant Saturday afternoon.

Your name, Lucille, and the names of your family members often show up in your poetry as well as in your memoir, Generations. And in the poem, “I am accused of tending to the past,” in Quilting, you describe the past as “a monstrous unnamed baby” that the narrator has taken to her breast and named “History” with a capital H. So I was wondering, why are names and the process of naming so important to you?
Well, I was alive during the sixties when African Americans changing their names caued a great stir. And naming is as close as we can outwardly come to identifying ourselves, my menesss. Now, for me, because Lucille means light, I can get a lot of metaphor and baggage and all that sort of thing from that. And so I suppose I think that being able to name is somehow being able to place, to identify.

When did you start working with your own name, Lucille, as a poetic device?
When I understood, when I thought about what it meant.

And when was that?
I was very young. I started writing when I was about ten. [I was] perhaps a little older than that when [my name] began to take on metaphoric meaning for me.

What happened to you at ten that caused you to sit down and start writing?
Well, I loved words always, and my mother used to write poetry, so I saw it as something to do. I think everyone has in his or her self the urge to express, and people do it with what they love, I suppose. Cooks do it with food; there are people who do it with hair, with clothing, fabric. I loved words, always-the sound of words, the feeling of words in my mouth—and so I did it that way.

I was recently approached about writing an entry on you for a reference book on contemporary Southern writers.
Isn’t that interesting? I’m in an anthology also of Catholic writers. [Laughter.] I said to the [editor], “But I’m not Catholic.” And she said, “Doesn’t matter.” I don’t think of myself as Southern, though people think of my home as Maryland although my home is Buffalo, New York.

That’s what I wanted to ask you about. You write about racial identity, gender identity, and family identity, but I’m wondering about geographical identity. How does that fit into who you see yourself as being?
I don’t think that I particularly feel a geographical identity. It may well be somewhat related to something I read about Robert Penn Warren sometime back. The article said that when he graduated from college, he bought an old car and he traveled across the country. And he wanted to see the landscape; he wanted to look at this country. And I was understanding then that that’s why, maybe, I know something about the people in this country, but I’m not a landscape person. I don’t identify that much with landscape.

Why do you think that is?
Because it was not available to me. There’s no way a person of my age, who looks like me, could have gotten a car and gone across this country safely. It’s not possible. We’re talking about the fifties and sixties.

Critics often talk about your affirming spirit and the celebratory qualities in your verse, and I certainly see those, too. But there’s also a lot of anger and sorrow and uncertainty in your writing, and it seems like the hopeful essence really has to struggle against those forces.
It does! [Laughter.] That’s because I’m human. I’m doing a “new and selected” now, and a couple of friends have seen some of the poems, and they say this is going to be a dark book.

Is it?
Well, I don’t think it’s dark. I think it’s just…you know, I have a poem about dialysis, for instance. I was on dialysis. And it ends…something about “i am alive and furious,” and then it ends with a question, “blessed be even this?” [Some critics] would expect of me, “blessed be even this.” Well, I’m not sure about that. You know, dialysis is not fun. Kidney failure is not fun.

 

 

 

 

It seems like, maybe more than in most poetry, people can see what they want to see in your verse. If they want affirmation, it’s there.
There is affirmation there. And that makes people uncomfortable. And I understand that. I say sometimes at readings something I heard an old preacher say a long time ago. “I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Of course, I would be nuts if I didn’t see the negativity and despair in the world, if I didn’t sometimes feel it myself. I am always hopeful, because that’s the kind of personality I have. But it does not mean that I do not see what there is to be seen and do not feel what any other human being would feel.

You’re very accessible in your readings, and you kind of give yourself over to the audience. But it also strikes me that each of your readings is a very artfully arranged process, that it’s even an artful exercise in consciousness-raising that you’re leading your audience through.
I like to connect with people. I like people. Now, I am, on the other hand-nobody ever believes that-I’m shy. I am shy. But I think that one can teach without preaching, you know what I mean? And I know that there are some things that it would be helpful if people understood, and I want to say the truth. I want to tell the truth, you know? I believe that if we face up to our responsibility and the possibility of evil in us, we then will understand that we have to be vigilant about the good. But if we all think that it all happens to somebody else, somewhere else, over there, then we don’t have to take responsibility for what we do.

Is this interest in the possibility of evil what leads you, in part, to write about Lucifer so much?
I’ve said that I know there’s Lucifer in Lucille, because I know me: I can be so petty, it’s amazing! And there is therefore a possibility of Lucille in Lucifer. Lucifer was doing what he was supposed to do, too, you know? It’s too easy to see Lucifer as all bad. Suppose he were merely being human. That’s why the Bible people—it’s too easy to think of them all as mythological, saintly folk. It is much more interesting to me that these were humans—caught up in a divine plan, but human. That seems to me the miracle.

If Lucifer were sitting here, what would you want to ask him?
“Do you regret? What are your regrets?”

What do you think he’d want to ask you?
[Laughter.] “Why are you doing this?” But as I said to somebody whose class I talked to, “If Milton can do it, so can I!” Why not?

I’m reminded of an earlier interview where the interviewer asked you, “What do you try to avoid as a poet?” and you said you try to avoid being clever. Can you elaborate on that? Why would that be a problem?
Cleverness gets in the way of creativity. Cleverness is often the easy way, the expected, in your work, and I try very hard not to take the easy way out. I think about Rilke’s [advice], “Hold to the difficult.” And I try very hard not to do the easy, expected, smart thing. Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. To understand my poetry, I don’t think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said-you know what I mean? I never had classes in this, I never took courses in this business, so I had to learn, I had to feel my way into the language. And you can have a visceral response to these things coming together, if you have enough authenticity behind them, enough power.

You use a lot of questions in your poetry, especially at the ends of your poems. How conscious are you of that?
I was not particularly conscious of using a lot of them. But I do think that poetry is about questions.

What do you say that?
Well, because I don’t write out of what I know; I write out of what I wonder. I think most artists create art in order to explore, not to give the answers. Poetry and art are not about answers to me; they are about questions.

Do you consider Yeats—
I like Yeats.

Do you like him or do you love him?
I probably just like him a whole lot. [Laughter.]

Whom do you love?
I love—well, do we have to have writers?

Yes. Then we can move on to others.
Who do I love? I don’t know. Adrienne [Rich]! We lived in the same town for a while. She’s a fabulous person. We each had a child who had cancer at the same time at one point in our lives. We used to talk about that and commiserate quite a lot. I think we exchanged a poem at the time, something about “our children are bald,” because they were both having chemotherapy.

Are there other poets who come to mind as a passion for you?
I admire Derek Walcott. I admire cummings—though that’s not why I don’t capitalize, okay? I admire Whitman. I admire Yeats. I admire Gwen Brooks.

What about Plath and Sexton?
I begin to respect Plath more now. When I was younger, I wasn’t as into her. Sexton I do [admire], and I knew her a little bit. She was a friend of Maxine Kumin’s, whom I’ve known for a long time. As I get older, for some reason, I admire Plath more. Sharon [Olds] I like very much. I think Sonia Sanchez is an underrated poet. Oh, there’re so many! Joy Harjo. [And] there’s a poet in Arizona, Richard Shelton, a remarkable poet. He has a wonderful line: “We will be known as the ones who murdered the earth.”

Do you read a lot of newspapers?
I do. On Sunday, we get the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Did you grow up reading newspapers?
Yes. My parents were great newspaper readers, my father particularly. And my father couldn’t write. My mother could write. Couldn’t spell! As her daughter can’t exactly, either. But they both had great interest in what was going on in the world. There were people who were curious about things, learners as well, I think.

Which magazines do you read?
Well, I try to read as many as I can. Let’s see, what do I read? I don’t subscribe to them, but I read the New Yorker; I try to read Lingua Franca, I read all kinds of things like that. I also read People, I read Jet, I read Essence, I read Ebony. Mode is for big women. [Laughter.] I like to tell my students, “I’m very eclectic—deal with it!” I am eclectic. I love Bach. I also love the Four Tops. And now I’m into jazz. I like opera very much. I don’t know if I love it or not; I like it very much.

What else do you love?
I like to laugh. I can tell you better what I can’t stand. I can’t stand injustice. I can’t stand seeing people being unfair to each other. I can’t stand cruelty, indifference. I don’t like that a lot. Oysters! [Laughter.]

Are you allergic?
No, I just don’t like them. I don’t like condiments. I never eat condiments. I’ve never had mustard, but I know I hate it. I’ve never had ketchup; I know I hate that, too. One of the things about living alone, without my kids around, I don’t have to buy ketchup.

If you were going to have a dinner party for three people from history, famous people, who would you want to have?
David of Israel [and] Crazy Horse of the Lakota Nation.

You can have one more person.
It has to be a woman. Hmmm. Mary, the mother of Christ.

And what would you want to ask them?
Well, they all are people with contradictions in their lives. They all were people who were faced with something larger than themselves and tried to meet it with grace, I think. And I would ask them how that felt, what were they feelingmaybe a little bit about what they were thinking, but what were they feeling? With Mary, is that really what happened? With David, who did you really love? Because he didn’t know how to love women, I don’t think. He wanted them, he lusted after them, but I don’t think he loved them. Crazy Horse—his life was a series of strangenesses, even for him, and he was a mystical guy. I’m always interested in people who are a bit mystical, and those three I think all were. I’d like to know: How was it for you? How was it for you?

In Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he writes, in response to a young poet who said he wanted to be a poet, not a “Negro poet,” “[T]his is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” It seems to me that you acknowledged and climbed that mountain a long time ago, that your blackness is very much part of who you are in your poetry.
Exactly, exactly. And what the young man was probably talking about was not what he was, but what people saw him as. And I’m seen as that quite often. There’s the poets and there’s the subgenre [of black poets] and Lucille is in there. Because people see it that way, that does not make it so. I’m not either American or black. I am an American poet, and that’s what American poetry is: me, Li-Young Lee, Joy Harjo, David Mura—you know what I mean? That is American poetry. I aspire to be the poet that Marianne Moore was, that Langston was, that Richard Wilbur is. I aspire to be as much a poet as Auden—whom I like, by the way, and Lowell, whom I like. I aspire to be all of that. I am not an American poet who happens to be black. I did not happen to be black. My mother was black, and my father was black. And so there I was: I was gonna be black! It didn’t just zap me. And that’s okay, that is all right, that is not a subgenre of anything. I am an American poet; this what American poetry is.

Hilary Holladay is director of the Fellowship Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. She is the author of Wild Blessings: The Poetry of Lucille Clifton and co-editor of What’s Your Road, Man? Critical Essays on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Her current project is a biography of Beat Movement icon Herbert Huncke.

Dodge Poetry Festival Launches YouTube Channel

4.23.09

Despite the cancellation of its 2010 poetry festival, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation recently launched a channel on YouTube featuring twenty-nine videos of poets reading at past festivals. The biennial event, which is held in Waterloo Village, New Jersey, has hosted blockbuster poets such as Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Maxine Kumin, and Paul Muldoon. In an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance reports that, although nineteen thousand people attended the most recent event, in 2008, the foundation was forced to cancel next year’s festival due to economic setbacks.

In an open letter that explains the situation to festival supporters, Dodge Foundation president David Grant in January described an archive of over 2,500 hours of high-quality audio and video recordings that the foundation would try to make available to a wide audience. The foundation’s new YouTube channel is the first step toward realizing that goal. “The Festival experience itself cannot be duplicated, but we take heart
that it can and will be shared by students, teachers, poets, and poetry
lovers the world over,” Grant wrote.

The channel currently features videos of poets such as Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Joy Harjo, and Anne Waldman. Below is a 2006 reading by Linda Gregg, who recently won the Jackson Poetry Prize, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc.

 

Conferences, Festivals Taking a Hit

by

Kevin Nance

5.1.09

Although
the current recession is hammering all sectors of the literary economy,
including publishers of books and magazines, booksellers, and service
organizations—not to mention writers themselves—one of the community’s
smallest but most important components is proving particularly vulnerable. Many
writers conferences, workshops, and festivals are under severe stress this
year, with several having postponed or canceled their 2009 events due to
lower-than-expected registration, shrinking stock portfolios, dwindling support
from private donors and foundations, and other financial problems.

The list of affected events is lengthy and includes both
established and relatively new names, as well as those sponsored by nonprofit
and privately operated organizations. The thirty-six-year-old Santa Barbara
Writers Conference has announced a “hiatus” in 2009, for example, as has the
Lambda Literary Foundation’s two-year-old writers retreat in Los Angeles.

“When you’re talking about
businesses that depend on discretionary income, those are the first to be hit
hard in a bad economy,” says Marcia Meier, executive director of the conference
in Santa Barbara, which usually takes place over a week in June. “Writers are
notoriously broke—we don’t make a lot of money—and we just aren’t sure it’s
wise to spend whatever we do have at the moment. People are hunkered down.
We’re hopeful, with the new president, but in the meantime people are thinking,
‘Wow, I’m holding on to my pennies right now.'”

Charles Flowers, Lambda’s executive director, has decided to
wait until his organization’s fledgling retreat can offer writers as much as it
possibly can before it resumes. “At least half of the students at the first two
retreats received some form of scholarship money, and we just weren’t sure we
could raise those funds this year. We decided to defer the retreat for a year
and come back in 2010, when hopefully there’s a better economy.”

In the meantime, even some
of the best-known literary events are on the brink or beyond. In February the
International Poetry Forum, which sponsored poetry readings and performances in
Pittsburgh as well as in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., announced that
it would shut down after its stock portfolio dropped by 25 percent. And a month
earlier, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, which has seen its own net assets
drop by one-third, announced the cancellation of its biennial poetry festival
in Waterloo Village, New Jersey. Over the years, the festival has hosted some
of the biggest names in poetry; nineteen thousand people attended its most
recent edition, in 2008. (In early March, the New Jersey township of Montclair
offered to host the festival; to the Newark Star-Ledger, Dodge Foundation president David Grant expressed “cautious optimism”
that the festival will be back “in some form in 2010.”)

Other events that have
been recently canceled or postponed include the Lake Tahoe Writers Conference
at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada; the Heartland Writers
Guild’s annual conference in Kennett, Missouri; a novels-in-progress workshop
sponsored by Green River Writers in Louisville, Kentucky; the Marjorie Kinnan
Rawlings Writers Workshop in Gainesville, Florida; WordHarvest’s Tony Hillerman
Writers Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico; the Catskill Poetry Workshop in
Oneonta, New York; and Canada’s Halifax International Writers Festival.

While many of these
struggling conferences and festivals were supposed to have been held later this
spring and summer, signs of the economic slowdown in large-scale literary
events were evident as early as last year. The Kenyon Review canceled its biennial literary-studies trip to
Italy because of a decrease in sign-ups; the Gwendolyn Brooks Writers’
Conference at Chicago State University was postponed due to “funding concerns”
(the conference was rescheduled for last month); and the Florida First Coast
Writers’ Festival was canceled because of “funding issues.”

But not everyone is having
problems. Some of the nation’s most prestigious writers conferences are doing
just fine, thanks in part to their reputations, star-studded faculty, guest
literary agents, and substantial support from their hosting academic
institutions. “So far, so good,” says Michael Collier, director of the
venerable Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Applications for the next event, which is being held in August, are holding
steady. And although the college has experienced some budget trimming in recent
months, partly because of an endowment buffeted by the market, Collier says the
downturn hasn’t affected the core of the program. “Middlebury is committed to
keeping its level of funding for the conference at what it has been,” he says.

At the Sewanee Writers
Conference at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, student
applications for fiction-writing spots at this summer’s event (July 14
to July 26) are running even with 2008 levels, while applications in poetry
have doubled and playwriting applications have tripled. “I’m sure the economy
has had some effect, but we haven’t seen it yet,” conference director Wyatt
Prunty says. “The key to our success has been the quality of our faculty, which
continues to be very strong.”

Sewanee also benefits from
its status as a beneficiary of the Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund, which was
established by the estate of Tennessee Williams. Proceeds from the fund, which
is regularly replenished by income from productions of Williams’s plays, defray
about 30 percent of the cost of the event. It helps, too, that the conference
uses university facilities, which include relatively inexpensive housing for
students and faculty. Prunty also cites an increased interest from visitors to
Sewaneewriters.org, which has become a key marketing tool. “That’s opened up
things for us,” he says. “We used to get letters through the mail; now our Web
site gets a hundred thousand hits and fifty thousand visitors a year, so we get
a lot of e-mails.”

Increasingly, smaller conferences
and festivals are using the Internet to stay alive. “I want to really look at
how we can serve writers in the twenty-first century by continuing some of our
workshops online,” says Meier of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. “Writing,
self-marketing, self-publishing workshops—all these things could continue on
the Web, for a fee, and students could stay in contact with their faculty
leaders after the conference is over. That’s also a great way to keep them
connected to us.”

And if writers
conferences and their organizers are feeling a bit daunted at the moment, many
are also defiant. “I’m not giving up,” says Karen Newcomb, executive director
of the Lake Tahoe event. “We know people want these things. They want to be
exposed to writers who know what they’re talking about, instructors who know
how to teach, agents who can help them get their manuscripts published. So we
will definitely try it again. Not sure when, but we will try it again.”

Kevin Nance is a
contributing editor of Poets
& Writers Magazine
.

Balancing the Books

by

Kevin Nance

1.1.09

As the crisis on Wall
Street trickles down to Main Street, businesses of all kinds are responding to
the gloomy economic climate with a variety of belt-tightening measures.
Independent literary publishers are among the smaller, more vulnerable
operations that are reacting to real and projected downturns in orders, sales,
and, in the case of nonprofit houses, philanthropic giving.

Some publishers are in flat-out retrenchment mode. Atlas
& Co., the nonfiction publisher founded by James Atlas six years ago,
recently postponed its spring 2009 list (which included a biography of George
Eliot by Brenda Maddox) due to money problems, while a cash crunch at the San
Francisco-based MacAdam/Cage led to staff layoffs; casualties included
editors Khristina Wenzinger and Dave Adams, and marketing director Melanie
Mitchell. Several other publishers have reported less drastic measures, but
almost all express rising anxiety about the economic outlook and its potential
effect on their ability to acquire, print, and market new books.

“Like everybody else, we’re
struggling because of the bad economy,” says Johnny Temple, publisher of
Akashic Books in Brooklyn, New York, whose fall list included The Sacrificial
Circumcision of the Bronx
, the
second novel in Arthur Nersesian’s Five
Books of Moses series. “We’re very worried about the future. Book sales are
down, not just for us but across the board. And we’re bracing ourselves for the
economy to get worse. Anybody who tells you they’re not worried is lying.”

Temple goes on to say that
he doesn’t know exactly how badly sales are lagging compared with last year,
but his “educated guess” is that this year will see a 20 percent drop. So far,
he notes, no titles have been canceled and no staff members have been laid off,
but two editors who recently left the company voluntarily will probably not be
replaced, and the remaining staff’s hours are being cut. Temple also
anticipates that less money will be available for promotion of new titles.

At Graywolf Press, in
Minneapolis, marketing director Rolph Blythe takes a more measured but still
sober tone. “We did experience, as did a lot of publishers, some last-minute
changes in the fall orders,” he admits, “but I’d say we’re in a good position
in that we’ve had a couple of recent successes that make us feel confident
going into 2009.” Blythe, no doubt, is referring to the October announcements
that Refresh,
Refresh
author Benjamin Percy had
won a fifty-thousand-dollar Whiting Award and Salvatore Scibona was a finalist
for a National Book Award for his debut novel The End. “But in terms of our budgeting,” he goes on,
“we’re definitely playing it safe. We’re watching every dollar in terms of
marketing and advances.”

In addition to the slowdown
in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations
that often make up the majority of their revenue. “It’s a double whammy,” says
Nora A. Jones, executive director and publisher of BOA Editions, in Rochester, New York, who depends on gifts from individuals
and foundations, government grants, and fund-raising activities for about 60
percent of the press’s budget. “That 60 percent is in grave jeopardy as we move
forward, because individual donors are much less generous in an economy where
they’re uncertain of their own finances. Government grants are being cut back
because the government is up to its eyeballs in debt. And it’s that much more
challenging to get people to a fund-raising event, because they’re cutting corners.
Where you once could ask $125 a plate for a dinner, now people will hesitate
and not come at all. So you do it for $90 a plate and end up not making very
much, after expenses. It’s a huge challenge,” Jones concludes.

Most unnerving of all,
perhaps, is that the full effect of last autumn’s economic downturn may not be
felt until early this year, when unsold books from the fall lists are returned.
Although books are traditionally a popular gift item during the holiday season,
many presses anticipated that families would be spending less as household
budgets tightened. (“Never in all of the years I’ve been in business have I
seen a worse outlook for the economy,” Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard
Riggio wrote in an e-mail to employees in late October. “And never in all my
years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we are
in. Nothing even close.”)

Despite the doom and gloom, small independent publishers do
enjoy certain advantages in an economic downturn compared with their larger
commercial and corporate counterparts. For one thing, independent publishers
tend to be thriftier than the big New York houses, which are known for their
relatively high overhead and their penchant for awarding huge advances for
manuscripts that fail to become best-sellers. “Smaller publishers are in a
better position, period, in good or bad times,” says Joseph Bednarik, marketing
and sales director of Copper Canyon Press, a poetry publisher based in Port
Townsend, Washington, whose spring list includes titles by James Galvin, Jim
Harrison, Gregory Orr, and Alberto Ríos. “We live on such small margins already—we
know how to use the second side of a piece of paper. We’re not Wall Street;
we’re not leveraged in those ways, and we don’t play those games.”

On the other hand,
Bednarik concedes, operating on relatively small margins leaves little room for
error; a shoestring budget can quickly turn into a noose: “We can get hammered
pretty hard by returns, for example. I’ve seen a number of small presses go under,
and it’s usually because of some cash-flow issue. Our world is kind of littered
with those bodies.”

Still, publishers like Copper Canyon may benefit from another
intangible: quality. “We need that, especially now, in hard times,” Bednarik
says. “People who look to poetry for strength and solace will continue to do so
in these times.”

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

In addition to the slowdown in sales, nonprofit publishers are facing potential decreases in the donations that often make up the majority of their revenue.

House Approves $50 Million in Stimulus Funds for NEA

1.30.09

The House of Representatives approved on Wednesday fifty million dollars in supplemental grants funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as part of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill put forward by president Barack Obama. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill, which would allow the funds to be distributed by the NEA as grants to artists and arts organizations, has yet to gain Senate approval.

The legislation has been criticized by Republican lawmakers, none of whom voted to approve the bill, as lacking detail, which some fear might lead to extraneous expenditures. “We don’t know what they’re going to spend it on,” said Neil Bradley, a spokesperson for House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, the St. Petersburg Times reported on the PolitiFact Web site. “There is no direction to the NEA on how to spend it.”

The NEA issued a press release on Thursday stating that the organization has in place procedures to distribute funds efficiently and quickly to artists, which make up 1.4 percent of the work force, and nonprofit arts organizations, which support 5.7 million jobs.

“Arts organizations have been hit enormously hard by the current recession,” said former NEA chairman Dana Gioia in a press release. “They’ve seen their support drop from corporations, foundations, and municipalities. This infusion of funds will help sustain them, their staffs, and the artists they employ.”

“Artists need jobs just like everyone else,” said Kristin Brost, spokesperson for the chairman of the house appropriations committee, Wisconsin Democrat David Obey, the St. Petersburg Times reported. “Fifty million out of $825 billion doesn’t seem like an extreme amount to support our artists.”

The Senate will begin debate on the bill on Monday.

In other NEA news, President Obama has appointed Patrice Powell acting chairwoman of the organization. She will succeed Dana Gioia, who announced his intention to step down last September. Powell, who has served the NEA since 1991, most recently as deputy chairwoman for states, regions and, local arts agencies, will remain in the post until the president appoints a permanent chairperson.

NEA Appoints Grants Director as Literature Department Expands

7.26.07

Jon Peede, the former counselor to the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), was recently appointed director of grants programs, a newly created position in the organization’s literature department. While continuing to direct the NEA’s Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, a national initiative to encourage U.S. military personnel and their families to share their experiences through writing, Peede will also oversee the grants process for individual fellowships as well as awards to literary presses, publications, and organizations.

“One cannot overestimate the importance of discerning and supporting artistic excellence, especially during the formative years for writers and organizations,” Peede says. “I am honored to work with Chairman [Dana] Gioia and our talented literature staff to build upon this rich legacy.” Prior to his tenure at the NEA, Peede served as publisher of Parrish House Books, an editor at Mercer University Press, founding editor of Millsaps Magazine, and director of the Georgia Poetry Circuit.

The new position is part of an overall expansion of the NEA’s literature department. David Kipen, the director of literature since 2005, also recently assumed a new role: director of national reading initiatives. While Peede will guide funding to artists, Kipen will manage nationwide programs, including the Big Read, which has become the NEA’s largest literary initiative. Four new staff members have been added to the Big Read, and two to the Poetry Out Loud program, a national poetry recitation contest for high school students.

 

NEA Chairman Set to Return to a Life of Writing

9.12.08

Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the past six years, has announced that he will step down from his post in January to return to writing, the New York Times reported. The poet and politician was appointed chairman in 2003 by president George W. Bush. The next U.S. president will determine Gioia’s successor.

Gioia joined the NEA at a time when the organization was, in his words, “a wounded institution,” suffering budget cuts and the elimination of staff in the wake of disagreements over the funding of fringe artists. While Gioia has been criticized for not advocating enough for artists whose nontraditional work stoked controversy, he has helped cultivate programs such as Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation
Homecoming, which sends writers to work with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan on telling their stories. He also oversaw the development of The Big Read and Reading at Risk, the NEA’s study on literacy.

“I think the difficulty any chairman has in the NEA is to listen to
and assimilate the needs of vastly different
constituencies—politicians, artists, organizers, teachers, students,
average citizens,
urban communities, and rural communities,” Gioia told the Times an interview at his office, adding that he hopes his successor will find the entryway to the post a little less rocky than he did. “We now have bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, so I think that
the real challenge will be to see how quickly and how capably we can
grow the services of the NEA.”

Gioia plans to live in Washington, D.C., where he will spend part of his time directing an arts program for the Aspen Institute, a leadership development organization, and travel to California regularly to focus on writing.

NEA Crosses Borders With Literary Exchanges

11.8.06

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced in September the creation of International Literary Exchanges, a program intended to “expand cultural exchanges between the United States and other countries.” The initiative includes funding for the publication of dual-language anthologies and their distribution in the United States and countries such as Greece, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and Spain. Funding is also available for poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers whose work has been translated to participate in readings and lecture tours.

The new program is part of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Cultural Initiative, which hopes to “emphasize the importance of the arts as a platform for international engagement and dialogue” through partnerships with public and private institutions. The NEA currently provides individual fellowships for translation as well as grants to nonprofit presses to publish works translated into English. Since 1981, it has awarded fellowships resulting in the translation of more than two hundred foreign works from forty-six languages and sixty countries.

For more information about International Literary Exchanges, visit the NEA’s Web site.

NEA Launches Initiative to Celebrate Historic Poetry Sites

9.27.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) unveiled yesterday a pilot initiative to celebrate national historic sites related to poetry. As part of the NEA’s Big Read, the new program will give Extraordinary Action grants to encourage communities to commemorate American poets in the regions in which they lived. As its first gift, the NEA will present Longfellow’s Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, with $15,000 to fund a multi-generational reading program focused on the work of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In addition to the grant, the NEA will provide the Wayside Inn with reader’s and teacher’s guides and promotional materials, which will also be distributed to the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine.

The Wayside Inn will commence its celebration of Longfellow on the poet’s 201st birthday, February 27, 2008. Events, including a lecture series, community reading groups, and the building of an online Longfellow library, will continue through Patriot’s Day on April 19, 2008. Patriot’s Day celebrates Paul Revere’s historic ride, of which Longfellow wrote in the poem “The Landlord’s Tale,” from his collection Tales of a Wayside Inn.

The NEA plans to announce further grants to poetry sites later this fall, and expects a competitive grant program to follow the pilot phase.

 

NEA Responds to “Reading at Risk”

by

Kevin Canfield

3.1.06

In response to its 2004 report “Reading at Risk,” which found that significantly fewer people read serious literature now than in years past, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently launched an ambitious program designed to reverse the trend. The Big Read, a joint project of the NEA and the Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization Arts Midwest, follows the template of the One Book program, developed in 1998 by the Washington Center for the Book in Seattle, in which teens and adults in one city are encouraged to read a specific book.

As part of the pilot phase of the Big Read, which began in February, arts organizations, literary centers, and libraries in ten U.S. cities have each chosen a single book from four selected by the NEA and Arts Midwest: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The local organizations, working with the NEA and Arts Midwest, have received grants ranging from fifteen thousand dollars to forty thousand dollars to carry out project-related activities, which include promotional campaigns on television and radio, and public literary events featuring local celebrities.

The ten cities participating in the pilot phase of the program were selected from a total of forty-five that applied. They are Little Rock, Arkansas (represented by the Arkansas Center for the Book); Enterprise, Oregon (Fishtrap, Inc.); Miami, Florida (Florida Center for the Literary Arts/Florida Center for the Book); Fresno, California (Fresno County Library); Huntsville, Alabama (Huntsville-Madison County Public Library); Buffalo (Just Buffalo Literary Center); Minneapolis (The Loft Literary Center); Boise, Idaho (Log Cabin Literary Center, Inc.); Brookings and Sioux Falls, South Dakota (South Dakota Center for the Book); and Topeka, Kansas (Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library).

“These ten cities and towns have been really brave in signing on for our maiden voyage,” says David Kipen, the former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic who was named the NEA’s literature director last August. “Mistakes are going to be made; we’re going to learn things. So I think it’s really gutsy of them.” Kipen says the NEA plans to evaluate the program’s success after the pilot phase of the Big Read is complete, in May. The goal is to expand the program to a hundred cities by 2007. The list of books from which the cities can choose is also likely to grow.

The NEA’s “Reading at Risk” report, released in July 2004, revealed that the number of readers of literature—novels, short stories, poetry, and plays—was “in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults now reading literature.” From 1982 to 2002, the study found, the number of literary readers in the United States dropped by ten percentage points, and the decline in the percentage of Americans who read literature appears to be quickening. “This report documents a national crisis,” NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said at the time. “The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy.”

Despite this decline, dozens of cities across the country, as well as others in the U.K., Australia, and Canada, have adopted One Book programs in the last six years. The initiatives have been successful in some places, but, for a variety of reasons, less so in others. Kipen says Chicago and Seattle are two cities that embraced their One Book programs, but that the idea did not catch on as well in Los Angeles. “What happens in too many cases,” he says, “is that you have cities concerned with picking up the trash on time undertaking an ambitious reading initiative, and unfortunately it doesn’t command the full attention of local officials. How could it? And, alas, it fails to live up to its organizers’ hopes.”

How, then, does the NEA plan to ensure that the Big Read reaches potential readers? The key component, according to Kipen, is the NEA’s partnerships with local arts organizations. “It’s all very well to ignore a [program] when it’s only coming at you from one direction. But when it’s got its tentacles around you—not just from the city fathers but from some combination of the local library, the local arts center, the schools, the chamber of commerce, the newspapers, the public radio station, the public TV station, the commercial TV stations, and heaven knows who else—it’s an octopus that becomes much harder to avoid,” he says. “Partnerships don’t take a huge outlay of money, either, just a bunch of citizens as scared as we are of turning into a nation without readers. When that’s the alternative, you’d be surprised how willing folks are to put in a little overtime, whether in my office or around the country.”

Though the NEA won’t know precisely what impact the Big Read might have until the next U.S. Census, in 2010, Kipen plans to travel to as many of the participating cities as possible to gather anecdotal results. “I want to see firsthand what works, what doesn’t,” he says. “I want to see the expression on somebody’s face as he’s realizing that good books aren’t medicine—they’re food.”

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

The Grim Reader

by

Kevin Nance

3.1.08

For the past few months, literary writers, editors, and critics have been using some strong adjectives while discussing To Read or Not to Read, a report released last November by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). “Scary,” “sad,” and “downright depressing” have been common responses—and for good reason. Reading in America is in serious decline, according to the NEA, especially among the young. Fewer than one-third of thirteen-year-olds read for pleasure every day—a 14 percent decline from two decades ago—while the percentage of seventeen-year-old non-readers doubled over the same period. Americans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four watch television about two hours a day, the study reveals, but read for only seven minutes.

These and other findings in the report—which confirmed and expanded upon those previously published in Reading at Risk, the 2004 NEA survey indicating that Americans were reading fewer books of fiction, poetry, and plays—have obvious implications for writers, both in terms of the audience and market for their work and, more generally, for literature’s lasting impact on American culture.

Whereas Reading at Risk focused mainly on literary reading trends, culling information from a survey of more than seventeen thousand people aged eighteen and older about their consumption of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays, To Read or Not to Read gathers statistics from more than forty national studies on the overall reading habits of children, teenagers, and adults, and includes all varieties of reading, including books, magazines, newspapers, and online reading.

Both studies, however, come to the same grim diagnosis: There is a general decline in reading among teenage and adult Americans.

“The odd thing is that there’s no lack of writers,” says Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association. “I see hundreds of books every week—beautifully crafted, deeply felt works of fiction and poetry—and yet people are reading less. Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read; the disconnection is startling. That’s a real puzzle and a real challenge for creative writers in particular. I think we’re in danger of becoming a lost art, a lost world, if we’re not awakening the love of reading in young people.”

Novelist Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler’s Wife
(MacAdam/Cage, 2003), agrees: “When you hear things like this, your
stomach kind of falls and you think, ‘We’re headed for perdition.’”

“It makes me very concerned that serious reading is becoming such a
specialized endeavor that it’s completely separate from the culture,”
says Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine, whose book of
essays, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, was published by
Copper Canyon Press last year. But Wiman realizes that no matter how
overwhelming the problem may seem, quiet resignation is not an
appropriate response. “I don’t think it’s always been that way,” he
continues, “and I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that it has to
be that way. I’ve heard people say, ‘You can’t resist the current, you
can’t resist the times.’ But you do have to resist the currents of the
times when they’re negative. These declines in reading are real, and
something has to be done.”

But what? Teachers shoulder much of the burden of improving reading
skills among students, but the new NEA report suggests that parents can
play an important role by reading to their children and modeling the
habit. Other strategies might arise as we begin to understand another
reason why young people are reading less—one that is more complicated
than the notion that they’re simply watching too much TV or spending
too much time surfing the Internet. According to Timothy Shanahan, a
professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and past president of
the International Reading Association, many young people don’t read
because, they say, it’s lonely.

“What kids like about [instant messaging] and text messaging is that
it’s playful and interactive and connects them to their friends,”
Shanahan says. “The Harry Potter books were popular not mainly because
of this wonderful story and the language, I don’t think, but because it
was this huge phenomenon that allowed young people to participate in
it. What was exciting was reading what your friends were reading and
talking to them about it. People of all ages are hungry for that kind
of community.”

The NEA seems to agree, pointing to the Big Read, its national program
in which communities around the country are reading American novels
such as Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck
Club
. Similarly, a year after Reading at Risk was released the Poetry
Foundation partnered with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a
program in which students memorize and recite poems as a way to forge
connections to poetry. And book clubs, from the Oprah Winfrey
juggernaut to small neighborhood gatherings, continue to gain momentum.

But some say another fundamental factor in the decline of reading must
also be addressed: contemporary writers themselves, who have a
critical role to play if current trends are to be reversed. “I do think
for a long time writers turned completely away from the audience,”
Wiman says. “You can’t simply go back to the past, of course, but I do
think writers have to be aware of an audience.” Niffenegger points
specifically to modernism as a wedge between writers and readers.
“There was a shift away from narrative, where writers gave you less and
less and made you work harder and harder. People got the idea that
everything was going to be like Finnegans Wake, and everybody just
said, ‘Okay, we’re going to the movies.’”

Still, not everyone foretells the apocalypse. Tree Swenson, the
executive director of the Academy of American Poets, insists that all
signs point to an increased interest in poetry in America, particularly
online. “The Internet is a well-matched medium for poetry, in part
because the unit of consumption isn’t the book of poetry—it’s a single
poem, short and compact,” she says. “The Web and e-mail have also
facilitated people sending poems to one another. Yes, the larger trends
are disheartening, but if I can come back to poetry, I can find my
thread of optimism.”


To Read or Not to Read
has the potential to inspire positive change.
“On the surface, the study would seem to be bad news for aspiring
writers, because you have the impression that the audience base is
depleting,” says Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of research and
analysis. “On the other hand, there’s a tremendous opportunity for
meaningful interactions that can arise from the data. Booksellers,
publishers, teachers, librarians, businesses all have a common interest
in increasing reading because it exalts their mission. But it also
presents an opportunity for writers. By writing well, you’re filling
not only a market need; you’re raising the whole level of cultural
discourse in this country, because right now the bar is relatively low.
Writers could be taken more seriously than ever if people heed the
results of the report.”

To read the full report, visit the NEA’s Web site at www.nea.gov.

Kevin Nance
is the critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

In “The Grim Reader” (Poets & Writers Magazine, page 10), Kevin Nance discusses a recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts documenting the decline of reading in America. The article contains a quote from Donna Seaman, associate editor of Booklist, who shrewdly observes that while interest in reading is diminishing, interest in writing seems to be on the rise. According to Seaman, “Everyone wants to write, no one wants to read.” How can this apparent contradiction be explained? If the traditional view of the writer is one who loves literature, has been inspired by literature to take up the craft of writing, then why do we have a burgeoning population of writers that seems to have little interest in reading?

Later in “The Grim Reader,” Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, argues that while reading, overall, may be declining in popularity, interest in reading poetry is surviving, even growing. In the words of Swenson, “Yes, the larger trends are disheartening, but [regarding] poetry, I can find my thread of optimism.” Do you agree that poetry may be one genre for which the audience is expanding? If so, how would you explain this surge?

Dan Barden, author of “Workshop: A Rant Against Creative Writing Classes” (page 83), takes up the much-argued question of whether or not creative writing can really be taught. His response? There is “no way to teach creative writing,” at least not through the current methodology of writing workshops. Do you agree with Barden that workshops “don’t work,” and that there is “something rotten at the core of most of them”? In your view, what are the potential benefits and pitfalls of writing workshops, and what examples can you offer in terms of good and bad experiences in the workshop environment?

If one considers both Barden’s essay and Nance’s piece together—the “Rant” against workshops and the report on declining reading—is there some connection to be made, some conclusion to be drawn, about how we educate young writers? How do the strategies and practices of the writing-workshop approach impact not only the students’ writing but also their reading? Should we, and could we, change the way we teach writing in order to foster more interest in reading?

In the “Q & A” with Quang Bao (page 19), Jean Hartig describes Bao’s contributions to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop as well as his commitment to Asian American literature. In the “Writers Retreat” section (page 64), Kathryn Trueblood reports on “western” festivals and retreats that are particularly supportive to western-based writers. Additionally, Kevin Larimer mentions in “Small Press Points” (page 16) that A Midsummer’s Night Press is devoting two books in coming months for anthologizing, specifically, gay and lesbian writing. What are the potential advantages for writers in belonging to, or connecting with, groups such as these?—groups dedicated to supporting writers of particular backgrounds or interests? Are there, conversely, any potential disadvantages? What has been your experience in connecting with like-writers in various writing communities?

In “The Rilke Trail” (page 21), Paul Graham writes of his admiration for Rainer Maria Rilke and chronicles his journey to a place where Rilke once lived and worked. Imagine planning a pilgrimage to see the birthplace or writing locale of one of your favorite authors. Which writer would you choose? Where would you go? And what would you hope to see and experience once there?

In “DailyLit Sends E-mail Worth Reading” (page 15), Kevin Canfield reports on the new Web site DailyLit, created by Susan Danziger and Albert Wenger, which offers readers “free delivery of over four hundred books” from the public domain as well as newer works for a small fee—all through serialized e-mail installments. The article also mentions other Web-based and digitally-based publication mechanisms. As the distribution and publication of contemporary writing changes, how do you think the writing itself may change? Will writers alter and adjust their work to fit a particular distribution? Will they write one way or one thing for traditional print publishing, but another way, another thing, for digital release?

Mark Doty writes in “Bride in Beige: A Poet’s Approach to Memoir” (page 33) that a poet’s memoir is essentially “after truth” but does not depend on an exact reporting of facts and details. Do you think that when writers are crafting a memoir, they are obligated to be as accurate as possible in their work? In your own nonfiction writing, have you ever chosen to alter or blur a few facts? If so, what was your reason for doing so?

In “Spring Essence” (page 47), new works from several established writers are featured. Some of these works are grounded in imagery from the natural world: “This” by Jorie Graham, “Small Bodies” by Mary Oliver, and “The Bather” by Charles Simic. What do these three poems share in terms of imagery and theme? And how do they differ in their use, their extrapolation, of the natural world?

Fiction writer Tobias Wolff is interviewed by Joe Woodward in “The Gun on the Table” (page 38). Woodward describes Wolff as writing with “the exacting precision of a bombmaker” and of “detonating his characters’ lives in the time it takes to read a paragraph.” Consider those comments while reading the excerpt from “That Room” (page 41), one of Wolff’s new stories. What aspects of “That Room” echo with the threat of “detonation” Woodward describes?

Teachers Guide Category: 

The Poetic Appraisal

by

Sarah Davis

7.1.06

A little less than two weeks into this year’s National Poetry Month, the Poetry Foundation released Poetry in America, a report that analyzes American attitudes toward poetry. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, the study is based on 1,023 interviews conducted over a four-month period beginning in June 2005—a random sample of American adults who read newspapers, magazines, and books for pleasure, and who read primarily in English. The most dramatic finding, according to a press release sent by the Poetry Foundation, was that “the vast majority (90 percent) of American readers highly value poetry.” As news of this finding spread among writers and on blogs, the phrasing was sometimes shortened to “90 percent of Americans” rather than “American readers”—and suddenly, poetry seemed as popular as baseball and apple pie.

“Taken as a whole, the results of the study confirm the need to reinvigorate poetry as an art form and to expand its presence in American culture,” says Poetry Foundation president John Barr. The Poetry Foundation, formerly the Modern Poetry Association, which received a $175 million bequest in 2002, appears to be in a position to do just that.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), puts the foundation’s report in perspective: “[This] is not a study of the total U.S. population,” he says. “It’s easy to misrepresent the numbers.. Essentially, only 12 percent of the U.S. population reads poetry.” That number comes from the NEA’s 2004 report Reading at Risk, a study based on twenty years of data collection, which showed that only about 47 percent of Americans read any sort of literary work at all.

The two studies differ in several ways. For Reading at Risk, the NEA polled more than seventeen thousand people from the general adult population about their consumption of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. The pool surveyed by the Poetry Foundation was made up solely of adults who read for pleasure. In addition, respondents in the foundation’s study were given a definition of poetry, whereas those polled by the NEA were not. The Poetry Foundation’s respondents were told a poem “uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader”; that it might rhyme or it might not; and that greeting card poems, song lyrics, and Bible verses don’t count. Depending on their responses, those interviewed were then classified into two groups: “users” and “nonusers” of poetry. Users were then further classified as “current” or “former.”

According to the results of Poetry in America, more than half of current and former poetry users remember the title of a poem. Users are more active and social than nonusers, and they read more contemporary poetry than classics. Sixty-four percent of all respondents felt that, in general, people should read more poetry. The findings also indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Along with launching a revamped Web site in January, the foundation has been working with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a program in which high school students take part in poetry recitation competitions. Tens of thousands of students have participated in the program to date—a sign of what Gioia calls “an enormous populist revival” of poetry through the spoken word.

Many poets aren’t all that surprised by the Poetry Foundation’s news that there is a relative enthusiasm for poetry on the page. “Maybe the more interesting question is, What are they reading, and what are they valuing it for?” says poet Daisy Fried, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow. In fact, the survey did ask respondents about specific works. Both current and former poetry users were asked to name their favorite poems, and while there are some classics at the top of the list—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is number one, and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” number four—number two is Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints,” an inspirational work, and number eleven, Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Also in the mix are titles such as “Humpty Dumpty” and “The Grinch That Stole Christmas [sic].”

The wide range of works mentioned by respondents in Poetry in America has sparked some debate in the literary community about real or perceived divisions between serious poetry and casual or lightweight verse. “I suspect the casual reader isn’t necessarily interested in the things in poetry that poets are interested in,” says Fried. In fact, some poets even take comfort in that divide. “This is one of the things that make this little unspoken-word poetry world so compelling to those of us who are stuck inside it: It is truly arcane.. It’s a secret-magic-invisible world,” says Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the publisher of Fence magazine and Fence Books.

Others endorse the populist approach promoted by the Poetry Foundation, whose mission is to place the best poetry before the largest possible audience. “I think the depth of engagement with poetry is launched from a very broad swath of the [public’s] being interested in it, and that means having a huge layer of people interested in somewhat lightweight verse,” says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In other words, the larger the number of poetry users—even if those users consider Dr. Seuss a poetic master—the greater the number of people who might one day wander into the poetry section at Barnes & Noble, pick up a book by Emily Dickinson or Frank O’Hara or Wallace Stevens, and be mesmerized by what they read.

And that, most everyone can agree, would be something to celebrate.

Sarah Davis is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn.

The findings indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

The Law of Diminishing Readership

by

Joseph Bednarik

5.1.06

As marketing director of Copper Canyon Press, the thirty-four-year-old independent publisher of poetry in Port Townsend, Washington, I am required to read a lot. While most of the titles on my reading list are poetry collections, I recently read two nonfiction texts that got me thinking about the “economics” of creative writing.

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance (Paul Dry Books, 2003), by Mexican poet and business consultant Gabriel Zaid, and Reading at Risk, the sobering report published by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2004, articulate the challenges faced by the swelling legions of creative writers longing to find a readership. Consider the following statements extrapolated from Zaid’s book and the NEA report:

1. Production of creative writing far exceeds consumer demand.

2. Accredited MFA programs in creative writing continue to proliferate, while the practice of literary reading is in steady decline.

3. Many publishers require underwriting to produce and distribute literary titles because sales do not support production costs.

4. Publishers can, with relative ease, attract a thousand manuscript submissions—plus reading fees—by sponsoring book contests.

What’s wrong with this picture? If you’re running an MFA program, a book contest, or a writer’s workshop, or selling other goods and services that support the writer’s life—absolutely nothing. If you want your book published and read by an audience other than friends and family—everything.

In a statistical mood, I once estimated how many “good poems” were being produced by recent graduates of MFA programs. Keeping all estimates conservative, I figured there had to be at least 450 poets graduating nationwide each year. If each MFA graduate wrote just one good poem a year for ten years, at the end of a decade we would have 24,750 good poems—not to mention 4,500 degree-bearing poets, each of whom was required to write a book-length manuscript in order to graduate. New poems, poets, and manuscripts are added to the inventory every year.

Admittedly, 24,750 and 4,500 are probably low numbers. After all, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs claims four hundred member colleges and universities, and most of them graduate at least one or two poets each year. The nonprofit poetry library Poets House, during its annual showcase last April, displayed over 2,100 poetry books that had been published in the previous year alone. But I use these estimates in an attempt to add perspective to the expectations not only of poets but also of writers of literary prose.

The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven’t—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing? Where is the readership to support this prodigious output? Certainly, bookstores and libraries prove that there are still readers out there. Yet Reading at Risk sounds the alarm that the practice of literary reading in America is in serious decline.

How can it be that MFA programs in creative writing flourish in a country where literary reading does not? I recall the writer who told me, without irony, that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want to be influenced. And the eight-year-old who, after I suggested we read some poems together, replied, “I like writing poems better than reading them.”

MFA programs have clearly demonstrated that they can attract writers to teach and students to pay tuition. Many agree that the education is fabulous, with support and attention lavished on the individual’s creative process, and, with hard work, the completion of a degree-worthy manuscript come graduation. Life is good until the new graduate wants to see that manuscript become a published book, and the reality of a tiny readership becomes real-world frustration. And where does she turn? Often, she enters a book contest.

Along with MFA programs, book contests that charge entry fees are on the rise. And it makes sense: The publication of debut poetry books is viable if the risk is offset by monies provided by hundreds of writers willing to pay for someone to read and consider their book for publication. If a more active, supportive readership existed, however, there would be far fewer contests. Publishers would be more financially motivated to publish and promote the work without them. Administering contests is not what most publishers long to be doing.

In the fifteen years I’ve worked in literary publishing, over ten thousand manuscripts—checks attached—were submitted to contests sponsored by the publishers I worked for. From those manuscripts, fifteen emerged as published books—good books all, with each receiving review attention from local and national media, and several going on to earn accolades. In each instance, the net sales ranged from four hundred to twenty-five hundred copies. Calculating production costs, distribution fees, and so on, selling twenty-five hundred copies of a fifteen-dollar paperback might allow the publisher to break even; selling five thousand copies would yield a modest profit, but that sales mark is seldom reached.

One solution is simple enough: If you write, read. A lot. If you want a book published and sold in the marketplace, then buy and read and recommend enough books to nourish the system you want to enter. Advocate on behalf of literature. And, most quixotic of all, every MFA program should require all potential graduates to convert at least one eight-year-old into a passionate reader.

Otherwise, we’re faced with a bloated “writership” vying for the attention of an anemic readership. Of course, the readers left could start charging for their time. Envision the classified: “Reading group ready to devour your novel. $250. Rants and raves extra.”

Joseph Bednarik is the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press.

The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven’t—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing?

The NEA Launches the Big Read in Egypt

4.21.08

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today the launch of the Big Read Egypt/U.S., the second international component of the organization’s community-based literary program. As part of the U.S. State Department’s Global Cultural Initiative for international diplomacy, the NEA will fund Big Read events in both Egypt and the United States that are designed to bring communities together to read and discuss a specific work of literature from a country other than their own. The Big Read Egypt/U.S. follows the NEA’s inaugural program with Russia, which began last October.

In the United States, four organizations will receive grants of ten to twenty thousand dollars to coordinate events focusing on the novel The Thief and the Dogs (Doubleday, 1989) by Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz. Between September 2008 and June 2009, Columbia University in New York City, Florida
Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College in Miami,
Huntsville-Madison County Public Library in Alabama, and the
South Dakota Humanities Council/South Dakota Center for the Book in Brookings will each present their communities with a literary program involving book discussions, lectures, readings, and multimedia presentations.

Meanwhile, three institutions in Egypt—the American University in Cairo, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Egyptian Association for Educational Resources—will each organize programming centered around the novels Fahrenheit 451 (Ballantine, 1963) by Ray Bradbury, To Kill a Mockingbird (Lipincott, 1960) by Harper Lee, or The Grapes of Wrath (Viking, 1939) by John Steinbeck. The NEA is also planning cross-cultural activities, which may include virtual exchanges and the involvement of Egyptian authors and cultural figures in U.S. events.

“Cultural exchange needs to play a more important role in international
relations,” said Dana Gioia, chairman of the NEA, in a press release today. “And there is no better way
to understand another nation than to read one of its great books.”

The NEA’s Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced yesterday that it plans to expand the Big Read to military bases abroad. Beginning next year, military installations in Germany, Guam, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom will receive readers guides, teachers guides, radio broadcasts, and other materials that can be used to organize community-wide reading programs focusing on a single book. Domestic bases, twenty-six of which have participated in the Big Read since its inception in 2006, will continue to take part in the program through partnerships with local grantees. The United States Department of Defense has previously collaborated with the NEA to offer literary programs, including Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, to members of the military.

The Big Read’s expansion to military bases abroad follows the recent creation of a joint program that encourages American and international readers to discuss books of cultural significance to countries other than their own. The Big Read Russia was initiated last month, with communities in the Ivanovo and Saratov regions of Russia reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (Lipincott, 1960); from January to June 2008, communities in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania will read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). The Big Read Egypt is slated to begin next year.

By 2009, nearly four hundred communities in the U.S. and abroad will have hosted a Big Read.

 

 

The NEA’s Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced yesterday that it plans to expand the Big Read to military bases abroad. Beginning next year, military installations in Germany, Guam, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom will receive readers guides, teachers guides, radio broadcasts, and other materials that can be used to organize community-wide reading programs focusing on a single book. Domestic bases, twenty-six of which have participated in the Big Read since its inception in 2006, will continue to take part in the program through partnerships with local grantees. The United States Department of Defense has previously collaborated with the NEA to offer literary programs, including Shakespeare in American Communities and Operation Homecoming, to members of the military.

The Big Read’s expansion to military bases abroad follows the recent creation of a joint program that encourages American and international readers to discuss books of cultural significance to countries other than their own. The Big Read Russia was initiated last month, with communities in the Ivanovo and Saratov regions of Russia reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (Lipincott, 1960); from January to June 2008, communities in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania will read Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886). The Big Read Egypt is slated to begin next year.

By 2009, nearly four hundred communities in the U.S. and abroad will have hosted a Big Read.

 

 

The Poetic Appraisal

by

Sarah Davis

7.1.06

A little less than two weeks into this year’s National Poetry Month, the Poetry Foundation released Poetry in America, a report that analyzes American attitudes toward poetry. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation, the study is based on 1,023 interviews conducted over a four-month period beginning in June 2005—a random sample of American adults who read newspapers, magazines, and books for pleasure, and who read primarily in English. The most dramatic finding, according to a press release sent by the Poetry Foundation, was that “the vast majority (90 percent) of American readers highly value poetry.” As news of this finding spread among writers and on blogs, the phrasing was sometimes shortened to “90 percent of Americans” rather than “American readers”—and suddenly, poetry seemed as popular as baseball and apple pie.

“Taken as a whole, the results of the study confirm the need to reinvigorate poetry as an art form and to expand its presence in American culture,” says Poetry Foundation president John Barr. The Poetry Foundation, formerly the Modern Poetry Association, which received a $175 million bequest in 2002, appears to be in a position to do just that.

Poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), puts the foundation’s report in perspective: “[This] is not a study of the total U.S. population,” he says. “It’s easy to misrepresent the numbers.. Essentially, only 12 percent of the U.S. population reads poetry.” That number comes from the NEA’s 2004 report Reading at Risk, a study based on twenty years of data collection, which showed that only about 47 percent of Americans read any sort of literary work at all.

The two studies differ in several ways. For Reading at Risk, the NEA polled more than seventeen thousand people from the general adult population about their consumption of novels, short stories, plays, and poetry. The pool surveyed by the Poetry Foundation was made up solely of adults who read for pleasure. In addition, respondents in the foundation’s study were given a definition of poetry, whereas those polled by the NEA were not. The Poetry Foundation’s respondents were told a poem “uses rhythm and language in verses to create images in the mind of the reader”; that it might rhyme or it might not; and that greeting card poems, song lyrics, and Bible verses don’t count. Depending on their responses, those interviewed were then classified into two groups: “users” and “nonusers” of poetry. Users were then further classified as “current” or “former.”

According to the results of Poetry in America, more than half of current and former poetry users remember the title of a poem. Users are more active and social than nonusers, and they read more contemporary poetry than classics. Sixty-four percent of all respondents felt that, in general, people should read more poetry. The findings also indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Along with launching a revamped Web site in January, the foundation has been working with the NEA to organize Poetry Out Loud, a program in which high school students take part in poetry recitation competitions. Tens of thousands of students have participated in the program to date—a sign of what Gioia calls “an enormous populist revival” of poetry through the spoken word.

Many poets aren’t all that surprised by the Poetry Foundation’s news that there is a relative enthusiasm for poetry on the page. “Maybe the more interesting question is, What are they reading, and what are they valuing it for?” says poet Daisy Fried, a 2006 Guggenheim fellow. In fact, the survey did ask respondents about specific works. Both current and former poetry users were asked to name their favorite poems, and while there are some classics at the top of the list—Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” is number one, and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” number four—number two is Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints,” an inspirational work, and number eleven, Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Also in the mix are titles such as “Humpty Dumpty” and “The Grinch That Stole Christmas [sic].”

The wide range of works mentioned by respondents in Poetry in America has sparked some debate in the literary community about real or perceived divisions between serious poetry and casual or lightweight verse. “I suspect the casual reader isn’t necessarily interested in the things in poetry that poets are interested in,” says Fried. In fact, some poets even take comfort in that divide. “This is one of the things that make this little unspoken-word poetry world so compelling to those of us who are stuck inside it: It is truly arcane.. It’s a secret-magic-invisible world,” says Rebecca Wolff, a poet and the publisher of Fence magazine and Fence Books.

Others endorse the populist approach promoted by the Poetry Foundation, whose mission is to place the best poetry before the largest possible audience. “I think the depth of engagement with poetry is launched from a very broad swath of the [public’s] being interested in it, and that means having a huge layer of people interested in somewhat lightweight verse,” says Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets. In other words, the larger the number of poetry users—even if those users consider Dr. Seuss a poetic master—the greater the number of people who might one day wander into the poetry section at Barnes & Noble, pick up a book by Emily Dickinson or Frank O’Hara or Wallace Stevens, and be mesmerized by what they read.

And that, most everyone can agree, would be something to celebrate.

Sarah Davis is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn.

The findings indicate that positive experiences with poetry in school are integral to keeping people engaged with poetry in later life.

Unemployment Rate Among Writers Hit 6.6 Percent in 2008

3.5.09

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released a new study yesterday that shows the unemployment rate among the nation’s working artists, including writers, hit 6 percent in the final quarter of 2008. Artists in a Year of Recession: Impact on Jobs, which examines employment patterns in the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, reveals that a total of 129,000 artists were unemployed at the end of last year, an increase of 50,000 (63 percent) from a year earlier. The unemployment rate for writers and authors alone is slightly higher than artists in general: 6.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. The group with the highest unemployment rates are performing artists, at 8.4 percent.

The study compares unemployment rates among artists to U.S. workers as a whole and finds that artists have lost jobs at a faster rate: Between the fourth quarters of 2007 and 2008, the unemployment rate for artists rose 2.4 percentage points, while the rate for workers as a whole rose one point.

The study also predicts that the job market for artists is unlikely to improve until long after the U.S. economy starts to recover.

“We conducted the research to quantify what we hear in the field and read in the news every day, that art workers—alongside all workers—are suffering,” said the NEA’s director of research and analysis Sunil Iyengar in a press release. “Unfortunately, the data reveal that artist unemployment is increasing at more rapid rates than for the total workforce, and could have more of an affect over time.”

The full study can be found on the NEA Web site.

 

NEA Chairman: “The Dumbing Down of Our Culture Is Not Inevitable”

1.12.09

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today that reading in the United States is making a resurgence. According to its report Reading on the Rise, adult reading of literature has gone up by 7 percent, the first increase since 1982, when the NEA began researching the subject using a series of surveys given every five years.

“There has been a measurable cultural change in society’s commitment to literary reading,” said NEA chairman Dana Gioia, the New York Times reported. “In a cultural moment
when we are hearing nothing but bad news, we have reassuring evidence
that the dumbing down of our culture is not inevitable.”

The rates of reading increased most sharply since the last survey in 2002 among Hispanic Americans and African Americans. The age group that saw the most significant positive change in the past five years was that of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four, reversing the steep decline reported in 2002.

The 2008 survey, which asks about reading of poetry, fiction, and
plays, as well as book-length works, done during the past twelve months, featured new questions about online reading. Fifteen percent of
those surveyed said they have read literature online, but the majority
of that group also reported reading full books, both in print and
online.

As for what is being read, fiction (both short stories and novels) fed the increase in reading rates. The readership for poetry, on the other hand, continues a steady decline, especially among women. 

For some, the results of the survey, which polled about eighteen thousand adults, are of questionable significance. “It’s just a blip,” Elizabeth Birr Moje, a specialist in literature, language, and culture at the University of Michigan, told the Times. “If you look at trend data, you will
always see increases and decreases in people’s literate practices.”

Highlights from Reading on the Rise are available on the NEA Web site and the full report is available for download from the NEA’s research archives.

 

Stimulus Bill Includes $50 Million for the NEA

2.13.09

After a week of uncertainty, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced today that members of the House and Senate conference committee have negotiated to keep the fifty million dollars that the House of Representatives had designated for the NEA in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The funding, which the House approved on January 28 as part of the stimulus package put forward by president Barack Obama, was cut from the Senate’s version of the bill last Friday.

Arts groups and individuals organized e-mail campaigns urging readers to contact their senators and ask them to reconsider senator Tom Coburn’s amendment to cut the arts funding. Now that the  conference committee has finished its negotiations, the bill proceeds to both the House and the Senate for final votes before being sent to the president.

“On behalf of the National Endowment for the Arts, I am
pleased that the agency has garnered the confidence of members of
Congress to participate in addressing this national economic crisis,” said NEA acting chairman Patrice Walker Powell in a statement. “The arts and culture industry is a viable sector of the economy.
Its employees pay taxes and mortgages as members of the American
workforce and are being profoundly impacted by the economic downturn.” 

Senate Votes to Cut Arts From Economic Stimulus Bill

2.9.09

The United States Senate voted on Friday to cut funding for the arts from the economic recovery bill. The amendment to the bill, offered by Republican senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, passed by a wide margin, seventy-three votes to twenty-four, and included support from senators Chuck Schumer of New York, Dianne Feinstein of California, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, among others. The House of Representatives had approved fifty million dollars
in supplemental grants funding for the National Endowment for the Arts
(NEA) as part of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill put forward by
president Barack Obama.

The new amendment, which was passed “to ensure that taxpayer money is not lost on wasteful and non-stimulative projects,” states that “none of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, art center, and highway beautification project.”

The nonprofit Americans for the Arts has organized an e-mail campaign urging readers to contact their senators and ask that the amendment be removed from the bill before the Senate votes on it early this week. For more information, visit the Web site.

 

University of New Mexico Press Staff Shaken Over Layoffs

4.1.09

The University of New Mexico Press, reportedly facing an operating deficit as a result of the current recession, recently announced layoffs and the possibility of outsourcing distribution, according to a strongly worded press release circulated yesterday.

The first cuts came when marketing and sales manager Glenda Madden, who has served at the press for seven years, and junior acquisitions editor Lisa Pacheco, were both advised that their jobs would be eliminated on Monday. The publicity department was also notified that it will have to slash one of its two positions, and press authorities have stated that outsourcing of warehouse and customer service jobs may be on the horizon.

According to the press release, publicist Amanda Sutton was advised by business manager Richard Schuetz and press director Luther Wilson that she would have to choose whether it would be herself or her assistant, Katherine MacGilvray, who would be let go from the publicity department. “I have a difficult time determining the fate of a fellow colleague, to whom I owe much loyalty and respect,” Sutton said in the press release. “Sacrificing up a colleague is not part of my job description.”

“Both members of the publicity team are extremely well connected in the media world and have been landing key coverage about UNM Press books in spite of budget cutbacks,” said advertising and exhibits manager Christina Frain. “The books, their authors, and our client publishers will only see negative results if these layoffs go through.”

The jobs of nine employees, as well as three student positions—in customer service, shipping and receiving, order fulfillment, and warehousing—are also in jeopardy as the press considers outsourcing distribution. The move would also affect over thirty client publishers who use the press to oversee order fulfillment.

“In addition to laying off at least nine dedicated employees, outsourcing is a slap in the face to the community, state, and region that UNM Press has served so well for eighty years,” said Madden, who saw the negative effects of distribution outsourcing at another university press.

In an e-mail to staff regarding the “new organizational arrangement,” Schuetz wrote, “I know this will not be easy for a lot of reasons and will involve a number of changes but I think we can make it work. We don’t have any other choice.”

According to Frain, staff members have expressed frustration with the lack of input they have been invited to provide regarding sustainable solutions for the press’s budgetary situation.

“The layoffs and the possibility of outsourcing came out of the blue,” said Frain, who also acts as fundraising coordinator. “Even though the UNM Press staff is one of the most experienced in the book publishing business, they were never consulted by the provost [Wynn Goering] or Mr. Wilson regarding the development of long term solutions for the viability and success of the press. We were only asked how to cut expenses.”

Dodge Poetry Festival Gets New Digs

9.25.03

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, the largest poetry event in North America, is changing venues. The event, previously held at Waterloo Village near Stanhope, New Jersey, is moving to Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

The tenth biennial festival will be cosponsored by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. As always, it will feature a plethora of readings and panel discussions on how poetry illuminates our culture and our daily lives.

Dodge Poetry Festival director Jim Haba says the Duke Farms estate will provide for a harmonious blend of serene atmosphere and poetic pleasure. Its size (120 acres) won’t hurt either: 25,000 people are expected to attend next year’s event, which will run for four days, beginning September 30, 2004.

For more information, call (973) 540-8443 ext. 5, e-mail festival@grdodge.org, or visit the Web site at www.grdodge.org/poetry.

 

 

Dodge Suspends Biennial Poetry Festival

1.16.09

Faced with budget cuts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation announced on Thursday that it will suspend its biennial poetry festival. The festival, founded in 1986, last took place in September at Waterloo Village in New Jersey.

The foundation has been hit hard by the rising costs of putting on the four-day event, which takes place on a large, pastoral swath of land housing a number of tented sound stages. With production costs doubling over the last three festivals, and nearly 20 percent of the
festival funds going to hire poets to give readings and lectures at the
event, the foundation will look for ways to “reinvent” the festival, attended in 2008 by nineteen thousand people, on
“a more affordable scale or in a more affordable venue.”

According to an e-mail from Dodge Foundation president David Grant, although the New Jersey-based organization, which supports programs in the arts, education, and the environment, has been trimming its grant budget annually since 2002, the funds for poetry have never before been reduced. The current cuts will affect not only the festival, but also other poetry programming, which includes workshops for New Jersey teachers of poetry, poet visits to the state’s schools, mini-festivals, and a high school poetry contest.

Grant said in his message that the foundation would make audio and video from the past eleven festivals available on YouTube. Over twenty-five hundred hours of recordings are housed in the festival archives.

“The festival
experience itself cannot be duplicated, but we take heart that it can
and will be shared by students, teachers, poets, and poetry lovers the
world over,” Grant said. “It is a remarkable legacy—not yet ended.”

I Am Moving: Poets at the End of the World

by

Claire Schwartz

4.16.20

And maybe the unity of resistance to hatred that will stop that hatred seems improbable. Maybe an orthodox Jewish congregation will never stand in protective vigil outside a gay and lesbian community center, or the clinic of an abortion provider. Maybe a Black student organization will never rally for Asian American Rights….

Maybe. But, meanwhile, I am moving on an irrepressible wish that all of us will: All of us will build that circle of our common safety that all of us deserve.

—June Jordan

The writer and activist June Jordan wrote these words in 1999, in the weeks after a white supremacist opened fire in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and then killed a Filipino American postal worker a few miles away. Even as the world presented evidence against hope, Jordan moved “on an irrepressible wish.” She insisted on her own freedom—“I am Black and I am female and I am a mother and I am bisexual and I am a nationalist and I am an antinationalist. And I mean to be fully and freely all that I am!” she wrote—and understood that personal freedom is inextricable from collective freedom. She wrote poems and prose and drafted plans for equitable—beautiful—public housing projects. Meanwhile, I am moving: a vector into a future free from white supremacy and all of its attendant structures. Jordan taught Black English in classrooms and marched in the streets to demand that that language, and the people who speak it, be celebrated, safe, loved. She knew her work as an artist, activist, and educator was part of a single project: to create a loving world. 

From left: Ama Codjoe, Donika Kelly, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (Kelly: Ladan Osman; Sealey: Rachel Eliza Griffiths). 

 

Two decades later, five poets have come together to form a collective—named Poets at the End of the World—to partake in this project and continue the creative legacy of Jordan and others. The collective is comprised of Ama Codjoe, Donika Kelly, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon—five poets, five Black women, friends in letters and in living. In their poems, each poet in her own way holds language accountable to love and open toward possibilities for just futures. Collectively, they materially contribute to realizing those futures. Represented by Eloisa Amezcua of Costura Creative, Poets at the End of the World is available for readings, panels, workshops, and other events—at least three of the five members will be present at any booking—and donates all honoraria to causes agreed upon by the collective. Poets at the End of the World extends the paths laid by June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde, who insisted that it was not enough to fight against violence—we must also cultivate the forms we desire. An honest appraisal of what is, a running leap toward what might be. I am moving.

As the poets are scattered across the globe from New Jersey to Rome, we had a conversation about the collective’s origins, work, and vision via Google Docs over three weeks in January. 

Ama Codjoe is the author of the chapbook Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She is the recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the Georgia Review’s 2018 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, a 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize, a 2019 Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award, and a 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.

Donika Kelly is the author of the chapbook Aviarium and the full-length collections The Renunciations, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2021, and Bestiary, the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, Donika is an assistant professor at Baruch College.

Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named. Formerly the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, she is concurrently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

Evie Shockley has published four books of poetry and criticism, most recently semiautomatic, winner of the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Recipient of the 2019 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, she is professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award finalist; and Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is the coauthor of the chapbooks Poems in Conversation and a Conversation with Elizabeth Alexander and Leading With a Naked Body with Leela Chantrelle.

 

I’d love to start by borrowing an opening question from Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, the hosts of the podcast Another Round: What do you do, and why?
Codjoe: When I was a teenager, I read an essay by the feminist, lesbian priest Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward. She instructed the reader to “make justice.” I fell in love with the phrase. What does the collective do? We do poetry, we do community, we do justice. We do it because we need poetry, community, and justice ourselves—and because we want to support organizations that strive to build and sustain spaces of safety, creativity, and power in a world that does not guarantee everyone access to such spaces.

Kelly: This is a moment to think past the amplification of ourselves. We wanted to be of service, to reroute material resources to organizations that are doing meaningful work in local communities. One of the ways that has manifested is in our committment to donate our collective honoraria to organizations aligned with our mission to make the world more safe, just, and equitable for us all. 

Sealey: Last fall, for example, the Fringe Foundation generously funded the collective’s debut reading at Cave Canem Foundation—donating $5,000 to the nonprofit that serves Black poets. This means that the organization will be able to do more good work. Helping to enable such work is our motivation. Poets at the End of the World has a running list of movements and institutions we’d like to support in this way. The next organization we hope to support is the Baltimore-based FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which aims to “promote a culture of consent…where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent.”

Shockley: When we make poetry, we transform our understanding of the world as it is into our vision for what it could be. Our poetry, in all its variety, becomes part of what identifies and sustains the things that are beautiful and good, and also dissects and challenges the things that suppress justice and joy. The collective enables our art to make that kind of contribution twice over: first, through the poems themselves and, second, by funding organizations whose work helps to enact similar visions of beauty and justice.

Van Clief-Stefanon: There’s another very important thing we do: We speak with one another regularly. We schedule time to do this. We established early that being in regular contact with one another would be foundational to our work of building and sustaining creative space. During our conversations, before moving on to whatever business is at hand, we check in with each other, discussing our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Starting as far back as you’d like—in your personal and/or collective journeys—would you say a bit about how Poets at the End of the World came into being? 
Shockley: On the last day of AWP Tampa in 2018, Nicole and I finally found a few minutes to really talk, to indulge in some mutual dreaming about how we could best make our love and admiration for Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Gwendolyn Brooks manifest in the world. These poets modeled how caring deeply about craft could go hand in hand with caring deeply about the state and fate of one’s families and communities, particularly the people most vulnerable to abuses of power. We let ourselves imagine how wonderful it would be to work together on a project that would celebrate these amazing women and their work—as poets, as activists—by following their example.

Sealey: When Evie and I came to the idea of a service-oriented collective, we both began to laugh—this was it, this was the thing! My mind immediately went to Ama and Donika, who just so happened to be rounding the corner. Evie’s mind went to Lyrae, who she texted and who responded within minutes. 

Codjoe: As soon as we walked up, Evie said, “Want to join our collective?” and Donika and I said, “Yes.” 

Kelly: I wasn’t sure what it would mean to be in a collective—I’m a pretty solitary person in a lot of ways, but somehow, it was as if I’d been waiting for that question, for that moment for years. My “yes” was immediate. 

Van Clief-Stefanon: I got a text from Evie saying that she had “a proposition for [me], involving Audre, June, and Lucille…and lifting and raising collectivity and light.” She couldn’t call to discuss it that afternoon, but she wrote, “Just say yes!!” And because it was Evie, and because I have known her now for more than two decades, and because, as I wrote back to her, “I have nothing but faith, love, and trust for any idea [she has] for us,” without even knowing to what I’d agreed, I said, “Yes!!!”

Sealey: Then, there, Poets at the End of the World was born. 

I’m struck by the rush of the “yes” of this all. Would you say more about the commitments of that certainty? What exactly are you saying “yes” to when you come together as Poets at the End of the World?
Sealey:
I’ve loved these women for years. My husband [the poet John Murillo] and Lyrae taught together ten years ago; we’ve all remained tight since. Evie and I seemed to always miss each other, but have been drawn to each other for as long as I can remember. Donika and I became fast friends when we overlapped as fellows at the 2009 Cave Canem retreat. Ama and I met at a writing workshop some fifteen years prior, and ten years after that she was stuffing gift bags at my wedding. We know each other well. Well enough to say “yes” before a request, an invitation is fully formed because we’d been saying “yes” to sisterhood all these years.

Kelly: I was saying “yes” to possibility, to community. The external push, here in the form of Nicole and Evie’s question, so simply and warmly put: Will you join us? The question allowed me to open the door into a room of sisterhood and possibility. 

Van Clief-Stefanon: Like Donika, I’m pretty introverted. I can be anxious, almost to the point of agoraphobia. I’ve thought a lot and written a lot based on thinking about how to say “No.” It’s been a long and ongoing journey, teaching myself to say “No.” For me, Poets at the End of the World follows the path of “see[ing] to be” that Miss Lucille’s work illuminated. When I say “yes” to Poets at the End of the World, I am saying “yes” to living that work, to seeing that work to be.

Codjoe: When thinking back to the yeses, I am reminded of the litany of synonyms that opens Clifton’s The Book of Light. The “yes” was built on years of friendship, to varying degrees, with Donika, Evie, Lyrae, and Nicole—whose commitment to service and justice I trust and in whose company I am continually flooded by light, even during challenge or struggle. I don’t have any full-blooded sisters, but in spite of that—or maybe, because of it—sisterhood has always been important to me. 

The second “yes” to Clifton, Lorde, Jordan, and Brooks was built on my love for their work, thinking, and practices. As a reader, I have been in relation with some of these writers since I was a teenager. And isn’t that, too, a kind of friendship? 

Shockley: When I think about how generously Gwendolyn Brooks gave—of her time, her funds, her expertise, and her spirit—I am overwhelmed. She sponsored writing contests for students that she funded out of pocket, and hosted awards ceremonies for the winners she had selected. She famously offered poetry workshops to members of the Blackstone Rangers, for which she was surely not being paid. I have friends whom she mentored when they were budding poets. I was not a direct recipient of her generosity except twice, when I was one of the devotees happily standing in a very long line after a reading to get my book signed. Her book-signing lines were always long and slow-moving because she was so beloved and because she had a real exchange with each person who stepped up. I was so in awe of her; I barely saw her as human. 

But later, spending time with Lucille Clifton, I came to understand what a toll that must have taken on Brooks, even if she was energized by the people her work touched. Lucille would tell me, after a day or evening of reading, teaching, talking poetry: “Girl, I am tired.” I came to see some of the ways she would protect herself from giving beyond what was healthy. 

For me, Poets at the End of the World represents a way we can share our poetry and transform the value of that work into monetary support for organizations that are making good things happen in the world. At the same time, through our shared mission and shared boundaries, our relationships with one another serve not only to sustain and nurture us, but also to keep us honest about what we have the capacity to do.

The name of your collective refers to a section of Clifton’s “shapeshifter poems”: 

 

the poem at the end of the world

is the poem the little girl breathes

into her pillow     the one

she cannot tell     the one

there is no one to hear     this poem

is a political poem     is a war poem     is a

universal poem but is not about

these things     this poem

is about one human heart   this poem

is the poem at the end of the world

 

What does calling yourselves “Poets at the End of the World” mean to you? 
Codjoe: Evie brought the name to our first meeting, and the air shifted in the room when we heard it. In the vastest view, the name “Poets at the End of the World” reminds me of how people of African descent on any side of the Atlantic have felt for the last four centuries: as if we were at the edge of the world—that the world might end, has ended over and again. I think of the Door of No Return as one symbol of that ending. And in a smaller “one human heart” sense, the collective’s name is about the girl in Clifton’s poem who has no one to protect or hear her. Whoever is doing work on behalf of that little girl—on behalf of and in collaboration with Indigenous communities, trans youth, survivors of rape—that is who we’d like to support.

Van Clief-Stefanon: June Jordan ends her essay “Where is the Love?” by quoting lines from Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poem “The Heart of a Woman” that I find particularly resonant: 

 

The heart of a woman falls back with the night,

And enters some alien cage in its plight,

And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars

While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

 

Jordan describes her work as a feminist as “against such sorrow… against such suicide… against such deliberated strangulation of the possible lives of women,” and as learning “to love myself well enough to love you (whoever you are).” I see the collective participating in a tradition of poem-ing as holding the human heart, and of naming as breaking bars rather than breaking the heart against them.

Kelly: Poets at the End of the World resonates with me in a literal way as well: It is an acknowledgment of the state of the world and a practice of hope. I tend to have low reserves of hope, especially now, when so many vulnerable people are being openly targeted within and by the U.S. government. Our name reminds me that yes, we are at the end of an era in this world, but to work in and toward community is a practice of hope. 

Sealey: For the most part, the world is a wreck—we’re building walls to keep certain people out and walls to keep certain others in; we’re waging wars; cops are killing Black people with impunity; a trans person is murdered every day; and on and on and on. I trust that there’s love on the other side of this madness. Beauty, too. There has to be. Which is why, for me, “Poets at the End of the World” means the end of what is as well as the beginning of what can be—a small gesture, yes, but a gesture nonetheless.

Shockley: Part of what it means to speak of “Poets at the End of the World” is to say that as long as there is a world, there will be poetry. And as long as there’s poetry, there is the possibility of a world in which we can survive—and thrive.

How has being part of a collective informed your own poetic practice?
Sealey: I mean—Ama, Donika, Evie, and Lyrae wrote Blood of the Air, Bestiary, semiautomatic and ]Open Interval[, respectively—brilliant craftswomen and prizewinners all! So, in addition to my husband, mom, and dads, I now have four more people I want to impress with my poems. And, these women’s influence on me goes well beyond the page. They inform my personhood with their collective example—helping me to be a better global citizen. 

Shockley: The experience of hearing our very distinct voices and aesthetics circulating in the same room over the course of an hour or so is moving, invigorating, and a little intoxicating—at least for me. Lyrae rings the power notes of a Southern spiritual and fills the room; Ama’s poetry slips in like a cat, hiding its teeth and its appetite; Nicole’s bursts through doors unapologetically, like a strong, cool, bracing wind; and Donika unravels the veils and shrouds with a tool that only looks like a paper clip. The beauties and truths of their art create a rich context for me to work and play in. To borrow a phrase from Zora Neale Hurston, these women encourage me to “jump at de sun”!

Kelly: Being a part of this collective reminds me—when I’m writing, when I’m giving a reading—of the many lineages of which I am a part. That we began with Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Audre Lorde is one frame. That we are ourselves and writing now is another. There are other frames, other lines, of course, but there’s an immediacy, a kind of materiality that the collective calls forth. To be connected to Ama, Evie, Lyrae, and Nicole, and to be committed to a mission that is larger than the smallness of my own singular life, imbues my approach to my work with joy.

Codjoe: It is heartening to know we will cheer for one another and feel what some call “sympathetic joy.” And there is so much to celebrate: Nicole is living and writing in Rome for the Rome Prize; Evie was recently awarded a Lannan fellowship; Donika’s newest collection, The Renunciations, will be published next year; and Lyrae’s recently published essay in Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African-American Poetry made me weep when I heard her read from it. The sheer strength of their writing propels me in ways not about competition. I carry these women, along with all the writers who inspire me, to the desk with me when I write.

Van Clief-Stefanon: I feel challenged and inspired, but also harbored. I am grateful for the grace of these women with whom it is my privilege to think and make. 

Would you leave us with a few lines of poetry that fortify you to do the work of collaborating to make way toward wider futures?
Shockley:
From Audre Lorde’s “Coal”: Love is a word another kind of open. And the closing lines of Lucille Clifton’s anthem: come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.

Sealey: Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes”: they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering / mine. And, from June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights”: I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own.

Van Clief-Stefanon: From June Jordan’s “Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or The New Physicality of Long Distance Love”: There is no chance that we will fall apart / There is no chance / There are no parts. And Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Second Sermon on the Warpland”: Nevertheless, live. / Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind

Codjoe: The closing stanza of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival”: So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.

Kelly: From the end of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Paul Robeson”: we are each other’s / harvest; / we are each other’s / business; / we are each other’s / magnitude and bond.

 

Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). She is poetry editor of Jewish Currents.

I, Too Arts Collective

by

LaToya Jordan

2.14.18

For nearly ten years the brownstone at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem was silent. Once the home of celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, who lived there for twenty years until his death in 1967, the three-story row house sat vacant, its dark stone walls overgrown with ivy, the paint of its once grand interior chipped throughout. The only evidence of the building’s literary history was a small plaque on the facade bearing Hughes’s name and designating it a landmark.

But today, thanks to the I, Too Arts Collective, the brownstone is once again bustling with creativity. On any given day one might hear the voice of a teen writer reciting Hughes’s poem “I look at the world,” or a community member reading at an open mic for the first time, or a distinguished author in conversation about the practice of writing. Established as a nonprofit organization by award-winning author Renée Watson, I, Too provides arts programming in Hughes’s house to underrepresented and marginalized voices. The collective takes its name from Hughes’s famous poem “I, Too,” which opens with the lines, “I, too, sing America. // I am the darker brother.”

“People need spaces where they can seek justice and stand up for what they believe in, spaces where they can be their full selves,” says Watson. “Often they are not able to do that in the world, so I wanted to have a space where they can come and create and engage with their community—that was really important to me.”

Watson, who lives in Harlem, walked past the vacant house for ten years, disappointed that nothing had been done with the space. She was inspired to take action in the summer of 2016, after hearing that Maya Angelou’s Harlem brownstone, located just a ten-minute walk from Hughes’s house, had been sold for $4 million. Determined that another piece of Harlem and African American culture wouldn’t be lost, Watson contacted the owner of Hughes’s brownstone and shared her vision of a space dedicated to preserving the writer’s legacy. The owner also didn’t want to see the building become gentrified, turned into condos or a coffee shop, but told Watson she’d need to come up with a year’s rent to turn her vision into a reality.

Watson, who in addition to publishing several well-received children’s books—including most recently Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury, 2017)—has years of experience in business and nonprofit arts administration; she established the I, Too Arts Collective in July 2016 and launched #LangstonsLegacy, an online fund-raising campaign to lease the brownstone. In just a few months, with the help of the literary community and private donors, she raised $150,000 toward the lease, renovation, and programming costs. Watson signed a three-year lease in October 2016 and along with the I, Too team and a group of volunteers, cleaned, painted, and restored the building. On February 1, 2017—Hughes’s 115th birthday and the beginning of Black History Month—the Hughes House opened to the public.

I, Too now hosts weekly open hours at the Hughes House, during which the community and tourists can visit the space, walk the same parlor floor Hughes did, and snap photos of his piano and typewriter. Watson says the brownstone is less of a museum, however, and more of a space for people to create. I, Too runs a number of special programs and events at the Hughes House, including creative writing workshops for adults and young people, a recurring poetry salon with an open mic, a monthly social event for writers and artists, and discussions with writers about their process and work. I, Too also rents the space to other artists and nonprofits to hold workshops, readings, and performances. Writers who have visited the brownstone include Kwame Alexander, Tracey Baptiste, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Angela Flournoy, Nikki Grimes, Ellen Hagan, Jason Reynolds, Jacqueline Woodson, and Ibi Zoboi.

Watson and her I, Too colleagues— program director Kendolyn Walker, social media director Jennifer Baker, and graphic designer Ellice Lee, as well as working and honorary boards of directors made up of writers and artists—want to empower artists as well as honor Hughes’s legacy. “I wanted something that would add on to what he left behind,” says Watson. “I think that is a powerful thing, to not just celebrate his work in theory or by reading but also saying, ‘This is what he wrote, this is what he said—what do you want to say, and how are you continuing his legacy?’”

The program closest to Watson’s heart is the Langston Hughes Institute for Young Writers, which hosts writing workshops for young people during school breaks and throughout the summer. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the workshops allow teens to learn about Hughes’s work and share their own poetry. “I always say whenever young people are in the space, that’s when I get emotional and feel like this is why I am doing this work,” Watson says. “What moves me is when I see young people writing and finding their voices and expressing themselves.”

After a successful first year, the collective is working toward its long-term goals, including restoring the second floor of the house to create studio space and a library, as well as raising money to establish a fellowship program for writers. As part of the program, fellows would receive a residency in the Hughes House and hold workshops and readings in return.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money to purchase the brownstone. “I want this to be a place that lives far beyond me or anybody involved with it now,” says Watson. “This is not just a trendy thing to do, but a sustainable space with roots in the ground for everyday artists to develop their craft and for established artists to share their stories and their voices.” 

 

LaToya Jordan is a writer from Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @latoyadjordan.

Renee Watson, founder of the I, Too Arts Collective, next to Hughes’s typewriter.

(Credit: David Flores)

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate

by

Maggie Millner

4.27.17

Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.
 

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”

 

Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  
 

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by

Dana Isokawa

2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets

6.18.09

Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A “Leave Your Mark” feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the “Street Team” newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

A New Center for Black Poetics

by

Tara Jayakar

8.17.16

From late nineteenth-century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to Harlem Renaissance icon Langston Hughes to contemporary poetry stars Rita Dove and Toi Derricotte, the influence of African American poets on America’s literary culture cannot be overstated. But until recently there was no center that had significant institutional support and was specifically dedicated to sharing and studying the legacy of African American poetry.* Earlier this year, poets Dawn Lundy Martin, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey decided it was high time to start one. The trio launched the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP) as a creative think tank to spark conversation and collaboration among poets and other artists, and to promote and archive the work of African American poets for future generations.

“We recognized that there was this huge impact that African American and African diasporic poets were making on American arts and letters,” says Martin, who codirects the center alongside Hayes. “We wanted there to be a place where we could really think and work through what that means.” Housed at the University of Pittsburgh, where both Martin and Hayes teach in the MFA writing program, the center held its first event in March—a set of conversations and readings about race, poetry, and the humanities—and will host similar events throughout the academic year. Its first course on African American poetry and poetics, led by Lauren Russell, the assistant director of CAAPP and an English professor, will be offered to undergraduate and graduate students during the 2017–2018 academic year and will feature visiting speakers each week. Hayes and Martin also plan to launch a residency and fellowship program, through which poets, artists, and scholars can work at the center for periods between a month and a year.

Part of CAAPP’s core mission is to archive and document the work of African American poets, which will be accomplished through both a physical collection of books and an online archive of lectures, readings, and discussions. While organizations like Cave Canem create space to nurture new work by African American poets, and other university centers such as Medgar Evers College’s Center for Black Literature and Chicago State University’s Gwendolyn Brooks Center work to promote black literature, CAAPP will focus specifically on the research and scholarship of black poetics, particularly as it relates to historical, artistic, and cultural repression, as well as corresponding social justice movements. “Cave Canem is twenty years old, and there still hasn’t been a large body of work about how it came into being or archival work around it,” says Hayes. “Our organizations historically haven’t had an opportunity to take care of our own information, to build our own insights around that work…. Now we are in a position to be our own historians and our own archivists, and write our own biographies about the importance of these roots.”

The University of Pittsburgh has long been a home for the work of African American poets. The university press, with editor Ed Ochester at the helm, has published notable titles by both emerging and established African American poets, recently Derricotte, Ross Gay, Rickey Laurentiis, Nate Marshall, and Afaa Michael Weaver. Hayes and Martin hope to work with the press on a book prize, and harness other university resources. “What a university can do is provide infrastructure, in a way that’s just not set up in most sectors of our society,” says Hayes. “Infrastructure and research capabilities.” The pair have enlisted faculty from other departments, including English and Africana Studies, to advise CAAPP and possibly teach future courses. “We think of ourselves as a start-up,” says Martin. “And like innovators in tech, we want to be open and inclusive as we generate new ideas about what it means to work in the fields of African American poetry and poetics. This seems especially important in these trying and divisive times.”

A significant part of CAAPP’s work will also intersect with the university’s MFA program. Graduate writing students will be able to take courses offered by the center and have the opportunity to help curate, design, and teach these courses. This goes hand in hand with how Hayes sees the MFA as an opportunity to teach students the tools and skills needed to hold positions of power in poetry and arts organizations. “A person who is interested in getting an MFA and being a poet can learn how to live in the world, whether they are directing centers or working as librarians, archivists, or critics,” says Hayes. “Just to alert and inspire a poet to do that is a possibility. Maybe you want to run a press or be an editor of a press. I don’t see why the MFA can’t be an opportunity to begin that conversation, as opposed to assuming that all you can do is write or teach.”

*Editor’s Note: After this article went to print, it was brought to our attention that a center dedicated to studying African American poetry was already established before the launch of CAAPP. The Furious Flower Poetry Center, housed at James Madison University and founded by Joanne Gabbin, has been cultivating and promoting African American poetry since 1994. We regret the error.

 

Hayes and Martin hope that the center will also help make the university’s MFA program a more welcoming space for writers of color, an important effort in light of increased discussion about race and diversity in MFA programs. For Martin, this means creating and maintaining a space of cultural inclusion. “Pittsburgh is a place where there are other students of color, and the graduate faculty is extremely diverse. There’s already some understanding between folks who are there, so you can start from a place of not having to work through your values and struggle to articulate your cultural perspective.”

The CAAPP directors plan to offer courses that intersect with visual art and music, in order to explore how thinking across disciplines can parallel thinking across cultures and perspectives. “Certainly, we feel like if anyone is prepared to build those new conversations, it would be African American poets and poets of color in general,” says Hayes, adding that CAAPP aims to include non-black people of color and other marginalized communities in the conversation. “We talk about collage and hybridity—that’s what people of color are. [We’re] not thinking about segregation, not thinking about fences around what we do, but looking across those bridges, saying, ‘Well, how are these people across the street interested in what I’m doing?’ even if they’re not poets. They might be architects, they might be scientists.”

Moving forward, the center will hold a community workshop, reading, and exhibition from November 9 to November 11 on poetry and politics titled “Black Poets Speak Out,” featuring Jericho Brown, Mahogany Browne, and Amanda Johnston. The directors also hope to host a reading by emerging women and trans poets. Martin and Hayes are optimistic about the social impact of the center’s work. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Martin, “especially given the state of violence in this country—violence against queer people, violence against black people, violence against women—it makes sense to take up things like African American literature, African American culture, African American history, African American poetry and art as a part of making the world better.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

Q&A: Thomas’s App for Young Readers

by

Jennifer Baker

6.14.17

In the summer of 2014, eighteen-year-old Kaya Thomas launched We Read Too, an app that offers a comprehensive database of multicultural books for young readers. Thomas had been frustrated with the difficulty of finding books by and about people of color in libraries and bookstores, so she designed and wrote the code for the app (she recently graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in computer science), which now has information on hundreds of books and more than fifteen thousand users. “I knew that if my app had even helped one person feel represented and showed them that their stories are being told too,” wrote Thomas in a piece at Medium about starting the app, “I had done my job.” Word spread further about We Read Too in March after Thomas launched an Indiegogo campaign to expand the app and raised $15,000. In the next several months, Thomas plans to launch a website for We Read Too and expand its catalog to more than a thousand books. As work on the app progresses, Thomas spoke about her larger mission and hopes for We Read Too. 

How has the We Read Too app evolved over the years?
When I first released We Read Too, it had a directory that included 300 children’s and young adult titles. Each title had a detail page where you could view the book cover, title, author, and description. There was also a suggestion feature where users could send me titles they thought should be included. Since then the directory has expanded to more than 630 titles, and you can search by author or title. You can now share any of the books via text message, e-mail, or social media, and you can view the book on Safari to purchase it. There’s also a discovery feature now that allows you to see one random book at a time so you don’t have to search through the entire directory.

Was it a purposeful decision to include both self-published and traditionally published books in this list? 
I wanted to include self-published works because it can be hard for those authors to get readers to discover their work. A lot of authors who are self-published have reached out to me in hopes that We Read Too can be a place for them to get more reader discovery for their work. I know that for authors of color it can be hard to get into the publishing world, so I want to support those who haven’t gone through the traditional routes. I want all authors of color to have their work highlighted in We Read Too, regardless of how they got their work out there.

Do you have plans to include adult fiction in the app?
I eventually do want to include adult fiction in the app, but it would be a larger undertaking because there are so many different genres within that category. I want to make sure I have a significant number of titles in each genre before I add them to the app. 

We Read Too is free. Do you think you will ever charge for it so you can continue updates and expansion? 
We Read Too will always be free for individual users. I never want to charge users to access the directory of titles because that would be counterintuitive toward the mission. I want titles written by people of color to be easier to discover and all in one place, not blocked by a paywall. I want users to discover titles they can share with the young people in their lives and community. I want users to know that these titles exist and, more specifically, for users who are people of color, I want them to see that there are authors who share their background and are creating work that reflects their culture in some way.    

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, the creator and host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, the panel organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and the social medial director and a writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life (Atria Books, 2018).

Kaya Thomas

(Credit: Faith Rotich)

Q&A: Nicole Sealey Leads Cave Canem

by

Tayari Jones

4.12.17

Cave Canem was established by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte in 1996 to nurture black poets both on the page and in the publishing marketplace. The Brooklyn, New York–based organization’s many programs include writing workshops, master classes, a reading series, publication prizes, and an annual retreat, which brings together more than fifty poets, or “fellows,” each year. In January Nicole Sealey, previously Cave Canem’s programs director, became the organization’s new executive director. A veteran arts administrator (including a previous role as the assistant director of Poets & Writers’ Readings & Workshops program), Sealey is also a poet; her first full-length collection, Ordinary Beast, will be published by Ecco in September. A couple of months into her new position, Sealey spoke about the future of Cave Canem.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to Cave Canem?
Almost ten years ago I participated in Cave Canem’s eight-week fall workshop in New York City, facilitated by Marilyn Nelson. I was a very young writer and it ended up being a formative experience in my life. We got serious about craft and made lifelong connections in the process. I’ve met many of my closest friends through Cave Canem, the closest of all being my husband, John Murillo. The very least I can do for an organization that has served me well for the last decade is to return the gesture. 

How does being a writer influence the way you will lead the organization?
Cave Canem has always had a “poets first” philosophy, which has served the organization well for the last twenty-plus years. Remember, the organization was founded by rock-star poets and directed for the past decade by Alison Meyers, also a poet. In that tradition, I plan to lead with both head and heart, which are the qualities I value most in poetry. 

What’s ahead for Cave Canem and for you as the new executive director?
In May we’ll be capping off our twentieth-anniversary year with Cave Canem 20/20: A Panoramic Vision of Black Poetry, a two-and-a-half day poetry forum at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn. The forum will offer readings, skill-building panels, artist conversations, and more. I’m also looking forward to my first retreat as executive director. The retreat takes place in June at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It’s our flagship program, and where, as Harryette Mullen says, “black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness.”

So much has changed since Cave Canem faculty member Elizabeth Alexander recited “Praise Song for the Day,” the inaugural poem for Barack Obama in 2009. What do you see as the role of Cave Canem, and poetry more broadly, in the new political climate?
“So much has changed” is a very gracious way to describe the political climate in which we now find ourselves. In “Praise Song for the Day,” the speaker asks, “What if the mightiest word is love?” I have no doubt that it is love, but the new administration would have me believe that the mightiest word is fear or, worse yet, the president’s name. It is neither. It is love. And what is love if not a society based on justice and equality? With this in mind, the role of Cave Canem in particular, and poetry in general, is and will be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. With love. Bigly. 

Are there any outreach programs on tap to connect poetry with readers?
Cave Canem’s Poets Tour, a nonprofit speakers bureau, connects national audiences with Cave Canem fellows through readings and workshops. This year we hope to increase the number of participating fellows and reach out to presenting institutions, including high schools, universities, museums, libraries, and prisons. We want to bring black poets to diverse communities.  

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.         

Nicole Sealey

(Credit: Murray Greenfield )

A Chicago Press for the People

by

Gila Lyons

10.7.20

On September 24, 2009, sixteen-year-old student Derrion Albert was beaten to death outside of Christian Fenger Academy High School, on the South Side of Chicago, in broad daylight. Though there were many witnesses, one of whom captured the attack on cell-phone video, no one stepped in to help. The footage of the murder went viral, highlighting the severity of the city’s youth violence epidemic, as Albert was the third teenager killed in Chicago that month. 

Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence (Little, Brown, 2020), was teaching fiction, nonfiction, and oral history to writing students at DePaul University in Chicago when news of Albert’s death reached him. He sat with his friend Hallie Gordon, then artistic director of the Steppenwolf  for Young Adults theater program, grieving the epidemic of youth violence in the city where he’d grown up and spent most of his adult life. Gordon wanted to produce a play of stories of those affected by such violence but didn’t have the resources to travel the city collecting them. Harvey thought, “I do.”

Harvey decided to work with his undergraduate and graduate writing students to document these stories, a project that would eventually lead to his partnering with colleagues Chris Green and Michele Morano to establish Big Shoulders Books. After speaking with Gordon, Harvey trained his writing students in oral history and nonfiction and set up safe places for them in all parts of the city to meet with those affected by street violence. “We talked to kids in active gangs, the county coroner, the trauma nurses who take in gun victims all night, EMTs, funeral directors, youth organizers, and families and friends of youth who had been killed on the streets of Chicago,” Harvey says. Over the course of two years, they interviewed approximately seventy residents from various neighborhoods across the city, creating more than three thousand pages of transcripts. The collected stories became the play How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, which toured with Steppenwolf throughout Chicago for the general public, students, and the people who’d been interviewed. 

Michele Morano, the author of Like Love (Mad Creek Books, 2020) and first director, then department chair of the master’s program in writing and publishing at DePaul, recalls, “A former gang member in the audience identified himself, and kids flocked to him after the show asking, ‘How did you get out? Can you help me get out?’ Mothers in the audience who lost their children thanked us profusely. It was so impactful for everyone involved.”

Harvey collected more stories than he could fit in the production, so he compiled them into a book. “He came to me and said, ‘What do you think of starting a press?’” Morano recalls. So, with colleague Chris Green, author of Everywhere West (Mayapple Press, 2019), who had experience with social justice writing and publishing projects, and in conjunction with DePaul University, Harvey and Morano cofounded Big Shoulders Books in 2011, with a mission to publish “quality works of writing by and about Chicagoans whose voices might not otherwise be shared.” Their writers are veterans, friends and family of gun violence victims, youth in gangs, and other writers whose stories have been marginalized. And their books are given away for free.

“Our business model is no business,” Morano says. “We want our books to end up in the hands of people who couldn’t necessarily buy them.” Funded by the William and Irene Beck Charitable Trust, and supported by DePaul, Big Shoulders has published six nonfiction and poetry titles to date and has given away roughly one hundred thousand books—eighty thousand hard copies and twenty thousand digital. 

All you have to do to receive a book is show up to a Big Shoulders reading or event, or order one online by leaving a message describing why you want one. Books have been requested by kids in gangs, incarcerated people, and teachers at junior high schools, high schools, and colleges in every state in America, and in India, Australia, countries across Africa, and beyond. Many readers write the press to describe the impact of their books. One, who read a Big Shoulders book while in juvenile detention, wrote: “I was so inspired and influenced with this book that I want to share it with other people who come from the same [struggles] we all face. I am since a recovered gun offender and am officially eighteen and plan to start college.” Green told DePaul Magazine in 2019, “For a small press, if you are even able to sell a thousand copies, that is a big deal. The fact that we have given away thousands of books is a minor miracle and speaks to the impact of these books.” 

The press also serves as an internship-like experience for writing students at DePaul. “Students learn a lot about narrative when it’s not their narrative,” Harvey says. “When they edit someone else’s block of text, they learn a pure kind of storytelling. It makes them realize that people are naturally such great storytellers and to trust their own storytelling instinct in their writing.” Every book takes students through three courses: preproduction and book editing, the art and tech of book design, and postproduction publicity.

Currently the press is developing a book of conversations with Chicago’s immigrants, to be released in 2022. Its most recent book, American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans, edited by Chris Green, is a pantoum about gun violence. Each of its writers, including established poets and people who had never written before, wrote one stanza. Green says, “American Gun embodies the spirit of Big Shoulders. It’s a community collaboration. With the current spate of protests, it’s not about individual voices; it’s more about the chorus of voices together.”

What struck Green in editing American Gun is that, despite the book’s highly political topic, not one of the hundred poets mentioned politics in their stanza. “Because the political system has failed us, we’ve gone to this poetic place that’s more carnal than political,” he says, observing poetry’s ability to reckon with issues of social justice. “There are so many important needs right now, and poetry has some work to do.” 

 

Gila Lyons’s writing on mental health and social justice has appeared in the New York Times; O, the Oprah Magazine; Cosmopolitan; and other publications. 

A reader absorbed in How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence at a 2013 Chicago Public Library event.  (Credit: Kenny Wassus)

Bullets Into Bells

by

Maya Popa

12.13.17

It has been just over five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, during which twenty first-graders and six educators were killed. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence, and the public debate about guns in America—recently magnified by a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October and at a church in rural Texas in November—rages on. But a new anthology of poetry and essays aims to offer a different perspective on an issue that is so often oversimplified by the media.

Published a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press) is a powerful call to end gun violence in the United States. The anthology includes poems by dozens of celebrated poets—including Billy Collins, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Trethewey, and Juan Felipe Herrera—paired with nonfiction responses by activists, political figures, survivors, and others affected by gun violence. The anthology’s “call and response” structure showcases the direct relationship between specific acts of gun violence and the poems that were generated as a result. In the book’s foreword, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—who survived being shot in the head at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Arizona—and her husband, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, write, “Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions—by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.”

When they began compiling the book, the editors knew it would have a political purpose. “We agreed that the anthology would do more than simply collect literary responses to a political issue—it would need to be a political artifact in itself,” says Clements, for whom the anthology has a personal thrust. His wife, Abbey, worked as a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and has since become an outspoken activist for gun control. Clements and his fellow editors envisioned the anthology as both a tribute to those who die by guns every year and a way to find common ground in the discussion about gun violence.

Several poets the editors invited to contribute, including Robert Hass, Tess Taylor, and Yusef Komunyakaa, chose to write new poems for the anthology. “These poems tend not to respond to specific events but are, instead, often deeply personal meditations on the poet’s relationship to guns or their individual experiences with shootings,” says Rader. He points to two poems in particular: one by Brenda Hillman about her family’s gun, and one by Bob Hicok that revisits the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where he was a professor at the time and even had the shooter, who killed thirty-two and wounded seventeen, in one of his classes. “Both of these poems move beyond mere ‘anger’ and toward some larger notion of individual and communal ethic,” says Rader.

With more than fifty poems and fifty responses, the anthology brings together many perspectives on a complicated issue. “A big part of the impetus for the anthology was that conversations in the media about gun violence often become a loop of the same few sentiments, without the range of voices that poets were offering,” says Teague. “Christopher Soto’s ‘All the Dead Boys Look Like Me,’ for instance, written in the wake of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, draws together personal experience with the often fatal dangers that queer brown bodies face in our country, as well as with family connections, activism, and a call for reimagining this legacy of endangerment and death.”

In another of the anthology’s pairings, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy who was shot by police in Cleveland in 2012, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which opens:

 

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears…

 

Rice responds, “When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America…Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future…. Who will govern the government when they continue to murder American citizens?”

In another pairing, Po Kim Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance responds to a poem about the Sandy Hook shootings. Antonius Wiriadjaja, who survived being shot on the sidewalk in New York City as he walked to the subway in 2013, responds to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “A Morning Shooting,” about a young man who is shot in a driveway on his way to work. “The poems themselves are exceptionally powerful, but the combinations of poem and respondent results in another order of emotional impact,” says Clements.

“Throughout the collection, the poets and respondents imagine how the lives of those killed by gun violence, and their survivors, could have been different if not for racial discrimination, homophobia, and other forms of violence that have replaced listening and supporting the lives and potentials of all our citizens,” says Teague.

The Bullets Into Bells editors hope to expand the project’s reach beyond the book. In the coming months, a number of events will be held across the country, featuring readings and panel discussions with the poets and essayists from the anthology. A related website for the project (beacon.org/bullets-into-bells-p1298.aspx) includes additional poems, statements from activists, opportunities for action, data on gun violence, interviews, and more. “One of my hopes,” says Clements, “is that this project—the book, the web content, the events around the country—will be part of a perhaps slower but more direct and more personal approach, bypassing the national media, that will encourage poets, readers of poetry, and literary audiences who might not otherwise have become involved in this movement to get more involved.”

Colum McCann echoes this hope in his introduction to the book: “The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.”       

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is mayacpopa.com.                  

Abbey and Brian Clements (holding an orange sign) at the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America march across the Brooklyn Bridge in May 2016.

Writers, Editors Resist

by

Sarah M. Seltzer

4.12.17

The Wednesday morning after Election Day delivered a political shock for just about everyone, including writers—but hot on the heels of the electoral surprise came an existential dilemma: How could writers attend to the quotidian concerns of sentence structure, agent-hunting, and sending out work when America was so divided on seemingly every major issue—from reproductive and LGBTQ rights to immigration laws and the environment? Like much of America that morning, many writers turned to their friends and colleagues for answers. “On Facebook, everyone was saying, ‘Now more than ever we need fiction, art, and books,’” says writer Anna March, who had spent time in Pennsylvania that week, knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with her mother. “I got a little bit panicky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people really thinking that art is going to save us?’ Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.” Similarly, fiction writer Paula Whyman, based in Bethesda, Maryland, described the morning after the election as a rare world-changing moment. “As a fiction writer I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working,” she says. “Does it really matter now?”

Both Whyman and March reached for similar outlets to channel their doubts and reassert the power of writing. Whyman answered a call on Facebook by her friend, the writer Mikhail Iossel, for help launching a new publication and with a small group started Scoundrel Time, an international online journal intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear. March, eager to harness the energy of the arts community for political activism, decided to start Roar Feminist Magazine, an online publication that would provide a platform for politically informed fiction, poetry, and essays—as well as a way to strike back against an election that frequently devolved into disrespectful language, most notably the leaked Access Hollywood tape showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. “We wanted to do something that was both literature and revolution,” says March. 

These efforts are part of a growing number of projects and events started by writers, editors, and literary organizations in response to the election and the current political climate. Poet Erin Belieu and PEN America organized Writers Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration, to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” Poet Major Jackson started a collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review, while the Boston Review released the poetry chapbook Poems for Political Disaster, and Melville House published What We Do Now, an essay collection focused on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” 

Roar and Scoundrel Time both launched in late January—Roar on Inauguration Day and Scoundrel Time ten days later—and have since produced an impressive body of work and attracted large followings in just a few short months. “The idea of starting a new journal would be laughed at otherwise,” says Whyman. “There are so many excellent journals doing beautiful work that I in no way want to compete. But I think of this as something entirely different.”

Indeed, the interest both magazines have received in terms of financial support and submissions suggest that the audience is engaged. With a very small inheritance from her grandmother, who died shortly before the election, March was able to launch the Roar website and with her collaborators held a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $12,000 in just a few months. The Roar staff includes Sarah Sandman and  Bethanne Patrick as executive editors, Jagjeet Khalsa as production editor, and several section editors, including novelist Porochista Khakpour and humor writer Cynthia Heimel. The title is a play on the “pussy” motif that appeared on posters and signs, and in knitted hats, after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks were made public. According to March, the journal’s mission involves “roaring, not meowing.”

The most prominent feature of Roar, which publishes three new pieces each day, is a section called “My Abortion,” in which women relate their experiences with abortion. The daily column serves to remind readers of what’s at stake under the strongly antiabortion Trump administration. Other columns include the Roar Meter, which uses numbers to tell a story: “Number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: 2,864,974 / Number of Americans who receive Planned Parenthood services: 2,840,000” reads the beginning of one entry. A column called Fight This Hate highlights “a small selection of hate crimes and/or harassment,” alongside fiction, poetry, and art sections. “Think about if Guernica met the Nation or VQR met Mother Jones,” says March. “We want to be at the intersection of the finest writing and political activism.” The editors plan to expand in the spring by publishing six pieces a day and bringing on more explicitly political writers.

Scoundrel Time (named for the 1976 book by Lillian Hellman about the McCarthy era) is, in Whyman’s words, “a place for artists to respond as artists” to the postelection reality. “There are wonderful and thoughtful journalists and commentators, people at think tanks, and activists in every realm doing important things,” says Whyman. “But this is a place for artists to speak to what’s going on from their particular perspective. We can keep telling one another stories, and those stories will draw people in and give them some relief.” The journal is a registered nonprofit organization, and the all-volunteer staff plans to look into nonprofit partnerships. Slightly less confrontational in tone than Roar (though no less political), Scoundrel Time publishes fiction, photography, poetry, essays, and dispatches from around the world, with a focus on content that’s current. “The strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so,” Tony Eprile writes in a February essay tying recent Saturday Night Live sketches to a long tradition of political subversion through mockery. Fiction writer Jodi Paloni also spearheads an Action section, encouraging readers to make calls and show up to protests.

Scoundrel Time and Roar also drummed up support at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. in February. Whyman and her fellow Scoundrel Time founders gathered in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and read aloud from James Baldwin, Emma Lazarus, and Claudia Rankine. Meanwhile, Roar supporters wearing pink “pussy hats” handed out pink Roar-branded condoms and stickers at the bookfair. They weren’t the only ones making a statement at AWP: Split This Rock, a D.C.–based organization focused on poetry and social change, collaborated with organizations such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CantoMundo to hold a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression outside the White House, during which writers such as Kazim Ali, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché delivered speeches about the importance of writing and art.  

Scoundrel Time plans to organize similar actions in the future, but for now it carries on that spirit of standing together and holding space, albeit online, for writers to freely speak their minds. With their new journals, both Whyman and March hope they can help writers to, as Whyman says, “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” 

 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and ill-advised tweets. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the deputy editor of the culture website Flavorwire.com.

Protesters march on Trump Tower in New York City as part of the Writers Resist rallies in January.

(Credit: Ed Lederman)

The Radius of Arab American Writers

by

Marwa Helal

8.16.17

When poet Glenn Shaheen first started writing, he had little sense of community as an Arab American writer. He felt constrained from writing about Arab American issues or identity, and his undergraduate writing professors scoffed at “identity writing,” telling him it would be “a cheat to write like that, because you’d immediately get published.” But when fellow poet Hayan Charara introduced Shaheen to the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Shaheen found a community that supported and empowered his artistic freedom. “RAWI helped me be proud of my Arab heritage. Knowing there was a thriving community of Arab writers of all backgrounds and genres made me realize I was actually a part of that community,” says Shaheen. “I feel free to write about anything now after meeting so many other Arab writers—some working on science fiction novels or ecopoetry or experimental dramatic works. It helped me see that there isn’t a specific mold of an Arab American writer that I should aspire to or avoid.”

Shaheen is not the only writer who has found community through RAWI, a nonprofit organization that for the past twenty-five years has worked to support and disseminate creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans. RAWI—a word that means storyteller in Arabic—was first established in 1992 by journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz as a seven-person group of writers that met in Washington, D.C. It has since grown into a thriving community of nearly 125 writers, artists, and journalists all over the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Members include literary heavyweights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, National Book Award finalist Rabih Alameddine, poet and translator Fady Joudah, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The organization now hosts workshops and a biennial conference that features panels, readings, and workshops for Arab American writers. The last conference, which focused on a range of topics including craft, publishing, and the effects of Islamophobia, was held in Minneapolis in June 2016 and cosponsored by Mizna, a nonprofit that promotes Arab American culture. The next conference will take place in Houston, Texas, in June 2018. In the meantime, RAWI has also launched In Solidarity, a series of daylong workshops and craft talks for people of color, members of marginalized communities, and allies in various cities throughout the United States. The series was spearheaded by fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj, and the first workshop, which took place in March in Washington, D.C., gave writers space to talk about identity, publishing, and being a writer in the margins. The second was held in San Francisco in April, and more are in the works around the country. “We hope these workshops foster communication and a feeling of solidarity among various communities,” says Darraj. “At least one writers circle has been formed as an outcome of these daylong workshops.”

In the coming year RAWI will be doing even more. In March the organization began advocating for the first-ever Arab American caucus, to be held at the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, and is currently planning a twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. In October the University of Arkansas Press will publish Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection the magic my body becomes, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, a new award given for a first or second book of poetry by a poet of Arab heritage and cosponsered by RAWI. “Leading RAWI has always been rewarding and challenging, but it is especially so this year,” says executive director Randa Jarrar. “I’m dazzled by our community’s literary output—we have so many excellent books out this year and next, and on and on.”

RAWI’s growth hasn’t been without some pains. “The challenge is often fund-raising, and belonging to a nation that often doesn’t celebrate our work alongside us, but picks and tokenizes, or silences,” Jarrar says. Both before and after 9/11, Arab American writers have had to balance the desire to be read and recognized for the quality of their work with being hyper-visible spokespeople for their homelands while struggling to live and work amid ongoing hostility toward Arab people. With the president’s recent ban on travelers from several Arab-majority countries, Arab Americans face increased challenges. “More than ever,” Jarrar says, “I hope that RAWI can be a solace and provide its members and the Arab American literary community support and a sense of belonging and connection and resistance.”

For many writers, RAWI has done just that. “It has shown me that we exist,” says Palestinian American poet Tariq Luthun. “I think, like any population, we are at least vaguely aware of the fact that we aren’t the only ones of our kind. But seeing and experiencing this community firsthand is so vital to one’s resolve in continuing to do this work.” Emerging poet Kamelya Omayma Youssef agrees. For her, RAWI provided the foundation she needed as a writer. “Imagining that I can eventually read to a room full of people and be heard without the threat of reductive thinking or fetishization or demonization should not be as radical as it is for me today,” she says. “But it is totally radical. RAWI is that room.”        

 

Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist who lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest and the author of the poetry collection Invasive species, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. Her website is marshelal.com.        

Hayan Charara addresses attendees at the 2016 RAWI conference in Minneapolis.  (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Singapore Unbound

by

Melynda Fuller

2.15.17

Every month in New York City, thirty to forty writers and literature enthusiasts gather at the home of a fellow writer for a potluck and reading of American, international, and Singaporean literature. Established in 2014 by Singaporean writer Jee Leong Koh, these salons, called the Second Saturday Reading Series, have featured dozens of emerging and established writers from around the world and allowed Singaporean and non-Singaporean writers alike to connect over literature. Koh now hopes to expand on that cultural exchange with his new project, Singapore Unbound, which will celebrate and raise awareness about Singaporean literary culture. “We want to expand the idea of who is Singaporean,” says Koh. “You’re not Singaporean just because you’re a citizen. You’re still Singaporean if you move away, or you could be a guest worker in the country. We want to encompass both groups.” 

Launched in February, Singapore Unbound serves as the umbrella organization for the Second Saturday Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival, which was created in 2014 by Koh and writer Paul Rozario-Falcone and was last held in New York City in Fall 2016. Under the same umbrella, indie poetry publisher Bench Press will join forces with the blog Singapore Poetry, which features cross-cultural book reviews (Americans review Singaporean books, and Singaporeans review American books). Koh hopes that by aligning these projects under one organization, he can provide Singaporean writers with a “prominent and independent platform for open and free expression of their views.” 

That platform is important to protecting and advancing the literary culture of a country that has not always supported free speech. While Singapore boasts a rich stew of cultures with four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and a burgeoning indie literature landscape that showcases a diversity of cultures and ideas, literature is still restricted by the government. Although the state grants large sums of money to publishers and writers, giving them greater freedom to take risks on young writers in particular, the money comes with stipulations: The work cannot undermine governmental authority and must not advocate for what the state deems “objectionable lifestyles”—namely, those of LGBTQIA writers. In response, Singapore-based publishers like Ethos, Epigram, Landmark, and Math Paper Press have been pushing censorship boundaries for the past few years, and Koh himself doesn’t accept government funds. Kenny Leck, owner of the popular Tiong Bahru–based bookstore BooksActually, says, “At the bookstore, and with our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, we sell the titles and publish the content that most compels us. In that way, our government, the state, has no say in what we choose to do.” 

Singapore Unbound is committed not only to freedom of expression, but also to the idea that cross-cultural exchange leads to a healthier literary culture. Alfian Sa’at, who participated in the 2016 literature festival, where a portion of his five-hour epic play Hotel was performed in the United States for the first time, notes the positive impact of the kind of exchange Singapore Unbound fosters. “Having links with writers from other countries helps us learn from one another’s experiences,” he says. “For a long time I think we’ve looked toward a place like the United States for guidance on issues such as freedom of expression, how institutional solidarity in the form of something like the PEN American Center can aid writers who struggle with censorship and persecution.” Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean writer living in New York City, agrees. At the 2014 festival Tiang worked with the political arts collective Kristiania to organize a panel of two Singaporean poets alongside writers in exile from Indonesia and Nigeria. “I think the best conversations happen when people from different contexts are able to exchange ideas in this way,” says Tiang.

With the introduction of Singapore Unbound, Koh plans to further those conversations. He hopes to start a scholarship program that will pay for Singaporean writers to spend two weeks in New York during the summer to experience the culture of the city and collaborate with local writers. This past fall Koh also created a fellowship program designed to bring more voices to the organization, help it reach a wider audience, and build its online presence. “With Singapore Unbound we want to bring outstanding literature to a wide audience,” says Koh, “and by doing so liberalize our politics and sentiments.”

 

Melynda Fuller is a New York City–based writer and editor. She received her MFA from the New School and is at work on a collection of essays. Her website is melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter, @MGrace_Fuller

Correction
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Singapore Literature Festival included both a performance of Alfian Sa’at’s play Hotel in English and a panel organized by Jeremy Tiang. Alfian Sa’at’s play is actually multilingual and Jeremy Tiang organized a panel at the 2014 festival, not the 2016 festival.

Jee Leong Koh speaks at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. 

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

MacDowell Tests Virtual Residencies

by

Thea Prieto

10.7.20

In the midst of COVID-19, the country’s oldest arts residency is reimagining itself after 113 years. In August, MacDowell launched its first Virtual MacDowell “residency,” a fully online program intended to support artists and foster a sense of connection during the time of social distancing.

The decision has pushed organizers to reconsider what makes a residency valuable to artists. Since its inception MacDowell has strived to give artists a space away from their daily lives to pursue their work in the dynamic company of talented peers. Founded by composer Edward MacDowell and pianist Marian MacDowell, the program has hosted more than eight thousand artists on a former farm in Peterborough, New Hampshire, since 1907. Formerly known as the MacDowell Colony—earlier this year, the organization officially dropped the word colony from its name to, as the organization’s press release states, “remove terminology with oppressive overtones”—MacDowell has hosted writers such as Louise Erdrich, Audre Lorde, Ann Pachett, Mary Ruefle, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, in its thirty-two studios. “It has now become a place in my mind that is holy, a place for true artistic exploration and discovery,” says poet Brenda Shaughnessy, a seven-time MacDowell resident. “When I feel like I’m in that free space, even in my mind…that’s when flow happens.”

With its studios closed for the foreseeable future, MacDowell staff have focused on cultivating that sense of free space and the stimulating conversations its residency offers on virtual platforms. “We knew it wouldn’t be a residency in the same way, but it would be able to create a community,” says Philip Himberg, MacDowell’s executive director, reappraising what residencies offer beyond physical space for work. “Anyone who has been to MacDowell will say that even though they spent 80 percent of their time in their studio and maybe 20 percent of their time socially interacting, that the actual, visceral experience is fifty-fifty, that the time at dinner—which is the meal where everyone gathers formally—the exchange of ideas and the energy among people is really as meaningful to them as the time they spent in their studios.”

When the first Virtual MacDowell convened for the month of August, it was envisioned not as a replacement of the on-site MacDowell experience, but rather as an experiment, with the hopes that Virtual MacDowell might prove an essential supplement to regular programming. The eight fellows who participated represent a cross section of artistic disciplines. Each received a $1,000 stipend to help offset costs for taking time off at home. In lieu of the meals famously delivered to residents’ cottages, each artist was mailed a picnic basket filled with books, recipes, and even potted earth and seeds from the gardens, so that they might have a piece of Peterborough. The participants also received two dinner deliveries, to continue the sense of shared meals, and were given virtual tours of MacDowell’s James Baldwin Library and access to digital archives, and attended group film screenings. These online interactions occurred twice a week for four weeks, during which the participants had the opportunity to discuss their own artistic practices and daily concerns.

“That first day when we all got together on Zoom, we were really just talking about how it feels impossible right now to be creative,” says writer and Virtual MacDowell fellow Jacob Guajardo. “Hearing from someone like Brenda, who has been producing work for longer than I have, and a lot of the other people saying they feel stuck, or they have moments, these bouts of creativity—it felt great to hear that I wasn’t the only one.”

“It’s always lovely to talk to other artists,” says Shaughnessy, reflecting on the in-person experience versus working from home. “Usually you’re in a situation where you’re struggling with your own work, alone in a cabin, well nourished but very much solo…and it’s very lonely. So by the time you’re done with that for the whole day, you’re very, very happy to talk to another artist…I think [Virtual MacDowell] is trying to approximate that.”

Many residencies are similarly navigating closures and trying to engage artistic communities at a distance. Virtual VCCA, a COVID-19 initiative hosted by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, is an online platform where residency fellows, staff, and supporters share a live video series, private chats, and opportunities to present their creative work. The Vermont Studio Center’s Virtual VSC, which launched in April, features online art exhibitions, readings, and artist talks from their fellows. Himberg says a version of Virtual MacDowell is likely to run again in the fall. What was developed for the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic might have staying power beyond them: These new programs may model a more inclusive residency experience for artists who are unable to attend in-person, whether for financial or family reasons, because of available accessibility accommodations at a venue, or because they live abroad.

“There are really talented artists who, for whatever reason, cannot make the trip to MacDowell,” Himberg says. “There are many different things we think this virtual version of MacDowell might make better, and I’m hopeful that it will get more responsive to the needs of the community. That’s what is most important.”

 

Thea Prieto’s fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Longreads, the Masters Review, and other journals. The author of From the Caves (Red Hen Press, 2021), she writes and edits for Propeller and the Gravity of the Thing. Her website is theaprieto.com.

Administrative assistant Laura Hanson prepares picnic baskets to mail to residents, adapting MacDowell tradition to the new, virtual format. (Credit: Jonathan Gourlay, courtesy of MacDowell)

Save Indie Bookstores

by

Maggie Millner

6.10.20

Writers tend to have their favorite local bookstores. The one where the staff members are mostly poets. The one with the secret reading nook in which you can sit and sample the wares. The one that sells out-of-print titles from a discount bin. The one you can’t imagine your neighborhood without.

This spring, as stay-at-home orders swept the country and many such bookstores faced an uncertain financial future, best-selling novelist James Patterson partnered with the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation to launch Save Indie Bookstores, a campaign to support shops affected by the pandemic. The initiative, which began in early April, aimed to raise funds for direct grants to help stores stay solvent through the crisis. Reese’s Book Club, a virtual book group run by actor and producer Reese Witherspoon, championed the campaign; as part of the initiative’s rollout, the organization posted a video of Patterson on its Instagram channel—an account that reaches more than 1.6 million followers—publicizing Patterson’s personal donation of $500,000. (The donation is not Patterson’s first act of support for independent bookstores; since 2015 the author has given annual “holiday bonuses” totaling $1.35 million to hardworking booksellers at shops nationwide.) Author Rick Riordan, with his wife, Becky Riordan, also pledged to match donor contributions up to $100,000. By May 5, Save Indie Bookstores had raised $1,239,595, to be disbursed to all eligible bookstores that applied for grant funding. Privately owned businesses with a physical address in the United States or its territories, and that lost at least 50 percent of their sales and/or net income between March 15 and May 15, as compared with the same period last year, were eligible. The ABA says nearly one thousand shops will receive grants of at least $725 each.

Save Indie Bookstores is premised partially on the reality that many booksellers who closed their shops’ doors in response to the pandemic may never reopen them. “Given the razor-thin margins these stores operate on, you can imagine how devastating it is to be closed to the public for weeks and weeks,” says Allison K Hill, who became CEO of the ABA earlier this year, after working for over two decades as an independent bookseller. In addition to operating on slim profit margins, the indie bookselling industry has long faced fierce competition from corporate franchises and screen-based technologies. Still, local bookstores have gone through something of a resurgence in recent years. As e-book sales have fallen, and big chains have shuttered (like Borders) or been bought out (like Barnes & Noble), many indie bookstores have seen a sales growth over the past decade thanks to carefully curated shelves and community events and outreach. Last year the ABA reported its highest membership since 2009. Now the pandemic puts at risk not only booksellers’ individual businesses, but also the heartening broader uptick to which their hard work has contributed.

Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, New York, which had its strongest year in 2019, sent in an application for funding in April. “We had to lay off about three-quarters of our staff, which was utterly horrible,” says Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, who opened the store with co-owner Rebecca Fitting in 2009. Through the ABA’s e-commerce platform, IndieCommerce, Greenlight switched to online-only sales when New York City imposed stay-at-home orders; like many bookstores it also virtually hosted many of its scheduled readings and author interviews via Zoom. Stockton Bagnulo hopes federal aid and a grant from Save Indie Bookstores will allow Greenlight to eventually hire back all its staff and “reorganize very quickly.”

Second Star to the Right bookstore in Denver also applied for a grant. Before the spread of the coronavirus, the shop’s owners were finalizing plans to double the size of the store, adding a café and a new event space; since its closure in late March, they have started curbside pickup, adopted a new online business model, launched a GoFundMe campaign to offset staffing and occupancy costs, and begun hosting virtual story hours with authors. Britt Margit Hopkins, the store’s marketing and publicity manager, says that, even from afar, each staff member of Second Star to the Right is passionate about their work and strives to be “a good friend on the other side of the screen that continues to give back to their community, day after day.”

What the pandemic makes clear, ironically, is the abiding necessity of books, as well as the ineffable value of physical community. The local bookselling industry is facing an unprecedented trial at the very moment its services feel most starkly indispensable. Online conglomerates simply can’t meet the needs of an individual community the way an indie bookstore can; they can’t deliver books to elderly neighbors by bicycle, like Alsace Walentine, co-owner of Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, Florida, has done, or offer a book recommendation hotline over the phone, like Deep Vellum Books in Dallas. “Indie bookstores keep jobs and taxes in their communities,” says Hill. “They also have passionate, knowledgeable booksellers who love reading and understand that bookselling transcends retail, that it’s about relationships and connection.” 

 

Maggie Millner is a poet, a 2019–2020 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, and a senior editor of the Yale Review. Previously she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.

Alsace Walentine, co-owner of Tombolo Books in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Credit: Andrew Harlan)

A Matter of Survival for Independent Bookstores

by

Michael Bourne

3.30.20

The waves of lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders imposed across the country to slow the spread of coronavirus infections are a potential shot to the heart of independent bookstores, which have thrived in recent years by turning their shops into community hubs featuring cafés, classes, and readings. But even as scores of indie bookstores have shut their doors to the public and laid off staff, many stores continue to serve their customers via online orders and curbside pickup programs, and for now at least readers seem to be responding by buying huge numbers of books.

At Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, owner Jamie Fiocco closed her store on March 16 and switched to online sales, along with an elaborate system of curbside delivery. After North Carolina’s Governor Roy Cooper announced a statewide stay-at-home order on March 27, however, Fiocco ended the curbside delivery program, choosing to handle all phone and online orders by mail.

For the moment, the system seems to be working. Sales at the store are in line with what they were a year ago, though the expense of having offered curbside pickup as well as below-cost shipping to her customers is eating into Fiocco’s profits. She isn’t sure how long she can hold out, despite having laid off seven of her fourteen employees.

“What I’m trying to do right now is make enough money to keep my [remaining] staff paid,” she says. “At some point, I would not be surprised if we are asked to shut down by local or state government but we will keep going until then. We’ll try to keep a trickle of revenue in, but we’re really counting on government assistance to see us through to the end of this.”

Flyleaf Books is far from alone in struggling to outlast the coronavirus outbreak. The legendary Strand Book Store, located in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, had to shutter all of its operations, including its website, on March 15, forcing it to temporarily lay off much of its staff. Powell’s Books in Portland also shut down its five stores, but on March 27, CEO Emily Powell announced the store had one hundred staffers working full-time to keep up with online orders. At the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, the physical stores are closed, but a skeleton crew is still working to fulfill online orders. 

In San Francisco, Green Apple Books closed its three stores to the public on March 17 and furloughed all but nine of its forty employees, who have stayed on to handle online orders, according to co-owner Kevin Ryan. Sales from the website are ten times higher than normal, but, Ryan says, “all that web-order fulfillment is really low margin, and at first we were doing free freight which cost us three dollars for every book right off the top. Some books we even lost money on, so it’s not a great solution.”

The fallout from the virus isn’t confined to indie bookstores. As of March 27, Barnes & Noble, the nation’s largest remaining bookstore chain, had closed roughly 400 of its 627 locations, though its website has seen a huge boost in orders. James Daunt, the chain’s newly installed CEO, says he has laid off all employees with less than six months seniority and furloughed many of the rest, though he has retained a few core employees at each location to help refurbish the stores while they’re closed. (Read “Amid Pandemic, Barnes & Noble Pauses to Improve Its Stores.”)

Whether individual bookstores can survive the extended closings depends not only on how long the social distancing orders are in effect in their area, but also on how strong their balance sheets were before the outbreak, how receptive their landlords will be to delayed or reduced rental payments, and how much they’re able to rely on their websites to sell books during the closures, booksellers say. Booksellers are also counting on relief in the form of disaster grants and low-interest loans from the massive $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress, which includes $375 billion in aid for small businesses, along with $260 billion for unemployment insurance for laid off and furloughed workers.

In the meantime, a new digital bookstore, Bookshop.org, offers a way for readers to buy books online while supporting their local indie bookstore. Each time an affiliated bookstore directs a shopper to buy books from the site, the store gets a 25 percent commission on the sale. In addition, the site is putting 10 percent of all it sales revenue into a pool that will distributed twice annually to its 550 affiliated bookstores. As of March 30, that pool had grown to just under $180,000.

In the past two weeks, sales at Bookshop.org, which only opened for business in January, have jumped by more than 1,000 percent, says CEO Andy Hunter. “I think people are rallying around their local bookstores,” he says. “They understand that indies are not only important parts of their communities but really important to literary culture and the culture around books in general.”

Still, if the shutdowns last more than a few weeks, some bookstores will surely face a reckoning, says Fiocco, the ABA president. “I haven’t heard of any permanent closings yet,” she says. “There are sure to be some. I will say this, that it is as dire a situation as it could be. 

“I think there will be a lot of closings for stores that don’t have the operating capital to continue,” she adds. 

Fiocco hopes her own store can open for business as usual by June 1, though she knows the shutdown could last much longer. If the store does reopen in June, she is guardedly optimistic that she can survive.

“It depends on a lot of communications with publishers, with our landlord, and whatever governmental assistance we get,” she says. “I feel like the will is there, but I think a lot of bookstores don’t have that good will or landlords that understand the value of bookstores or have the ability to ride this out. I believe that we will be here. I don’t see the path yet, but I feel like the players are all working together to make that happen.”

In San Francisco, Kevin Ryan, Green Apple Book’s co-owner, says he’s heartened by the federal stimulus bill, which he hopes will allow the store to delay paying rent for a few months and help his staff weather the shutdown. “If all the money comes through like it sounds like it might and we’re able to rehire them in mid April, I don’t think they’ll miss a paycheck, he says. 

Like Fiocco, Ryan believes Green Apple will eventually reopen, but he remains uncertain how robust business will be in the wake of the economic damage the pandemic is sure to leave behind. 

“We’re a pretty healthy business,” he says. “If we’re closed, it means everybody’s closed, and I just don’t see that happening. One way or another we’re going to open. The bigger question mark is what it’s going to look like on the other side, with the massive unemployment and all that, if people are going to come back and buy books. That’s a real question mark.”

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Authors Reimagine Live Events During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by

Michael Bourne

3.23.20

Six years ago, when Emily St. John Mandel published Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014), her best-selling novel about a pandemic flu that decimated the world’s population, she couldn’t have known that her next novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf, 2020), would arrive at the height of a pandemic flu outbreak that, if not as lethal as the fictional “Georgia flu” of her earlier book, is nevertheless upending the world economy—and, not incidentally, her twenty-five-city book tour.

“Yeah, irony, right?” Mandel says with a rueful chuckle. “I maintain that this is nowhere near as bad as the Georgia flu. We’re not going to end our days in traveling Shakespearean theater companies crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

Perhaps not, but the coronavirus pandemic has radically disrupted the book business, setting off waves of bookstore closures and book festival cancellations, making it nearly impossible for authors like Mandel to tour in support of their books. For now these closures and cancellations are only affecting books published this spring, but if the national lockdowns continue, it could send lasting shockwaves through the always fragile publishing ecosystem. 

Already, though, authors and booksellers are teaming up to shift canceled live events online using digital tools like Zoom and Facebook Live. Mandel herself will be participating in a live digital Q&A Tuesday, March 24, with author Isaac Fitzgerald, hosted by Brooklyn’s Greenlight Books, where Mandel was originally scheduled to launch her book in person. The same night, a new organization, A Mighty Blaze, run by writers Jenna Blum and Caroline Leavitt, will be featuring Facebook Live events for Laura Zigman’s new novel Separation Anxiety (Ecco, 2020) and Andrea Bartz’s novel The Herd (Ballantine, 2020), along with a slate of debut authors.

It remains to be seen how effective these digital book events will be, especially for smaller presses that rely on in-person events at bookstores and festivals to introduce their authors to readers, says Mary Gannon, executive director of the Community of Literary Magazine and Presses. “I think everybody is trying to pivot and reinvent as quickly as possible just to experiment with how these events might work,” she says. “So it’s hard to tell at this point if digital events can make up for canceled live ones, but there’s kind of nothing else to do.”

No matter how successful these digital events are, virus-related lockdown orders and restrictions on in-person gatherings will hurt authors and the book industry more generally, Gannon says. When fears of infection slashed attendance at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference earlier in March, she says, many of the small presses in her organization saw sales for the month drop by as much as 20 or 30 percent, just from the loss of in-person sales from that one event.

“I think there’s going to be serious negative impact on both small and large publishers, but the smaller publishers are the ones that are more at risk because they have fewer resources,” she says. “It’s especially important right now for us to support literary magazines and small presses in any way we can. They’re essential to ensuring the health and diversity of the literary arts.”

Indeed, Paul Bogaards, deputy publisher at Knopf and Pantheon Books, offers a slightly more sanguine view of the disruption to live author events. At Knopf and Pantheon, imprints of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, which is a part of Penguin Random House, Bogaards says, all book tours have been canceled or postponed through the end of April, which impacts about a dozen titles at just those two imprints. “I can’t speak for the industry, but given the CDC protocols in place, no one is touring,” he says. “Physical gatherings are kaput. Boots-on-the-ground book tours are dead for the moment.”

But, he says, critics haven’t stopped reviewing books, authors continue to sit for interviews, and publishers are able to maintain their social media campaigns. “Touring is just one spoke in the wheel of book promotion and publicity,” he says, “and, in point of fact, publishers are doing less of it than they once did.”

Bogaards is encouraged by upticks in sales of commercial fiction and topical nonfiction, along with titles that touch directly on contagious diseases like Stephen King’s The Stand (Doubleday, 1978), Albert Camus’s The Plague (Gallimard, 1947), and Mandel’s Station Eleven. Publishers are hoping the enforced down-time will spark renewed interest in their classic titles. To that end, Knopf and Pantheon are launching social media initiatives designed to prompt readers toward its backlist catalog. “I mean, if you are under a government-ordered lockdown, what better way to travel than through the pages of a book?” he says.

In the meantime, authors at small and large publishers are exploring digital alternatives to live events. Blum and Leavitt, the organizers behind A Mighty Blaze, were among the first to see the need for a hub for writers whose book tours were stranded by the pandemic. The idea for the site came about after Leavitt, author of twelve books, including With or Without You, due out in August from Algonquin, learned that the Texas Library Association Conference, where she had been invited to appear, had to cancel and move its offerings online.

“I had spent a lot of time memorizing what I thought was a funny speech, with hand movements and everything,” she says. “I made a video of it and I sent it to Algonquin just for a lark, and they liked it so much they said, ‘Ooh, we can send that out.’ So I started the ‘Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour,’ where I told authors to make little videos and I’d post them as if they were in a bookstore. All I asked is that they shout out another writer and shout out an indie bookstore.”

The site took off, and Leavitt quickly joined forces with Blum, author of The Lost Family (HarperCollins, 2018). Calling themselves “two women writers in yoga pants trying to help other writers whose book tours have been canceled,” the pair has already attracted more than fifty industry partners, including Poets & Writers and two hundred author participants.

“It’s grown exponentially every day,” says Blum. “I would say it’s been growing faster than COVID. We’ve been having so many writers join us, and so many industry people from publishers to publicists to agents to indie bookstores to literary conferences and festivals—everybody wants to help.”

Still, digital events aren’t for everyone. Poet Tess Taylor is publishing two collections this spring, Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and Rift Zone, due from Red Hen Press in April. Taylor was able to attend a reading for Last West at MoMA in February, but most of the subsequent events for that book, along with twenty-five more events planned for Rift Zone, have all been canceled.

The two books contained a decade’s worth of poems, Taylor says, and she spent a year organizing the events to support them. “It feels like building a sandcastle,” she says. “You know, you build it up and up and up and then a wave comes and it knocks it down. I don’t know if I’m sad or angry. I’m all those things, and then sometimes I’m just humbled because what’s going on is so much bigger than just us or me.”

Living as she does in California, which is currently under a shelter-in-place order, Taylor says she will be throwing herself a digitally streamed “imaginary book party” with fellow poet Judy Halebsky, inviting friends “to have a glass of wine and watch us give our reading” online, and plans to regularly post poems by poets she admires. But she admits to feeling ambivalent about moving her live events online.

“I’m using social media because I want to be in a community right now at this moment when we can’t go out in the world, but I love people,” she says. “I love human beings. I really miss them. I love bookstores and want to support them. I love the feeling of live poetry, having it read, being in a room where someone is sharing their words and their breath with you—in the most wonderful way, not in a toxic way. Poetry is a beautiful way of sharing breath, and I miss that.”

 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

From top: Emily St. John Mandel, author of Glass Hotel; Caroline Leavitt, cofounder of A Mighty Blaze and author of With or Without You; and Tess Taylor, author of Rift Zone.

(Credit: Mandel: Michel Leroy; Leavitt: Jeff Tamarkin; Taylor: Taylor Schreiner)

Resources for Writers in the Time of Coronavirus

8.11.20

As writers, teachers, publishers, booksellers, and librarians in our local, national, and international communities grapple with how to proceed in their creative, financial, professional, and personal lives during this time of uncertainty, we are compiling a list of resources we hope you will find useful. We will be updating this list as we learn of new resources and opportunities. (If you know about an opportunity, initiative, or helpful resource not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) 

 

Financial Resources

The Academy of American Poets, the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, and the National Book Foundation have established the Literary Arts Emergency Fund to help writing organizations outlast the coronavirus pandemic. With the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the three nonprofits will administer a total of $3.5 million via one-time grants of $5,000 to $50,000. Applications were accepted through August 7.

The Poets & Writers COVID-19 Relief Fund provides emergency assistance to writers having difficulty meeting their basic needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial round of funding, Poets & Writers distributed 107 grants of $1,000 each to writers from twenty-six states. A second round of funding, in which the organization expects to be able to distribute grants of $1,000 to approximately thirty writers, closed on June 28.

The initiative Artists Relief, sponsored by a coalition of arts grantmakers—the Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists—will award a total of $10 million, half of which was contributed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to artists and writers “facing dire financial emergencies due to the impact of COVID-19.” Applicants who are twenty-one or older, able to receive taxable income in the United States regardless of their citizenship status, and have lived and worked primarily in the United States over the last two years are eligible to apply for $5,000 grants. Artists Relief will also serve as an informational resource, and will collaborate with Americans for the Arts to launch the “COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers.”

The Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, sponsored by the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), helps established freelance writers “who cannot work because they are currently ill or caring for someone who is ill.” Applicants need not be members of the ASJA but must have five published articles from regional or national publications or one book published by a major publishing house.

Authors League Fund offers assistance to professional authors, journalists, and poets who “find themselves in financial need because of medical or health-related problems, temporary loss of income, or other misfortune.” 

Carnegie Fund for Authors awards “grants to published authors who are in need of emergency financial assistance as a result of illness or injury to self, spouse, or dependent child, or who has had some other misfortune that has placed the applicant in pressing and substantial pecuniary need.”

The PEN America Writers’ Emergency Fund distributes grants of $500 to $1,000 to U.S.-based professional writers, including fiction and nonfiction authors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, translators, and journalists, who demonstrate an acute financial need, especially one resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Artist Relief Tree is “set up to collect donations from those of us with the means to help. We intend to support artists, particularly freelance artists, in a small way. Unfortunately we cannot hope to replace artists’ entire fees or lost work, but we wish to provide hope, make a small difference, and show solidarity with colleagues and Friends.” A group of artists—Andrew Crooks, Marco Cammarota, Morgan Brophy, Rachel Stanton, Tehvon Fowler-Chapman, and Thomas Morris—organized the fund. Note: This group is not taking new requests for funds at the moment.

Queer Writers of Color Relief Fund, started by Luther Hughes, founder of Shade Literary Arts, seeks to “help at least 100 queer writers of color who have been financially impacted by the current COVID-19. Priority will be given to queer trans women of color and queer disabled writers of color, but I hope this relief fund will help as many queer writers of color as it can.”

The Creator Fund, from the e-mail marketing company ConvertKit, is offering financial assistance of up to $500 for artists and small business owners—the term “creator” is loosely defined. The mini-grants can be used for groceries, childcare, rent, mortgage or medical expenses. The Fund, which will disburse $185,300 in total, is now closed to new applications after receiving more than sixteen thousand applications.

The Dramatist Guild Foundation’s Emergency Grants are available to “individual playwrights, composers, lyricists, and book writers in dire need of funds due to severe hardship or unexpected illness.” The grants, which typically range between $500 and $3,000, are intended to support expenses related to healthcare, childcare, housing, disability, natural disaster relief, and other unforeseen circumstances. Applicants will be notified in two to four weeks.

Substack, an e-mail newsletter platform, will administer a total of $100,000 to individuals “writing, or thinking about writing, on Substack” through its Independent Writer Grant Program. Individuals who are experiencing economic hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic can apply for grants from $500 to $5,000, in addition to mentorship from the Substack team. Applications are open through April 7. (It is free to join Substack and start an e-mail newsletter; if you decide to charge your audience a subscription fee, Substack takes 10 percent.) 

The Freelancers Relief Fund, organized by the Freelancers Union, will offer “financial assistance of up to $1,000 per freelance household to cover lost income and essential expenses not covered by government relief programs” including food supplies, utility payments, and cash assistance to cover lost income. Freelancers who reside in the United States, derive most of their income from freelance work, and have experienced “a sudden decrease of at least 50 percent of income as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic” are eligible. Applications have been temporarily closed due to the overwhelming response the fund received from its community.

We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) will administer emergency grants of $500 through the WNDB Emergency Fund for Diverse Creatives in Children’s Publishing to “diverse authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals who are experiencing dire financial need.” Traditionally published writers and illustrators who have lost income due to canceled festival, school, or library visits, are eligible, as are furloughed publishing professionals—editors, agents, publicists, designers, and sales positions—who work in the field of children’s literature. Only U.S. residents are eligible. Applicants should receive a response in two to three weeks.

The Maurice Sendak Foundation has dedicated $100,000 to the new Maurice Sendak Emergency Relief Fund, which will be administered by the New York Foundation for the Arts. The fund will offer grants of up to $2,500 to children’s picture book artists and writers who “have experienced financial hardship from loss of income as a direct result of the [COVID-19] crisis.”  Children’s picture book artists and/or writers who have published at least one picture book in the last five years and are residents of the United States or U.S. territories are eligible. Applications will open on April 23 and close after six hundred applications are received; grantees will be notified by May 15.

As part of its response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) offers emergency hardship grants of $500 to $1,500 to professional journalists based in the United States. EHRP will prioritize the unemployed, single parents, members of one-income families with young children, and people with acute medical needs over the age of fifty-five. Applications are reviewed on an ongoing basis. EHRP also accepts pitches from independent journalists for stories on “the intersection of the coronavirus and financial suffering in America, with an emphasis on writers and photographers who are themselves experiencing significant economic hardship caused by the pandemic.” EHRP typically pays reporters roughly a dollar a word or $300 to $500 a day for photojournalists.

The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA) has established a temporary Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund to “meet the needs of experimental artists who have been impacted by the economic fallout from postponed or canceled performances and exhibitions.” Individual artists who make “work of a contemporary, experimental nature,” live in the United States or U.S. territories, and have a U.S. Tax ID number are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. FCA supports artists working in poetry, dance, music/sound, performance art/theater, and the visual arts. Applications are open through May 31.

 

Location-Specific Financial Resources

The California Relief Fund for Artists and Cultural Practitioners program, created by the California Arts Council in response to the economic crisis and impending financial needs of individual artists resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, will award a total of $920,000 via unrestricted $1,000 rapid-relief grants to more than 900 individual artists and cultural practitioners in the state of California. “Grants will be distributed to reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of the state of California—including those who are of historically underserved communities who are especially vulnerable financially due to this economic crisis.” Applicants must be current, full-time residents of the state of California, artists or cultural practitioners; and must not be eligible for or currently receiving traditional California state unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The application deadline is August 18 at 3 PM PDT.

Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon, has created the Booth Emergency Fund for Writers “to provide meaningful financial relief to Oregon’s writers, including cartoonists, spoken word poets, and playwrights.” Awards of $1,000 each will be given to 100 writers at the end of the application period, which runs through May 13. (If additional funds are secured for this purpose, Literary Arts may open up a second round of applications later in June.) Since COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, Literary Arts is prioritizing funding “for writers identifying as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color.” Funds are intended to be used for (but are not limited to) recouping financial losses due to canceled events, offsetting loss of income for teachers, and support for artists working full- or part-time in the service industry “or other professions who have lost income.” 

The Boston Artist Relief Fund “will award grants of $500 and $1,000 to individual artists who live in Boston whose creative practices and incomes are being adversely impacted by Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19).”

The Oregon Science Fiction Convention’s Clayton Memorial Medical Fund helps professional science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery writers living in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska deal with the financial burden of medical expenses.

NC Artists Relief Fund, sponsored by Artspace, PineCone, United Arts Council, and VAE Raleigh, supports “creative individuals who have been financially impacted by gig cancellations due to the outbreak of COVID-19.” All donated funds “will go directly to artists and arts presenters in North Carolina. Musicians, visual artists, actors, DJ’s, dancers, teaching artists, filmmakers, comedians, and other creative individuals and arts presenters are experiencing widespread cancellations due to this global pandemic.”

The Safety Net Fund is offering financial support to artists who typically make their living offline, at in-person events and performances. To qualify, you must reside in the Bay Area (or near it, as some San Joaquin and Santa Cruz county zip codes are eligible), provide proof of an artistic endeavor in the last six months, cannot be eligible for unemployment insurance from the state, and must have earned less than $1,000 of income in the last thirty days.

The San Francisco Arts & Artists Relief Fund, cosponsored by the Center for Cultural Innovation, San Francisco Arts Commission, and Grants for the Arts, offers funds to “mitigate COVID-19 related financial losses that artists and small to mid-sized arts and culture organizations have suffered.” Individuals based in San Francisco who are eligible for, or currently on employment, are eligible for grants of up to $2,000. Organizations that conduct a majority of their work in San Francisco and operate on a budget of less than $2 million are eligible for grants of up to $25,000.

The Personal Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by Springboard for the Arts, helps artists in Minnesota “recover from personal emergencies by helping pay an unanticipated, emergency expense.” Artists can request up to $500 for lost income “due to the cancellation of a specific, scheduled gig or opportunity (i.e. commissions, performances, contracts) due to coronavirus/COVID-19 precautionary measures.” 

Max Kansas City’s Emergency Grants offers grants of up to $1,000 to New York State residents who are professionals in the creative arts. “Individuals who have made their living through their art form either professionally or personally and demonstrate a financial need for medical aid, legal aid, or housing” are eligible.

The NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, organized by Shawn Escarciga and Nadia Tykulsker, offers grants of up to $150 to “low-income, BIPOC, trans/GNC/NB/Queer artists and freelancers whose livelihoods are being affected by this pandemic in NYC.”

The New Orleans Business Alliance’s Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $1,000 to “meet the needs of gig economy workers who have been directly impacted via loss of income.” Writers who live in New Orleans, earn more than 60 percent of their income via gig-work, and are below a certain income level are eligible.

Artist Trust’s COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund offers grants of $500 to $5,000 to “artists whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19” and are residents of Washington State. The grants are intended to help artists who are coping with lost wages and earnings, lost income from canceled events and performances, medical expenses, rent and mortgage payments, food, utilities, and other living expenses.

The Indy Arts & Culture COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, sponsored by a coalition of community funders and the Arts Council of Indianapolis, offers $500 grants to “individuals working in the arts sector and impacted by the current public health crisis,” especially those working at small to mid-sized nonprofit arts and cultural organizations. Applicants must live in Marion or one of the seven surrounding counties in Indiana.

The Cultural Relief Fund offers grants of up to $2,000 to individuals in the Seattle area for “emergencies related to the COVID-19 virus and to support the creative responses cultural workers offer in times of crisis.” The first round of funding was available April 1 through May 15. Applications are reviewed weekly; applicants will be notified within ten business days. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Emergency Fund for Artists offers grants of up to $500 to artists dealing with financial losses due to canceled events, canceled classes, or school closures. Artists who live in Pittsburgh (in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Lawrence, Indiana, Greene, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties) are eligible. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

The Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund, financed by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), and the Royal Bank of Canada, will distribute $150,000 to writers in Canada that have “seen contracted or projected income evaporate due to the current public health crisis.” Poets, fiction writers, nonfiction writers, and young adult writers with a track record of publication (or self-published writers who are members of TWUC) who will lose more than $1,500 between March and May 2020 are eligible to apply for grants of $1,500. The application deadline was April 9.

The Atlanta Artist Lost Gig Fund, administered by the arts nonprofit C4 Atlanta, offers grants of up to $500 to artists in the Atlanta area who “have unmet essential needs due to lost revenue from canceled upcoming events and gigs.” Artists who make their living from their practice are eligible.

The Culture Connects Coalition Artist Relief Fund, cosponsored by the City of Santa Fe Arts and Culture Department and the Lannan Foundation, will administer grants of $500 to artists who live in Santa Fe County and have suffered financial losses due to canceled events, including  readings, panels, and teaching opportunities. Priority will be given to requests from Black/Indigenous/People of Color, transgender and nonbinary artists, and/or artists with disabilities. The current round of applications is open until May 17; the next round of applications will open on June 1.

 

Resources for Working Remotely

Zoom: “How do I host a video meeting?”

Vimeo: “How to plan a virtual event: Vimeo’s live production experts tell all”

Creative Capital: “Thinking About Livestreaming as an Artist? Read This First.” Artists Yara Travieso and Brighid Greene describe how to approach livestreaming and survey platforms available to writers: Instagram, HowIRound, Vimeo, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and Zoom.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers advice for teaching during the coronavirus, including Moving Online Now: How to Keep Teaching During Coronavirus, a collection of articles, advice, and opinion pieces on online learning; “The Quandary: How Do I Support a Student Who’s Sick With Covid-19?”; “Eight Ways to Be More Inclusive in Your Zoom Teaching”; and more.

The National Endowment for the Arts has put together a list of ways to create an inclusive experience for virtual and digital events. “Resources to Help Ensure Accessibility of Your Virtual Events for People with Disabilities” includes information about captioning, sign language interpretation, virtual platform accessibility features, and more. 

 

Resources for Booksellers

The American Booksellers Association’s Coronavirus Resources for Booksellers includes immediate steps to take during the outbreak, ABA initiatives during the outbreak, and opportunities for financial assistance.

Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) offers assistance “for the medical expenses of booksellers and to help booksellers in specific cases where store closure and/or loss of scheduled pay leads to the inability to pay essential household bills for an individual or family.”

The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign fund—organized by James Patterson, Reese’s Book Club, the ABA, and Binc—will administer financial assistance to independent bookstores, “the hearts and souls of main streets in cities and towns all across the United States.” Applications will be open from April 10 to April 27.

 

Resources for Librarians

The Help a Library Worker Out (HALO) Fund, organized by the nonprofit EveryLibrary Institute, will administer grants of up to $250 to library workers, librarians, and library staff who are “experiencing personal or household financial difficulties during this time of crisis.” Individuals who reside in the United States or U.S. territories and have lost work or experienced a significant wage reduction—or are part of a household in which a member has lost their job or seen their income reduced—are eligible. HALO grants can be used toward personal expenses such as food, rent or mortgage payments, cell phone and internet expenses, medicine, or household needs. Grants are made on a rolling basis.

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Pandemic Preparedness page includes news on how librarians are dealing with the pandemic, professional development and training resources, and lists of federal, state, and local resources. The ALA also hosts free webinars on topics such as considering copyright during a crisis, navigating the impact of COVID-19 on library technical services, using a library’s virtual presence to reach users with disabilities, and more.

 

Resources for Readers and Writers

The New York Public Library is offering expanded access to its online research databases. Research librarians and curators are also available for online consultations.

Audible has assembled a free collection of audiobooks, including literary classics and books for young readers. 

Many university presses and other not-for-profit publishers are collaborating with Project MUSE to offer free access to books and journals. 

Independent publisher Archipelago Books is unlocking access to thirty e-books through April 2.

As usual, the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation, among other organizations, offer free-to-access poetry archives.

The editors at Brightly, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, have assembled “Reading Through It Together,” a set of educational resources and reading exercises for children and teens.

In partnership with Simon & Schuster, the Folger Shakespeare Library is sharing resources from its video and audio recordings archive—including footage of the Folger Theatre’s 2008 production of MacBeth—through July 1. 

The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, Florida, is making five of its most popular online courses in comics and graphic storytelling available for free.

Calamari Press has made digital copies of all its book titles, as well as back issues of Sleepingfish literary magazine, available for free.

Writer Suleika Jaouad has organized a daily creativity project, the Isolation Journals, through which she sends daily journaling prompts via e-mail from some of her favorite writers, artists, and musicians, including Elizabeth Gilbert, Erin Khar, Esmé Weijun Wang, Georgia Clark, Hallie Goodman, Ilya Kaminsky, Jen Pastiloff, Jon Batiste, Jordan Kisner, Kiese Laymon, Lily Brooks-Dalton, Mari Andrew, Melissa Febos, Nora McInerney, Rachel Cargle, Ruthie Lindsey, and more. 

The Authors Guild posted their webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process.  

As usual, Poets & Writers offers weekly writing inspiration through The Time Is Now, which features writing prompts in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and Writers Recommend, through which authors share the rituals, art, books, music, movies, and habits that get them writing. 

 

Other Resources

NYC Covid Care, a volunteer network of more than 2,500 mental health professionals, life coaches, spiritual care providers, organizers, and crisis line operators based in New York City, offers free support to those in crisis. All essential workers and their families based in the New York City Metro Area are eligible to participate. Applicants will be contacted by a volunteer professional via phone or video-conference for a confidential consultation.

COVID-19 Freelance Artists Resources is “an aggregated list of FREE resources, opportunities, and financial relief options available to artists of all disciplines.”

Creative Capital’s List of Arts Resources During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Kickstarter’s COVID-19 Coronavirus Artist Resources

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Emergency Grants Page

BOMB magazine’s COVID-19 Artist Resources and Closing the Distance: New Spaces for Community, an “ongoing list of online tools, workshops, and livestreams to keep you company and engaged in the time of COVID-19.”

National Endowment for the Arts COVID-19 Resources for Artists and Arts Organizations

Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts has compiled a national directory of organizations that offer legal services to artists, some of which are provided pro bono. Membership and processing fees vary by organization.

The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses COVID-19 Resources for Indie Publishers lists emergency grants and resources available to independent publishers and other literary stakeholders.

Just Shelter, a project started by Evicted author Matthew Desmond and Tessa Lowinske Desmond, offers a state-by-state directory of more than six hundred organizations that work to “preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness.” 

The Authors Guild posted its webinar “Coronavirus Relief Programs for Authors and Freelancers,” featuring Mary Rasenberger and Umair Kazi, the Authors Guild’s executive director and director of policy and advocacy, respectively, and Marcum LLP partner Robert Pesce. The trio covers “how authors and freelancers can benefit from the government relief programs for economic assistance during the coronavirus crisis.” They discuss qualification criteria for unemployment, loan terms, and other information about the process. 

The Whiting Foundation offers notes from financial guru and artist Amy Smith’s April webinars “Unemployment Compensation for Freelancers and Self-Employed Individuals,” “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Organization,” and “Applying for PPP and EIDL Relief as an Individual.”

 

Cancellations and Postponements: Retreats and Contests Affected by the Crisis

6.19.20

As event organizers across the literary community adapt and change plans to help keep us all well, we are compiling a list of canceled and postponed conferences, residencies, and award deadlines. (If you know about a cancellation or award not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.) Be sure to check back for updates.

 

Cancelled or Postponed Conferences and Festivals

The Bay Area Book Festival, originally planned for May 2 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for May 1 to May 2, 2021. Beginning May 1, 2020, the festival will also offer virtual programming as the Bay Area Book Festival Unbound, featuring live and recorded events held through the festival’s YouTube channel.  Visit the festival’s website for additional information on both the rescheduled festival and this year’s virtual programming.

The Conversations & Connections conference, sponsored by Barrelhouse magazine and originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, Barrelhouse staff have organized the Spring 2020 Read-In and Write-In, featuring an online book group and an online workshop with guest lectures from writers and editors as well as generative writing “sprint” sessions. Visit the Barrelhouse website for information on these online events, and visit the conference’s website for additional information on the conference cancellation.

The Granta & Wesleyan Writers Conference, originally planned for June 24 to June 28, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 23 to June 27, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iceland Writers Retreat, originally planned for April 29 to May 3, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for addtional information.

The Indiana University Writers’ Conference, originally planned for May 30 to June 3, 2020, has been canceled. The conference will be held again in 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival, originially planned for June and July 2020, has been canceled. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, and visit its Facebook page for writing prompts from festival instructors in coming weeks. 

The Jackson Hole Writers Conference, originally planned for June 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, starting in late April 2020, select components of the originally scheduled programming will be offered online, including workshops, panels, and manuscript critiques. Visit the conference’s website for additional information on the cancellation and on alternative online programming.

The Los Angeles Festival of Books, originally planned for April 18 to April 19, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 3 to October 4, 2020. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Summer Writers’ Conference, originally planned for June 7 to June 13, 2020, and from June 14 to June 20, 2020, has been rescheduled for June 6 to June 12, 2021, and from June 13 to June 19, 2021. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Nantucket Book Festival, originally planned for June 18 to June 21, 2020, has been canceled as an in-person event in downtown Nantucket, Massachusetts. A virtual festival featuring guest writers will be offered instead. A festival celebrating local writers will also be planned for later in the year. Visit the festival’s website for additional infomation on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference and local writers’ festival.

The North Carolina Writers’ Network Spring Conference, originally planned for April 18, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the North Carolina Writers’ Network will offer the North Carolina Writers’ Network Cabin Fever Conference from April 16 to April 18, 2020, a virtual conference featuring “630 minutes of high-quality, socially-distant instruction in the craft and business of writing.” Visit the organization’s website for additional information on the cancellation as well as the virtual conference. 

The NYC Writer’s Hotel Poetry Weekend, originally planned for May 21 to May 25, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 22 to October 26, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The NYC Writer’s Hotel All-Fiction Writers Conference, originally planned for June 3 to June 9, 2020, has been rescheduled for October 14 to October 18, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Orion Enviromental Writers’ Workshop, originally planned for June 21 to June 26, 2020, has been canceled. The workshop will be offered instead in a reimagined, “more intimate” format from October 25 to October 30, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Poetry at Round Top festival, originally planned for April 24 to April 26, 2020, has been canceled. The festival will be held again from April 16 to April 18, 2021. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Sarah Lawrence College Publish and Promote Your Book Conference, originally planned for June 13, 2020, has been postponed. Visit the conference’s website for additional information, including updates on rescheduling.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, originally planned for July 21 to August 2, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Split This Rock Poetry Festival, originally planned for March 26 to March 28, 2020, has been canceled. In response to the cancellation, the festival will be offering online programming including a virtual bookfair, readings, and free workshops. Visit the festival’s website for additional information, including virtual event details.

The 50th anniversary Squaw Valley Writers Workshops, originally planned for July 6 to July 13, 2020, have been postponed to July 5 to July 12, 2021. The 2020 summer workshops in fiction, nonfiction, and memoir have been canceled; the 2020 summer workshop in poetry will be offered online as the “Virtual Valley” from June 20 to June 27, 2020. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

The Tin House Summer Workshop, originally planned for July 12 to July 19, 2020, as an in-person event on the Reed College campus in Portland, Oregon, has been reimagined as a virtual workshop. The virtual program in short fiction and novel writing will be held from July 12 to July 18, 2020. The virtual program in poetry, nonfiction, and the graphic novel will be held from July 19 to July 26, 2020. Visit the workshop’s website for additional information.

The Wordplay festival, originally planned for May 9, 2020, as an in-person event at the Loft Literary Center and adjacent spaces in Minneapolis, has been reimagined as a virtual festival. The virtual festival will be offered from April 7, 2020, to May 9, 2020, and will feature events with more than 100 authors. This programming is offered in conjuction with the Boston Book Festival, Bronx Book Festival, Wisconsin Book Festival, Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, and other festivals. Visit the festival’s website for additional information.

The Wyoming Writers Conference, originally planned for June 5 to June 7, 2020, has been canceled. Visit the conference’s website for additional information.

 

Canceled or Postponed Contest Deadlines

The deadline for the 2020 Crook’s Corner Book Prize, sponsored by the Crook’s Corner Book Prize Foundation, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the foundation’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize has been extended for books published between January 1 and June 30. Previously, books published during the first half of the year were required to be submitted by a deadline of June 30, 2020; this deadline has been waived. The deadline for all submissions is now December 31, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition has been extended. The new deadline is September 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 Montreal International Poetry Prize, sponsored by McGill University, has been extended. The new deadline is June 1, 2020. Visit the competition’s website for additional information.

The deadline for the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History, sponsored by PEN America, has been extended. Thew new deadline is August 1, 2020. Visit PEN America’s website for additional information.

The 2020 Troubadour International Poetry Prize, sponsored by Coffee-House Poetry, has been rescheduled. The prize, originally scheduled this year as a spring contest, has been rescheduled with a deadline of September 28, 2020; visit the Coffee-House Poetry website for additional information.

 

Amid Pandemic, Barnes & Noble Pauses to Improve Its Stores

by

Michael Bourne

3.30.20

Can a pandemic that shutters nearly two-thirds of a nationwide bookstore chain’s locations have a silver lining? If that bookstore chain is Barnes & Noble, quite possibly it could.

The chain, which was bought out last year by New York–based hedge fund Elliot Management, was in the process of overhauling its stores before the coronavirus hit this spring, says CEO James Daunt. Now, with roughly 400 of the chain’s 627 stores temporarily closed to help slow the spread of the pandemic, that work can continue in relative peace.

“Our stores are pretty terrible, we know that,” Daunt says. “We don’t shy away from that fact and certainly I don’t shy away from articulating that fact. To make them better bookstores, we really have to do a lot of work and some of that is physical work, moving the interiors around and changing the layout and the presentation of the stores, making them more open, easier to navigate, and frankly just better looking bookstores. And that, ironically, is a lot easier to do when you don’t have any customers in the way.”

Not that Daunt looks upon the wave of temporary closures at Barnes & Noble as good news. He has had to lay off all employees with less than six months seniority and furlough many others, actions he calls “traumatic” but necessary to trim costs while the stores are closed to the public.

“It’s desperately difficult. None of us have any idea how long this will go on for. If President Trump is correct and we’re back in business by Easter, then really, we don’t have a particular problem. It’s a nasty shock, but it’s not a problem, and very few people, if any, will ultimately lose their jobs. If it extends further, then evidently they will,” he says. (Trump has since extended social-distancing guidelines through April 30.) “If you have no money coming in, then your liabilities become a significant issue and we have to cut costs to ensure the survival of the business, and that will include unfortunately our staff as well as all the other discretionary expenditures that we have available to cut back on.”

But Daunt, who also runs the bookstore chain Waterstones as well as his own smaller independent chain, Daunt Books, in the U.K., has retained a core team of experienced booksellers at many shuttered Barnes & Noble locations and plans to use the time provided by the enforced closures to spruce up the stores and improve the selection of books on the shelves.

“The backlist at Barnes & Noble has really deteriorated over the last decade and the cumulative impact is that we have pretty shockingly poorly stocked stores,” he says. “Before this crisis, we had already embarked on a process of using the holiday sales to empty them out to a degree just to give us space, and what we were intending to do with that liberation of space is then pile back in the backlist that was missing and start to re-curate the stores.”

This work has been seen by book-industry observers as desperately overdue for Barnes & Noble, which had to close 150 stores in the decade leading up to the buyout last summer in the face of competition from Amazon and newly resurgent independent bookstores. The enormous selection of books at its larger stores, which helped spur the chain’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s, had become a liability in an era when customers can buy books from a warehouse by clicking a few buttons on their smartphones.

Daunt, who oversaw a similar overhaul at Waterstones over the past decade, strenuously denies the make-over at Barnes & Noble will entail abandoning a large number of under-performing locations. 

“If I could get a dollar for every time I was told I would close a hundred stores I would be a very rich man, but in fact I have a huge motivation to keep as many bookstores open as possible,” he says. “I believe in the profession, I believe in the vocation, I believe in the purpose and worth of bookstores within communities. That said, there is a clear case for closing a reasonably large number of stores because they’re just too big or too old, too this, too that, but we’d only do that if we could relocate. What we’ve done at Waterstones is actually close a very substantial number of stores but open up a larger number of stores. We haven’t deserted any locations. We’ve just moved.”

Over time, Daunt hopes the chain can find new locations that will better reflect the market for books in a given area. “So often it’s driven by the property—what’s the right size of store for a particular location, and certainly there are a number of Barnes & Noble stores which are either in the wrong place and they should be down the freeway or across the mall or in a slightly better location, or they’re just too big,” he says. “We’ve got a 25,000-square-foot store when a 20,000-square-foot store would be a much better size to have.”

While the widespread closures will eat into Barnes & Noble’s revenues in the short run, Daunt says the chain’s deep-pocketed ownership group will help it weather the crisis. It helps, he says, that business was unusually brisk at many of the chain’s locations before the shutdowns and that sales via the company’s website are currently running three or four times higher than normal.

“Our financing is not as bleak as perhaps our financial situation might have led one to think,” he says. “We just have to be pragmatic and sensible and we need an owner who’s prepared to let us continue to invest.”

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

James Daunt was named Barnes & Noble’s CEO in August 2019.

The Future of Barnes & Noble

by

Michael Bourne

8.14.19

Can James Daunt save Barnes & Noble? This is the question on the minds of publishing insiders in the wake of news earlier this summer that a hedge fund had bought Barnes & Noble for $683 million and installed Daunt, who oversaw the successful turnaround of the British book chain Waterstones, as the new CEO of the largest surviving bookstore chain in the United States.

Daunt will certainly have his work cut out for him. Facing withering competition from the online retailer Amazon as well as from newly resurgent independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble has shuttered 150 stores over the past decade—at its peak, in 2008, the chain operated 726 stores nationwide—and seen its stock price plummet from $30 a share in 2006 to just $4 a share before it was bought in June by New York City–based Elliott Management.

But Madeline McIntosh, CEO of Penguin Random House in the United States, says she is heartened that the chain will now be helmed by Daunt, a former JP Morgan banker who founded Daunt Books, a small British bookstore chain, before taking over at Waterstones in 2011. “He was an independent bookseller in the U.K. and then became the head of Waterstones, and I think that having that depth of experience should give us all a sense of optimism,” McIntosh says.

Once pilloried for crowding out quirky independent bookstores with its mall-based superstores, Barnes & Noble is now viewed by writers and publishing industry experts as a bulwark against Amazon, the online behemoth that now claims more than half of all sales of books in the United States and has opened nearly twenty brick-and-mortar stores in the past four years. The survival of Barnes & Noble is doubly important to authors of literary novels and children’s books, whose success depends largely on the kind of leisurely browsing that is hard to do on a screen.

Online platforms like Amazon, where sales are largely driven by web searches and by algorithms designed to direct customers to books similar to ones they’ve already bought, can be hostile to debut fiction or creative nonfiction, which often isn’t in any obvious way similar to books a reader has already purchased. 

Novelist and journalist Douglas Preston, president of the Authors Guild, likens Amazon’s curation to “a kind of censorship of the market” that threatens to drown out unpopular opinions and underrepresented voices. “You walk into a physical bookstore, unlike Amazon, and you see all these books together, some of which you’re going to agree with and some you’re not,” Preston says. “With Amazon, they have algorithms. They’ll only show you the books they think you want to see, and that’s a serious problem because we’re becoming balkanized in our thinking. When you go into a bookstore, there’s no balkanization. All the books are right there.” 

Independent bookstores, which have thrived in recent years by tailoring their book selection to their local areas, emphasizing a personalized approach to curation, as well as adding cafés and wine bars and hosting readings and book talks, have picked up some of the slack created by the closure of Barnes & Noble locations and the 2011 bankruptcy of its onetime rival Borders. The American Booksellers Association now claims 1,887 members, who run 2,524 stores, up 53 percent from the 1,651 stores ABA members owned ten years ago, according to figures compiled in May of this year.

At Waterstones, Daunt seemed to draw on his experience as an independent bookseller, shuttering underperforming locations and giving store managers the power to order books that might not appeal to customers at other locations. In interviews earlier this summer, Daunt suggested he may try a similar approach at Barnes & Noble. “The main thing is that there isn’t a template; there’s not some magic ingredient,” he told the New York Times. “The Birmingham, Alabama, bookshop, I imagine, will be very different from the one in downtown Boston. They don’t need to be told how to sell the exact same things in the exact same way.” (Barnes & Noble directed press inquiries to Elliott Management, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

But such a strategy can take the chain only so far, industry experts warn. Indie booksellers are local entrepreneurs who in many cases are choosing a pleasant working life among books over a potentially more lucrative career in another field, notes Mike Shatzkin, coauthor of The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2019). Barnes & Noble, on the other hand, is a national corporation with more than six hundred retail locations, most of them large and built for a mass audience. “That’s not going to change because they made the store look sprucier or because they changed the selection of books somewhat,” Shatzkin says.

Barnes & Noble’s core problem, Shatzkin says, is that its business model—drawing customers by having more books at better prices than smaller shops could possibly manage—has been outmoded by the e-tailing revolution, which allows shoppers to carry the world’s largest mall in their hip pocket. “I think the large store is a dinosaur,” he says. “It was built for another paradigm. It was built for, ‘I want to find what I need and I don’t want to go six places looking for it,’ which is not something anyone under thirty relates to.”

Still, authors and publishing houses alike have good reason to hope Daunt can make a nationwide bookstore chain work in an online shopping era. Barnes & Noble is a key player in the publishing ecosystem, industry experts say, because it has an efficient supply chain and sells books in parts of the country where indies may not thrive. At the same time, because its stores are brick-and-mortar, it encourages serendipitous purchases that help publishers break out new authors.

“We all want Barnes & Noble to continue and to be a thriving bookseller,” says McIntosh, the CEO of Penguin Random House in the United States. “When any location closes, whether it’s a single store or a set of stores, you lose a portion of sales. There’s no way to say exactly how many sales are lost, so our goal is to ensure there is a diversity of retail options and physical locations where a consumer could choose to go.” 

 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Inside Indie Bookstores: The Complete Series

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

4.28.17

Inside Indie Bookstores, a series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience, ran in all six issues of 2010, celebrating the passion, ingenuity, determination, creativity, and resourcefulness of the entrepeneurs who run the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Below we revisit the unique personalities, the expert perspectives, and that intoxicating new- and used-book atmosphere of Inside Indie Bookstores.

 

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
1.01.10
In the inaugural installment of Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with independent booksellers across the country, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin talks with Richard Howorth about his initial vision for Square Books, how a bookstore can stay relevant in the twenty-first century, and the future of independent bookselling.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
3.01.10
In the second installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Portland, Oregon, to talk with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there.

Women & Children First in Chicago

by Jeremiah Chamberlin
5.01.10
In the third installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Chicago to talk with Linda Bubon and Ann Christophersen, co-owners of Women & Children First, which was conceived as a feminist bookstore three decades ago and has grown into a neighborhood shop popular with families and young professionals. Still, books related to women and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality, literature, criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus. 

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
7.01.10
In the fourth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Milwaukee to talk with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company, which is named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, and is located on Downer Avenue in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. 

Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
9.01.10
In the fifth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to Denver to speak with Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover Book Store, which as become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers. From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old (worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams) and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local options at the café). The place feels vital, vigorous.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City
by Jeremiah Chamberlin
11.01.10
In the sixth installment of our series Inside Indie Bookstores, contributor Jeremiah Chamberlin travels to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books, located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita (North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy restaurants.

How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.14

In the spring of 2009, Michael Gustafson’s cousin e-mailed him to say she was granting him permission to date her best friend, Hilary Lowe. He was grateful, but there was one problem: He had never heard of Lowe, let alone met her. “I had no idea who this person was, but I e-mailed her and said, ‘I’ve been given permission to date you,’” Gustafson recalls.

“That was your opening line?” I ask. It’s February 2013, and Gustafson, Lowe, and I are sitting in a café in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, just up the block from the gutted storefront that the couple is trying to turn into a new community-minded independent venture: Literati Bookstore.

“Pretty much,” Lowe replies. Gustafson smiles, a bit bashful behind his glasses. She continues: “It was weird and goofy. What was I going to say? I loved it!”

At the time, Gustafson was living with his parents in Michigan, just outside Grand Rapids, having decided to leave Los Angeles, where he’d worked as an assistant on several television programs after finishing a film degree at Northwestern. But a few seasons in the business made him realize that his future wasn’t in Hollywood. Lowe, meanwhile, was living in New York City, working as a sales rep for Simon & Schuster. After their initial contact they began corresponding by e-mail, and within a few weeks they were sending each other books.

“That was our way of courting,” Lowe says. “We would just send each other books. I had never read Harry Potter, and so he sent me Harry Potter. And my favorite book was Too Loud a Solitude. It’s by Bohumil Hrabal—a book about loving books.” Six weeks passed before they ever spoke on the phone, while the words of authors—from Kittredge to Camus—passed back and forth between them.

“I fell in love with the way we communicated before I even knew what you looked like,” Gustafson says, the conversation shifting away from me and settling between the two of them.

“And it was never small talk,” Lowe tells him. “It was always just weird, nerd rants to each other.” She laughs. It’s a laugh that makes Gustafson smile again.

Sitting in a cozy café, a swirl of snow outside the 
frost-glazed windows and this young couple across the table from me, I suddenly feel as though I’ve stumbled into a Nora Ephron movie. The casting and plot are spot-on: Attractive, intellectual twentysomethings—of the earnest, nonhipster variety—fall for each other via an epistolary romance. Cue the film montage: Gustafson arrives in Manhattan a few months later, he and Lowe spend a romantic fall dating in New York City, and the following year they move in together. In November 2011 they get engaged (close-up of the ring), in July 2012 they move to Ann Arbor with the sole purpose of opening a bookstore together (long shot of a U-Haul on the highway heading west), and in January 2013 they sign a lease and begin construction (dial up the sounds of saws and hammers).

There’s also plenty of dramatic tension to this tale. Remember that Ann Arbor is the birthplace of Borders, which brothers Tom and Louis Borders opened in 1971, while students at the University of Michigan. In 2011, when the company went bankrupt, it closed hundreds of stores, including the forty-thousand-square-foot flagship in Ann Arbor. The city was also home to iconic independent bookstore Shaman Drum—the Drum, as it’s known to the locals—which closed in the summer of 2009 after nearly thirty years in business. Six years earlier, a small plaque had been erected by the membership of the State Street Area Improvement Project to honor the Drum’s owner, Karl Pohrt, stating with simple thanks: “He kept our eyes on the prize….” The plaque still remains, a bittersweet reminder that Pohrt was able to help revitalize this downtown, but unable to weather the increasingly harsh climate of bookselling, which over the course of the past two decades has swept away nearly 75 percent of the seven thousand independent bookstores that once existed nationwide—more than a thousand of which closed between 2000 and 2007. In the years since, hundreds more have gone out of business, including the Drum.

Perhaps the economic tide of the country as a whole has turned. Or perhaps, more likely, Lowe and Gustafson have chosen exactly the right city at exactly the right time with exactly the right sort of store to succeed. As of Literati’s six-month anniversary, they seem to be making a go of it. But for the couple, whose initial meeting and blossoming relationship seemed somehow preordained, the success of their store up to this point has been no accident. The owners of Literati Bookstore are filled not only with exuberant optimism and staunch idealism, but also with practical determination. And most important, they have a business model to back up each step of the process.

Last February, however, Lowe and Gustafson’s vision of the bookstore was still forming, and the success of Literati Bookstore, much less its opening, was far from certain. After finishing our coffee, we hike through the snow to check out the progress on the renovation of the twenty-six-hundred-square-foot storefront at 124 East Washington Street—most recently the 2010 campaign offices for Republican Governor Rick Snyder—a space split equally between two floors: street-level and basement. Prior to Gustafson and Lowe’s negotiating their lease, the building stood empty for several years. (When they first showed it to me, in mid-January 2013, it was a wreck—particularly the basement, which was to account for half their floor space. Torn-up carpeting lay heaped in piles of debris, an exposed gas meter poked out of the fieldstone wall by the stairwell, and the uneven concrete floor looked like something you’d find in an old barn. No matter how long I listened to the couple describe their vision for this space, when I looked around all I saw was a basement.)

When we arrive at the store a month after that first visit, kicking the snow off our boots, the changes are dramatic. The basement joists are painted a fresh matte black, recessed lighting is in place along with new ductwork, and installation has begun on the first bookcases of the fifty such units they salvaged from the downtown Borders. The look is urban and chic, and I realize that these two not only have a precise dream for their store, but also a healthy dose of the midwestern work ethic needed to make it happen.  

Of course, not everything is going according to plan. The wood floors upstairs have had to be torn out and are being replaced. Not only does this represent a significant cost that Gustafson and Lowe haven’t budgeted, but it’s also meant they’re having to push back their early-March opening. And with each delay, the complex calculus of how long they can stretch their seed money until the first book sales begin to provide even a modest cash flow is enough to make the most seasoned businessperson a bit fidgety. Inventory alone will account for more than a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars of their start-up costs—which they are paying for with a significant loan from Ann Arbor State Bank plus smaller, but no less significant, loans from family and friends—and that’s a modest number of books for a store this size (a number they will try to nearly double over the summer as they begin to sell and are able to increase their stock), to say nothing of the overall costs associated with building out the store.

The couple is also aware of the fact that in addition to trying to make a go of it in a town where neither Borders nor Shaman Drum was able to succeed, it’s not as though it’s an open market. Ann Arbor is home to specialty bookshops like Common Language Bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s Mystery Bookshop, Vault of Midnight, Bookbound, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room; used-book stores like Dawn Treader, West Side Book Shop, and Motte & Bailey Booksellers; and even a general indie bookstore, Nicola’s Books, on the west side of town. Plus, there’s a Barnes & Noble. Each of these stores has loyal customers. So despite months of outreach to the local community, there’s no guarantee that, as a general (albeit well-curated) bookshop, their enterprise will see customers materialize when the doors open.

What, then, does Literati hope to be known for? How will it distinguish itself from these other places of business? “The goal is that every book in our store is carefully selected,” Gustafson says. “And that it would be a great book for whatever it is: a great kids’ tale, or a great biography, whatever. I often ask Hilary, ‘Do you want to read this?’ And if she says no, I’ll say, ‘Well, why are we ordering it then?’”

“Of course it’s not just my taste,” Lowe clarifies. “It’s balancing what’s selling and what I think the community would want with what I like. Those are the three things I base my decisions on. I’ve tried to go through every single title that we’re going to have.” When I ask how many titles they’ve ordered so far, Lowe estimates seven or eight thousand. It’s still only February.

Over the next month and a half I visit periodically to chat about progress and to take pictures of some of the milestones: the day the new floors are put in, the day the bookcases arrive upstairs, even the night Lowe and Gustafson paint the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the floor, the two of them, in stocking feet, stepping carefully between each square they’ve mapped using blue painter’s tape, as they cover the entire grid, foot by square foot. When I drop in I typically find them in the basement: Lowe working on a laptop, placing orders, in what will one day be a sitting area; Gustafson in their small, six-by-eight-foot office in the back corner, working on the website or dealing with other business issues, such as the botched order of fifteen thousand book-marks that need to be returned. Or their proposal for an exterior sign for the storefront that was denied by Ann Arbor’s Historic District Commission, sending them back to the drawing board. But worst of all, they are informed by the city that their entire street will be torn up and closed for sewer and utility repairs during the month of June and part of July.

Despite these setbacks, by mid-March they’re excited about their progress—staffing, in particular. More than one hundred fifty people applied to work at the store, and they’ve brought in a range of talents and experience: several longtime Borders employees, one of whom, Jeanne Joesten, worked for the company for nearly twenty-five years; the former manager of Shaman Drum; two recent grads from the University of Michigan’s MFA program; and the executive director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association, who plans to work part-time so as to stay in touch with what’s happening day-to-day in independent stores.

“Every employee is doing something extra,” Lowe says—from finding used furniture at nearby Treasure Mart, to helping write store policies and procedures addressing issues such as shoplifting.

“Apparently you can’t tackle [people] until they get out of the store,” Gustafson says.

“You can’t even accuse them!” Lowe adds. “That was news to us.”

On March 26 Literati passes the city inspection, and a few days later, on March 30, the store debuts with a private party for members of the literary community. Despite the long hours, on this night Gustafson and Lowe both glow. She wears a black-and-white checked sleeveless dress with a black, bolero-style shrug, and her hair up in a bun. He wears a blue oxford. And the two never stop smiling. The store, too, has the soft, yellowed warmth that you imagine a bookstore having. Like burnished oak. Like varnished maple.

The vibe is equally homey. Writers and members of the university community, as well as local business owners and supporters, arrive for their first glimpse of the new bookstore. There is food and wine and good spirits. There are bright books filling the shelves. And for the first time, the community that Gustafson and Lowe have spent so much time talking with me about—a community of book lovers and readers—is no longer an abstract concept. It is here. I’m not sure what might be going through people’s minds, but all I can envision is the fact that a little over two months ago this space was vacant, and in the ensuing weeks it has been utterly transformed.

The following day is Easter, which comes early this year, as does the unexpected spring weather. It was forecast to be cool and rainy, but instead the day dawns feeling more like May. That evening I drop by Literati to check on preparations for next week’s opening, and when I arrive I encounter another surprise: a store full of people. Gustafson and Lowe have decided at the last minute to have a “soft opening” today. I find them in the downstairs office, ordering more books, and they are positively giddy. I ask what prompted this decision. “At noon we opened a bottle of Dom Pérignon that was dropped off last night,” Gustafson tells me, “and we had a toast with the employees who were here. Then we just decided to flip the sign to Open to see what would happen. We figured we could get some practice swiping a credit card or two. But in a minute and a half there were three people in here. In just ninety seconds! It’s been a steady stream of people since.”

“I’m just so happy we’re open and talking to people,” Lowe tells me.

“Today was absolutely incredible,” Gustafson says.

“Making recommendations, talking about books,” Lowe adds. “That’s why I wanted to do this.” I haven’t seen the two so energized since January, when they first showed me around the empty space and were explaining the vision of the store. The last few months have been hard ones for them, filled with endless financial calculations and guesses. They’ve been living on energy bars and take-out, leaving the store most nights after midnight. But here, finally, their business is a reality.

Gustafson says, “My favorite thing that happened today? Two college girls walked in. One of them said, ‘This is the best day.’ She didn’t say ‘of the week,’ or ‘of the year.’ She just said, ‘This is the best day.’ I loved that.”

It didn’t hurt that within the first six hours of being open, without any advertising whatsoever, the store sold more than two hundred books, bringing in over thirty-four hundred dollars in sales. In the middle of it all they ran out of receipt paper and Gustafson had to drive to OfficeMax.

A little more than a week later, however, Literati would come close to nearly losing the entirety of its first week’s sales—more than twenty thousand dollars—an amount far exceeding the figures for a normal week, as it includes the revenue from the grand opening and the store’s inaugural event with poet Keith Taylor, a reading that drew more than a hundred people. Such a loss would have almost certainly forced it to close.

Nine days after opening for business the store’s Internet went down. Thinking the router simply needed to be reset, Gustafson did so. But in the process he knocked out both the cash registers, causing the credit card processing machines to malfunction. Worried they might have lost that morning’s sales in the process, Gustafson called their credit card authorization company to double-check that the previous day’s transactions had cleared and were successfully deposited. What he learned was that there had been no deposits the previous night; in fact, there hadn’t been a single deposit since the store had opened.

“We’re engaged. So this isn’t just the business, it’s our relationship—and Hilary is furious,” Gustafson recalls.

“Meanwhile,” Lowe says, “customers are coming in, and regulars are coming down to chat.” They both laugh about trying to keep up a good front, about Lowe sobbing in the bathroom at one point, about Gustafson envisioning them bankrupt and on the street. It’s clear just how terrifying this moment must have been after nearly a year of solid work, how fragile the entire endeavor must have suddenly felt. 

It all turned out to be, of course, a simple mistake. The credit card company discovered that Literati had failed to complete the protocol necessary to send the transactions in for processing at the end of each night. “The directions were at the bottom of an ALL-CAPS e-mail that had no punctuation, something you could totally miss,” Gustafson explains. And the instructions had come in an account-set-up 
e-mail they’d received from the company nearly two months before they’d even opened.

But despite the ease with which the problem was solved, it was nearly an irrevocable loss. The credit card processing company explained that any transactions not submitted within ten days are void. They were on Day Nine.

“If you don’t batch out within ten days…” Gustafson begins.

“You lose everything,” Lowe finishes.

There are other missteps and disappointments throughout the summer—the books that don’t arrive for an author event, forcing Gustafson to drive to Barnes & Noble to pick up copies; the occasional angry customer who writes on Literati’s Facebook page that the store is “snooty”; the unexpected bust of football Saturdays—yet when we sit down in mid-October for our final talk, just after the six-month anniversary of the store’s opening, things are going pretty well. Although Lowe admits to being conservative with the business plan, sales have exceeded expectations. Both are realistic in acknowledging that some of this might have to do with the novelty of the store, that the goodwill from the community might not last. But already they have a solid community of regulars whose tastes in reading and whose personalities they’ve begun to get to know. And publishers are starting to reach out to them about events with notable authors.

They’re also aware that this is a particular cultural moment they’ve found themselves in. The independent bookstore dovetails nicely with the craft movement currently afoot in cities like Ann Arbor. It’s not simply because books are crafted, physical objects, but because in addition to a hand-selected inventory, quite literally everything in Literati has been touched by human hands. The hand-lettered window signs were drawn by a local artist, the chalkboard’s painted section headings were done by Gustafson’s mother, the shopping bags bearing the Literati logo were hand-stamped by employees, and the secondhand tables were picked up at thrift stores by the staff.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this cultural moment more than the manual typewriter in the sitting area in the basement. Each morning Gustafson adds paper to it, and throughout the day people come down to type. Some come to the store to type. They leave love notes, dirty jokes, and the occasional anonymous plea for help. They leave poems and to-do lists and affirmations. One woman even proposed to her partner using it. Here, again, it’s about something tangible—something we can feel with our hands. And though the notes are seemingly ephemera, Gustafson reads them all and saves many, posting them on their basement wall—a record of the store’s days.

So the practice of curation at Literati is about more than just picking books. It’s about handcrafting an experience, from selecting the people who work for you and who bring their personalities and tastes to the store to the look and feel of the place. When I speak with Lori Tucker-Sullivan, the executive director of the Independent Booksellers Consortium, about why Literati is succeeding, she points to two factors: “First, they came into the market not only willing to work in the midst of other booksellers in town, but also actually reaching out to them and structuring their business in light of what those already established bookstores do well. Second, Hilary and Mike have a remarkable understanding of the Ann Arbor market, and it is well reflected in their inventory and events, which are a near-perfect mix of literary, scholarly, and popular titles. When bookstore owners are that smart it shows, and they tend to be successful. They also have a very good understanding of what they can be—and online cannot—in terms of the shopping experience, and they’ve done a wonderful job of developing that sense of discovery and adventure in a small space.”

In a sense, Literati is the opposite of Amazon: Lowe and Gustafson don’t carry everything, intentionally; their selectivity is a service. By carefully curating their selection, they save their customers the toil of having to wade upstream through an endless torrent of book marketing and hyperbole. After all, can every novel really be a tour de force? The recommendations here are genuine as well; there’s no algorithm that can determine what book you might like. Instead, each book appears on the shelf because someone believes it’s worth reading.

When I ask Lowe and Gustafson what additional advice they have for someone thinking about opening a bookstore, their suggestions range from the practical (make sure you have enough money; the cheapest option is not always the best; be tough on lease negotiations) to the more esoteric (maximize the talent of your employees; invest in what will pay off for the life of your business; trust your gut).

“Anybody who tries to open a business is going to be called a fool,” Lowe says, “no matter the endeavor. Yeah, a bookstore is risky. But if you’ve done your homework, you should feel comfortable with what you’re doing.”

Gustafson elaborates on Lowe’s extensive research into the bookselling market, the months she volunteered at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, in exchange for shadowing the owners, her extensive business plan, and her unwavering vision for the store. There’s pride in his voice, and I watch her watching him as he tries to convey the scope of this to me. They’ve been married three months. The two days they took for their honeymoon in June were the first consecutive days away from the business since beginning this process a year ago.

Then, after a pause, Gustafson says, “We were talking recently about whether we would do this again, knowing—”

“God, no!” Lowe interrupts. “You couldn’t pay me enough.”

Both of them are roaring with laughter now.

“Neither of us would ever go through this again,” Gustafson says.

“Nope,” Lowe says. “I’d work as a waitress.”

“The nerves, the anxiety…we really did feel like we had one shot. We still do feel like we have just one shot. And we know we’re not out of the woods yet.”

But they both admit they’re happy. “We’re not ever going to have a lot of money,” Lowe says. “But that’s fine. I love our regulars. Just having conversations with them brightens my day. I wouldn’t have had these sorts of interactions with people sitting at my desk at Simon & Schuster.”

On my way out, I linger for a bit, browsing the fiction section. Two employees have finished their shift and are headed out. I watch Lowe come around the side of the cash register to hug each of them, thanking them for their work that day. It seems obvious that the employees are just as thankful to be there, to have found their bookstore.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is the editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.
 

Literati Bookstore

Beginning in January 2013, Michael Gustafson and Hilary Lowe spent nearly three months renovating a twenty-six-hundred-square-foot storefront in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to prepare for the grand opening of Literati Bookstore. Not everything went according to plan: Unforeseen expenses and delays, a botched order of fifteen thousand bookmarks, and a near total loss of their first week’s sales threatened the bookstore’s success. But over a hundred members of the Ann Arbor community turned up for Literati’s inaugural reading, and now, more than eight months after the store’s grand opening, Gustafson and Lowe have built a successful community around their literary dream. The following images offer a behind the scenes look at the couple’s journey, which contributing editor Jeremiah Chamberlin chronicles in “How to Make a Life, Maybe Even a Living: Opening an Independent Bookstore” in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

1. Basement of Literati Bookstore Pre-Renovation

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January 2013: The basement, which accounts for half the store’s floor space, covered in torn-up carpeting and debris prior to renovations. “No matter how long I listened to the couple describe their vision for this space,” Jeremiah Chamberlin writes, “when I looked around all I saw was a basement.”

3. Painting the Floor

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Gustafson and Lowe paint the black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the top floor of the store by hand, stepping carefully between each square they’ve mapped using blue painter’s tape.

4. The Store Makes its Debut

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March 2013: The store debuts with a private party. Writers, members of the University of Michigan community, as well as local business owners and supporters, arrive for their first glimpse of the new bookstore.

5. Literati’s Inaugural Event

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Over a hundred people show up to hear Michigan-based poet Keith Taylor read at Literati Bookstore, the first of what the owners hope will be many future readings and events.

6. Gustafson and Lowe Glow

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Despite the long hours, Gustafson and Lowe never stop smiling at the Literati Bookstore’s debut party for members of the community.

7. The Bookstore’s Manual Typewriter

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Each morning Gustafson adds paper to the manual typewriter in the basement’s sitting area, and throughout the day people come down to type. They leave love notes, dirty jokes, pleas, poems, to-do lists, affirmations, even marriage proposals.

8. Literati Bookstore Open For Business

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April 2013: The bookstore officially opens. A local artist draws the hand-lettered window signs, Gustafson’s mother paints section headings, and the employees hand-stamp the Literati logo on shopping bags. Chamberlin writes, “Quite literally everything in Literati has been touched by human hands.”

9. Gustafson and Lowe Outside Literati

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After many long and difficult months filled with endless financial calculations and guesses, overwhelming challenges, and a lot of hard work, Gustafson and Lowe stand outside their bookstore looking happy, energized, and inspired.

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Inside Indie Bookstores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

7.1.10

In 1927 Harry Schwartz opened Casanova Booksellers and Importers on Downer Avenue in Milwaukee. Ten years later he bought out his partner, Paul Romaine, moved the store downtown, and renamed it Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop. Over the next seventy-two years, the independent bookstore would operate as many as six branch locations in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, all the while remaining family owned and managed. In 1972, Harry’s son, A. David Schwartz, took over the business. And when David died, in 2004, David’s daughter, Rebecca Schwartz, and his wife, Carol Grossmeyer, retained ownership until the remaining four stores finally closed in March 2009.

During its many years in business, the iconic bookstore was notable not only for its longevity but also for its strong opposition to censorship. In the 1960s, under Harry’s stewardship, the store stocked titles like Ulysses and Tropic of Cancer, despite the fact that they had been deemed legally obscene. Similarly, even before David was running the business, he was an early proponent of civil rights, and years later he also took a prominent and vocal position against the section of the Patriot Act that could force bookstores to turn over customer records of book purchases to the government. Because of his long-standing advocacy, as well as his record of charitable giving, in 2004 Publishers Weekly honored Schwartz with its Bookseller of the Year Award. Yet, despite these laurels and the store’s lauded history, the business could not weather the recent economic storm.

However, the spirit of bookselling that Schwartz embodied hasn’t disappeared from the Milwaukee area. The Promethean fire has simply been passed on. Lanora Hurley, who once managed Schwartz’s Mequon, Wisconsin, branch, bought the store and reopened it as Next Chapter Bookshop in April 2009. That same month, Daniel Goldin, who worked as Schwartz’s longtime book buyer, reopened the Downer Avenue location as Boswell Book Company, named after James Boswell, the eighteenth-century British biographer, whose image graced the Schwartz logo, which Goldin retained for his store.

Downer Avenue is located in a diverse area of the city—close to both the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. As such, it’s also home to multimillion-dollar lakefront mansions and cheap college rental houses, beautiful Arts and Crafts homes and college dorms. So the two-block commercial strip where Boswell is located—a mix of boutiques, trendy pubs, hip coffee shops, an independent theater, and a locally owned hardware store—is the hub where the lives of many different kinds of people intersect.

Goldin’s tastes as a bookseller—and the selection at Boswell—are just as eclectic. His interests range from urban planning to personal finance, fiction to photography, and he’s as comfortable talking about Cheever as children’s books. Likewise, the floor plan of the eight-thousand-square-foot store is almost completely open. There are comfortable nooks along the periphery, and the children’s room has its own area, but otherwise you can survey the broad expanse of the store from nearly any spot. This does not mean that the store feels overwhelming, however. Quite the contrary—it draws you in, and you soon find yourself winding past antique library card catalogues that display books about birds, and spindly legged side tables featuring literature about Africa. This is another characteristic of Boswell: Every part of the store feels cared for and hand selected; in every corner is an oddity or surprise you could easily miss. You come to a store like this to find what you didn’t realize you were looking for.

The same could be said for Goldin’s experience of Milwaukee. He grew up in New York City, majored in mathematics at Dartmouth College, and got interested in advertising after working at a college radio station. In the early 1980s, he took a job as a publicist for Warner Books. But after four years he felt he needed a break from Manhattan, so he decided he would move to a Midwestern city where he could spend one year learning about publishing from the other side of the business—from the booksellers themselves.

That city turned out to be Milwaukee, chosen in large part by a chance encounter that Goldin had with Schwartz’s then-manager, John Eklund, during a February 1986 visit. Eklund was putting out a new book by Andrew M. Greeley that day, and Goldin happened to be the author’s publicist. The two men struck up a conversation, which eventually led to a job offer. And in April of that year, Goldin moved. He never went back to publishing. His work as a bookseller turned into a job as David Schwartz’s assistant, and eventually he became the book buyer for the business, a position he would hold for more than two decades.

Like his store, Daniel Goldin is quirky and kinetic and whimsical. He is quick to laugh, and talks with the enthusiasm of someone who can’t wait to tell you about something new he’s discovered. For half an hour prior to our conversation, he led me through the store, pointing out changes he’s recently made and plans for those he hopes to accomplish during his second year of business. Goldin is both giddy and nervous about the future, ever aware of the tenuousness of his profession. Yet he is boundlessly hopeful, too.

But more than anything, Goldin is obsessed—a word he likes to use frequently—with books and book-selling. In particular, he is obsessed with the way in which the perfect book finds its way into the perfect person’s hands. Whether in the store or on his blog, this thought is never far from his mind. In that way, he is something of a matchmaker. And nothing makes him happier than making connections for his customers.

Prior to opening Boswell Book Company, you spent most of the twenty years of your bookselling career as a buyer. How is it different now running your own business?
In ’96 I ran our Mequon store, which is now Next Chapter. At one point David Schwartz had said to me, “You can’t really know the business until you run a store.” And it was really a great experience, though a very different experience from what I’m doing now because back then I was still sort of a faceless person. My customers didn’t really know who I was. I didn’t really meet people as much as I thought I would. But I liked doing it and I didn’t really want to go. But then they started talking about moving the downtown store here [to Downer Avenue], and John Eklund decided he wanted to be the person to open this store instead of buying. So they asked me to come back and buy full time.

What year was this?
The Downer store opened in 1997. But then John left to be a sales rep after three months, and I became disconnected from bookstores for a while. I mean, I was in the stores—I worked events, I worked Christmas, I worked sales, I pulled returns—but a lot of the time I was in an office. At one point we had six stores, and so it was just enough to get all the frontlists done. Sometimes I bought backlist, sometimes I returned. But it’s good because I did a little of everything.

Then, when David died, Mary McCarthy took over the stores and she ran them for a few years. David died in 2004; his mother died shortly afterward. He had already brought in Mary, but he didn’t know he was sick yet. I knew that I couldn’t run the stores. I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have a broad enough skill set. I was very shaky with finance—I felt like I was very micro on the books. All I cared about was what books were coming out, how we sold them, and getting rid of the ones that didn’t work. That’s all I cared about.

I had thought about leaving Schwartz around 2000 to start a bookstore somewhere, but I thought, “I don’t know where I’m going to get financing from, and I don’t have the contacts, and I don’t have the media connections, and I don’t have the customer base.” How the hell do you build this? But by the time I knew Schwartz was closing for sure, I thought, “Maybe I’m ready to do this.”

At what point did you realize that Schwartz, as an entity, was under…
Under siege? Of course I didn’t believe it. I thought, “Maybe we can turn this around.” And the first year we cut our losses pretty substantially.

What do you mean by that?
I think we cut about a hundred thousand off our losses. We got rid of things like 401k matching, we got out of a partnership we’d gone into where we were managing the inventory for a hospital off-site gift shop, and we had to close the Bay View store. You know, we did various things to save money.

But when did this trouble begin? When did you start to see that you would have to start making serious changes?
I think we all knew when a Barnes & Noble closed for a year in Bayshore and we had a better year. Then, when they reopened, we were losing more money again.

Were they remodeling?
Yeah. The mall where the store was located went from a mall to a “style center.” They sunk maybe twenty million, thirty million—it could be two hundred million, three hundred million, for all I know—into the project. Whatever it was, it was a huge amount of money! It doesn’t even matter how many zeroes. It was so many zeroes that it was just unfathomable to me, a person who has to worry about, you know, a hundred dollars. I had to replace our accounting computer for a thousand dollars recently and I cried myself to sleep over it. [Laughter.]

So when they reopened and your sales fell once more, the writing was on the wall.
Right. We couldn’t compete with them. We used to discount books pretty aggressively, but we weren’t winning that war. And even though Barnes & Noble had cut most of their in-store discounting, between the Internet and the mass merchandisers we knew we had to get out of that side of the business. Because any customer who cared only about price would go somewhere else.

Speaking of costs, has the American Booksellers Association ever considered becoming a distributor for its members? If so, they’d be able to get the same discount structure as these big competitors. Or would the discount that you gain be lost in the administrative process?
Absolutely. It’s not big enough for it to be worth the while. And they’re not flush with cash; they have to decide what their mission is too. The number of stores has gone down in the last few years, and they have to see what gets the most bang for their buck.

And what is that right now? Where is the ABA focusing their efforts?
They seem to focus a good amount of attention on Winter Institute. It’s about three years old. They bring a minimal amount of people, they bring a minimal amount of authors, and there’s three days of workshops on topics like technology, profitable magazines, social networking, renegotiating a lease, buying strategies, etcetera.

Does it help your store?
The workshops really help us. And certainly the connections. I have a lot of booksellers that I’ve met at these events who I regularly email. In the last day I’ve talked to Marie at Vroman’s [in Pasadena, California]; I’ve talked to Kathy at Tattered Cover [in Denver, Colorado]; and I got an email from Miriam at Powell’s [in Portland, Oregon]. I also talked to Linda at Galaxy [in Hartwick, Vermont].

What do you discuss?
What books are working for us, mostly.

So there really is a lot of communication going on between booksellers.
Much more than there used to be. I don’t know if there’s more with Facebook than there was with e-mail, but—

But you definitely do make in-store decisions based on these conversations.
Absolutely. I always want to know what people are reading and what’s working. And that’s partly me. I just like being a connector. At Schwartz one of my favorite things to do was find out what everyone was reading and send that information to the publisher. Also, to tell people in one store what somebody else in another store was doing. We had become very, very successful at selling huge quantities of weird books.

For example, we helped make Elegance of the Hedgehog. There were four or five independent stores that just started selling the book like crazy, and pushing it. Newsletters and blogs and stuff like that. It’s really interesting how you can see some of these books move if you work really hard. If the book’s right, and it really delivers, and you’ve got enough people behind it, you can make this book jump to another market.

To me, that’s the whole idea behind a bookstore. I know that several of my friends at other independent bookstores don’t like this, but I feel like we’re a lab. We have to be ahead of the game; we have to move on to the next thing when everybody else is still selling it; we have to find the next thing. For the publisher to pay attention to us we have to be the specialty electronics store instead of Best Buy. We have to be the place where, you know, people say, “Wow! I have to go there because they’re going to tell me what to read. Because two years from now I’m going to hear from everybody about Water for Elephants, but I heard it from my independent bookstore first.”

What is the most exciting part of bookselling for you?
I have to say, focusing on a book you really love and think that other people will love is really cool. My favorite book of 2008 was Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee. I loved the book, but it was so hard to sell in hardcover. It’s still a slightly difficult book to sell in paperback, but I’m thrilled every time we do. I want to take the books I really love—that are offbeat—and make a difference with them. It’s a little harder now because I have too few booksellers on my staff to be reading broadly. But I love discovering a book that two or three people liked, especially when, say, this person reads this way [points to the left] and that person reads that way [points to the right].

Yet they both liked the same book.
Exactly. In the Woods by Tana French is a great example. We were one of its top sellers. It was on the best-seller list for about a year in paperback, but in hardcover there were only about five stores selling it. And the thing that was so cool was that mystery people liked it and fiction people liked it. I always look for things that are “high” and “middle.”

Do you think most people come into a bookstore knowing exactly what they want—or wanting something but not knowing what it is?
I think bookstores have really changed in that a much higher percentage of the customers who are left don’t know what they’re coming in for. The people who know exactly what they want are more likely to jump to the Internet. The Internet doesn’t browse that well compared with a bookstore. So my feeling in the store is that you have to find a lot of ways to sell people books that you like.

My other feeling is that customers need confirmation that this is a book they should buy. They don’t want to hear from just one person. They want to hear maybe two or three different ways that this is a book that’s important. This is one of the reasons that in the front of the store I have a book club section; I have the IndieBound best-sellers; I have my staff picks; I have Boswell’s Best, which is really like a buyer’s pick; and I have prizewinners and what’s in the media. My idea is that—especially with hardcover—I will put the same book in two or three different places if it belongs there. That way maybe someone will get confirmation from three different sources that this is the book that they want to buy.

Are there any recent books that were crossovers like this?
I love Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee. I said, “I’m going to do anything to make this book work.” I got to read it really early, and I really liked the book. I think it’s the perfect book in that it allows you to read it to the level of your interest. You can be a middle reader and read it, or you can be a high-end reader and read it. And because the book leaves some things unsaid, you can interpret the ending in several different ways, which makes people obsess about it. Everything was perfect about it for me. I loved the jacket. Loved the jacket. I was so worried, you know, because the book has another name in England. It’s called The Other Hand. And I loved the cover of The Other Hand in hardcover, but I despised the cover of The Other Hand in paperback.

So you can judge a book by its cover? Or does this prove that you can’t?
A really good book with a really bad jacket is just 
really hard to sell. It gives the customer the wrong message.

Was there ever a book you’ve loved that you couldn’t sell because of the cover?
We were just talking about that. One of my booksellers just showed me one, and it had a very “merchy” cover.

What do you mean by that?
The British book business—the merchandise part of the business—is not driven by Walmart or Target. It’s driven by supermarkets. Tesco and Sainsbury’s do the big quantities. So when you sell lots and lots and lots of copies of a book in Great Britain, you sell them in the supermarket. They have bookstores, basically, within the supermarkets. The point being, I looked at that book jacket and I said, “That’s a very Tesco cover.” Then, when the author came for an event, he admitted that they’d just placed a really big order. [Laughter.]

So the cover is a bigger part of book buying than we’d like to admit.
Oh, I think publishers would say that it’s a big part of the decision-making process.

What about digital books, which don’t have covers?
I don’t know. Good luck! [Laughter.] But they have free downloads! Honestly, I have no idea. I hope to be getting some of the business. I hope so. I have customers who really want to do downloads through us. They want to come here and browse and then download the books from us. Just like they’re buying the books, in spite of the fact that they could buy them online. They like the space, they like the browsing, and because Schwartz just closed they get the idea that their purchases are connected to the store’s staying in business.

But I don’t take that goodwill for granted. And I feel that the way I can keep that goodwill is to continually try to make things better. I have to have very personal relationships with my customers, and I try to keep my personality very heavily in the store. I have a very distinct personality. I think I have a good sense of humor and I’m very quirky and I’m very respectful of differences and of people who like different things. I know what I like and I know what my customers like.

What about people who just moved to Milwaukee and have never heard of Schwartz? How will you bring them into the store?
It’s a tough thing. I feel like the store is interesting enough and there are fewer and fewer independent bookstores like this around, and so I feel I just have to keep it in the public eye. That’s why I do a lot of publicity. I throw out a lot of press releases. I do a lot of events. I try to do an offbeat spin on the events. For my first event last year I had the woman who owned the bookstore here [before Schwartz took over the space] introduce Jane Hamilton. She talked about what it was like being one of the first booksellers to discover Jane Hamilton, and how she’d once put together a bus tour to the apple orchard where The Book of Ruth took place.

There’s also a memoir about knitting coming out and I’m trying to get one of the knitting stores to come in and set up a table. We’ve talked about having some craft people come in too for something like that. For example, we had Scott Buer, who runs Bolzano Artisan Meats, the first dry-cured meat company in Wisconsin, come to the store and he did a sampling of his pancetta.

In addition to events and the eclectic selection of the books themselves, what do you offer customers that online booksellers, chain stores, and big-box retailers cannot? Is customer service what matters most?
People have pretty neutral feelings about the service at Amazon. It’s okay. Last year, in the customer surveys of chain stores, both Barnes & Noble and Borders came out in the top ten. Even if some of my customers think the service isn’t so good and complain that the booksellers there don’t know the books, it’s not terrible. Is my service spectacular? It could be better. I never overestimate my service abilities. Do I think I’m good at that sort of stuff, and do I think my booksellers are? Absolutely. Do I think I am effective 100 percent of the time? Nooo. I’m not.

This then brings me to the most important question. In this economic climate—
Yes.

Where a business with eighty-two years of history has already gone bankrupt—
Out of business. Schwartz didn’t go bankrupt. Don’t say we went bankrupt. [Laughter.]

And in the very same space that that iconic store has gone out of business, you thought it would be a good idea to open a bookstore. Care to explain?
I looked at the business and I said, “There is business here; it’s not like we’re not doing business. We just have a problematic cost structure.” And I thought a really nimble single-store business might work, because you don’t have that infrastructure level. Small chains are neither fish nor fowl. They’re not small enough to make decisions quickly, but not big enough to benefit from their size. When something’s not working here, I can just say, “Well, let’s not do that anymore.” But at Schwartz we had to go through committee meetings.

So it was hard to adapt quickly.
Right. And I thought, “If I don’t open right away, I’m going to lose that business because people are going to change their shopping habits. So I have to do this as quickly as possible.” And now we’ve gotten rid of the whole office infrastructure, which means that the costs to pay for another space, a dedicated marketing department, a lot of buyers, a working owner who got paid, and a percentage of rent—that all went away. I’m still me. I’m now doing the work that probably two or three people were doing before. Not as well! [Laughter.] And I took a pretty substantial pay cut to do it. But there are lots of little changes that I squeak through to try to cut costs, and I think we’re doing an okay job with that.

I also knew what my gross profit margin was at Schwartz, and I knew if I was really careful and watched everything and played with some of the things we were doing, that I could increase that a little. That was one of the problems with Schwartz—it wasn’t just the expenses, it was that our gross margin was on the low side.

Why was that?
I don’t really know. [Laughter.] But I know that I have friends with substantially higher gross profit margins. There’s all sorts of stuff I’m watching: damaged merchandise, throwing away things that can’t be used anymore, overly aggressive discounting—all that stuff. And so I worked on my business plan for three or four months, and I have to tell you, if I hadn’t gotten the numbers to work in a reasonable way…when I looked at my sales, I basically said, “I’m going to keep 75 percent of the Downer business, and then I will add to that 25 percent of the business in Shorewood [the neighborhood directly north].”

What has happened, in fact, is that more of the Downer business has gone away than I expected, because more of it was involved in the schools than I realized. They are in very bad shape, and they just changed the bidding process so we’re not getting quite as much Milwaukee public school business. On the other hand, we picked up more Shorewood business than I expected. So we’re close to where we want to be.

And you knew the numbers when you put together your business plan.
I knew the numbers and I also knew—

What you could do as an individual.
What I could do. Like I said, I feel like I have a very passionate personality; I can talk about books in a very nonthreatening way.

But it’s still a huge financial risk, especially considering the economy.
Yes. I had to bring my own money to the table. I had saved some money, but I am a bookseller—I didn’t save that much money! However, my family pulled together enough money so that with what I had saved, the bank would give me a loan. Actually, I still got rejected. I went to three banks: I was rejected by the first one, I got a provisional no from the second one, and then I got a yes from the third bank. The terms were very tough, but I got a yes. I took the yes and I went to the second bank and the second bank beat the other bank’s terms.

Did you ever say to yourself, “I had a good run, I enjoyed being a bookseller, but that phase of my life is over?”
What would I have done? What could I possibly do? [Laughter.]

So you haven’t second-guessed your decision.
I second-guess my decision every waking moment! I second-guess every decision.

Then perhaps I’ll close by asking this: What has made you happiest about this first year of owning your own bookstore?
Danny Meyer, who is a restaurateur, once said, “It’s not about service, it’s about hospitality. I don’t want to be the best restaurant, I want to be the favorite.” My favorite thing about Boswell is the emotional connection that people have with this store. Right before the holidays a pair of regular customers—loyal customers—came up to me and said, “When you first opened, the place was only so-so. At the time we said it was nice just to be polite, but now it really is great.” [Laughter.] I love that! I love that the place matters as much to them as it does to me. And I love that we’re headed in the right direction.

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INSIDE BOSWELL BOOK COMPANY

On average, how many books do you carry in your store?
Bookstores have been fibbing about this question since Gutenberg. I recently saw a new store that opened say they have fifty thousand titles. We have twenty thousand individual titles, though it looks like we have three times as many books. The quest for having the most books is over. Amazon won, with virtual numbers. In short, I’m not telling, though I sort of already did.

What are the best-selling sections in your store?
We’re a general bookstore, so, like just about every general bookstore, we mostly sell general fiction. We’ve been able to improve sales of mysteries and science fiction since taking over Schwartz as well. We sell about as many books from our humor section as we do from our philosophy section. That seems funny, but really, what is funny?

What were some of the best-selling books at Boswell in 2009?
It should not be a surprise to any indie bookseller that we sold huge amounts of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Probably our best-selling offbeat paperback fiction title was David Rhodes’s Driftless, which is a wonderful, prizewinning novel, as well as being quintessentially Wisconsin. In cloth, our most popular books were Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Sherman Alexie’s War Dances. The latter two were helped by very high-profile events.

Are there any books you’re particularly looking forward to this summer or fall?
I’m hoping that my two spring faves, Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist and Frederick Reiken’s Day for Night, turn out to be books that we can sell well through the holidays. I’ve already got booksellers clamoring for Great House, the new novel from Nicole Krauss.

How do you think the rise of e-books and digital reading devices will affect your future
I’m not an ostrich—of course it will cut into my sales. I think they will affect airport and textbook stores first. I also am hoping our smaller size will make us more nimble. Some folks think e-books will kill the hardcover, but I think the mass market is more at risk—it’s a short jump from disposable to virtual. It’s not all worry—advances in technology have brought down the cost of short-run printing, making it cheaper for publishers to adjust prints as the numbers change. I also believe that the trend will not mirror music. Our audience is older, and because you don’t need to keep a device for traditional books, I think there will be more crossing over between e and non-e. I’m hoping that publishers will get the message and improve the quality of their traditional books. There’s no better advertisement for an e-book than a book whose pages are so thin that I can see through them.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of Boswell Book Company?
People who don’t know me sometimes refer to me as Daniel Boswell. That’s of course not the case, but in a sense it is. The store is close to a half-century of my book and idea obsessions, plus the brainstorms and hard work of my booksellers, together with the whims of my customers. It’s very much me, but I hope it will also live on after me. All you have to do is say to yourself, “This is the most important thing you will ever do,” and it should fall into place.

What do you think most people would be surprised to learn about bookselling?
It’s no surprise that many of the details are like any other job. Paying book invoices is like paying clothing invoices. Opening boxes of books is like opening boxes of groceries. Satisfying your regular book customers is not dissimilar to satisfying your customers as a lawyer. Wait, it is different. Most other businesses have figured out how to sell information, but we still give it away.

What has been the single biggest challenge in your first year of business?
It’s a variation of the eyes are bigger than the stomach. I couldn’t get done as much as I hoped. There’s always year two.

Where would you like to see Boswell in five years?
I’d like to be in business, culturally relevant, and anchoring a somewhat thriving, traditional urban neighborhood. Not too thriving, of course, or all the indie stores will be replaced by chains. And I’d like the store to have expanded somehow, but not with more branch stores. I did that for the first half of my career.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee

For the fourth installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside
Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Milwaukee to speak
with Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company.

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Boswell Book Company opened in April 2009 in the Downer Avenue location of Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop, a beloved Milwaukee bookstore that had closed a month earlier after seventy-two years in business. Boswell’s owner, Daniel Goldin, was the long-time book buyer for Schwartz.

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The floor plan of the eight-thousand-square-foot store is almost completely open. You can survey the broad expanse of the store from nearly any spot.

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There are comfortable nooks along the periphery of the store’s open floor plan, and the children’s room has its own area.

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Visitors to Boswell Book Company soon find themselves winding past antique library card catalogues that display books about birds, and spindly legged side tables featuring literature about Africa.

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Every part of the store feels card for and hand selected; in every corner is an oddity or suprise you could easily miss. You come to a store like this to find what you didn’t realize you were looking for.

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“I do a lot of events,” Goldin says. “I try to do an offbeat spin on the events. For my first event last year I had the woman who owned the bookstore here [before Schwartz took over the space] introduce Jane Hamilton. She talked about what it was like being one of the first booksellers to discover Jane Hamilton, and how she’d once put together a bus tour to the apple orchard where The Book of Ruth took place.”

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Goldin’s interests as a bookseller range from urban planning to personal finance, fiction to photography, and he’s as comfortable talking about Cheever as children’s books.

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“In the front of the store I have a book club section; I have the IndieBound best-sellers; I have my staff picks; I have Boswell’s Best, which is really like a buyer’s pick; and I have prizewinners and what’s in the media,” says Goldin. “My idea is that—especially with hardcover—I will put the same book in two or three different places if it belongs there. That way maybe someone will get confirmation from three different sources that this is the book that they want to buy.”

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“People who don’t know me sometimes refer to me as Daniel Boswell,” Goldin says. “That’s of course not the case, but in a sense it is. The store is close to a half-century of my book and idea obsessions, plus the brainstorms and hard work of my booksellers, together with the whims of my customers. It’s very much me, but I hope it will also live on after me. All you have to do is say to yourself, ‘This is the most important thing you will ever do,’ and it should fall into place.”

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Inside Indie Bookstores: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

3.1.10

Few independent bookstores are more iconic than Powell’s Books. Even readers who’ve never been to Portland, Oregon, know about the store from its ads in places like the New Yorker, or from its prominent online presence, or from its reputation as the largest new- and used-book store in the world. The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store on West Burnside is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. From the moment you walk in, it feels as if you could find anything there. (And if you can’t, try one of the seven branch stores in five other locations throughout Portland, specializing in everything from technical books to home and garden.)

I was early for my interview with owner Michael Powell, so I decided to get a coffee in the attached café. Like the bookstore itself, the guiding aesthetic is simplicity—no overstuffed chairs, no fireplace, no decorations on the salmon-colored walls other than some taped-up flyers for local bands and a Buddhist meditation group. Not that anyone seems to notice. While I was there, every single person I encountered was reading. At the table nearest me a high school girl in cat-eye glasses and a ski cap read Lucy Knisley’s French Milk (Epigraph Publishing, 2000), with a stack of David Sedaris waiting at her elbow. A well-dressed elderly woman flipped through the Oregonian not too far away. And on the other side, near the windows, a young woman with black hair and piercings through both her cheeks was making a list of recipes from The Garden of Vegan (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003). Filling the rest of the tables were hipsters in zip-up sweatshirts and Chuck Taylor All Stars, a young father in a shirt and tie with his two children, construction workers wearing Carhartt overalls, and women with trendy bags and knee-high leather boots. All were reading. Here was a microcosm of the store: A diversity of people and interests, sure, but what’s most important in Powell’s is neither image nor decor but the books themselves.

This is not to say that the store doesn’t have a unique vibe. Like Michael Powell himself, there is a straightforwardness to Powell’s that puts a person at ease. When the owner and I met, he was dressed casually in jeans and a pullover sweater. And though he had to attend a black-tie community event later that night, he was generous with his time, walking me through both the history of the business and the store itself—how the portion of the building with terrazzo floors had originally been an American Motors dealership; how when they built the newer sections of the store, more than a decade ago, they’d intentionally left the concrete floors bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere; and how proud he is that their foreign-language section alone accommodates more than thirty thousand titles.

Michael Powell’s philosophy on bookselling is simple: He wants to provide people with books. He has no interest in telling people what to read. Nor would he ever judge a person by the type of books she purchases. New or used, dime-store paperback or first-edition hardcover, manga or metaphysics, all are equally at home on his shelves.

This sense of equality permeates every aspect of the Powell’s business model, from the practice of shelving used and new books side by side in each section, to the store’s long-standing advocacy on free-speech issues, to the fact that its five hundred employees are unionized and have a matching 401(k) plan. Likewise, Powell may be the boss, but it’s clear that he also sees himself as a fellow employee. When we left the downtown location and he drove me across town to the former ball-bearing warehouse that is now the site of the online bookselling operations, no one had to “look busy” when the owner arrived. Instead, they chatted with him as we walked through the facility, offering updates on their various ongoing projects, including ideas for how best to recycle used packaging materials. The warehouse, which feels like an airplane hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air, processes up to three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders, a fact that amazes Powell, a logical man who never ceases to be surprised or impressed by his customers, even when they pay more than twenty dollars to have a four-
dollar book shipped overnight. It makes him wonder aloud how he can better meet their needs.

This, then, might be the trait that best characterizes Michael Powell: curiosity. He is endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business. It is a trait that has served him well during his last four decades of bookselling. And though he’ll officially hand over the reins of the business to his daughter, Emily, in July, when he turns seventy, one gets the sense that Powell will always be dreaming of how to connect books and people. Because it’s clear that he loves them both.  

How did you become a bookseller?
In the mid-sixties I ran a little student co-op [at the University of Chicago] where students could sell textbooks and other books on consignment. I also rode my bike around to various thrift shops in the general area and went to the Sunday morning flea market called Maxwell Street—which was very famous in its day in Chicago—to buy books and put them on consignment. Then I sold books by catalogue for a couple years to university libraries, mostly out-of-print social science and history, before I opened my first store in 1970, in Chicago.

Early on, I was thinking of opening a store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because my wife and I had traveled to Santa Fe and saw it for the first time and everybody falls in love with Santa Fe the first time. She was being offered a job as a Montessori teacher there and I was going to open a bookstore when I got a phone call from a mentor in Hyde Park, in Chicago. He wanted to move his store because he’d been attacked by a customer.

He’d found a new location that was closer to campus, and the reason it was currently vacant was that the Weathermen had firebombed its previous occupant out of existence and he didn’t want to go back into it, he was too nervous. And the university—well, not exactly the university, but whoever was in charge of organizing these things—had approached my friend. However, the space was too big for him; he wanted to take only half of it. So he said to me, “You take half and do mostly paperbacks, and I’ll do hardbacks.” And I said, “I could do that, but I don’t have the money.” My wife says I was always good for twenty bucks but never for a hundred. And he said, “There are some professors who would like to talk to you about that; they’re kind of the patron saints of bookstores.” There were three of them: Morris Janowitz, Edward Shils, and the third one was Saul Bellow. Morris Janowitz, who was the lead, came to me and said, “What would you need?” I had no idea. So I said—and this is, remember, 1970—I said, “Probably three thousand dollars.” And he said, “We can do that. We can loan you three thousand dollars.” Then I said, “But, you know, I’ve got a problem. I don’t know how quickly this will get up and running. And there’s all the rent.” So he said, “We can help with rent, too, for a little while.” Rent was, I think, a hundred dollars a month. So, okay, now they’re rehabbing the building and there’s some time before I can occupy it. So my wife and I take a thousand of the three thousand and we travel across the country to Oregon to visit my folks. [Laughter.]

When we were back in Chicago, I took the remaining two thousand dollars and bought some books. A friend and I built some shelves, and we opened. Like I was saying, it was a small, small store. But we did well. The students, of course, liked used paperbacks. They thought that was great. At some point my neighbor moved away and I took his space. Then there was another business in the back…and when they went away I took that space. So, ultimately, it was about four thousand square feet.

And then my dad [who had come to Chicago to work in the bookstore] went back to Portland in 1971. He opened his shop, moved once into a space of about ten thousand square feet, and had begun to introduce new books into the mix, shelving them side by side with used books. In 1979 he said, “You know, now wouldn’t be a bad time if you’re interested in coming back.” I always thought I would come back. I always thought of myself as an Oregonian, always kept my Oregon driver’s license. And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to do that.” There had been a huge snowstorm in Chicago that winter; we’d had an infant—she was born in November—and we had to get out of the neighborhood we were in. It wasn’t suitable for raising a family, and I’d had it with the weather. So coming back to Oregon sounded great to me.

Well, the night before we left Chicago, my dad called. He said, “I’ve got some news: We’ve lost our lease.” Our landlord, which was a brewery, had wanted to take the space back and had given us a year to find a new location. So we spent that year searching, and we found the space that is currently Powell’s Books. In the mid-eighties, we started opening branch stores. I was always curious about new ways to do things with books; I didn’t want just to replicate anything. And one of the questions was if we could do our new-used mix and do it in the suburbs, where everybody’s perception was that it would have to be Borders or Barnes & Noble or something.

By that you mean nice carpeting and polished wood, soft lighting—
The whole nine yards. We weren’t getting women to our downtown location in the proportions that most people have women as shoppers, perhaps because our area was a little bit edgy.

It was a developing neighborhood?
It was an undeveloped neighborhood—mostly warehouses, wholesalers, and auto repair shops. Kind of funky stuff, but not retail. Not restaurants and bars. Now it’s all high-end national and local boutiques, and dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars. It’s quite fashionable, I suppose.

In any case, I wanted to see if we could capture a different audience if we opened the store in a suburb, and that went well. And each year for about six years we opened a store. First, we did a travel bookstore downtown in about 1985. Then the Hawthorne District stores in about 1986. Then the cookbook store…somewhere in there we opened a store in the airport, and a technical bookstore. So I was both interested in segmenting books like technical and travel and cooking, and I was also interested in demographics, like urban centers, suburbs, and airports. It sounds like it was planned, but it wasn’t. It was just opportunity and impulse. The only one of those that we don’t have any longer is the travel store. The Internet took that business away enough to justify not keeping a whole store solely focused on the subject. And the cookbook store sort of morphed into a lifestyle store, with gardening and cooking and interior design. And now we have three stores at the airport.

What did you find with the suburban store that you built to look like Borders or Barnes & Noble?
Well, we were going to build a fairly fancy store in the suburbs—nice white shelving, a tile floor, banners over the aisles, and colors, and so forth and so on. But the aesthetics weren’t right. So the first chance we got to get rid of all that, we did.

You shut the whole store down?
We moved it. And when we moved it, we moved it into a larger space. And at that point we went back to wood shelves. Pine wood, cement floor, more of an industrial look. That has always worked for us well downtown. That was my misreading of the 
suburbs—that I had to sort of pretty it up, and I was wrong. We’ve more recently moved that store into a space double the size—thirty-two thousand square feet. And once again we have a cement floor. In fact, the ceiling has exposed insulation as a sort of architectural touch. It looks very industrial.

Why do you think that works?
People want a calm background for the books. I don’t think they need…I think Borders’s and Barnes & Noble’s message is “Buy the book and get the hell out of here” in some subliminal way. It’s too bright, the shelves are low so everybody’s watching everybody. You feel very exposed. Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster.

You don’t have to worry about messing up someone’s living room.
No. And the used books look more comfortable in that environment, because they look a little shabbier when they’re too exposed. So, that’s where we are. In 1994 we went on the Internet with the only inventory we had in the database at that point, which was the technical bookstore. I’d only been up for about a month when I got a letter from England from someone saying, “I was looking for this technical book, and I was told in England it would take six weeks to deliver and would cost me the equivalent of a hundred dollars. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just check out the Internet and see.’ You had the book for forty-five dollars and you could get it to me in three days.”

When I read this, I thought, “Holy hell! Here’s an opportunity.” So we got all our books into a database. We had what we called “the river” and “the lake”—there were all the new books coming every day that had to get entered, but we also had to back enter everything that was currently on the shelves. So it took a year.

Is that lake dried up now?
The lake is now part of the river. And we built up the Internet business to where it was about a fourth of our sales. So we were an early adopter for selling books online. Amazon came along, of course, and blew right past us. But we sell a lot of books via Amazon, and we sell books via eBay and Alibris and AbeBooks in addition to on our own site. We also carry inventories from England and Germany—our books are drop shipped to the customer. We do what we can.

I imagine that most people think of you as being in direct competition with Amazon. But, in fact, you’re actually doing a lot of partnership with Amazon?
Well, I don’t know. We are in competition at one level, certainly. I’m sure some of our business has turned over to Amazon. But I’m not foolish about it. If there’s an opportunity to sell books, I’m going to sell them. Amazon is my opportunity. And we sell some new books there, but mostly used.

So you ship to Amazon and then they repackage and ship them?
No, we package and ship. We can ship in our boxes with our materials inside. So we can brand that shipment. They’re good with that. And if somebody just orders a new book from us, we’ll usually have a wholesaler fill that order. Ingram or Baker & Taylor drop ship for us in our boxes, so it cuts out shipping to us. That works well. We do the same thing with Gardner Books in England and Lieber in Germany, both wholesalers. And it works. Some of it is hard. It’s not easy—a lot of infrastructure crossed with the Internet.

What are some of its particular challenges?
I think everybody, me included, thought the Internet was going to be this miracle way of making money, because for not very much money you could make all these books available around the whole world. Well, people didn’t count on all the software writers you need to keep your Web site hot and current, or the editorial work that has to go into maintaining a Web site both in terms of the tracking game and also making it sticky for people to visit and to find value there so that they’ll shop with us. Because we don’t discount the books, you know. It’s a small number—twenty, thirty books—otherwise it’s retail. You would think we’d have no business, that people are nuts for ordering books from us.

Because there are cheaper places?
There are cheaper places. And yet, the brand, the interest, whatever…we maintain a good new book sale. I won’t say it’s growing, but it’s steady. There’s a lot of price competition in both the used book world and in the new book world. So it’s been hard to build that business, but we think we can. We have a lot of people who visit the site but don’t stay, and we have to find a way to encourage them to stay. A small percentage of these customers mean a lot to our business. My daughter’s working with some consultants to redesign and redeploy our Web strengths. 

The site certainly has a wonderful array of resources—interviews with authors, blogs…
We Tweet; we do everything. We do everything we possibly can with the resources we have. I always say that the people I have working on our Web site are a rounding error for Amazon. Amazon would have thousands of employees dedicated to what I have twenty dedicated to. On the other hand, I have to say we go toe-to-toe with them. They have things we don’t have, but we have things they don’t have. Sometimes they have them pretty fast after we have them, but we think of ourselves as innovators.

One of these recent innovations is our online buyback. Anyone in the U.S. can go to our Web site, check via a book’s ISBN number to see whether or not we want to buy it, and then find out how much we want to pay for it. We’ll pay the freight; all you have to do is box it, print out our label and packing list, and ship it in. Once it’s received and we’ve checked the condition, we’ll pay you via PayPal, or you can get virtual credit, which you can spend as you will. That has given us a pretty hefty flow of books.

So even after paying shipping costs it’s still worthwhile for you to buy these books?

 

Yeah. In order to maintain our inventory, we can’t rely only on books bought in Portland. We’ve always relied on a certain number of books being bought elsewhere in the country, whether they’re from store inventories or private collections. Well, that’s an expensive way to buy books. You have to fly people there to look at them, then you have to fly people there to box them, and then you have to pay the shipping in. Also, you usually have to take everything, which means you’re handling a lot of books you don’t want. So the online buyback is great because theoretically we want all those books. And you don’t have to go anywhere to get them. And the customer boxes everything up. At the moment, Amazon doesn’t do that. There are some people who do, but they’re not major players. So that’s given us at least a temporary advantage in source of books.

 

I’d like to go back and talk a little bit about the operation of the main store. In addition to the industrial look and feel of the space, another way that Powell’s is different from most bookstores is that you mix new and used books on the shelves. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, we started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing. So when a local writer like Jean M. Auel published her first book, we had just two copies. Then we bought a bunch of tables from Dalton’s, and they asked, “What are you going to put on these tables?” And I said, “Stacks of…something.” So that’s when we got into the new arrival business.

But now we have about three hundred thousand volumes in the main store, as well as however many in the other stores. It’s a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.

On average, bookstores make about 40 percent on each book they sell. Yet you’ve managed to nudge that up to nearly 44 percent. Considering that these percentages are before operational expenses, a small difference like this can mean the difference between staying open and going bankrupt. How did you achieve this?
You know, when you’re done, you’re always plus or minus. Your minus can be a lot, but your plus is hardly ever more than 2 percent after costs. And that’s before you make any capital reinvestment. Because we’re a larger business, we tend to order in volumes that allow us to get the maximum discount. And we do one other thing: We ship all our books to a central warehouse and then we distribute. I don’t know if it’s Borders or Barnes & Noble, but whatever the discount those stores got for shipping to a central warehouse, the publishers had to match that for us.

I’m sure that being your own distributor also makes things more efficient.
Yeah. We do all central receiving. Once the books are received, they’re labeled and then distributed out to each of the stores. So we have our own truck fleet that runs our books around.

With used books, on the other hand, you’ve said that your average is closer to 65 percent. Is that also something you’ve been able to nudge up in similar ways, or is that number static?
We have slowly, over time, pushed that up about five points, either by paying less or controlling inventory better, and by making fewer buying mistakes. In the used-book world the risk is that you’re going to buy something that you already have too many copies of, or that sales have evaporated for, or it’s a book you had once and never sold. Now computers can tell you all that, so while we don’t check every book we buy at the moment we buy it, if there’s any doubt about the book we can scan it and see its history, the current inventory level, sales history, and make a judgment based on that. So I think our rate of having to pull things from the shelves has dropped considerably.

What’s hurting us at the moment is this move away from people buying new hardbacks. You’ve probably heard this elsewhere, but in this downturn many people are avoiding a twenty-five-dollar book and moving, in our case, to used books. This has meant that we can try to keep our dollar volume up by boosting the units we’re selling, because used books are cheaper, but of course the labor involved doesn’t go away.

Or the overhead or the cost of the building.
Right. But the overall dollars have dropped because you’re not selling that twenty-five-dollar book. Fewer dollars are coming in. So it’s been a challenge. And we’ve had to do several things in the course of the last year to accommodate that.

Such as?
Well, we had to reduce the number of people working in the company, which we did through not filling positions when people left.

But no one was let go?
No one was let go, no. At one moment we were within two weeks of seriously considering it, but then the numbers looked like they maybe didn’t require it, so we backed off. You don’t do that casually. You don’t turn people loose in this economic environment. I really didn’t want to do it, and fortunately we didn’t have to. We had twelve months of down business. But [last] September we had our first up month, so that was certainly good news.

What do you think accounted for that?
People are buying more books! I don’t know what to say.

Are you a bellwether for the economic recovery?
Well, I hope so. It’s not like spending money on cars or houses, but if they’re feeling comfortable enough to do that…I mean, listen, they have an alternative. First of all, they can choose not to read. They can go to the library, they can buy fewer books, whatever. But the fact that the customers are back feels great.

Some people have suggested that it’s not the fact that Amazon or big-box stores like Walmart and Target are selling books that accounts for many independent stores’ losing their footing, but rather it’s a lack of readers. Do you feel that’s the case?
No, I’m not a subscriber to that. I understand the theory. The theory is that there are only so many hours in the day, and so if you’re playing computer games or tweeting or searching the Internet or going to a movie or watching TV, you haven’t got time left over for reading. And, yeah, that makes perfectly good sense. Yet we are selling more books. [Last] September we sold more books than we did a year [earlier] by a fairly sensational number. They were cheaper books, but there were more of them.

Long run? I’m not a predictor of the future. I don’t know. Will the Kindle and the Sony Reader, or print on demand, or some other phenomenon we haven’t thought of yet, erode our business? It’s certainly possible. Nothing is forever. And there’s no way to say that somebody’s new vision of the future won’t force us to reshape our vision. But I think as long as we’re alert and pay attention and find ways to adapt, then we’ll be okay.

Let’s talk specifically about electronic books. Do they affect your business?
We sell them. Been doing that for the better part of ten years.

Really?
Yeah. There just weren’t very many books and they weren’t great and we didn’t sell a lot of them, though there have been people trying to do this for a long time. And, you know, it’s a small part of our business. But we’re positioned to make it a bigger part if that happens.

Now, I want to go back a minute. People always say, “Well, there’s this way of doing business and then there’s Powell’s way of doing business.” But I want to point out that I got on the Internet because there was one guy on my staff who came to me and said, “I can put the technical books on the Internet. I need ten thousand dollars to do that.” The money wasn’t for himself, but for the technology. And I said, “Seems good to me.” At the time, Barnes & Noble and Borders were opening stores all around me. My wagons were circled and they attacked from the suburbs, these giant stores. And I thought, “If there’s any way to leap over those stores and reach a broader audience, there’s nothing better than this thing called the Internet.” And I was very enthusiastic. And so for ten thousand dollars—which is a lot of money, I appreciate that—and his time, we got to play. But it’s not like somebody handed me ten million dollars and said, “Here, go invest this in the book business.” We have built every brick, every stone—every element of the system is a result of organic growth.

In addition to building this business from the ground up, your family has always played an important role in the process. Your father came to Chicago to work in the first store, and now your daughter Emily is involved.
Yes. Emily is going to take over in July.

How long has she been moving into this role?
Probably four years now. She was director of used books for a while, and she worked to get our minds back into the used book world. 

What do you mean?
Well, when the economy started to go bad, we told ourselves that we needed to get more used books on the shelves. That meant changing some of the ways of channeling books to the stores and also boosting the volume. For the last year she’s been in charge of the Internet marketing world, with the goal of taking a fairly flat Internet business and seeing it grow. She just finished an executive MBA, and one of the faculty members from her program, along with another fellow he knows, are acting as consultants. So she’s been working with them to redirect the energies of staff, reorganize staff, and redesign the Web site, and to do things that make it easier to use, more intuitive. We’ve always won awards for the content on our site, but I don’t think anybody would ever give us an award for the smoothness, or the use of the page. Now we’re trying to make it a more intuitive process to use, and that always involves a fair amount of rewrite on software, so you can’t do it overnight. But you can do it. So she’s been working on that and doing a great job.

Having grown up in a bookstore, she must have a familiarity with this world that few people possess. To say nothing of her commitment, since it’s a family business.
There’s a great story about Emily. When she was about eight or nine, she and I were doing Christmas cash register work. I would open the book and read the price, and then she would key it in the cash register and make change while I bagged the book. A lady came up who was trying to be nice to Emily and said, “When you grow up, are you going to be a cashier?” And Emily, counting out her change, says, “When I grow up, I’m going to own this place.” [Laughter.] And by God, she is.

That was never in my mind, as a given. In this day and age, the world beckons. I just told her, “You’d be a damn fool not to kick the tires that had been good to us. I don’t ask or expect you to go in this direction, but I think you’d be foolish not to give it a shot.” And out of the blue one day she called from San Francisco and said, “You know, I’m ready to take that shot if you’re ready.”

Was she in college at the time?
No, she was working in San Francisco. She had a boyfriend down there and she was in a variety of things—she was an apprentice to a maker of wedding cakes, then worked as an assistant to the head of a law firm for a couple years. And, you know, she enjoyed San Francisco very much, but I think that gave her the motivation to say, “Well, I think it’s time to try the book business.” She had worked here for a year earlier, right out of college, but she needed to really get out and try something else in the world for a while.

How hands on or off will you be once you retire?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. I had someone like you come to interview me and he said, “So when you retire, what will you do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I’ll probably go out to the warehouse and process books, get them out of boxes. I like doing that.” And he laughed. So I said, “What’s funny about that? You don’t think I can do that?” And he said “No, no. I was out on the floor interviewing one of your employees and I said, ‘What will Michael Powell do when his daughter takes over?’ And he said, ‘He’ll go over to the warehouse and process books.'” So I guess I’m known for my limited talents.

Somehow I’d like to stay involved. You know, you learn a lot, and business is complex, and you can’t know everything and you can’t be everywhere. Just walking around you see things and you say, “I wonder why they’re doing it that way? That doesn’t seem as efficient.” Or, “Do they know that people in the other store are doing it differently?” So I think it’ll be helpful to have someone with an educated eye watching the business from the inside, to see where those opportunities are. For example, there are several things we’re doing by hand that we ought to be doing in a more automated way. At the moment, those are opportunities. You’re always working for productivity efficiencies because your costs go up and you’ve got to keep your costs and revenues in balance. The casual approach we had to the business fifteen years ago just doesn’t work. Certainly with the high investment in technology we have and the high investment in inventory, we better be very grounded in what we’re doing, and alert.

You came into this neighborhood when it was mostly just car repair shops and warehouses, and now it’s become more of a boutique area. Do you think Powell’s had a hand in that transition? I imagine that most people must think of you as an anchor in this community.
Well, I think we’re an anchor for the city. That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world. You know, if you’ve got the biggest ball of string, people think you’re kooky. But if you have the biggest bookstore, it says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message. And we try to then earn the respect of the community by not just running a good business, but also being involved in the community. I spend a lot of my time on boards and commissions and planning efforts. I chair the streetcar board. We just created what will now be about eight miles of streetcar. We’re the first city in America to put new streetcars back in.

Like old-style trolleys?
No, they’re modern-looking streetcars, and they’re European built. They’re not San Francisco cute; they’re modern, sleek streetcars. And we move four million people each year. I’ve also been involved in dozens and dozens of committees and commissions, some in the arts and some in social services and some in politics. Not partisan politics, but political efforts to do things or to stop things from happening, all aimed at trying to fulfill the vision of a city that is a twenty-four-hour-a-day city, that works, that’s attractive and great to do business in, and great to live in. I think people respect the work that we do in that area. People will stop me and say, “I love your store,” but sometimes they’ll stop me and say, “I love what you do for the community,” and they’re referring to a broader level of involvement. People ask me if it ever gets tiring, being stopped by people. But I think no; when they stop, that’s problematic. That means we’re doing something that’s not working. I get involved in political things, but they’re almost always around censorship or involved with access to books. Oregon has a very strong constitutional defense of books, but we also have the same element of the population that would like to, for a variety of reasons, control that flow. You know: “Don’t put gay books in schools, don’t let anyone under the age of eighteen be exposed to bad books.” But we win those fights.

Still, they usually take a lot of energy and some money, and with the first anti-gay measure in Portland—Proposition 9—businesses were very closely involved. I have gay staff, of course, and friends who are gay, and they challenged me. There was an element of that legislation that involved not letting libraries, specifically school libraries, have gay-related materials. But we just turned the store into a poster board for that issue, and we won it, and we were very proud of that.

So you helped defeat it at the ballot.
Yep. There were two efforts and we won both of those. Not by overwhelming numbers, but we won. If we can define the issue as one of censorship, and they can define the issue as perversity, and you let that go in a challenge, they’ll win. But Oregonians don’t like censorship, and again I say not by overwhelming numbers, but we do win. And so we get involved in those issues and they seem to come along with certain regularity, every four or five years. Otherwise most of the stuff I get involved in is more planning. I don’t get involved in partisan politics as a company. In fact I keep the company very separate from that. Personally I do get involved, but I try to keep it as separate as I possibly can.

As a citizen, not an owner.
Yeah, yeah.

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What do you think people are most surprised to learn about independent bookselling?
I think they’re surprised to know how hard it is. I think everybody—or the uneducated person who doesn’t know much about the business—thinks that as a bookseller you sit in a store, read books, and when someone comes in you have a nice conversation and then recommend and sell some things to that person. That you have a stock of books you believe in and know intimately. That you wear patches on the elbows of your sport jacket, and there’s a cat somewhere in the window, and there’s a fire burning in a fireplace, and there’s the smell of coffee and all that. That it’s a very relaxed and low-key kind of thing. The reality is that it’s extremely intense, whether it’s a small store or a huge store. You’re always pushing the rock up the hill, and it’s relentless, and an awful lot of people get ground down by it. That’s why you see stores close with the frequency they have. People give five or ten years of their lives and realize it’s not going anywhere. And that’s hard. It’s hard to be in an industry that takes so many casualties and that much stress.

The good news is you still get to work with books. And you get to work with people who really love books, both as customers and as staff. I’m sure people who love hardware love their hardware, but, you know, I wouldn’t. There’s a high level of gratification. I was trying to calculate how many books I had sold during my life under the Powell’s name. I’d like to think it’s coming close to a hundred million. You know, in chaos theory there’s this idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the globe can create a storm in Africa. Well, what about a hundred million butterfly wings? What has it done? You don’t know. People hardly ever tell you, “I read a book and it changed my life.” Most books are probably sold for entertainment, some are sold for information, and some are sold for inspiration. Certainly some are sold for all three at the same time. But I say to myself, “Well, at least when you’re reading a book it’s hard to rob a bank.” I like to think that some of those books have had a positive impact on people’s lives.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE POWELL’S BOOKS
How many book sales are you processing a day as online orders?
About 2,500. Upward to 3,000. It spikes at Christmas, and it spikes when the school year starts, but otherwise it’s fairly steady.

How many books do you have in your warehouse for online sales?
About 380,000 in [the main] warehouse, and then there’s about 125,000 in another warehouse.

And how many books do you carry in your stores?
About a million in the flagship store, and probably another six hundred thousand scattered around the other stores. And then we support another two million in Europe. So online we support upward of 4.5 million titles.

How do you determine the price you pay for used books that you buy from online customers? Do you use an algorithm, or is there a person who works on each order?
No, it’s an algorithm. We have several million books in our database to match against, so we just take a percent of either the imprint price or the in-store resale price and pay that amount.

Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon

For the second installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Portland, Oregon, to speak with Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s Books.

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The “City of Books,” as the four-story flagship store in Portland, Oregon, is known, occupies an entire city block, and carries more than one million books. 

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The sixty-eight-thousand-square-foot space is divided into nine color-coded rooms, which together house more than 3,500 sections. “From the moment you walk in,” writes Chamberlin, “it feels as if you could find anything there.”

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“People want a calm background for the books,” Michael Powell says. “Our shelves are about twelve feet high. You live in these little 
alleys, and there’s a kind of cozy feel in that that makes it comfortable for customers. And you can sit on the floor, you know, you can spill something on the floor. It’s not a big disaster.”

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When the newer sections of the store were built more than a decade ago, the concrete floors were left bare because the industrial feel not only complemented the plain, pine bookcases but also added to the laid-back atmosphere. 

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Among the 3,500 sections within the main store, one is devoted to literary journals and books published by small presses.

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“We started as a used books company. My dad introduced new books in the late seventies, and his mantra was two of everything and three of nothing,” Michael Powell says. “It’s a substantial part of our business. In dollars, roughly 50 percent of our total business is new books, about 40 percent is used books, and then 10 percent is magazines, cards, and sidelines.”

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Michael Powell is “endlessly curious about the world, about his employees’ ideas, about what his customers want to read, and about innovative ways to do business,” Chamberlin writes.

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The main warehouse, “which feels like an airplaine hangar but with the sound of jazz floating in the air,” Chamberlin writes, processes as many as three thousand online orders daily. And 70 percent of those are single-title orders.

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“I think we’re an anchor for the city,” Michael Powell says. “That may sound immodest, but somebody’s got to say it. If you have a relative come into town, or a friend come into town, and they say “What is there to do in Portland?” If you name three things, one of them is going to be Powell’s. Because the city’s proud of it. You don’t even have to be a reader—you just want to show it off. Biggest bookstore in America, maybe the biggest in the world… It says something positive about the community—that it supports a store that large—and people like that message.”

An Interview With Poet and Independent Bookseller J. W. Marshall

by

Lisa Albers

6.16.08

For more than twenty years, J. W. Marshall has been recommending poetry to his customers while writing it himself. He and his wife, poet Christine Deavel, own Seattle’s Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of only a couple bookstores in the United States devoted exclusively to poetry and a fixture in the city’s literary community.

In March, Oberlin College Press published Marshall’s first full-length collection of poetry, Meaning a Cloud, winner of the 2007 FIELD Poetry Prize. The collection includes poems that previously appeared in the letterpress chapbooks Taken With (2005) and Blue Mouth (2001), both published by Wood Works, an independent press in Seattle, and named finalists for the Washington State Book Award.

The poems in Meaning a Cloud reflect Marshall’s ecumenical knowledge of poetry, a boon to his work as a purveyor of literature in verse. Informed by poetic tradition but shaped by delirious risk-taking, his writing is unabashedly autobiographical, yet stoically refrains from mere confession. Marshall’s poetic gaze into the interior is motivated not by a need to define his own self so much as by a desire to understand all selfhood.

Marshall’s cultivation of poetic presence extends beyond Open Books, as he and his wife cosponsor the Seattle Arts and Lectures poetry series, which brings top-notch poets—Li-Young Lee, Lucille Clifton, and Edward Hirsch, to name a few—to read in the city’s Intiman Theater, often to a packed house. The couple also participates in poetry festivals and conferences and host readings at their shop, which, they say, pays for itself.

Marshall spoke with Poets & Writers Magazine at Open Books, located in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. While Deavel readied the place to open at noon on an overcast Sunday earlier this month, Marshall described what it’s like to take part in both the creation and the dissemination of poetry.

Poets & Writers Magazine: After so many years of supporting the work of poets in a very direct way—by selling their books to readers—you now have a book of your own. How did you transition from bookseller to poet?

J. W. Marshall: Is it easy? No, it’s not. The one thing I’m very aware of is book sales, and so I get to look to see if Ingram is stocking my book, how many copies, and has anybody bought it. It’s a curse. You know, it isn’t a transition; in a way, it’s just two different worlds. They have this intersection. I’m glad to have the bookstore because it keeps my mind off my own book.

P&W: How so?

JWM: I come here, and I’m trying to sell books to people. I’m not trying to sell my book to people because that would get old pretty quickly, and you don’t want to bore folks with credit cards in their hands.

P&W: Did you learn things in the process of being a bookseller that you’re using now as an author yourself?

JWM: Oh, sure. There are connections I have through the bookstore that I very gently tug on to see if I can get readings or offer the book to people who’ve written reviews. I certainly do that. The thing that I’ve done that may be the most worthwhile, honestly [has to do with] Oberlin Press—God bless them; they’ve been very good to work with. David Young is a terrific guy, Linda in the office too. I like them a lot. But they offered their books at a 30 percent discount when the industry standard is 40 or better, and, through Ingram, they offered them at only a 10 percent discount. While I like my book, I was kind of heartbroken thinking that bookstores are not going to order it at 10 percent. So I politicked with them for months. Now [Oberlin has] changed. With next season, they will hit the standard 40.

P&W: It sounds like you reasoned with them on the basis of understanding the business.

JWM: It was the dreaded confluence of bookseller and author. Watch out, publishers! That’s an ugly one.

P&W: What has changed for you with the publication of Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It’s changed my writing, I think, because now I know what it looks like in a book. The chapbooks were one thing, and those helped a lot, but to see it in a book that has some national distribution makes it seem more real somehow, less ethereal. It actually stopped me from writing for about two months. I try to write every day and was doing a pretty good job of that for years, and once the book came out, I don’t know; I guess there was this shadow cast over the typewriter. I couldn’t quite get there.

P&W: I’ve heard other people talk about that same phenomenon.

JWM: Yes, and you know, I have a counseling degree, and I can’t psychologize it. It’s post-partum something.

P&W: The first section, “Blue Mouth,” is about an accident you had that landed you in the hospital. I’m guessing that happened quite a while ago.

JWM: 1972.

P&W: The third section, “Taken With,” is about your mother’s death. More recent?

JWM: Right.

P&W: You and your mother inhabit parallel worlds during your time in the hospital and her time in a care facility, and the juxtaposition is remarkable, to have the poems bookended in that way. The two sections, beginning and end, had previous lives as chapbooks. What was your process for writing them in the first place for the chapbooks and then bringing them together for this collection?

JWM: In neither case were they written to be chapbooks. The hospital poems were published in 2001, and some of those were written in about 1984. It’s just a matter of writing a lot and then pawing back through and saying, “This goes with this.” I give credit to Paul Hunter, who was the publisher of both chapbooks, because he heard a reading and wanted to publish—there’s a prose poem in the hospital series, “The Nightshift Nurse Brought Her Shoes to Work in a Paper Bag”—he wanted to do that as a broadside. I said, “Of course.” He knew I had other hospital poems he’d heard at readings, and he said he wanted to see a manuscript, so I put one together for him. He gave me an idea about narrative arc; he gets good credit for that. The mom poems just came; she was in a nursing home, and I would visit once a week or more often, and it would spill over into the daily writing. After she died, at one point I just took two years’ worth of pieces of paper and pulled out everything that related to her, and tried to find another chapbook because I thought Paul would publish it.

P&W: The middle section, “Where Else,” is a cogent bridge between those two. The beginning and ending sections deal with inner battles, very personal battles, and then the one in the middle seems to contain echoes of the outside world at battle. In your poems, war filters in through the radio and news or manifests itself in a dream you’re having. Did you write “Where Else” later than the other two sections? How did the poems in that section come together?

JWM: Because I’m writing every day, some things just speak more loudly and ask to be followed up on. It’s probably true for some books that people actually sit down to write them with a set idea in mind. Unless it’s a verse novel or something, that’s not how I would write. But you’re right on it; those other two sections are internal, and I didn’t want to be just internal—I wanted to be part of the public. I wanted a voice that was with and among, not so interior.

P&W: When you’re writing daily, are you writing full poems, do you keep a journal, or do you just write whatever comes?

JWM: Whatever comes. More and more, the important part is, whatever’s in should come out. I don’t want to write the same poem. I could give all these other people’s descriptions, which is kind of cheating I guess. Mary Ruefle at Seattle Arts and Lectures said that she used to think writing was about speaking, and then she realized it is about listening. In a way, I’m up for that. I have language going in my head all the time, so I sit at the typewriter and press the keys.

P&W: It sounds like you weren’t necessarily seeking publication as much as publication sought you.

JWM: I sent to magazines for twenty years. The great thing about the Oberlin is, they publish FIELD magazine, and it’s a magazine I have liked a great deal since I started taking poetry seriously—that would be about 1980. I used to keep little index cards of submissions and rejections, and before I got into FIELD, I had been rejected by them for almost twenty years. Then they took one, they took three, they took another, so I thought, well, I should enter the contest. I’d been trying to get published before, just not rabidly. I was daintily trying to get published.

P&W: How did you get from chapbooks to Meaning a Cloud?

JWM: It was [Oberlin’s] competition, and it was Alice James, another good publisher. I’d put the two chapbooks together, with nothing in the middle, and sent that in for the FIELD prize four years ago. I got a nice e-mail back from David Young saying, “You’re a high finalist,” and that was very encouraging because it was the first time I’d entered a contest. I entered Alice James, and I was a finalist there. In each case, I felt a little guilty because they’d already been chapbooks. I had other work I liked, so I put it in the middle and tried Alice James again but didn’t get anything. Then I tried FIELD again and got it.

P&W: You said you have a degree in counseling—do you have formal training as a poet?

JWM: I have a BA and an MFA in poetry.

P&W: From the University of Washington?

JWM: The BA was here. The MFA is from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I came back and got a degree in rehab therapy at Seattle University, which was the best education of them all. They were tough. Creative writing programs are not.

P&W: They’re tough in a different way.

JWM: Yes. Right. Socially. [Laughs.] At the UW, the person who got me to really love poetry was Nelson Bentley. Two times a week, he’d encourage us to write a formal poem. He’d say, “Write a villanelle; write a sestina.” As an impressionable, somewhat young person, I tried that, and I liked it a lot. I still look for some kind of iambic progression. I want to bust it up, but I want to know it’s there.

P&W: How would you compare those formal experiences with the informal experiences you’ve had since you’ve been able to read a lot of poetry and support poetry over the years?

JWM: That’s the best education, the bookstore and the customers and the books. I went through school just like everybody else, attending the classes but also attending to my fellow students and my ego and all of that stuff. Reading is by far the best education. We have some great customers who come in and say wonderfully profound, off-the-cuff things that make me look at other writers who I’ve never looked at. I was just reading an interview with Nathaniel Tarn, and he was talking about Language poetry and how he saw Language poetry against the “workshop” poem and the lyric and talked about people who are doing both. As I’m sure you know, [poetry] is a fairly balkanized art, probably all arts are. What’s good about the bookstore is we can’t be balkanized or we wouldn’t be in business. We each read fairly widely and think widely and don’t get into one school or another. That I hope comes through in the writing.

P&W: It does. Even though you’re writing daily and you’re running the bookstore, you have time to read books of poetry as well?

JWM: You have to in order to sell them. Much less reading just for pleasure: People want to know, “Is this like his first book?” “How is she compared to so-and-so?” If I don’t know, then they might as well go to any of our major competitors. We’d rather they didn’t.

P&W: That gets me to the next question, too, because you’re not just running the shop; you’re also supporting poetry in other ways. You’ve been involved with the Seattle Arts and Lecture series and the local poetry festival. Yours sounds like a dream job to many people, but especially for a poet. Is it all silver lining, or are there any clouds?

JWM: It’s retail. There are clouds. This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I was just having a discussion with a wonderful customer, a great guy who was throwing flowers everywhere, telling us what great things we do for the poetry community, and I said, “You know, I’m a clerk. I could be at Les Schwab selling you tires.” There’s a hint of that that’s true. The Seattle Arts and Lectures work is great for us, but it’s economically great for us. While that’s supporting the community, it’s supporting the bookstore. Anything that supports the bookstore to some degree supports the community. At least it means that people can come here and find a relatively obscure book and find people willing to talk about aspects of poetry when it’s difficult to find people who will do that outside the academy, or even inside the academy in some cases.

P&W: Does that ever feel like a drag, the retail aspect: selling, staying profitable?

JWM: Once in a while. In a slow month. There needs to be income. There are clouds to the silver lining. But the silver lining: It’s lovely to be surrounded by poetry. And to have the customers who come in have an interest in poetry. That’s a godsend.

P&W: How do you choose the inventory?

JWM: That comes from two directions. If we have some knowledge about the writer. Some publishers we trust introduce people to us. We listen to our customers. I guess it’s just attentiveness. We’re open to failure. On the other hand, we’ve been in the bookselling business for more than twenty years, and there’s a learning curve. We’ve definitely learned some things.

P&W: Which poets have had the most influence on your own work?

JWM: Because of his love of poetry more than for his own poetry, Nelson Bentley. Bill Knott, and again, partially out of his poetry, which is just wild and liberating in its wildness, and he, too, was a teacher. He at one point asked me in a conference, “So what?” about a poem. That was devastating and was a great question. It’s a great question for all art. I’m afraid a lot of art doesn’t pass that question, not that there’s an answer you could know in advance. Bill was quite important. Then there are people I read, like Dickinson. Early James Tate. White guy American poets in the seventies and eighties.

P&W: What’s next for the poet J. W. Marshall?

JWM: I get to do readings in Michigan and Ohio in the fall. I’m still writing every day and liking some of the things I’m writing, and now, I fantasize about a second book. At the rate that I’m liking what I write, it will be a ways off.

Indie Bookstores Face Uphill Battle

by

Kevin Smokler

11.1.06

When fiction writer Barry Eisler heard last summer that Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, would close after fifty years in business, his first reaction was a loud expletive. His second was an e-mail to owner Clark Kepler with an offer to help. “I used to see those big author photos in the window…and I was working on what would become my first novel,” says Eisler, the author of the Jain Rain series of thrillers. “My fantasies of literary success were all based on doing book signings at Kepler’s.”

Eisler was part of a cadre of Bay Area authors who offered to give benefit readings and drive as much business as they could to the bookstore. Their efforts, combined with an alarmed customer base and a group of Silicon Valley investors, helped Kepler’s reopen to cheering crowds last October.

Kepler, whose father Roy founded the store in the spring of 1955, expressed both delight and gratitude for the community’s generosity, but warned that Kepler’s future was far from secure. “I think we were like frogs in hot water,” he says. “The old way of buying books, putting them on shelves, and waiting for someone to come in isn’t working anymore.”

What will? Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations (Denver’s Tattered Cover), downsizing (Cody’s in Berkeley, California, which was sold in September to Yohan Inc., a book distributor based in Tokyo), or closing altogether (San Francisco’s A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books). And while the American Booksellers Association (ABA) reports that its membership has held steady over the last few years, dramatic rescues like those of Kepler’s and Brazos Books in Houston, which owner Karl Kilian sold to a group of community investors in March, are becoming increasingly visible.

“When you run an independent bookstore, someone inevitably starts a conversation: ‘How do you compete? How do you stay in business?’ As if things weren’t bad enough with the chains, now you’ve got Amazon,” says Kilian from his new post as director of programs for the Menil Collection, a Houston art museum. Several years ago Kilian wrote a letter to friends and patrons of Brazos warning that the store might be in trouble. Rick Bass, Richard Ford, Susan Sontag, and other authors each wrote back with an offer to give benefit readings. While it turned out not to be necessary, Kilian says that Brazos’s reputation for first-rate author events was a significant part of what made the store’s potential closing “a loss the community would not tolerate.”

One of the less fortunate independent bookstores was Bristol Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, which hosted many readings by students attending the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill. Bristol Books closed last year after fifteen years in business. A rescue effort, says manager Nicki Leone, was neither possible nor practical.

“I think what happened to Kepler’s Books is great, but has it proved its case yet? Is it a working business model?” asks Leone. That question weighs heavily on the owners of bookstores who have been given a second chance. Jane Moser, who ran a successful children’s bookshop in Houston in the 1980s, was recently hired as the manager of Brazos Books. She says she plans on expanding the store’s hours, increasing its children’s book and cookbook sections, and improving its online presence, as well as deepening the store’s relationship with schools, universities, and area corporations. “Brazos was already an institution,” says Moser. “But times change. You can always do more.”

The seventy-nine-year-old Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one of the two remaining all-poetry bookstores in the United States. In April poet and Wellesley College professor Ifeanyi Menkiti bought the store when its previous owner fell ill. Knowing that his teaching job both enabled the purchase of the store and prevented him from working there full-time, Menkiti hired a manager and declared that Grolier could not remain economically viable based solely on its reputation.

“It’s a wonderful little place, filled with great conversation, tradition,” Menkiti says. “Our goal is to move that cultural vision forward but still pay our bills and keep books on the shelves. Then the enterprise will have been worthwhile.”

Before closure looms, booksellers say, writers can help. Hut Landon, the executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, recommends that authors include links to Booksense.com, the e-commerce arm of the ABA’s Book Sense program, on their Web sites. Kepler adds that authors can underscore the difference independent bookstores have played in their success when they give lectures and readings. Tracy Wynne, the owner of Cover to Cover Books in San Francisco, which was saved from closure by community activism and author donations in 2003, reports that many local children’s authors now use only Cover to Cover as their bookseller for events and school visits.

Just as authors can no longer publish and then wait for the sales to roll in, more and more booksellers have begun actively finding readers instead of waiting for readers to show up. “If the question is, ‘Can independent bookstores survive?’ part of the answer has to speak to finances,” says Dave Weich, director of marketing and development for the thirty-five-year-old Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. “We have to deliver more value than an ethical shopping experience and a community gathering place.… That might mean reaching out to local businesses or working closely with regional schools and authors.”

“You have to be really scrappy,” Weich says. “It is all about being proactive.”

Kevin Smokler is the editor of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (Basic Books, 2005). He lives in San Francisco.

Faced with increased overhead, diversified retail competition, and a dwindling reading population, venerable booksellers once thought invincible are changing locations, downsizing, or closing altogether.

NJIT Grads Launch Bookswim: Think Netflix Without the Flix

5.25.07

George Burke and Shamoon Siddiqui recently launched Bookswim, an online operation that allows readers to rent books much the same way Netflix allows people to rent movies. The two graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology posted a beta version of the Web site at www.bookswim.com.

Readers can choose from five rental plans that range in cost from twenty-four to thirty-six dollars per month. Once an account is set up, a customer can choose books from more than two dozen categories and place them in a queue. Bookswim then sends three to eleven books, depending on the chosen plan, to the reader, who can keep them indefinitely. When the customer is ready, books can be returned in a prepaid envelope and the next titles in the queue are mailed.

The new venture comes at a time when independent bookstores are struggling, Bertelsmann is cutting jobs at Bookspan, and voters in Oregon are choosing to shut down libraries. “Could the price of books possibly have gotten any more expensive?” Burke and Siddiqui ask on Bookswim’s Web site. “During any given week, the average bestseller lists for more than $20. Read three of these in a month and you’re spending over $60! What you’re paying for is the right to own the book…but is ownership what you really want?”

Bookswim members can review the books they rent and even rate them on a five-star scale. The “best rental” is currently The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult.

 

So Much Depends Upon a New Bookstore: Postcard From Paris

by

Ethan Gilsdorf

11.2.01

On the evening of October 29, more than seventy-five people crammed into The Red Wheelbarrow, a newly opened Anglophone bookshop, to inaugurate a reading series and celebrate two literary magazines: Upstairs at Duroc, published at the Anglo cultural center WICE, and Pharos, edited collectively by poet Alice Notleys workshop at the British Institute in Paris. The enthusiastic crowd spilled onto the cobblestone street, smoking cigarettes and craning their necks for a view of the proceedings.

The reading series, A Blue Monday, featured sturdy and in some cases spectacular readings by six writers-some Paris fixtures, others new to the scene, and all relatively unknown outside of the literary expat community. Highlights included Laure Millets The Crying Bowler, a side-splitting short story about suburban family disorder, and Amy Hollowels poems about September 11, which she prefaced by saying that a poets voice is more essential now than ever before. Srikanth Reddy, a fresh arrival in Paris thanks to Harvards Whiting Fellowship, read his poem Corruption (II), which features the following lines:

Lately I have found some comfort in words like here. Here was a chapel for instance. Here is a footprint filling with rain. Here might be enough.

An international crowd of English-language lovers, including students and professors from the Paris VII university across the street, had found its own here, a place to call home, at least for the evening. The Red Wheelbarrow is my act against globalism, my anti-matrix, said Penelope Fletcher Le Masson, the bookstores Canadian proprietor. Bookstores will become shrines. She expects her new venture to complement the existing competition. After two months in business, The Red Wheelbarrow has found its niche among Pariss half-dozen Anglo bookshops-not as high-brow as The Village Voice, and less bohemian than Shakespeare and Company.

Later, at a nearby wine bar, a post-reading gathering brought together six writers, one teacher, a dancer, two artists, and four magazine editors. A zealous activist named Mark Feurst peddled his new anti-war rag The First Amendment. A sighting of the just-released Frank magazine was rumored, and two representatives from Kilometer Zero-after huddling at a private table to plan their Paris-based art and literary center-promised a new issue by the end of November. Their KMZ Venue, a series of six Sunday night variety shows in a bistro basement, kicks off November 4.

The whole [Blue Monday] event was a confirmation that a bookstore makes itself, Le Masson said the next day. People are thirsty to hear what people have written. I especially welcome unknown writers to read, even if they dont have books to sell. Upcoming readings at The Red Wheelbarrow include British novelist Rupert Morgan, American poet Kathleen Spivak and, Le Masson hopes, Canadian-Parisian Nancy Huston.

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of
Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who
represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience.
Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished
their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the
hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has
become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on
the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment
below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when
they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables
overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs.
There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already
taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase
to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the
fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are
black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there
are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard
Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something
Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological
record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through
these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular
institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth,
the store’s owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number
of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the
country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing
place for writers—as a “sanctuary,” to borrow a word from William Faulkner,
another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife,
Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their
current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.
Since then, they’ve opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which
specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the
venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003,
Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the
Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and
other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public
readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This
year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate
the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first
literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running
Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we’d end up
discussing was where they were headed next or where they’d just been. Square
Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking
forward to going, or couldn’t wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with
its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied
and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice
Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and
others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the
cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the
first to visit the store.

This was certainly
the case for me. Even though I wasn’t reading, and even though I hadn’t been
back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when
I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with
local writers at the Howorths’ house, a walk through Faulkner’s home, a trip to
the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble
archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place
in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of
town.

No person could
have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford.
Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner’s home (in the house where the
bookseller’s father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner’s
sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property
for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still
reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a
retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to
his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just
finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this
same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books
one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I
chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were
between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the
espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing
us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the
past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office,
seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate
life’s quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a
bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the
business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would
be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the
Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it
was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about
ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and
managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was
also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington
suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this
reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit
hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the
intention of opening Square Books?

Sure. We opened the first store in the
upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson’s Department
Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today,
and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the
businesses didn’t turn over very much because the families that owned the
businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store
didn’t care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did,
run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I
just couldn’t find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson’s had a
long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices
upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who
were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month,
respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred
dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision
for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?

The initial vision is still very much
what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of
Mississippi’s distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions,
the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the
university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was
regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other
people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct
was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy
books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate
it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we’re not all illiterate, we’re
not all…it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the
community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made
a lot of progress—there’s now a statue of James Meredith; there’s now an
institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people
today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don’t know the specific
events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of
that.

Correct. I was thirteen when
Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba
County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I
remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the
university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who’s spent most of
his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?

My view of the community is
essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would
say, I really appreciate all the people who work
for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about
places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that’s
because this is Faulkner country—
his house is here, and his grave is here, and
so on—
but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last
several decades?

You know, it’s a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were
people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark
Young
was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was
a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce
and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young.
And primarily because of the presence of the university, there’s always been
something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner’s major work
dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that
makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn’t quite do
that with Oak Park. It wasn’t a little native postage stamp of soil. And in
Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams,
Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently,
Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store.
He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of]
Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He
was hired by Harper’s Magazine to
be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in
chief. And while at Harper’s,
he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism.
He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer’s
“Armies of the Night” [originally titled “Steps of the Pentagon”], the longest
magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a
book called North Toward Home,
which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this
whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about
it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball
team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the
racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the
South ’cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was
going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all
that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or
quit Harper’s, depending on
the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation,
believing that he wouldn’t accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his
subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of
run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean
Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money
to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that
spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the
bookstore. He said, “Richard, I’m going to bring all these writers, all my
friends. I’m going to bring them down here and they’re going to do book
signings at your store and we’re going to have a great time.”

The summer I came
back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was
the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of
Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from
Vicksburg; he’d been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in
folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy
and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a
tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the
South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South’s
being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen
pregnancy and all the things we’re still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling
and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made
it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the
community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book
signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October
1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the
store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself
to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come
here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got
him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter
Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore.
So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of
events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author
tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies
and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver
and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do
interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not
a book-signing tour. They didn’t go to bookstores. We weren’t by any means the
first store to do this, but there weren’t many who were doing this at the same
time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the
Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that’s kind of how the circuit business got
started.

Then Barry Hannah
moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing
style particularly contrasted with Willie’s. Because Willie, he was kind of a
journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his
method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a
cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at
that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American
letters at that point. There would’ve been kind of a rivalry with any writer,
any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with
Faulkner’s ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile
period in the community’s literary history.

So that convergence of events
helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.

Right, right. And then, you know,
Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John
Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the
whole time too?

No, he’d been living in north
Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was
in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited
Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That’s when
John said, “Wow, I’m gonna do something with this.”

And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.

Correct. And he did that because he
wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
should read.

Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and
then they’re off for forty-eight hours. And then they’re back on for
twenty-four and they’re off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs.
They’re usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked
at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a
painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he’d always been a
pretty big reader. Larry’s mother, especially, was a really big reader of
romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by
writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County
Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book
published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by
getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction
especially. He would read Harper’s and Esquire. Larry was
a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an
incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the
director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group,
who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on,
he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person
who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started
talking and, you know, I didn’t give him a reading list and say, “Read these
ten books and that’ll make you a writer.” Larry was already reading Raymond
Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke
out. Flannery O’Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely
found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him
in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would’ve gotten out of the
jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories
published and then he kind of couldn’t get anything else published. He kept
sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me
one day—and, you know, I hadn’t read anything he’d written, hadn’t asked to; I
don’t go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, “I
don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I’m calling you, I don’t mean to bother
you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything’s coming back.” I
said, “Larry, I’d be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I’m no
editor or agent or anything, but I’d be willing to read them.”

So he came over
with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room
table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just
started reading. The first story was “Facing the Music.” You know, I read maybe
four pages and I said, “Larry, this is an incredible story. You’re not doing
anything wrong.” And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine.
Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told
him, “This is going to be published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where,
just don’t despair.” Actually I was looking the other day at a note he’d sent
me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I
don’t remember what that was. I may have said, “You might move this sentence
from here to here,” or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.

Exactly. Also, I suggested he
contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who’d published his first serious publication, a
story called “The Rich.” I said, “What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the
Mississippi Review
?” And he said, “No,
‘cause they’ve already published me.”

That’s a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they
published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him
meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O’Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something…an intimacy with place
perhaps?

It often gets explained in phrases
like that, but I think that for the moderns…well, Faulkner was a genius. But I
think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many
things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a
student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and
independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things
that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was
one. So I think it’s tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all
of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all
the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There’s also the
whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to
other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective
project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say,
the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?

No, but I think there are always
different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married
life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers
specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like
right now?

I think Southerners are mostly
concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we’re talking about
contemporary southern writers, let’s discuss the Conference of the Book. How
did that start?

The Faulkner conference is held
every summer. I think it started in 1974. It’s always drawn a crowd—people
come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would
come in the store and say, “I heard about that Faulkner conference and I’d love
to come back here and go to that, but I don’t think I want to do Faulkner for a
whole week.” These are people who aren’t necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars,
but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was
going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA
[BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where
you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors
talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which
typically were not available to the public. And I thought, “What if we had a
conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a
more general thing about books?”

So I talked to Ann
Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann,
who’s been a good friend for a long time, “I’ve got this idea. Instead of just
having the Faulkner conference, why don’t we do another kind of literary
conference? We can just talk about books and what’s going on with The Book and how it’s doing today. We’ll invite editors and
agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public.”
And Ann said, “Yeah, maybe soon.” Then, after about three or four years, she
said, “Let’s do this book conference thing.” And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on
Southern writers?

No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of
all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university
and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this
conference five years from now? Ten years from now?

In an ideal world it would have a
larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that
article in the New Yorker about the
Kindle. You know, that’s a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture,
perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like
[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all
the different intersections, not just publishing.

Right. Everything that’s going on
that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating
table and cut into it and see what’s going on.

With developments like the Kindle
and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay
relevant in the twenty-first century?

I
think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments,
which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading
and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than
the way we’ve historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New
Yorker
article, digital
transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through
books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive
development.

But the question
we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so
much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long?
And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There’s
also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading
books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on
its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is
like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care
what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than
this. [Holds up a book.] I
don’t see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is
pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can
coexist is what I’m saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is
unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation
that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people
about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial
function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe,
irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development
of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will
change bookselling. Because there won’t be as many of these [books], and
therefore the cost will go up.

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So what is the future for
independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like
art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become
nonprofit entities?

I don’t know. I hope not, though. It’s
a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it’s a
difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling
crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in
literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region
and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your
success?

I don’t really think of it in terms
of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want.
If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a
little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are
succeeding doing right?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do
with adaptation. The business’s ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its
own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and,
in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an
innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened,
there’ve always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the
bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision
of a community place.

Yeah, except that I learned fairly
early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can’t just be an
all-purpose community center; you’ve got to make it conform to the mission of
selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art
exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What
happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a
little kind of a music radio show that wasn’t really working at one of the
local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them
that I’d done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn’t going
to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, “Maybe if we
did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be
something.” And that’s how that got started.

It’s been good for
our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a
lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it’s broadcast
on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is
always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do
interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they
want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We’ve had a lot of
writers come up there and just tell stories. It’s performed, recorded, and
broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all
the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they
rebroadcast the show.

It’s often really
great. And a lot of times we have musicians who’ve written books come on the
show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show.
There’s almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn’t
have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you’ve finished your
two terms as mayor, you’re returning to the bookstore full time again. What are
you most looking forward to? What did you most miss
?
I just missed being here. I missed
being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what’s come
in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out,
being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I’m gonna
be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I’m doing now is really
kind of returning to my roots. I’m just going to be on the floor. I’m not going
to resume buying; I’m not going to be doing all the business stuff; I’m not
going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and
training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the
books.

Yeah. There may come a point when I
want to do something else. I don’t know. But that’s the plan now.

Where would you like to see the
store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?

No. But returning to that whole
future of books conversation, one of the things that I should’ve added has to
do with what’s happened at Square Books, Jr. We’re selling more children’s
books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from
toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens…if you go in there and hang
around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a
thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in
2009?

John Grisham signs books
for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller.
Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about
Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham’s The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from
Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in
Mississippi.

What
books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?

Lark and
Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A
Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore, The
Missing
by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland
by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints
on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a
time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn’t have
to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything
using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his
recommendation because he’d written in big letters, “It’s great! I’m serious!
Just buy it!” It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to
see Strunk and White.

Any
books you’re particularly excited about in 2010?

I’m excited about Jim Harrison’s new book, The Farmer’s Daughter; that
big, wonderful new novel The
Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our
store; and Brad Watson’s new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has
one of the best stories I’ve read in years, “Vacuum.”

Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

For the first installment of our new series Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Oxford, Mississippi, to interview Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books. For the past thirty years, the independent bookstore has been a cornerstone of Oxford’s literary community. 

Square Books 1

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Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.

 

Square Books 2

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The first thing customers notice when they enter Square Books is the signed author photographs. There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling.

Square Books 3

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The names of sections, grouped by topic, are painted on the stairs leading to the second floor of the stoor.

Square Books 4

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Most of the photos are black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard Ford, and others. Collectively, they comprise an archaeological record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

 

Square Books 5

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Jeremiah Chamberlin sat with Richard Howorth upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. “I chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections,” Chamberlin writes. “Howorth commandeered the espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing us our drinks himself.”

Square Books 7

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A bronze statue of Oxford native William Faulkner in front of the city hall, which is located near Square Books.

Square Books 8

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In addition to Square Books, Richard Howorth and his wife, Lisa, have opened two other shops: Off Square Books, which specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program, in 1993; and, in 2003, Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore.

Square Books 9

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“To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe, irreplaceable,” Howorth says.

 

Inside Indie Bookstores: Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

1.1.10

This is the inaugural installment of
Inside Indie Bookstores, a new series of interviews with the entrepreneurs who
represent the last link in the chain that connects writers with their intended audience.
Once the authors, agents, editors, publishers, and salespeople have finished
their jobs, it’s up to these stalwarts to get books where they belong: into the
hands of readers. News of another landmark bookstore closing its doors has
become all too common, so now is the perfect time to shine a brighter light on
the institutions that mean so much to the literary community. Post a comment
below to share your thoughts about a favorite indie bookstore.

The first thing customers notice when
they enter Square Books—apart from the customary shelves and tables
overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks—is the signed author photographs.
There are hundreds of them, occupying nearly every vertical surface not already
taken up by bookcases. They cover the walls and trail up the narrow staircase
to the second floor, framing windows and reaching all the way to the
fourteen-foot-high tongue-and-groove ceiling. Most of the photos are
black-and-white publicity shots, the kind publishers send with press kits, but there
are also large-format, professional ones—of Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Richard
Ford, and others. Many have that spare yet beautiful quality of something
Eudora Welty might have taken. Collectively, they comprise an archeological
record of this place’s luminous history—all the authors have passed through
these doors—as well as a document of the important role that this particular
institution has had in promoting writers and writing.

Richard Howorth,
the store’s owner, would modestly deny having had a hand in any of the number
of literary careers that have sprung from the fertile soil in this part of the
country, but the honest truth is that Square Books has served as a nurturing
place for writers—as a “sanctuary,” to borrow a word from William Faulkner,
another Oxford 
native—for more than thirty years now. He and his wife,
Lisa, opened the first store in 1979. Seven years later they moved into their
current location, formerly the Blaylock Drug Store, after buying the building.
Since then, they’ve opened two other shops: in 1993, Off Square Books, which
specializes in used books, remainders, and rare books and serves as the
venue for store events and the Thacker Mountain Radio program; and, in 2003,
Square Books, Jr., a children’s bookstore. Howorth also helped establish the
Oxford Conference for the Book, which brings together writers, editors, and
other representatives from the publishing world each spring for public
readings, roundtables, and panel discussions on writing and literacy. This
year, as part of the seventeenth annual event, the conference will celebrate
the legacy of Barry Hannah.

I made my first
literary pilgrimage to Oxford nearly a decade ago. At the time, I was running
Canterbury Booksellers, a small independent bookshop in Madison, Wisconsin.
Invariably, whenever authors visited our store, one of the topics we’d end up
discussing was where they were headed next or where they’d just been. Square
Books was always mentioned as a place they one day hoped to go, were looking
forward to going, or couldn’t wait to get back to. Partly this has to do with
its lineage, for few places can claim to have hosted readings for such varied
and important authors as Etheridge Knight, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, Alice
Walker, Alex Haley, George Plimpton, William Styron, Peter Matthiessen, and
others. And partly it has to do with the Howorths themselves, who, despite the
cliché about Southern hospitality, make all authors feel as if they were the
first to visit the store.

This was certainly
the case for me. Even though I wasn’t reading, and even though I hadn’t been
back to town in almost ten years, I was welcomed with enormous generosity when
I arrived. For two days I was given the grand tour, including a dinner with
local writers at the Howorths’ house, a walk through Faulkner’s home, a trip to
the Ole Miss campus to see the bronze statue of James Meredith under a marble
archway in which the word courage is carved into the stone, as well as an oral history of what took place
in Oxford during the Civil War as we drove through the shady neighborhoods of
town.

No person could
have been a better guide to the literary and historical roots of Oxford.
Howorth grew up across the street from Faulkner’s home (in the house where the
bookseller’s father, a retired doctor, still lives). Faulkner’s
sister-in-law used to chase Richard and his brothers off the property
for pestering her cow and causing mischief. All the Howorth brothers still
reside in town—one a judge, one a retired lawyer, one an architect, and one a
retired admissions director at the University of Mississippi. In addition to
his thirty years as a local bookseller, Richard, the middle brother, also just
finished his second term as mayor of Oxford.

It was with this
same generosity of spirit that Howorth agreed to talk with me at Square Books
one afternoon. We sat upstairs, at a small table in an out-of-the-way corner. I
chose the spot because it seemed secluded—though, coincidentally, we were
between the Faulkner and Southern Literature sections. Howorth commandeered the
espresso machine and made us cappuccinos before we settled in to chat, fixing
us our drinks himself. He is a man quick to laugh, and despite having spent the
past three decades as a bookseller and the last eight years in public office,
seems largely optimistic about the world. Or, rather, has learned to appreciate
life’s quirks, mysteries, and small pleasures.

How did you come to bookselling?
Deliberately. I wanted to open a
bookstore in my hometown, so I sought work in a bookstore in order to learn the
business and see whether it was something that I would enjoy doing, and would
be capable of doing.

The apprentice model.
Yes. Lisa and I both worked in the
Savile Bookshop, in Georgetown, for two years. In the fifties and sixties it
was a Washington institution. It was a great old store. The founder died about
ten years before we arrived. It had been through a series of owners and
managers, and by the time we were working there it was on its last leg. It was
also at the time that Crown Books was first opening in the Washington
suburbs—it was the first sort of chain deep-discounter. The Savile had this
reputation as a great store, but it was obviously slipping. We were on credit
hold all over the place. So it ended up being a great learning experience.

Then you came back here with the
intention of opening Square Books?

Sure. We opened the first store in the
upstairs, over what was, I think, the shoe department of Neilson’s Department
Store. Back then the town square was so much different from what it is today,
and commerce was not so terribly vital. It was certainly viable, but the
businesses didn’t turn over very much because the families that owned the
businesses usually owned the buildings. Old Mr. Denton at his furniture store
didn’t care if he sold a stick of furniture all day; it was just what he did,
run his store. So when I came home I knew I wanted to be on the square, and I
just couldn’t find a place. My aunt owned the building where Neilson’s had a
long-term lease on the ground floor, but there were three offices
upstairs—rented to an insurance agent, a lawyer, and a real estate agent who
were paying forty dollars, thirty dollars, and thirty dollars a month,
respectively, for a total of a hundred dollars. So my initial rent was a hundred
dollars a month.

Did you have a particular vision
for this store from the beginning, or did it change over time?

The initial vision is still very much
what the store is today. I wanted it to serve the community. Because of
Mississippi’s distinct history and character, as well as social disruptions,
the state—and Oxford, in particular, due to the desegregation of the
university in 1962, when there was a riot and two people were killed—was
regarded as a place of hatred and bigotry. And I knew that this community was not that. I knew that there were a lot of other
people here who viewed the world the same way my family did, and my instinct
was that people would support the store not just because they wanted to buy
books or wanted a bookstore here, but because they knew—not to overstate
it—that a bookstore would send a message. That we’re not all illiterate, we’re
not all…it said something about both the economic and cultural health of the
community.

Has that happened?
The university, for instance, has made
a lot of progress—there’s now a statue of James Meredith; there’s now an
institute for racial reconciliation at the university. And most young people
today know what the civil rights movement was, but they don’t know the specific
events and how tense and dramatic and difficult all of that was at that time.

You grew up in the midst of
that.

Correct. I was thirteen when
Goodman and Chaney and Schwerner were murdered [in 1964] and buried in Neshoba
County, Mississippi, and I was eleven when the riots at Ole Miss occurred. I
remember my mother crying when that happened. Her father taught English at the
university for years, and she knew that it was a tragic event.

As someone who’s spent most of
his life in this town, how did you see the place after having been the mayor?

My view of the community is
essentially no different from what it was before I was mayor. Except, I would
say, I really appreciate all the people who work
for the city. A lot of good public servants.

When you talk with writers about
places they hope to visit someday, they always name Oxford. Partly that’s
because this is Faulkner country—
his house is here, and his grave is here, and
so on—
but how did this place become such a literary destination in the last
several decades?

You know, it’s a lot of things. Beginning with Faulkner. But there were
people preceding Faulkner connected to the university, mostly. Stark
Young
was a novelist and a New York Times drama critic and an editor at the New Republic who helped Faulkner a little bit. Phil Stone was
a lawyer here, educated at Yale, who introduced Faulkner to Swinburne and Joyce
and a lot of the reading that was so influential to him when he was very young.
And primarily because of the presence of the university, there’s always been
something of a literary environment. But I think because Faulkner’s major work
dealt with this specific geography and culture so intimately, and because of the mythology he created, that
makes for a very particular kind of literary tourism. Hemingway didn’t quite do
that with Oak Park. It wasn’t a little native postage stamp of soil. And in
Mississippi in general there were also Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams,
Eudora Welty—these great writers of the twentieth century.

More recently,
Willie Morris moved to Oxford in 1980, within a year after we opened the store.
He was from Yazoo City, Mississippi. He was the editor of the [University of]
Texas student newspaper, and from there got a job with the Texas Observer, where he became editor at a very young age. He
was hired by Harper’s Magazine to
be an editor, and a few years later, in 1967, became its youngest editor in
chief. And while at Harper’s,
he really changed the magazine and was on the ground floor of New Journalism.
He published David Halberstam and Larry L. King; he published Norman Mailer’s
“Armies of the Night” [originally titled “Steps of the Pentagon”], the longest
magazine piece ever to have been published; and he published Walker Percy.

He also wrote a
book called North Toward Home,
which was his autobiography, published in 1967, that kind of dealt with this
whole ambivalence of the South and being from here and loving so much about
it—stuff about growing up in Yazoo City, and his friends, and his baseball
team, and his dog, and his aunt Minnie who lived next door—but also the
racism. The murders and the civil rights movement. And he had to get out of the
South ’cause he loved it too much and hated so much of everything that was
going on.

That sense of conflictedness.
Right, right. The book expressed all
that and was a touchstone for a lot of people my age. Then he got fired from or
quit Harper’s, depending on
the story. He got in a fight with the publisher and submitted his resignation,
believing that he wouldn’t accept it. But he did. [Laughter.] So he continued to write, but none of his
subsequent books were quite as big as North Toward Home. And Willie was a big drinker and he had kind of
run out of gas in the black hole, which is what he called Manhattan. But Dean
Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner’s niece, and her husband, Larry, raised money
to give Willie a visiting spot here at the university. So he came here that
spring as a writer-in-residence. And he immediately befriended us and the
bookstore. He said, “Richard, I’m going to bring all these writers, all my
friends. I’m going to bring them down here and they’re going to do book
signings at your store and we’re going to have a great time.”

The summer I came
back to open the store was also about the same time that Bill Ferris, who was
the first full-time director at the newly established Center for the Study of
Southern Culture at the university, came here. Bill was originally from
Vicksburg; he’d been to Davidson [College in North Carolina] and got a PhD in
folklore under Henry Glassy at Penn, taught at Yale. Bill was a tremendous guy
and very charismatic and bright and enthusiastic and full of ideas. Bill had a
tremendous influence on the university and the community and our store. On the
South as a whole. What he did was, despite this whole business of the South’s
being known for racism and bigotry and poverty and illiteracy and teen
pregnancy and all the things we’re still sort of known for [laughter], he took Creole cooking and quilt making and basketry and storytelling
and literature and the blues—all these aspects of Southern culture—and made
it fascinating to the public. So Bill had a tremendous influence on the
community and the bookstore. He also knew a lot of writers. The first book
signing we did was with Ellen Douglas, the second month we were open, October
1979. She had a new novel coming out called The Rock Cried Out. The second person to do a book signing at the
store was a black poet who was originally from Corinth, who had taught himself
to write while doing time at the Indiana State Prison: Etheridge Knight. [Laughter.] Bill knew Etheridge and he got Etheridge to come
here. Bill also knew Alice Walker, got her to come here. Knew Alex Haley, got
him to come here. And Willie got George Plimpton and William Styron and Peter
Matthiessen. All these people were coming and doing events in the bookstore.
So, really, from the time that we opened, we had this incredible series of
events. Then the store kind of became known. And in those days the whole author
tour business was nothing like what it soon thereafter became. In the seventies
and early eighties, publishers would send an author to San Francisco and Denver
and Washington and Atlanta. Maybe. But primarily they were there to do
interviews with the press and go on radio and television. Publicity tours, not
a book-signing tour. They didn’t go to bookstores. We weren’t by any means the
first store to do this, but there weren’t many who were doing this at the same
time as we were. The Tattered Cover [Denver] and Elliott Bay [Seattle] and the
Hungry Mind [Saint Paul]. I think that’s kind of how the circuit business got
started.

Then Barry Hannah
moved here in 1983 to teach creative writing. And his personality and writing
style particularly contrasted with Willie’s. Because Willie, he was kind of a
journalist. And even though he could be critical of the south, part of his
method in being critical was to get to a point where he could also be a
cheerleader for the south. And Barry I think kind of looked down his nose at
that sort of writing. You know, Barry was the Miles Davis of modern American
letters at that point. There would’ve been kind of a rivalry with any writer,
any other writer in town, I suppose. Plus, both of them had to struggle with
Faulkner’s ghost—there was that whole thing. But it was an immensely fertile
period in the community’s literary history.

So that convergence of events
helped create the foundation you would build the store upon.

Right, right. And then, you know,
Larry Brown emerged from the soil. His first book came out in 1988. John
Grisham: His first book was published in 1989.

Had John been living here the
whole time too?

No, he’d been living in north
Mississippi, by South Haven. He was in the state legislature. But when he was
in law school at Ole Miss, he heard William Styron speak. Willie had invited
Styron down for the first time, and that was when he got the bug. That’s when
John said, “Wow, I’m gonna do something with this.”

And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.

Correct. And he did that because he
wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.

Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
should read.

Nah.

Is that not correct?
No. [Laughter.]

Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and
then they’re off for forty-eight hours. And then they’re back on for
twenty-four and they’re off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs.
They’re usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked
at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a
painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he’d always been a
pretty big reader. Larry’s mother, especially, was a really big reader of
romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by
writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County
Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book
published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by
getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction
especially. He would read Harper’s and Esquire. Larry was
a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.

He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an
incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the
director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group,
who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on,
he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person
who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started
talking and, you know, I didn’t give him a reading list and say, “Read these
ten books and that’ll make you a writer.” Larry was already reading Raymond
Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke
out. Flannery O’Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely
found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him
in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would’ve gotten out of the
jam that he thought he was in at the time.

What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories
published and then he kind of couldn’t get anything else published. He kept
sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me
one day—and, you know, I hadn’t read anything he’d written, hadn’t asked to; I
don’t go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, “I
don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry I’m calling you, I don’t mean to bother
you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything’s coming back.” I
said, “Larry, I’d be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I’m no
editor or agent or anything, but I’d be willing to read them.”

So he came over
with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room
table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just
started reading. The first story was “Facing the Music.” You know, I read maybe
four pages and I said, “Larry, this is an incredible story. You’re not doing
anything wrong.” And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine.
Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told
him, “This is going to be published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where,
just don’t despair.” Actually I was looking the other day at a note he’d sent
me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I
don’t remember what that was. I may have said, “You might move this sentence
from here to here,” or something like that.

But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.

Exactly. Also, I suggested he
contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who’d published his first serious publication, a
story called “The Rich.” I said, “What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the
Mississippi Review
?” And he said, “No,
‘cause they’ve already published me.”

That’s a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they
published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him
meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.

It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O’Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something…an intimacy with place
perhaps?

It often gets explained in phrases
like that, but I think that for the moderns…well, Faulkner was a genius. But I
think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many
things that he could not do.

What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a
student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and
independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things
that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was
one. So I think it’s tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all
of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all
the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There’s also the
whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to
other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.

Do you see any collective
project happening as a trend in writing right now, in the same way that, say,
the modernists were trying to make sense of a new world?

No, but I think there are always
different schools in the same way that Updike focused on the suburban married
life, and I think other writers operate in certain other niches.

How about southern writers
specifically? How are they trying to make sense of what the south looks like
right now?

I think Southerners are mostly
concerned with just telling a good story.

The tale?
Yeah.

Since we’re talking about
contemporary southern writers, let’s discuss the Conference of the Book. How
did that start?

The Faulkner conference is held
every summer. I think it started in 1974. It’s always drawn a crowd—people
come from California, Japan, Canada, wherever. And over the years, people would
come in the store and say, “I heard about that Faulkner conference and I’d love
to come back here and go to that, but I don’t think I want to do Faulkner for a
whole week.” These are people who aren’t necessarily Faulkner fans or scholars,
but who want to come for the experience.

A literary pilgrimage.
Right. And at the same time, I was
going to conferences like ABA [American Booksellers Association] and BEA
[BookExpo America] and SIBA [Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance], where
you would hear not just writers but also publishers and agents and editors
talking about the process of publishing a book—all these great stories which
typically were not available to the public. And I thought, “What if we had a
conference in Oxford where people could get the local experience, but also a
more general thing about books?”

So I talked to Ann
Abadie, who was a founding director of the Faulkner conference. I told Ann,
who’s been a good friend for a long time, “I’ve got this idea. Instead of just
having the Faulkner conference, why don’t we do another kind of literary
conference? We can just talk about books and what’s going on with The Book and how it’s doing today. We’ll invite editors and
agents and people who have these conversations, but make it for the public.”
And Ann said, “Yeah, maybe soon.” Then, after about three or four years, she
said, “Let’s do this book conference thing.” And so we did.

Is it focused specifically on
Southern writers?

No. I was trying for it not to be just a Southern thing.

That would be too insular?
Yeah, and frankly I get tired of
all this stuff about the South all the time. And I thought that the university
and the community had the opportunity to create a one of a kind conference.

Where would you like to see this
conference five years from now? Ten years from now?

In an ideal world it would have a
larger budget to bring people in. For instance, Nicholson Baker wrote that
article in the New Yorker about the
Kindle. You know, that’s a timely thing. He could come and do a lecture,
perhaps even be on a panel with other people from the industry, people like
[Amazon founder] Jeff Bezos.

So you want it to explore all
the different intersections, not just publishing.

Right. Everything that’s going on
that affects books. We want to put this thing called The Book on the operating
table and cut into it and see what’s going on.

With developments like the Kindle
and Japanese cell-phone novels and Twitter stories, how does a bookstore stay
relevant in the twenty-first century?

I
think there are a couple of things. There are the technological developments,
which are interesting and positive in that they offer opportunities for reading
and the dissemination of literature and ideas in a way that might be greater than
the way we’ve historically done before. As Nicholson Baker pointed out in that New
Yorker
article, digital
transference of text is much cheaper than disseminating literature through
books. So you have that, which in many ways, properly conceived, is a positive
development.

But the question
we need to ask is, How does the technology threaten this thing that we love so
much, and has been so critical to the development of civilization for so long?
And how do we, in terms of that threat, deal with and understand it? There’s
also the cultural threat of younger people who are growing up not reading
books. The way I see it, though, I think that digital technology will go on, on
its own path, no matter what. But in terms of books, I maintain that a book is
like a sailboat or a bicycle, in that it’s a perfect invention. I don’t care
what series number of Kindle you’re on, it is never going to be better than
this. [Holds up a book.] I
don’t see how it could be. I could be wrong. Who knows? But this thing is
pretty wonderful—and irreplaceable.

I think they can
coexist is what I’m saying. And by the same token, I think bookstores offer an experience to book consumers that is
unique. To be able to go into a place physically, to experience a sensation
that is the precise opposite of all that is digital, and to talk to people
about books in a business that has as one of its objectives a curatorial
function and the presentation of literature as another—that is, I believe,
irreplaceable. Of course, the question we all recognize is how the development
of technology, in reducing the industry that creates the physical book, will
change bookselling. Because there won’t be as many of these [books], and
therefore the cost will go up.

page_5: 

So what is the future for
independent bookstores? If their role is curatorial, will they become more like
art galleries? Should they have public funding? Or will bookstores become
nonprofit entities?

I don’t know. I hope not, though. It’s
a very difficult business. But in many ways, I like the fact that it’s a
difficult business. Otherwise, people who want to make money—by selling
crap—would be trying to get into the book business. [Laughter.]

This store specializes in
literature, especially southern literature, as well as books about this region
and this place. Do you think that specialization is part of the reason for your
success?

I don’t really think of it in terms
of specializing. I think of it in terms of giving our customers what they want.
If Nietzsche had been born here, our philosophy section would probably look a
little different. [Laughter.]

So what are bookstores that are
succeeding doing right?

Well, I think a lot of it has to do
with adaptation. The business’s ability to adapt in all kinds of ways to its
own market, to be innovative, to not ignore the technological developments and,
in some cases, take advantage of them. Thacker Mountain Radio was kind of an
innovation.

How did that come to be?
Ever since the bookstore opened,
there’ve always been people coming in wanting to have their art exhibit in the
bookstore, or to stage a play, or do a music performance.

So that really meets your vision
of a community place.

Yeah, except that I learned fairly
early on that you have to make it relate to selling books. You can’t just be an
all-purpose community center; you’ve got to make it conform to the mission of
selling books and promoting writers and literature. Because I did have art
exhibits and it was just sort of a pain. So I kind of got away from that. What
happened, then, was two graduate students who had been trying to develop a
little kind of a music radio show that wasn’t really working at one of the
local bars, came and wanted to use Off Square Books as a venue. I told them
that I’d done enough of this kind of messing around to know that I wasn’t going
to do something like that unless it could promote writers. I said, “Maybe if we
did a radio show that incorporated both music and writers it could be
something.” And that’s how that got started.

It’s been good for
our book business, mainly because writers really want to be on the show. And a
lot of publishers want their writers to be on the show because it’s broadcast
on Mississippi Public Broadcasting, so it reaches a large audience. Which is
always appealing, as you know, to publicists.

Do they just read? Do they do
interviews?
Depends on what the book is and how they
want to present it. They can read; they can talk about it. We’ve had a lot of
writers come up there and just tell stories. It’s performed, recorded, and
broadcast live on local commercial radio. Then we edit stuff for time, do all
the production work on the disc, and send it down to Jackson where they
rebroadcast the show.

It’s often really
great. And a lot of times we have musicians who’ve written books come on the
show, or we have writers who are musicians who like to play on the show.
There’s almost no writer who, given the choice early in their career, wouldn’t
have rather been a rock musician. [Laughter.]

Now that you’ve finished your
two terms as mayor, you’re returning to the bookstore full time again. What are
you most looking forward to? What did you most miss
?
I just missed being here. I missed
being around the books, going down to the receiving room and seeing what’s come
in each day, talking to the customers, knowing which books are coming out,
being able to snag an advance reading copy of something that I know I’m gonna
be interested in. The whole shooting match. So what I’m doing now is really
kind of returning to my roots. I’m just going to be on the floor. I’m not going
to resume buying; I’m not going to be doing all the business stuff; I’m not
going to go running around to every store trying to control staff schedules and
training. I just want to—

Be around the customers and the
books.

Yeah. There may come a point when I
want to do something else. I don’t know. But that’s the plan now.

Where would you like to see the
store ten years from now? Is there anything you still want to achieve with it?

No. But returning to that whole
future of books conversation, one of the things that I should’ve added has to
do with what’s happened at Square Books, Jr. We’re selling more children’s
books than ever. The level of enthusiasm and excitement about books from
toddlers to first readers to adolescents and teens…if you go in there and hang
around for a few hours, you would never even think that there might be such a
thing as a digital book.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

INSIDE SQUARE BOOKS
What were your best-selling books in
2009?

John Grisham signs books
for us—lots of them—every year, so his book is usually our number one seller.
Our best-seller list is dominated by local and regional titles—books about
Oxford or Mississippi or about or by Mississippians. Other than Grisham’s The Associate, I think our top 2009 sellers are The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White. All three writers are from
Mississippi, and Neil lives here in Oxford. Two of the books are set in
Mississippi.

What
books did you most enjoy selling in 2009?

Lark and
Termite
by Jayne Anne Phillips, A
Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore, The
Missing
by Tim Gautreaux, and Waveland
by Frederick Barthelme.

How do you compile your Staff Picks section?
There are no constraints
on staff picks, except the book has to be in print, of course. And, after a
time, the recommendation has to have made at least a sale or two. Doesn’t have
to be paperback, but they always seem to be. Anybody can recommend anything
using any language, although I recently made one staffer change his
recommendation because he’d written in big letters, “It’s great! I’m serious!
Just buy it!” It was the exclamation points that really did it. I told him to
see Strunk and White.

Any
books you’re particularly excited about in 2010?

I’m excited about Jim Harrison’s new book, The Farmer’s Daughter; that
big, wonderful new novel The
Swan Thieves
by Elizabeth Kostova, who has agreed to come to our
store; and Brad Watson’s new book of short stories, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, which has
one of the best stories I’ve read in years, “Vacuum.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Women & Children First in Chicago


by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

5.1.10

When I walked into Women & Children
First, the
feminist bookstore that Linda Bubon and her business partner, Ann
Christophersen, founded more than thirty years ago, the overriding
feeling I
experienced was one of warmth. And it wasn’t because Chicago was having a
late-winter snowstorm that afternoon. From the eclectic array of books
stacked
on tables, to the casualness of the blond wood bookcases, to the
handwritten
recommendations from staff below favorite books on the shelves,
everything
feels personalized; an atmosphere of welcome permeates the place.

In the back of
the store, a
painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top
hangs from
the ceiling, indicating the children’s section. Not far away, a similar
sign,
this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ
section.
Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women
&
Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children.
The
literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of
photography
collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines
as
diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings. Though
conceived as a
feminist bookstore three decades ago, since moving in 1990 to its
current
location in the Andersonville neighborhood (an area originally home to a
large
population of Swedish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century that has
since
evolved into a multiethnic community, and one with an equally diverse
range of
locally owned businesses such as Middle Eastern cafés, an Algerian crepe
house,
and, of course, a Swedish bakery), Women & Children First has become
as
much a neighborhood shop as a specialty store. And because the area has
become
popular with families and young professionals, the clientele is just as
likely
to be made up of men as women.

Still, books
related to women
and women’s issues—whether health, politics, gender and sexuality,
literature,
criticism, childrearing, or biography—are clearly the store’s focus.
Such
lauded authors as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Annie
Leibovitz,
and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all read here. Many now-famous writers
such as
Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, Margot Livesey, and Jane
Hamilton
got their start at this store. Needless to say, Women & Children
First has
a devoted audience for its events, and many who attend are well-known
writers
themselves. So on any given night you’ll be as likely to be sitting next
to
authors such as Elizabeth Berg, Carol Anshaw, Rosellen Brown, Sara
Paretsky,
Audrey Niffenegger, Aleksandar Hemon, or Nami Mun as hearing them speak
from
the podium.

Like co-owner
Bubon, Women
& Children First doesn’t take itself or its mission too seriously,
despite
its long history and literary laurels. Twinkle lights hang in the front
windows
facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front
counter; and
tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater
performances
and burlesque shows. When I met Bubon, she was wearing a simple, black,
scoop-neck sweater and a subtle, patterned scarf in shades of red,
orange, and
cream. (She also wore Ugg boots, which she unabashedly raved about for
their
comfort.) Because Christophersen had to be out of town during my visit,
Bubon
took me around the store herself—not that I needed much of a tour.
Women &
Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one
large
open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as
well as
journals, cards, and gifts. And perhaps it is this combination that adds
to its
coziness.

But nothing
captures the
laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden
kitchen
table that sits in the back, near the children’s section. Around it are
four
unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it
seems
a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place.
Several
times during our conversation customers wandered over to chat with her
and I
was generously introduced. And more than once Bubon excused herself
politely to
help a nearby child pull down a book he couldn’t reach. But never did
these
interactions feel like interruptions, nor did they ever change the
course of our
conversation. Rather, it felt as though I was simply a part of the ebb
and flow
of a normal day at Women & Children First. Nothing could have made
me feel
more welcome.

When did you meet Christophersen?
We met in graduate school. We were both
getting a
master’s degree in literature, and we became very good friends.

Was that here in Chicago?
Yes, at the University of Illinois. Our
class and
the one just above us had a lot of great writers—James McManus, Maxine
Chernoff, Paul Hoover. It was a very fertile atmosphere. So as we were
finishing the program, Ann and I started talking about opening a
business
together, and the logical choice was a bookstore. There was only one
local
chain at the time, Kroch’s & Brentano’s, and there were probably
sixty or
seventy wonderful independent bookstores in the city and the suburbs of
Chicago.

That many?
Yeah. There were a lot of independent bookstores.
It was a really great environment for booksellers. I mean, we all
thought of
ourselves as competing with one another, but really there were enough
readers
to go around. By the mid-1980s, however, we were feeling crowded—after
five
years we had outgrown that first place. So we moved to a larger store,
two
blocks away, at Halsted and Armitage.

Did you decide from the beginning
that you
wanted to specialize in books for women and children?

Yes. It was what was in our hearts, and
in our
politics, to do. We were part of an academic discussion group made up of
feminist teachers from all the nearby universities that met at the
Newberry
Library. Two of our teachers were part of this group and they had asked
us to
join as grad students. They were discussing Nancy Chodorow, whose book The
Reproduction
of
Mothering
had just
come out. Also Rubyfruit Jungle. I was like, “Oh, my goodness!”
because I had never read any lesbian literature, and here was this group
of
academics discussing it. They discussed Marge Piercy and Tillie Olsen.
These
were writers whom, when I went looking for them at places like Kroch’s
&
Brentano’s or Barbara’s Bookstore, I wasn’t finding. Similarly, as an
academic,
I knew how much Virginia Woolf had written. Yet I would look for
Virginia Woolf
and there would only be To the Lighthouse. Maybe Mrs.
Dalloway.
Or A Writer’s Diary. But we envisioned a store
where everything that was in print by Virginia Woolf could be there. And
everything by outsider writers like Tillie Olsen or Rita Mae Brown would
be
there.

It’s interesting to hear you
describe these
authors as being outsiders at one time, because when I was growing up
they were
people I was reading from the beginning.

Oh, back then you had to go lookin’,
lookin’,
lookin’, lookin’ to
find these writers. And they certainly weren’t being taught. Alice
Walker had written The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and maybe Meridian
had come out. But all the
stuff that you think of as classic women’s literature—Margaret Atwood,
Toni
Morrison—they were not a part of the canon. They were just fledgling
writers.
It was much different. And, again, there was no gay and lesbian
literature.
None. I mean, it just didn’t exist. We put a little sign on the shelf
that
said, “If you’re looking for lesbian writers, try Virginia Woolf’s Orlando,
May Sarton, Willa
Cather….” You know, writers who historians had discovered had had
relations
with women. [Laughter.]
Nothing public at all. We had a little list. Back
then our vision was about this big. [She holds her hands about eight
inches
apart.
]
Now, thirty years later, it’s incredible to look back and see the
diversity of
women writers who are published, and the incredible diversity of gay and
lesbian literature, and transgender literature, that’s being published.

I
still think
women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in
getting
critical attention. So there’s still a need for Women & Children
First and
stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers. But, at that
time,
we had to work to fill up a store that was only a quarter of the size of
this
one. That first store was only 850 square feet, yet it was still a
challenge to
find enough serious women’s literature to stock the shelves. Because we
didn’t
want to do romances. And it’s not that we didn’t have a vision of a
bookstore
that would be filled with works by women and biographies of women and
eventually
a gay and lesbian section and all that. But I had no idea that there
would be
this renaissance in women’s writing. That it really would happen. That
women
would get published, and get published in some big numbers, and that I
would
finally be able to sell books by women who were not just white and
American or
British. I mean, the internationalizing of women’s literature has been
very
exciting, I think.

What precipitated the move to 
this
neighborhood and this bigger store, then?

In those first ten years we had
double-digit
growth every year. Ten percent up, 11 percent up, 15 percent up. I don’t
think
we even made returns until we’d been in business three years. We were
just
selling. I had no ordering budget. “Oh, new stuff by women?” I’d say.
“Great!
We need it.” Business was growing.

Was that because nobody else was
selling this
type of literature?

Yes, and because women’s studies was
developing as
a discipline. Also, I think we were good booksellers. And we had great
programming right from the beginning. Not so much big-name authors, but
interesting stuff.

So like the first store, you outgrew
the second
one.

We outgrew it. Our landlord had also
sold the
building and the new owner was going to triple our rent. So if we needed
any
more motivation to move, that was it. What was tough, however, was that
we’d
been ten years in the DePaul neighborhood, which is very central to
Chicago.
You can get there very easily from the South Side, from the West Side,
off the
highways…yet we couldn’t really afford to stay there, and we couldn’t
find a
new space that would suit us. But then we were recruited to move up here
by the
Edgewater Community Development Organization. Andersonville is a part of
Edgewater, which goes all the way to the lakefront and west to
Ravenswood. They
literally came to us and said, “The people in our community would love
to have
a bookstore in that neighborhood. There’s a lot of spaces that are being
renovated, and we wonder if you’re thinking of opening a second store,
or if we
could encourage you to.”

This happened by coincidence, while
you were
already considering a new location?

Yes! And we said, “Well, you know, we
need more
space. We’ll come up and look.” At the same time, there were two women
who were
opening a women’s arts-and-crafts store, and all their friends said, “It
doesn’t matter where you’re located as long as you’re next to or on the
same
block with Women & Children First.” So we came up to Edgewater to
look, and
they showed us this building, which had been a big grocery store. It was
being
renovated and gutted, so we could get in at the beginning and say, “We
want the
corner and we want this much space.” The arts-and-crafts store opened
next
door. They
stayed open for seven years, and when the partnership broke up, in 1997,
we
took over their space. In terms of our growth, business kicked up 20
percent
the first year we were here. We opened in July 1990, and that first year
people
came in and brought us plates of cookies and said, “Thank you for coming
to our
neighborhood.” It was just great.

But
the move itself is the best story. Remember, this was still a shoestring
operation. We had to rely on the community. So we organized seventy
volunteers.
Four different women rented or had trucks. And those seventy people
moved every
book and bookshelf out of the old space and into this space in one day.
We
organized people in groups of three or four, and we said, “Okay, you
have the
Biography section. You pack up all these books in these boxes, mark them
‘Bio,’
pull out that shelving unit, you go with that unit and those boxes to
the new
space, and there will be somebody here to help set it up.” We had other
women
who went out and bought three trays of sandwiches and fed all the
volunteers.
We started on Friday night, worked all day Saturday, and by two in the
afternoon on Sunday we were open for business. We were only really
officially
closed for one day. And women still tell me, “I remember helping you
move.”
They’ll come in and they’ll say, “That’s my section; I put this section
back together.”

Have readings and events been a part
of this
store from the beginning?

They’ve been a huge part of the store.
Getting to meet
all these wonderful writers whom I’ve read—in person—is also something
that’s
kept me motivated and excited. And, you know, the excitement of
discovering a
new writer is always great.

We have a lot
of local
politicians who shop here too. When Jan Schakowsky decided to support
Barack
Obama in his run for the U.S. Senate, she had a press conference here.
She asked if she could use
our store to make the announcement that she was throwing her support
behind him
in the primary. And I remember her saying to me, “If we can just get
people to
not call him Osama.” I mean, that’s where we were at that time. Nobody
knew who
he was.

So the store has been important for
the
community in many ways.

A political gathering place, and a
literary
gathering place, and a place where we have unpublished teen writers read
sometimes. We’ve developed four different book groups, plus a Buffy
discussion
group. And if you came on a Wednesday morning, you’d see twenty to
thirty
preschoolers here with their moms for story time, which I do. I love it.
I just
love it. It’s absolutely the best thing of the week. I have a background
in
theater and oral interpretation, so it’s just so much fun for me.

Has that grown over the years as the
neighborhood has developed?

Grown, grown, grown. For many years I
would have
nine or ten kids at story time, maybe fifteen. Then, about four or five
years
ago, it was like the neighborhood exploded, and I started getting twenty
to
thirty kids every week. In the summer, I can have fifty in here. That’s
why
everything is on rollers. For story time, the kids sit on the stage and I
sit
here. For regular readings, it’s the opposite—authors read from the
stage and
we have chairs set up down here. We can get a hundred, sometimes even a
hundred
and fifty people in here.

A year and a
half ago, we
started Sappho’s Salon. Once a month, on a Saturday night, we have an
evening
of lesbian entertainment. Sometimes it’s open mike; sometimes it’s
acoustic
music. Kathie, who does our publicity, generally runs it, and her
girlfriend,
Nikki, who is a part-time DJ, brings her DJ equipment. Then we set up
little
tables and candles, and try to make it feel like a salon. We’ve even had
strippers. [Laughter.]
But right from the beginning we conceived of having a
weekly program night. Author
readings weren’t happening much, so we decided we’d have
discussions on hot books that people were reading. We knew a lot of
teachers
from this Newberry Library group who were writing, and who were in the
process
of writing feminist criticism, so we invited them to come and do a
presentation
on an idea.

Then we
conceived of having
a topic for each month. For example, “Women in the Trades.” So every
Tuesday
night in March a woman who was working in a male-dominated trade would
come and
talk about how she got her job, or how women can get into engineering,
or what
kind of discrimination she’s experiencing on the job and what her
recourses
were. I think one of our very biggest programs in those early years was
on the
subject of sadomasochism in the lesbian community. And we had eighty or
ninety
women who would come and sit on our shag rug—we didn’t have chairs and
stuff
like that then—and listen to people who had differing viewpoints
discuss the
issue. It seems almost silly now, but it was a big issue at the time,
and
people were really torn about whether this was an acceptable practice or
not.
Also, whether we should carry books on the subject. There was one
pamphlet
available at the time: What Color Is Your Handkerchief? Because
you would put a
handkerchief of a certain color in your back pocket to indicate what
your
sexual proclivity was.

It’s amazing how subtle the coding
had to be.
It was so discreet.

I remember the first time I saw two
women walk out
of my store holding hands. I was walking to the store a little later
because
somebody else had opened that day, and when I saw them [pause] I
cried. Because it was so
rare in 1980 to see two women feel comfortable enough to just grab each
other’s
hands. And I knew that they felt that way because they’d come out of
this
atmosphere in which it was okay.

At
our thirtieth
anniversary party [last] October, the Chicago Area Women’s History
Conference
recorded people’s memories of Women & Children First. They had a
side room
at the venue where we were having the party, and people took time to go
in and
talk about, you know, the first time they came to the bookstore, or when
they
saw Gloria Steinem here, or how they met their girlfriend here, or that
when
their daughter told them she was gay and they didn’t know what to do
about it
they came here and got a book. People shared all these memories. And
that’s
going to be part of our archive too.

This celebration was
also a
benefit for the Women’s Voices Fund, which you started five years ago.
Can you
talk about its mission?

Several years ago, Ann
and I were
looking at the budget and, frankly, there wasn’t enough money coming in
for the
expenses going out. Meanwhile, we were planning the benefit for our
twenty-fifth anniversary—this party that we hoped would raise some
extra
money—and other people in the not-for-profit world who were advising us
said,
“People will pay for your programs. They will make a donation to keep
your
programming going.” So Ann sat down and calculated what it cost to print
and
mail out a newsletter, to put on these programs, to advertise the
programs, and
then to staff them. What we discovered was that is was about forty
thousand
dollars a year we were spending on programming. And we thought, “If
there’s a
way to remove that expense from the budget and use people’s donations to
fund
that, that would be a smart thing.” So that’s what we did. Now anytime
we have
an advertisement or a printing bill or expenses related to providing
refreshments at programs, that cost comes out of the Women’s Voices
Fund.

So the store’s not a
nonprofit,
but it has a nonprofit arm.

It’s not a 501c3 on its
own. We are
a part of the pool fund of the Crossroads Fund in Chicago. So you can
send
Crossroads a check, have it be tax deductible, and have it earmarked for
the
Women’s Voices Fund.

Few people realize
how expensive
readings and events can be.

Occasionally there are
readings that
are profitable. Occasionally. But very, very often, even with a nice
turnout of
twenty to fifty people, you still may only sell three or four books.
Maybe five
or six. But it’s not paying for the program. And from the beginning we
didn’t
want to look at everything we did in terms of whether it was going to
make
money: “If we have this author
we gotta
sell ten books or we’re not gonna pay for the Tribune ad, or the
freight.” No. Having the fund
means we
pass the hat at the program, and maybe we take in twenty or thirty
dollars. But
sometimes people put in twenties, you know? And we raised thirty
thousand
dollars at this benefit.

But
obviously something
changed in the bookselling industry or you wouldn’t have had to hold
this
fundraising event. You
said earlier that when you first moved into this neighborhood you had
double-digit growth. What happened?

Well, the rest of that story is that a
year and a
half later our sales dropped 11 percent. This was 1993. And the next
year, they
fell another 3 percent. So that was a 14-percent drop in two years, for a
store
that had never seen a loss. Borders and Barnes & Noble started in
the
suburbs, but then they gradually came into the city. In 1993, when this
hit us,
Barnes & Noble and Borders had put in stores three miles to the
south of
us—right next to each other—and three miles to the north of us, in
Evanston.
Then, about seven years ago, Borders put the store in Uptown, which is
just a
mile from us, and they put another store west of us by about two miles.
More recently,
B&N closed the store three miles south of us, and Borders announced
over
two years ago that they were trying to rent all the stores around us.

They overextended themselves.
When everybody else was starting to
downsize,
Borders opened several new stores in Chicago, including this one in
Uptown.
And, you know, we’d almost gotten past the point where the chain stores
were
affecting us, because they’ve had to stop widespread discounting. But
the month
this Borders opened that close to us, our sales dropped 12 percent over
the
year before. And then over the course of that year our sales were down 5
percent. But, you know, it’s been an underperforming store. They put it
in
between two underperforming stores in a neighborhood that was more
economically
depressed than Evanston and Lincoln Park.

Do you think five years from now
they’ll be
gone?

I do. I do.

Can you wait them out?
You know, from what I can observe,
Barnes &
Noble seems to treat their employees pretty well; they seem to put
stores in
locations where there’s actually a need, and to close stores down when
needed
and redistribute employees. It seems to me Barnes & Noble plans very
carefully. Borders, on the other hand, has changed hands several times
since
1990. I just don’t see how they are going to survive. When I go in there
now
all I see is…sidelines. Candy.

I think what’s been
particularly frustrating for independent stores like ours that have
developed a
reading series over the years in Chicago—you know, attracting more and
bigger-name authors, and more interesting authors, and conducting ten to
fifteen programs a month—is when publishers take an author who has a
real base
in our store, and for whom we have a real audience, and they say, “Oh,
but the
Michigan Avenue Borders wants this author, and that’s a better
location.”

Why does that happen?
They
don’t always realize
that our location is not downtown, and that it attracts a different kind
of
clientele. And I’ve seen situations where we’ll have a local author—one
who we
have a close relationship with, and who’s done every launch with
us—whose
publisher will now say to her, “You know, two thirds of your books are
sold in
the chain stores, and so you have to do your launch at the chain store.”
But
those authors try to figure out things to do for us to get us some extra
business.

The author tour itself seems to be
waning. I
don’t blame publishers for their reluctance to send a writer out on the
road—after all, it probably seems hard to justify paying for an
author’s
travel expenses when you see only eight or nine books sold at an event.
But
people always forget the long-term sales that readings generate.

Right. Because I’ve read the book, and
so has one
of my coworkers, and we’ll both put it on our Recommends shelf. We’re
going to
keep selling this book long after the event. And we do find, when we
look at
our year-end figures, that our best-sellers for the year are almost
always
written by people who have had appearances here. Or, if not here,
they’ve done
an off-site event that we’ve been in charge of. Those books turn out to
be our
number one sellers for the year.

So what does the future look like for
you?

I’m a bookseller, but I’m a feminist
bookseller.
Would I be a bookseller if I were going to run a general bookstore? I’m
not
sure. Sometimes I think, “What will I do if the store is no longer
viable?” And
I think that rather than going into publishing or going to work for a
general
bookstore, I would rather try to figure out how to have a feminist
reading
series and run a feminist not-for-profit. Because the real purpose of my
life
is getting women’s voices out, and getting women to tell the truth about
their
lives, and selling literature that reflects the truths of girls’ and
women’s
lives. Sometimes we’re abused; we have to talk about that. Sometimes we
take
the bad road in relationships; we have to talk about that. Sometimes
we’re
discriminated against in the workplace; we have to talk about these
things.
Violence against women in the United States and worldwide has not
stopped. We don’t
have a feminist army to go rescue women in Afghanistan—would that we
did.

The goal of my
life has been
to get the word out, to understand women’s lives. We have to continue to
evolve
and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to
have a
full share of the world.

page_5: 

INSIDE WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST WITH ANN CHRISTOPHERSEN
What were some of your best-selling
books in
2009?

Olive Kitteridge
by Elizabeth Strout; Her
Fearful Symmetry
by Audrey Niffenegger; Yes Means Yes!
Visions of Female Sexual Power and
a World Without Rape
,
edited
by Jaclyn
Friedman and Jessica Valenti; Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa
Lahiri; The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood; The
Sisters
Grimm
Book
1: Fairy-Tale Detectives
by Michael Buckley; In
Defense of Food
by Michael Pollan; Fun
Home
by
Alison Bechdel; Hardball by Sara Paretsky; The Mysterious
Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart; Everywhere
Babies
by
Susan Meyers; Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Mama Voted For
Obama!
by Jeremy Zilber; The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz; and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg
Larsson.

What is the best-selling section in
your
store?

Paperback fiction.

What do you look for in terms of an
author
event?

First we consider whether the book fits
with our
specialty—books by and about women—or ones that offer a feminist
perspective
on any subject. It is also important to us that we can provide an
audience for
the author. Finally, though we always want to host women writers with a
national reputation, we are strongly invested in supporting local
writers and
those launching their careers with debut novels, poetry, or nonfiction.

In what ways have your events
changed over the
years?

In the store’s early days, many of our
events
were feminist issue–based, sometimes with an author or book involved but
not necessarily. We were a hub of feminist and lesbian politics and
culture,
and produced feminist plays and women’s music concerts, sponsored
women’s
sports teams, and provided support for almost every women’s/lesbian
project in
our city. Over the past number of years, however, we have focused our
energies
and events on books and other written material, knowing that that was
our
unique role in the women’s movement.

What challenges do
women still
face that you hope your store can help address?

Women writers are still
vastly
under-represented in review vehicles, which means their books are less
visible.
This can be verified by keeping a gender tally of writers reviewed in
the NYTBR or the New
Yorker
, for example, during any
given month. Though women
artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still
struggle for opportunity and recognition. Women in general have also,
obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a
long way
to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being
challenged;
we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few
good
options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of
us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and
children;
women are seriously unrepresented in political decision-making. I could
go on,
but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and
bookstores—that focus on women.

How does feminism in
the
twenty-first century differ from when you opened this store?

The main difference is
that the
second wave of the feminist movement in the seventies was just hitting
the
streets and was brilliantly, feverishly, and obviously active. New
organizations were being created every day to deal with issues like
incest,
domestic abuse, healthcare, job opportunities, equal pay, the absence of
political power, and many others. The work that began then has become
institutionalized over the years since. It continues to advance, but
people
don’t always notice it now since it’s become deeper, more complex, and,
some
might say, mainstream. Another significant difference is that many of
the
growing pains have been outgrown: Feminism has been able to overcome
many of
the challenges posed by race, class, and national boundaries, becoming
truly
global. 

What role does technology play in
your store?

It has played an important role since
we bought a
computer and began using POS/IM bookstore software in 1985. We had a Web
site
for marketing purposes and then took advantage of the American
Booksellers
Association’s Web solution so we could sell books online; we switched
from
print to e-newsletters several years ago; we use social media, first
MySpace
and now Facebook and Twitter. And we have the technology—and desire—to
sell
e-books.

How do you think the rise of digital
reading
devices will affect your future?

The extent to which e-books affect our
future
depends on how large that segment of the market grows and whether there
are any
real opportunities for stores our size to get a share of online sales.
There’s
little to no local advantage online, and when your competitors are large
enough
to dictate market prices, it is somewhere between extremely difficult
and
utterly impossible to get even market share to scale.

Where would you like to see Women
&
Children First in ten years?

I would like to see us still finding
ways to serve
our community and fulfill our mission of giving voice to women.

How about feminism?
Continuing to make steady
progress toward
a world in which women are free to live an unobstructed, rich, creative
life.

What do you most love
about
bookselling?
Going through my days surrounded
by books
and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and
talking
about them. 

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the associate editor of
the
online journal Fiction Writers Review.

Ann Christophersen photo by Kat Fitzgerald.

Women & Children First in Chicago

For the third installment of our ongoing series of interviews, Inside Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to Chicago to speak with Linda Bubon, who, along with Ann Christophersen, owns Women & Children First.

Women & Children First 1

Image: 

Founded more than thirty years ago in Chicago, Women & Children First is only 3,500 square feet in area, most of which is one large open room. Still, the store carries more than twenty thousand books, as well as journals, cards, and gifts.

Women & Children First 2

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Twinkle lights hang in the front windows facing Clark Street; there are jewelry displays around the front counter; and tacked to the community bulletin board are flyers for both theater performances and burlesque shows.

Women & Children First 3

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“In the back of the store, a painted sign showing an open book with a child peering over the top hangs from the ceiling, indicating the children’s section,” Chamberlin writes. “Not far away, a similar sign, this one of a rainbow with an arrow below it, points toward the GLBTQ section. Despite these signs—not to mention the name of the store itself—Women & Children First carries more than books for women and, well, children.”

 

Women & Children First 4

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The literature section stretches down one wall; there are stacks of photography collections; books on writing fill an entire bookcase; and disciplines as diverse as cooking and psychology have healthy offerings.

Women & Children First 5

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“Nothing captures the laid-back feel and philosophy of the bookstore better than the wooden kitchen table that sits in the back, near the children’s section,” Chamberlin writes. “Around it are four unmatched wooden chairs. Bubon brought us here for the interview, and it seems a perfect example of the spirit of openness that pervades this place.”

Women & Children First 6

Image: 

“The goal of my life has been to get the word out, to understand women’s lives,” says co-owner Linda Bubon. “We have to continue to evolve and change if we’re to have a full share, and if our daughters are to have a full share of the world.”

Women & Children First 7

Image: 

Co-owner Ann Christophersen says what she loves most about bookselling is being “surrounded by books and the people involved in writing, publishing, selling, reading, and talking about them.”

Women & Children First 8

Image: 

“I still think women lag behind in winning the major awards, and they lag behind in getting critical attention,” says Bubon. “So there’s still a need for Women & Children First and stores like it that push the emphasis toward women writers.”

Women & Children First 9

Image: 

“Though women artists working in most mediums have certainly moved forward, they still struggle for opportunity and recognition,” Christophersen says. “Women in general have also, obviously, made many advances since the seventies, but we still have a long way to go. Women’s right to control our own bodies is constantly being challenged; we are still paid less for doing the same job as men; we still have few good options for childcare; married women who work—which is the majority of us—still do more than our fair share of taking care of home and children….I could go on, but these are some of the reasons we still need organizations—and bookstores—that focus on women.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: McNally Jackson Books in New York City

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

11.1.10

In a recent New York magazine article about the renaissance of indie
bookstores in the city, Joe Keohane wrote, “New York’s independent bookshops
were supposed to be long gone by now. After a decade of slow financial
strangulation at the hands of the big-box stores, the web, the Kindle, and,
finally, the recession, the fact that there are still Strands and McNally
Jacksons standing seems positively miraculous.” Yet what is interesting about
this article is not just the fact that new stores are opening and thriving in
the city, but that McNally Jackson Books is likened to an institution like the
Strand, which has been in business since 1927. Although Sarah McNally’s
bookstore at 52 Prince Street in Manhattan certainly feels as though it’s
always been a part of the New York City literary scene, the truth is that it
was founded only six years ago, in December 2004.

Perhaps part of the
store’s sense of legacy has to do with the fact that McNally herself comes from
a bookselling family. Her parents own several McNally Robinson bookstores in
Canada—the flagship store in Winnipeg, and another in Saskatoon. In fact,
though always owned and operated by Sarah, the store in New York City
originally opened as a McNally Robinson. It became McNally Jackson in August
2008, both to end confusion about the store being independent from those run by
her parents and to commemorate the birth of her child with her then husband,
Christopher Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel & Grau.

It’s also clear
that this store is an integral part of the fabric of this neighborhood. It’s
located in a vibrant area of lower Manhattan—though technically in NoLita
(North of Little Italy), it’s also on the eastern fringe of SoHo (South of
Houston)—that is filled with boutiques, hip coffee shops, and trendy
restaurants. On the Thursday morning that I showed up, there were already
several people waiting for the place to open. One person sat casually on a
bench outside the bookstore’s café, others chatted together on the sidewalk,
and a few peered in the front windows at the beautiful display of arranged
books.

“Beautiful” is
perhaps the best way to describe Sarah McNally’s bookshop. The store is light
and open and modern, yet still warm. Similarly, the worn hardwood floors and
the gray slate tile in the café are a wonderful contrast to the glass and
brushed aluminum staircase that leads to the lower level, as well as the
sculptural “chandelier”—for lack of a better word—that hangs over the
staircase, a piece resembling an enormous bunch of grapes the size of beach
balls that has been constructed from bright, distorted, partially mirrored
globes. From the lighting choices to the side tables, everything feels
deliberate, unhurried.

It also feels
personal. Every display in the store has a bit of cloth and flowers, a touch
that McNally learned from her mother growing up. Similarly, the wallpaper that
decorates the café is made up entirely from pages of McNally’s own collection
of books. However, she jokes that it’s not quite as personal as she’d hoped it
would be. When she brought her books to the wallpaper company, she’d selected
specific pages that she’d written on, with the intention that after they’d been
scanned and printed her marginalia would be visible alongside the text—a
record of the conversation that she, like so many readers, has had with her
books. But company personnel, thinking they were doing her a favor, laboriously
erased every underline and scribble before they were finished printing. And
because the remodeled café was scheduled to reopen the following day, she
decided to hang the wallpaper anyway. Still, there is something comforting
about sitting in her café, surrounded by all those pages of books.

McNally herself is
a wonderful presence. When we met, she welcomed me into the store as if it were
her home. She introduced me to staff, made sure I had something to drink when
we settled at a long wooden table in the café, and asked me about my own
writing projects before we began. Her vitality and openness not only draws a
person to her, but also permeates the entire store. She is energetic yet
grounded, with a genuine excitement for new ideas. And throughout our
conversation she was quick to joke, never taking herself too seriously. Yet her
commitment to bookselling and literature itself is deeply serious. She has high
standards—for publishing, for her store, and for herself.

You grew up in a bookselling family
in Canada. Did you know you wanted to be a bookseller from a young age?

No. I moved to New York to work in
publishing, which always seemed so glamorous growing up in a Winnipeg
bookselling family. And I did that for a few years, but it didn’t ultimately
work well with my temperament. Perhaps I would be happier in an office now than
I was then, but at the time it was torture, which I think is maybe what a lot
of young people feel who work in offices. [Laughter.]

So while I was at
Basic Books and Counterpoint, I did a few African American books. I used to go
to the Harlem Book Fair every year and work at the publisher’s booth. Have you
ever been to the Harlem Book Fair? You would not believe the throngs of
people—you cannot move to get through the crowds. But people were coming up to
my booth and discussing books of mine that they’d read. And just that
electrifying moment of talking to a reader about a book that I’d edited made me
realize how far I’d traveled away from that experience.

When you’re in
publishing, your reader is so abstract. Your only readers are reviewers. Or
your sales team. In-house, as an editor, you’re often the only person to read
the book. I mean, when you get to be higher up you do books that people spend
hundreds of thousands of dollars on and other people read, but I was not at
that level. [Laughter.] So I
missed actually talking to readers about books, and I thought, “This is where I
want to be.” And I’ve never ever regretted that decision. The primary reason I
love my job is because of talking to readers.

So was it the solitary process of
editing that was difficult for that twenty-something version of yourself, or
was it the ethos of publishing that you found didn’t fit your temperament?

I always liked the editing. No, I found
the office environment very trying. Growing up I’d been working in bookstores
since I was twelve, so the thought of being stuck at a desk in an environment
where the only people you interact with are the other people who work with you
in the same office every day for years…I couldn’t imagine it! So that aspect of
it was very difficult. Also, the formality of meetings and the strict, strict
hierarchy is something I made sure that my store has never had. I never try to
make anybody feel that, just because I’m the boss, my opinion on something
stands. I always try to keep it a dialogue where everyone is putting out their
best ideas—from how a display looks, to how we’re going to take off in a whole
new direction for our Web site, or whatever it might be. I always try to have a
conversation. But in publishing, it’s a much more hierarchical environment. I
had bosses that were so high up that I’d never even met them. They’d never even
set foot in the office in all the years that I was stuck there with these
people, and yet one word from them would completely change what I had to do.
Similarly, my opinions—if I was even asked for them—would be filtered up
through three, four, or five people.

Do you think it might have actually
been harder for you to work in publishing because of your bookselling
background, considering how closely you’d been connected to readers before?

I do think so. I also came to see how
abstract the idea of a book can become around a conference table. Because that
can never happen in a bookstore—you’re constantly having readers come back to
you and say, “God, that book sucked.” Or, “God, this book was great.” And
before a person buys a book, many have to engage with it. They have to open it
up, read it. The first page has to be there.

Do you feel that publishers think
about getting books into the hands of customers differently than booksellers
do?

Hmm. They try different things with
different books, so there’s not really a single answer to that question. The
way that Algonquin gets its books into people’s hands, as with A Reliable
Wife
or Water for Elephants, is very different from the way that Random House
tried to get Yann Martel into people’s hands. It’s a completely different
route. It’s also hard for me to answer because I’m in New York, so I interact
with editors in a way that I think the rest of the country might not. I mean, I
will have editors come to the store and put a book in my hands and say, “Please
read this.”

Not just a sales rep.
Right. And so there is that
difference. But the good editors are sending notes to booksellers around the
country, saying, “This is something special.”

Putting books in the hands of
readers is also more individualized in a bookstore. As a bookseller, you learn
your regular customers so well that you know their tastes. At the store I used
to run, for example, we’d often set aside new titles for particular
individuals.

I don’t know if I know my customers
that well. In some ways I do. The way I do is that I believe every person
contains multitudes, and so I draw on the multitudes within me even more than I
do the knowledge of the customers themselves. And I feel like that is what does
not happen in publishing enough—people do not draw on the multitudes within
themselves. Paying three, four, five, or six million dollars for a second book
by a writer that’s not a good book means you’re drawing only on numbers, and
that’s not what sells books unless it’s one by James Patterson. That’s why it
was so hard for me to stay in publishing. Obviously I’m doing a very particular
kind of bookselling, but I do feel that publishers should ask the book to speak
first to their own heart. I think that’s what readers are asking, and that’s
what buyers are asking. I’m sure you hear this from every bookseller you speak
to—that they’re selling the books that speak deeply to them.

Absolutely.
Also, something that people don’t think
enough about is that the future of reading depends on the present of reading.
The future of our industry depends on a healthy present. I’ve heard it time and
again from customers—and I’ve found it in my own life—that when you read a
book that’s not very good, you don’t rush out to read another book. But when
you read a book you love, you rush back to continue the trend. So every
mediocre book that’s pushed with great blurbs—

is one more leak in the boat.
It is one more leak in the boat. [Laughter.] Great blurbs from the author’s friends when the
book is not that great is discrediting the entire experience, which is bad for
all of our futures. And there are so many ways in which I feel that publishers
are not really fostering that future. Do you know Richard Nash? Richard was the
editorial director at Soft Skull Press and he’s a consultant now. He was here
recently talking about how the paper in books gets worse and worse and worse
every year, and he called it “the endless shitification of the book.” [Laughter.] It’s so true, right? I mean, they’re publishing
on newsprint. Newsprint! Not the small presses, incidentally. Very few small
presses are doing that, despite the fact that they’re the ones that don’t have
any money. So I’m suspicious of these arguments by the mainstream that they
have to.

So it’s short-term versus long-term
thinking.

Which there is a lot of.

A few minutes ago we were talking
about multitudes. Do you consider this a general bookstore?

Yes. I mean, we are. I’m considering not being a general store anymore. I remember Karl
Pohrt [of Shaman Drum, in Ann Arbor, Michigan] saying to me once, “We sell
books. We only sell books.” And I sell all sorts of stuff—I sell wedding
planners, and I sell pet books, and I sell SAT guides. I sell self-help,
health, humor, business, sports. I sell all of this stuff. When I created my
business model, I articulated that we could be a destination bookstore in the
same way that Barnes & Noble is a destination bookstore. We would have
everything they did, but we’d simply be more selective—as a favor to the consumer, not a disservice.

And so I spent
years pushing that on the public and trying to get this idea across. But
increasingly, even in just the last five years, online retail has become
normalized. Everyone buys from eBay. And I’m sure there are regular customers
of ours who buy from Amazon.com. So I don’t even know if anyone wants that in a
bookstore anymore, if anybody wants a reliable general store.

I mean, think of
ten years ago—nobody bought online. Ten years ago my techie geek friends
bought online, and nobody else did. And twenty years ago, even fifteen years
ago, if you wanted a book you needed a bookstore. It was that simple. If you
want the book, you need the bookstore. And that seems sometimes prehistoric now
in terms of how far we’ve come.

In a city of bookstores like New
York, in an era where you don’t need a bookstore to buy a book, what was the
mission behind opening this store?

It was very much to be an event-driven
independent. I mean…my own vision is starting to seem so hackneyed and dusty at
this point. I really think I need to reimagine this store, and I’m in the
process of doing that. Imagine a community center for books that’s very event
driven. And we do still have four, five, six, seven events a week, as well as
story times and book clubs.

So it’s very much a neighborhood
bookstore.

Well, and more than that. I mean, a
place that is actually comfortable—there are chairs, it’s very spacious. That
might not seem like an important thing, but in New York it’s a big deal. We had
the radical idea of giving people chairs. [Laughter.] The chains took out all their chairs because
people were falling asleep in them, and literally dying in them. So we wanted to have a place, you know,
where you could sit and relax and look at books. It was almost like taking the
bookselling strategy that everyone else around the country had already figured
out and bringing it to New York.

Which seems so ironic.
Right, right. In retrospect I felt so
inspired, but when I look at my five-year-old or six-year-old vision, it was
really not revolutionary. [Laughter.]

And the café has been busy all
morning. Is it a part of the success of the store?

Not financially, but spiritually.

It brings people in and it adds to
the atmosphere.

And it brings so much energy. Just the
movement and the talking and the people bring real vitality to the
store—people don’t want to walk into an empty bookstore.

Why are you rethinking your mission
or your model? Is it an issue of overhead?

No, it’s an issue of staying ahead of
whatever is happening in the book industry, because right now we’re having our
best year ever. We’re doing really well. But my fear is that remaining a general
store, what people may actually want is an extraordinary literature section. So
maybe we should get rid of photography and art—because you see other places
selling it—and just have an enormous literature section. Maybe we get rid of
music and film and have an enormous poetry section. Maybe we really dedicate
ourselves to becoming the most extraordinary literary bookstore in the country.

Though remaining a more general
bookstore appeals to your mission as a neighborhood store.

Yes, exactly.

Whereas the idea of being the best
literature store in the country would perhaps be a large draw

—to tourists, to the whole city.

There would be tradeoffs either
way.

Yes! I know. I’m feeling very torn.
One of my friends is the VP of marketing at Harper, and when we went out to
lunch last week I talked to her about this idea. She said, “What does that
mean, the ‘best’ literature section in the city? What does that mean?” She
said, “You’re never going to have more books than Amazon, so are they still a
better bookstore?” So I’m feeling conflicted.

But you’re talking about hand
selecting rather than carrying everything.

Yeah, that’s the idea. That was always
the concept in this store. But if you read Ken Auletta’s recent essay about
e-books in the New Yorker [“Publish
or Perish: Can the iPad Topple the Kindle and Save the Book Business?”] he
quotes [Carolyn Reidy of] Simon & Schuster as saying that in a three-month
period, online retailers sell copies of 2,500 of their titles that aren’t
stocked in bookstores anymore. So I haven’t seen the chains as my competition
since I opened. I don’t see Barnes & Noble as my competition.

Your competition is online.
Entirely. That’s partly because there
isn’t a chain near my location, of course.

So do you feel more pressure from
online bookselling or the digital book?

Online, online.

But what about e-books? Is that something that you have any interest
pursuing?

Yes? [Pause.] Yes. In typical
Sarah McNally fashion, though, I feel like I can’t do it until I figure out a
whole new exciting revolutionary way to do it [laughter], which I
probably never will. So I’ll just end up doing it off the ABA [American
Booksellers Association] Web site. We’re setting up on the ABA site now. Though
we don’t love any of the templates, so we have to do it ourselves from scratch,
which is a big hullabaloo.

But, yes, I
definitely want to do it. It’s just very hard. I mean, talk about comparing
competition based on price! When you start getting into e-books and you’re
selling online, people are a click away from platforms like Amazon that are
already established. I’ve never felt that as a bookstore you should rely too
much on the concept of loyalty, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ve always said, “Shop
from me because I’m better, don’t shop from me because you feel sorry for me.”
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time and ultimately I’m
going to come back pleading for their loyalty. [Laughter.]

But if there are already
established online retailers like Amazon and Powell’s, do you think that
spending all these resources to develop a Web presence is the best use of the ABA’s
time and resources, or might Shop Local First campaigns and educational
programs like Winter Institute benefit booksellers more?

It’s an excellent question, and I don’t
know. Sometimes I look around the store and I think, “This is a good
bookstore.” We opened without knowing what the hell we were doing, but
somewhere along the line we’ve become a good bookstore. And I feel confident
that we’re a good bookstore. But who cares in 2010? Does anyone care whether
you’re a good bookstore? Is that enough? I don’t know. And if that’s enough,
then Winter Institute is more important. If that’s enough, then Shop Local is
more important. If it’s not
enough—and I don’t know whether or not it’s enough—then I think it’s
important that we at least try online bookselling.

And if loyalty is
based on some kind of chivalrous notion of sympathy with the culture, then
selling e-books is maybe irrelevant to that. I mean, you’ve seen my store. We
have seven thousand square feet in New York City. I’m obviously paying a lot of
rent. Clearly I’m not a completely incompetent businessperson, and yet every
day people come in and ask if we take credit cards. As if I’m just sitting here
stroking my cat, with my abacus. [Laughter.] So partly the idea of selling e-books is a symbol of something.

And one thing that
the ABA platform is great about is the ability to upload your whole inventory
onto its Web site every day, so you can have what I think is necessary: a
terminal in the store the customers can use to look up books themselves.

Like a kiosk.
Yeah, and from that kiosk you can buy
e-books. You can place your order or you can see whether the book is in the
store. Because I believe that for every customer who asks, there are a hundred
who get confused and leave. I mean, our literature section is broken up by
region—French literature is its own thing, as is Mediterranean, European,
African. If you can’t find the African literature section and you want The
Power of One
, nine out of ten
people will leave. But if they have a kiosk, it will give them the confidence
to go to a staff person if they can’t find something. Or they’d be able to
download it on the spot.

And I am
someone who reads books on my iPhone. I started doing this because I only had
one hand when I was breastfeeding. [Laughter.] But I only read what’s in the public domain.
This is another thing that worries me—I won’t spend a penny on e-books. So I
end up reading old British stuff. I’m reading The Woman in White right now on my phone, but I’m finally buying the
book today because I can’t stand it anymore. While it’s great to be able to
read in the dark, there’s something really depressing about going to bed with
your phone and reading a book on it. [Laughter.] Although you do have moments of immersion where
the medium is lost.

That suspension of disbelief.
You do. You come in and out of it. But
it’s still depressing. Especially because I’ve realized how deep my
relationship is with books. When things get tense in a book, I think you start
doing things like stroking the edge of the pages. When you do that on your
iPhone, the next thing you know you’ve frozen the thing. [Laughter.]

But it has made me believe in multiple platforms. I
remember publishers once suggesting that if you buy the book you also get the
e-book and maybe the audio, too. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid.” But now
I don’t think so, because I’d love The Woman in White in audio for when I’m cooking, I’d love it on my
phone for little moments when I’m waiting in line or when I’m nursing—which
is, admittedly, a very specific situation—and then to also have the book for
when I’m sitting in my reading chair or in my bed. Have you read Lee
Siegal’s book Against the Machine?

No, I haven’t.
He makes an excellent point in it that
whether you’re buying sex toys or lawn mowers or books or clothes for your kid,
the retail experience is completely the same online. Whether it’s sordid or
boring, it’s the same. And that is what is so wonderful about retail—when you
buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the
object. I’m sure if you went through your bookshelf you could remember where
you bought every single book, and somehow it affects how you feel about that
book forever.

Absolutely.
And I would love to be able to create
an online bookstore that actually felt like a unique experience. So I do have a dream of selling e-books and having
an online store that actually has ambiance. But we’ve been so focused these
past few years on renovating the physical space that I really haven’t had the
time. For the first couple of years it was such a tremendous act of creation.
Coming from a bookselling family, I had enormous confidence that I knew how to
run a bookstore. That confidence was almost entirely misplaced. I realized how
shallowly I had inhabited my parents’ business.

You didn’t know what they were
doing, or you didn’t realize the extent of what they had to do?

The latter. And the former. [Laughter.] Because I felt like I was doing so much, but I was
merely moving snow around the tip of the iceberg. When you work for other
people, you don’t realize how much you’re passing by.

How much thought goes into every
decision.

Yeah. Every square inch of a business.

So in what ways did you either
model yourself after or consciously decide to do different from your parents’
bookstores?

What I modeled after them was their
philosophy to be event-driven. That’s the engine of their marketing and
publicity. We also use our café—like they do their restaurants—as the event
space, whether that’s a good idea or not.

But what’s funny
is that my favorite bookstores that I’ve loved shopping in are crazy junky old
used stores with books piled everywhere, with the owners smoking, and all the
books smell like cigarette smoke. I love stores like that. Yet if my staff
leaves anything lying around, I’ll say, “Get rid of this mess! We have to keep
everything clean!” It’s so funny. You can sit in the quiet of your mind and
say, “I will be this sort of spouse, I will be this sort of friend, I will be
this sort of daughter.” Then you go into daily life and you are exactly the
spouse, friend, and daughter that you have no choice but to be. The dominant
personality is indomitable, and I believe that bookselling is the exact same
way. You can say, “I will have this kind
of bookstore,” but you can no more control that than what kind of person you
are.

So is what we see here the best
or the worst of you? [Laughter
.]
It’s beyond my control. This is the
only bookstore I could have, I think. It can be no other way. It’s like when
you have to wear someone else’s shirt. Even though you think it’s a perfectly
nice shirt, somehow it’s humiliating. You wouldn’t think, “God, that person
shouldn’t leave the house in that shirt.” But your leaving the house in that shirt becomes totally
unbearable. It’s exactly like that with your bookstore. You can’t wear someone
else’s clothes and you have the only bookstore you can have.

Another thing I’d like to talk
to you about is China. In January of 2008
you
traveled to Beijing with several other American booksellers: Karl Pohrt of
Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, Paul Yamazaki of City Lights in San Francisco, Rick
Simonson of Elliot Bay in Seattle, and Allison Hill of Vroman’s in Pasadena.
How did this come about?

Well, I’ll tell you. Mitch Kaplan
[of Books & Books in Miami] put together a bookselling panel at the 2007
Miami Book Fair and he brought us down. Allison
wasn’t a part of that, but the rest of us were. And afterward Karl said, “We
need to take this on the road!” Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman—who works for Reed
Exhibitions and who used to be the Director of BEA [BookExpo America]—was
talking to the Chinese equivalent
of BEA, which is enormous. He was asked for a list of booksellers to give an educational
panel to Chinese booksellers, and so he thought of us. He also asked Allison to
join the group because she’s an extremely impressive woman. She’s a very, very
smart businessperson. There were also several British booksellers.

So we went to
Beijing, and it was wonderful. The Chinese were so gracious and so hospitable.
We stayed for over a week, and for most of that time they had arranged every
single meal of every day, as well as tours. It was amazing. We met so many
people and we were fed so well.

In addition to the trade show,
did you also visit individual bookstores?

Yes. We met the CEO of the second
largest bookstore in the world, which is enormous—it was like ten Barnes &
Nobles. Their mandate is to stock every single book published in Chinese.
Period. I cannot give you a sense of the magnitude of this store. People had
shopping carts. You couldn’t even move in this store it was so crowded. And when
we went to the conference room to talk with the head of the store, the
conference table was so enormous that the far end of it was on the horizon
somewhere. [Laughter.] The place must
have been a hundred thousand square feet. It was enormous.

But that’s atypical.
Well, that was a state-owned store.
When you walk in, all the communist texts were right there in front—Marx and
Mao and Engles. But then we also visited the City Lights of China, which is now
state-owned but was not originally. They published all the Beats. We went to an
academic bookstore that was beautiful, run by a professor who’d been locked up
after Tiananmen Square and who now had this amazing bookstore.

Are all the bookstores
state-owned?

No, this is what is so interesting
about Chinese cultural control. Some of the publishing houses are state-owned,
some of the bookstores are state-owned, but not all of them. Still, it’s enough
that the government nudges the direction of the culture without having complete
control. We talked to the wonderful man who runs the academic bookstore, and we
said, “Why don’t you have more events? Because all of our stores use events to
get the word out about our stores.” And he said, “I have some, but I’m already
under surveillance. If I have too many then they’ll crack down.”

Other than the influence of the
state, how does Chinese bookselling compare to bookselling here in the States?

It was really like bookselling
twenty-five years ago. Remember what middle class retail used to be like? Go
back to our early teenage years. It wasn’t nice before the Banana Republicization of retail. I remember even when I
opened this store people kept coming up to me, saying, “It doesn’t feel like a
book store. It feels like a restaurant or a clothing store.” And I thought,
“Why can’t bookstores be nice?” It’s ridiculous. [Laughter.] So retail is changing in China. There are more and
more Western chains, and there’s a lot of money suddenly. So there are more and
more high-end stores that are beautiful. Retail feels very 1982 there.

So if you went back to China ten
years from now, do you think their stores will have evolved in the same way
that ours have?

I hope so. That’s what I gave my
speech about. Online retail is just now starting to impact their businesses. It really is
like a snap shot of our own history. So they are going to have to figure out
how to make their stores feel necessary. They’re about to come up against the
same challenge that we’ve been fighting. And the only way I know how to do that
is to create an attractive physical space. My customers tend to also say it’s the
staff.

What’s been the greatest challenge
in the first six years of business?

I don’t know. Everyone always asks me
that. Because it’s all gone so well, really.

For me I guess it
might be competition over author events. It’s really hard to get the A-list
authors in New York. Barnes & Noble always gets them. I also find management really a
challenge. It’s not, you know, native to my personality to tell people what to
do. I remember reading The Gospel of St. Thomas when I was quite young. There is a line in it that
says, “Jesus said, ‘Be passersby.’” And I thought, “What a wonderful idea, just
to be a passerby.” I mean, we’re all so meddlesome, you know? And I think being
raised by my mother, who was a retailer—once you’re a retailer you’re always
going into other people’s stores thinking, “Why would they choose that carpet?
Why would they have their staff do it that way?” Or constantly looking at ways
that things can be done better because that’s the only way to survive as a
store is to be always on the
lookout for any little thing
that you can do better. It’s a constant act of regeneration. If you stop,
you’re dead.

page_5: 

What would be the highest compliment
you could receive from a customer?

I think it’s always the same, which is
they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found.
Ultimately, that is my service. That can be the only service that independent
bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these
things. That’s the only reason why we should exist.

To put good books in the hands of
people.

Yeah. Matchmaking, you know? That’s
the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant. If we don’t do it
well, we won’t.

And what do you most want to have
achieved in the next six years of business?

I want this store to really have a
feeling of being so deeply curated. Because I don’t want to exist just for the
sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.

INSIDE MCNALLY JACKSON BOOKS
On average, how many books do you
stock?

Forty thousand.

What are the best-selling sections
in your store?

Literature, art, and design.

What books did you most enjoy
selling in 2010?

Eating Animals
by Jonathan Safran Foer has brought many customers
and booksellers to vegetarianism; Just Kids by Patti Smith, as she is our neighbor and was
wonderful about signing stock, and New Yorkers loved this book; Faithful
Place
by Tana French is one of the
best mysteries we’ve read in a long time; and Nox by Anne Carson, whose writing I love deeply and
madly.

What is the most unique or defining aspect of McNally Jackson as a
bookstore for you?

Our focus on international literature,
which is part of a larger effort to create a bookstore that is as diverse as
New York City.

Is there anything special you look for in terms of an author event?
We try to avoid single-author readings
unless there is a pressing reason. We try panels, interviews, conversations,
political discussions—anything that avoids recitation and allows the spark of
creation to enter the store.

What would most people be surprised to learn about independent
bookstores?

That we don’t sit around all day
reading.

Where would you like to see McNally Jackson six years from now?
I aspire only to continue offering a
place where New Yorkers can celebrate the written word.

What do you love most about bookselling?
The customers.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches writing at
the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He is also the editor of the online
journal Fiction Writers Review.

McNally Jackson Books in New York City

For the sixth and final installment of our series of interviews, Inside
Indie Bookstores, Jeremiah Chamberlin travelled to New York City to speak with Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books.

McNally Jackson 1

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McNally Jackson Books, located in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, stocks about 40,000 books at any given time and sprawls over 7,000 square feet. Though founded by Sarah McNally in December 2004, it feels as though it’s always been a part of the city’s literary scene.

McNally Jackson 2

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The store has a sense of legacy, perhaps because McNally herself comes from a family of booksellers, and it’s clearly an integral part of the fabric of the neighborhood. It also feels personal. Every display has a bit of cloth and flowers. The wallpaper that decorates the café is made up entirely from pages of McNally’s own collection of books.

McNally Jackson 3

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“I want this store to really have a feeling of being so deeply curated,” McNally says. “Because I don’t want to exist just for the sake of existing, but to really feel essential to the culture.”

McNally Jackson 4

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The store is light and open and modern, yet still warm. From the lighting choices to the side tables, everything feels deliberate, unhurried. McNally Jackson Books is a neighborhood spot. There are plenty of places to sit, and lingering is encouraged.

McNally Jackson 5

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“When you buy something from a place, the aura of that place becomes a part of the object,” McNally says. “I’m sure if you went through your bookshelf you could remember where you bought every single book, and somehow it affects how you feel about that book forever.”

McNally Jackson 6

Image: 

“When I created my business model,” says McNally, “I articulated that we could be a destination bookstore in the same way that Barnes & Noble is a destination bookstore. We would have everything they did, but we’d simply be more selective—as a favor to the consumer, not a disservice.”

McNally Jackson 7

Image: 

The café is always busy, and while McNally admits it’s not a money maker, she says it contributes “spiritually” to the store. “It brings so much energy. Just the movement and the talking and the people bring real vitality to the store—people don’t want to walk into an empty bookstore.”

McNally Jackson 8

Image: 

“The future of our industry depends on the present of reading,” McNally says. “I’ve heard it time and again from customers—and I’ve found it in my own life—that when you read a book that’s not very good, you don’t rush out to read another book. But when you read a book you love, you rush back to continue the trend.”

McNally Jackson 9

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For McNally, the highest compliment is when a customer says they found and loved books that they would never have otherwise found. “Ultimately, that is my service,” she says. “That can be the only service that independent bookstores provide, because we no longer are the exclusive purveyors of these things. That’s the only real reason why we should exist…. Matchmaking, you know? That’s the bookseller’s role. If we do it well, we’ll stay relevant.”

Inside Indie Bookstores: Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

9.1.10

On the morning I visited Denver’s
Tattered Cover Book Store, the place was bustling with activity. Customers
wandered up and down the central staircase, carrying books tucked under their
arms. They stopped to browse the spacious aisles, scanning titles on the
shelves. They lingered in the downstairs café, eating as they flipped through
magazines from the enormous periodical section.

The reason for the
crowds had partly to do with the influx of writers who had traveled to Denver
this weekend for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference,
and partly with the fact that it was opening day of the Major League Baseball
season—the sidewalks were filled with fans headed to nearby Coors Field, home
of the Colorado Rockies, and before the game, many of them stopped at Tattered
Cover. The store’s location, in the LoDo (Lower Downtown) area of Denver, is a
success story of urban revitalization. This neighborhood is the oldest section
of Denver, and like the boom-and-bust economy of this western city, it has had
its fair share of downturns. In 1988, however, the city council created the
Lower Downtown Historic District with the mission to preserve the architectural
and historical assets of the area and to spur economic investment and growth.

Because of her
belief in this project and the need for community-oriented business districts,
Joyce Meskis, owner of Tattered Cover, purchased the warehouse building at 16th
and Wynkoop with a business partner in 1990, and subsequently moved her
administrative offices and the shipping-and-receiving operations for her Cherry
Creek store, which opened in 1974, to this location. A few years later, she
opened a second Tattered Cover store here, as well as a coffee shop and
newsstand. By 1996 the LoDo store had substantially expanded and today occupies
two floors over approximately twenty thousand square feet, including a café and
a dedicated special-events area that accommodates up to 250 people.

The store has since
become as much a destination for the local community as it has for writers.
From the moment you walk in, you feel a sense of ease and peacefulness. There
are overstuffed chairs and couches throughout both floors, as well as spacious
tables in the café area. The guiding aesthetic is a wonderful mix of the old
(worn hardwood floors downstairs, exposed rafters and hand-hewn support beams)
and the new (forest green carpet upstairs, a selection of organic and local
options at the café). The place feels vital. It feels vigorous.

The same could be
said of Meskis. Though soft spoken, she possesses an engaging and charming
personality that immediately put me at ease. She radiates a type of calm that
seems unflappable by the challenges of daily life. Yet in conversation she is
the first to poke fun at herself and the many obstacles she has faced in her
thirty-six years as a bookseller—not just in terms of running a business, but
also advocating for First Amendment rights and helping to nurture the social
and literary communities of Denver. In fact, Tattered Cover hosts more than
five hundred readings a year among its three locations. So it was fitting that
we sat down for our talk beside a fireplace at the back of Tattered Cover’s
expansive event space, surrounded by black-and-white photographs of many of the
authors who’ve read at the store during its nearly four decades of existence.

How did you come to bookselling?
I came to bookselling accidentally. I
was intent on teaching at the university level.

Here in Denver?
No, I didn’t have a place in mind. I
grew up in Chicago on the South Side, and I was very driven in terms of my
direction in life. I was determined I was going to get the zillionth degree,
and I wanted to have a life that was full of the usual things—marriage,
children. I could see myself at an excellent university teaching brilliant
students all day long, walking home with a briefcase in hand, kicking the fall
leaves as I approached my nice but not ostentatious house, hearing strains of
Chopin being played by my children through the open French doors. [Laughter.] It didn’t quite work out that way.

What year was this?
I graduated high school in 1959. Then
I went to college.

Did you go to school in Chicago?
No, I went to Purdue [in Indiana]. I
was a math major, believe it or not. It was always a toss-up, and I eventually
shifted to English. My parents didn’t have much money, but they were able to
pay for my first year. So I always had part-time jobs in the summers. But then
I married young, while we were in school, and I needed to get more work during
the school year. And soon I found myself working in bookstores to help pay the
tuition.

This was at Purdue?
Yes. But then my husband finished his
graduate degree and we moved to Colorado. All the while I was still working in
bookstores and libraries to help pay the tuition bills. And after some time—I
was in graduate school then—I woke up one morning literally staring at the
ceiling and said, “You idiot, don’t you know that you’ve been doing what you love
all these years? Why don’t you just get on with it?” So I dropped out of
graduate school and I got more serious about the book business. Around this
time the marriage ended, and I had two small children.

When was this?
1973. We were still pretty young, so
we didn’t have much savings. But I took my half and began pursuing the book
business. Fast forward a year or so and a little store in the Cherry Creek area
of Denver came up for sale. It was called the Tattered Cover, and it was three
years old. It was a small storefront—only 950 square feet—and carried only
new books, despite its name. So, I did a little business plan on an envelope
with a pencil and figured I could pull it off. The bad news was that the owner
wanted what seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. But the good news
was that he was willing to carry the note, to be the banker. And the other
piece of good news was that he didn’t want much money down. So I figured out
what I could do and I made an offer, which was promptly rejected.

Some time went by
and I decided, through the urging of a friend, to go see what was going on,
because there was no ownership transition of the store that was apparent. It
turned out that someone else had made a better offer earlier, but the deal had
fallen through. I don’t know why the owner didn’t come back to me afterward.
Who knows? But, to make a long story somewhat shorter, I made another offer. I
borrowed some money from my uncle in California and that offer was accepted in
September 1974, and ownership transferred to me.

Over the next several years you
expanded, however.

Yes, in increments.

Was this the plan from the
beginning, or did opportunities arise that allowed you to grow?

I can’t speak for every bookseller
in the world, obviously. But wouldn’t you say it’s true that every bookseller
sort of has this dream of the bookstore in the sky—what it could be, how you
would want to have so much of what you loved and what your customers
appreciated, and then also have the opportunity to pique their interest in
different areas without betting the ranch?

Of course.
So I don’t think I had a goal to
have a huge bookstore by any means. But I certainly wanted to grow it to a size
that would accommodate a fine representation of the wonderful books that are published.
So every time one of our neighbors in the building would move out, we would
take the space if it were available and if it were the right timing for us. We
were fortunate in that way. There was growth in the commercial area, there was
growth in what was possible in the book business in Denver, and we took the
opportunities.

But looking back, I think our biggest decision in
terms of growth in that first store was when we decided to move upstairs in the
original building. Quite a bit of space had become available on the second
floor and it was offered to us at a good price because second floor space—for
retail—is less desirable. So I pondered and pondered and pondered it. Because
the question was: How do you get the customers upstairs? And any time our
customers or colleagues found out that we were considering this, they thought
the sky was falling! They were very concerned and they gave me all kinds of
advice: “Don’t do it, don’t do it; your customers won’t follow you. It will be
the end of the Tattered Cover. It will be dreadful.”

Were you going to move the whole
store upstairs?

Oh, no. We were going to have both
floors. We were going to put in a staircase. And it’s not like there weren’t
stores that had tried this before. Obviously department stores were
multi-level. But it wasn’t quite the same thing. Our colleagues and sales reps
and customers were just beside themselves in their advice to me about not doing
this. And I kept thinking to myself, “Well, I’m sure they’ve got good reasons
for this, and I can see both sides to the story…” but we needed the space, we
were growing, the rent was very compelling, and I simply didn’t want to lose
that opportunity. And I thought, “We could make the staircase wider; we could
put books on the landings to draw people up the stairs; we could put
destination sections up there…” I said, “We can do this so it doesn’t feel like
an interminable journey up these stairs.”

Fast forward—we
did it. Our landlord had a charitable streak from time to time, and he loaned
me the money to put the staircase in. And the customers came upstairs. But our
colleagues were right in that it is much
harder to get people upstairs. Still, it worked. And it worked again. We took
again more space upstairs when it became available. So we grew from about 950
square feet to 6,000 square feet in that location. Then we were out of space.

Then, perhaps 1980
or so, I started looking around for space within the immediate area to move to.
And so I was looking, looking, looking, looking, nothing, nothing, nothing,
nothing. Moving a store is a serious decision, you know?

And no small undertaking.
And no small undertaking, even
though we’d become pretty used to barreling out walls and moving bookcases. In
fact, in my earliest years, after my husband and I were divorced, I lived in a
small place with the kids. I would go to the lumberyard and have my boards
pre-cut and then bring them back in the car. I had space in the alleyway, which
was next to the store, and I’d be banging away, making new bookcases. [Laughter.] I’d forgotten about that.

So, you know, we
were stuck. It didn’t seem like anything was going to work. And then I had a
visit from a developer in town who had his eye on a vacant piece of property
next to a parking garage next to a department store that was across the street
from a shopping center. It was an open field at that point, and he was planning
on putting in ground-floor retail and then a little bit of an expansion of the
parking garage next door above on the roof—a few extra stories of parking. And
so he said, “I’ll cut you a good deal. Would you like to move over here?” It
was only half a block away and it was brand new space—two floors, totaling
about 11,000 square feet. This was double what we currently had. And he was
willing to do a lot for us to get us over there, and I thought, “Okay. Let’s go
for it.”

So we got serious
about that and we were planning to sublet the old store location of 6,000
square feet. But then the bookstore grapevine came through town and we learned
that Pickwick Books was considering bringing a store to Denver. You probably
don’t remember Pickwick Books.

No, I don’t.
Pickwick Books was a new
development arm of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, which owned B. Dalton back
then. And Crown Books—do you remember Crown Books?

I do.
Well, Crown Books was very
successful opening up in the Washington D.C. area. They were one of the first major
discounters and they, were really doing a number on the independent stores, as
well as on the B. Dalton and Walden stores. So my assumption back
then—”assumption,” keep that in mind—was that when the powers that be got
together and saw what was happening with Crown in their locations, they got
nervous and started to think of ways they could counteract this trend. So B. Dalton—at
that time owned by the Dayton Hudson Corporation—decided to do an experiment.
They had purchased a small, regional chain in southern California called
Pickwick. Then they converted those stores to B. Dalton stores and they retired
the Pickwick name. But they still owned it. It’s my understanding that by still
owning that name they decided to use it for their trial run of a new bookstore
model: heavy discounting, usi