The Written Image: Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House Library Books

Staff

To find one’s own book on a library shelf, for many authors, is a momentous event. But to discover one’s book on a wee shelf in a miniature library may be, by some measures, an even bigger deal. Consider the twenty-one authors whose tiny tomes, pictured below, were added this year to the collection in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House at Windsor Castle, the residence of the British royal family in the eponymous English town. Bernardine Evaristo, Tom Stoppard, Sarah Waters, and other contemporary British writers contributed poetry collections, short tales, plays, and other works deposited in the little library to mark the centennial of the dollhouse, handwriting the volumes that were newly composed for the occasion or excerpted from previously published works.

A replica of an aristocratic Edwardian residence with working electricity and running water, the dollhouse also holds books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, A. A. Milne, and other authors revered in 1924, when the construction of the dollhouse was completed and it was gifted to Queen Mary (in her late fifties at the time). The volumes are 4.5 centimeters (1.77 inches) tall and hand-bound with specially crafted covers whose designs “range from gilded and traditional to whimsical and strikingly modern,” as a statement from the Royal Collection Trust describes them. “Writing small concentrates the mind and draws one into the mysterious kingdom of art,” says Ben Okri, who contributed an untitled poetry collection to the dollhouse library. The pint-size books will be on display with other items from the dollhouse—including teensy versions of a vacuum cleaner, a grand piano, a sewing machine, and crown jewels—through the end of the year for visitors to Windsor Castle.

The Written Image: Native Narrative Art

by

Staff

4.10.24

The Indigenous people of the Great Plains, which in the U.S. reaches from Montana to Texas, are expert storytellers. But without a written language they historically relied on other means to pass down their personal and communal histories. Unbound: Narrative Art of the Plains—an exhibition opening June 1 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.—considers the role of visual art in chronicling the lives of the Apsáalooke, Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, and other people of the region’s Native nations. The show will present their accounts of war, family, ceremonies, and more via imagery emblazoned on historical and contemporary objects, including muslin dresses, hides, and canvases.

In a traditional “winter count,” says Emil Her Many Horses, Unbound’s curator, a Native nation would document its experiences on an animal hide; the people would choose the most important event of the year to record on the hide. The image above, Red Bear’s Winter Count (2004), represents a newer take on that Plains art form. In Red Bear’s Winter Count, artist Martin E. Red Bear presents both an autobiography and an account of Oglala Lakota life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Rendered on canvas with acrylic paint, Red Bear’s Winter Count illustrates more than two dozen milestones, including the artist’s marriage to a Pueblo woman—represented by the image of a figure in a white dress beside a two-spouted wedding vase—and the day a tornado hit the Pine Ridge reservation in 1999. 
 

Red Bear’s Winter Count, Martin E. Red Bear (2004) (Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian)

The Written Image: The Backyard Bird Chronicles

by

Staff

2.14.24

Not only is Amy Tan a best-selling novelist and a musician, performing with the Rock Bottom Remainders alongside fellow authors Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and others, she is also a talented visual artist, as her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles (Knopf, April 2024), amply demonstrates. A testament to Tan’s “obsession with birds,” as she puts it in her preface, the volume includes excerpts from hundreds of pages of Tan’s journals documenting the wildlife she has observed flitting among the trees and grasses behind her home in northern California. Her drawings range from meticulous, lifelike portraits of single birds to cartoons of the animals engaged in mock conversation with one another. Great horned owls, crows, warblers, scrub jays, hummingbirds, spotted towhees, and many other species appear in pencil renderings that range from informal sketches to lushly colored illustrations.

While Tan has taken drawing classes—a course of study she did not begin until she was sixty-four, she writes—her method for visually capturing her subjects involves a force beyond technical skill. “‘Be the bird,’” she writes of her mystical-sounding approach, one she relates to her work as a novelist: “To feel the life of the story, I always imagine I am the character I am creating,” Tan writes. “By imagining I was that bird, I felt a personal connection to it and a deeper sense of what life is like for every bird: Each day is a chance to survive.” In addition to drawings, Chronicles also contains prose from Tan’s birding journals. In dated, diary-like entries, she describes the looks and movements of her feathered friends, her impressions of them, and other thoughts that cross her mind: “Birds are creatures of habit in their habitat,” she writes in an entry on January 10, 2019. “Me, too.”

A page from The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan. (Credit: From The Backyard Bird Chronicles © 2024 by Amy Tan. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf)

The Written Image: John Yau’s “Wanted!” Series

by

Staff

12.13.23

Among the perversely iconic artifacts of Americana is the “Wanted” poster. A broadside stamped with the face of an alleged criminal and fugitive, it conjures the Wild West and early-twentieth-century celebrity gangsters like John Dillinger. This odd bit of penal-turned-popular culture inspired a new project by poet, art critic, and renaissance creator John Yau and visual artist Richard Hull. But their “Wanted!” series of twenty-three monotype prints highlights praiseworthy subjects: artists whom Yau and Hull believe deserve wider acclaim.

The monotypes pictured above, for example, call for “more eyes on” John D. Graham, a Ukrainian-born American painter known for his influence on abstract art in the mid-twentieth century, and “a lavish biopic” about Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese actor who rose to fame in Hollywood silent cinema. Other figures hailed by the series include Anna May Wong, a Chinese American film star who became prominent in the 1920s, and Miyoko Ito, an abstract painter and printmaker from Berkeley, California, active in the mid- and late twentieth century. For each print, created with pigment sticks and water-soluble crayons, Yau composed language and rendered it on two glass plates; Hull drew the image for the middle on a separate plate. The three plates were combined to make a single monotype published by Manneken Press. Prints from the series will be on view January 9 to June 1 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum in “Disguise the Limit: John Yau’s Collaborations,” which explores Yau’s creative output with other makers during the past four decades. “I believe this show will demonstrate something about my belief that poetry can exist in many forms and that it can be more than an individual’s voice,” says Yau.

John Yau and visual artist Richard Hull highlight John D. Graham and Sessue Hayakawa in the format of the “Wanted” poster. (Credit: Manneken Press)

The Written Image: The Comfort of Crows

by

Staff

10.11.23

When Billy Renkl was crafting the artwork that accompanies each essay in his sister Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year (Spiegel & Grau, October 2023), he sought to capture the spirit of the wildlife under consideration while emphasizing the message of the prose: “I wanted the collages to make those plants—sticky willy, passionflower, clover—and animals—foxes, skinks, bluebirds—into concrete references that are factual and tender in equal measure but that nevertheless echo Margaret’s commitment to confronting the frightening truth of global warming,” he says. An illustrator and fine artist with “a giant stockpile of imagery” ready to be snipped from three decades of collected materials, Renkl found his main creative challenge to be selecting the precise components for each collage: “I wanted to honor Margaret’s careful observation,” he says. “Not this swallowtail butterfly but that one.”

Renkl made each piece with cut paper derived from a variety of sources: vintage packaging, seed envelopes, a 1950s-era billboard, a wedding invitation, and antique chromolithographs, among others. Renkl also incorporated original painting and drawing with watercolor, ink, colored pencil, and other media, making each design a layered puzzle for the eyes. In the collage pictured above, which precedes the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox,” Renkl used a cube as a visual metaphor for a trap. Behind the captive fox is “a cyanotype made by superimposing drawings of four or five houses, suggesting a tangled, unnatural, impenetrable structure,” says Renkl. “The whole is backed by an encyclopedia illustration, suggesting the problem-solving that suffuses the essay.” The Comfort of Crows represents the second time Renkl collaborated with his sister on a book; the first was for Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions, 2019). 

The collage preceding the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox.” (Credit: Courtesy of Spiegel and Grau)

The Written Image: My Brilliant Friend

by

Jen DeGregorio

8.16.23

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels have become an international juggernaut, selling more than 15 million copies in forty-five languages and inspiring adaptations across artistic genres: an award-winning HBO series and several staged productions. Not only popular but critically acclaimed, the books have been reimagined once again as graphic novels, the first one of which, My Brilliant Friend, will be published in English in October by Europa Editions. Italian artist Mara Cerri was tapped to illustrate this latest version of Ferrante’s beloved series. Cerri’s art appears with text adapted from Ferrante’s language by Italian writer Chiara Lagani, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the Neapolitan Quartet for Europa. A multidisciplinary creator of animated films, children’s books, and designs for publications such as the Washington Post, Cerri discussed her artistic practice, the challenges of rendering an esteemed novel in images, and her experience working with one of world’s most elusive authors—Elena Ferrante is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. Europa Editions editor Edoardo Andreoni translated Cerri’s comments from the Italian for this interview.

Whose idea was it to make a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend? How long did this project take from start to finish?
The idea of creating a graphic novel based on Ferrante’s novel came from Giovanni Ferrara, director of Coconino Press in Italy. It was he who made the proposal to me and Chiara Lagani. Giovanni knew that Chiara had adapted My Brilliant Friend for the theater and produced it with her theater company, Fanny & Alexander, and that I had created the animations for the documentary Ferrante Fever, directed by Giacomo Durzi. I believe that Giovanni’s proposal was the natural interweaving of many different threads—something that a perceptive publisher like him would come up with. It took about two years from the initial proposal until the publication of the book by Coconino in 2022. Two very intense years, during which Chiara and I had the opportunity to work alongside people of great professionalism and humanity: Davide Reviati, a cartoonist and illustrator whom I admire immensely and who introduced readers in Italy to the then largely unknown language of comic books; the graphic designer Leonardo Guardigli; and Giovanni Ferrara himself.

I see that you illustrated a children’s book by Ferrante, La spiaggia di notte (Il Baleno, 2007), published in English by Europa Editions in 2016 as The Beach at Night. How did you come to work with Ferrante on that project?
I had read a few novels by Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love, The Days of Abandoment, The Lost Daughter, and the essay collection Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. I was completely enraptured by Ferrante’s writing. I felt that it vibrated with a profound understanding of reality, one that seemed closely connected to my own life experience. I had already collaborated with Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, designing covers for the children’s imprint Il Baleno, which at the time was directed by Giovanni Nucci. Il Baleno was publishing very interesting authors, including one of my favorite authors and illustrators, Wolf Erlbruch. At a book fair in Rome dedicated to independent publishing, Nucci asked me to illustrate Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, La spiaggia di notte. I also owe this opportunty to Fausta Orecchio of Orecchio Acerbo Editions, who recommended me to Nucci. It was a very important moment in my career. With Sandra Ozzola, the founder and owner of Edizioni E/O, acting as intermediary, I corresponded with Ferrante via e-mail. I wanted to know what her expectations and desires for the book were, and I told her what images came to my mind reading the story, as if to ask her permission. I was happy and excited, but also slightly nervous about the responsibility of illustrating the work of an author I felt was so powerful. At the same time, I felt an entirely new and thrilling sense of freedom.

What was your approach to illustrating My Brilliant Friend? How did you make decisions about the aesthetic of the illustrations, the color palate, and other artistic considerations?
I wanted the line and the technique to have the same quality as the writing, which often feels material and rough. The physicality of Ferrante’s writing was a natural inspiration for me. The close collaboration and dialogue with Chiara, who adapted the text, was fundamental. As a playwright, she has spent her life in the theater. Listening to her talk and read passages from the book gave me further insight into the text. I found great inspiration in her interpretation and her voice, as if I were listening to a “living” script.

The colors of the illustrations are linked to the rhythm of the story; each narrative segment has its own dominant color. The first illustrations are gray and earthy, introducing the reader to the Neapolitan neighborhood. The trip to the sea is drawn in pastel and airy colors. The tunnel that Lila and Lenù go through reveals a different, almost dreamlike world; crossing into it is like a rite of passage and rebirth. The scene of the “smarginatura,” the dissolving of margins, is illustrated with fluorescent and bright colors that cut through the dark sky above the buildings. They are colors that have a narrative and symbolic function. The panels are painted in acrylic and India ink on paper, without digital support.

What do you hope a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend can add to readers’ understanding of the original novel? Why make a graphic version of the novel at all?
Because every form of language has the power to reveal new points of view of a story. This is intrinsic in the very nature of comics and graphic novels, since they draw on the symbolic power of images. From the collision between words and images, new narrative circuits are generated, associations that act deeply on the reader. I have been profoundly changed by the experience of illustrating My Brilliant Friend, because somehow the journey made by Ferrante’s characters Lila and Lenù has pierced through me.

You mentioned corresponding with Elena Ferrante for your work on The Beach at Night. What advice did she have for you as you worked on your illustrations for My Brilliant Friend? What is she like?
Coconino Press sent the first twenty drawings for the book to Ferrante via Edizioni E/O, and included a short letter from me and Chiara, asking for her opinion. Her reply was very encouraging; she was happy with the work. I felt an intimate contact, much affection in the way we shared this story.

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an artist?
Reading and drawing were the activities I loved most as a child, something amazing that I could do on my own. When I started working in publishing as an illustrator, I felt that secret joy possessing me again, like an inexhaustible resource. After attending the Urbino Book School, I exhibited my works at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and at the illustration biennials of Bratislava, Slovakia, and Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2002 I have been working as an illustrator of children’s books for some publishing houses in Italy and abroad. I have also published books that I both authored and illustrated: Dentro gli occhi cosa resta (Fatatrac, 2004), A una stella cadente (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2007), and Via Curiel 8 (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2009). Together with animator Magda Guidi I created an animated short film based on my book Via Curiel 8, produced by Sacrebleu Productions of Paris. Some of the animation sequences from Via Curiel 8 were included in Ferrante Fever. It felt like a natural development, since I had drawn for the short film after reading Ferrante and illustrating The Beach at Night, and there are definitely echoes of Ferrante’s writing in my work.

Directing and designing animated films has always been part of my work as an illustrator. I also made a second short film with Magda, Sogni al campo, presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and coproduced by Withstand Film of Italy and Miyu Productions of France. I was lucky enough to collaborate with wonderful writers such as Paolo Cognetti; author of The Eight Mountains; Andrea Bajani; Nadia Terranova; and Davide Orecchio. The book I created with Terranova, Il segreto, or The Secret (Mondadori Ragazzi Editions, 2021), won two important prizes in Italy: the Andersen Award and the Youth Strega Prize. For a few years, until about 2016, I collaborated with the U.S. illustration agency Riley Illustration, thanks to which I created illustrations for campaigns by United Airlines and Barnes & Noble and for some magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post.

What are your plans as an artist moving forward?
Chiara and I will work on the subsequent books in the Neapolitan Quartet. The second, The Story of a New Name, should be released in Italy in 2024. The stage show based on our graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend [in which images from the graphic novel are projected on stage while Lagani reads the accompanying text]—called L’Amica geniale a fumetti, or My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel—has been performed in various Italian cities during the last year and will continue touring with Lagani’s Fanny & Alexander theater company. We are considering putting together a Chinese version of the show to accompany the publication of the book in China and hope to do the same in other countries.

In 2024 two other books I illustrated will be published in Italy by Orecchio Acerbo Editions as part of a new series called “I Terremoti.” The authors of the two books are very special to me: Nadia Terranova, the author of The Secret, and film director Alice Rohrwacher, whose movies have touched my soul. For Alice, I’ve already made the poster of her movie Happy as Lazzaro. In the future I hope to work again on animated movies.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you about here, regarding My Brilliant Friend or anything else?
Creating this graphic novel was a fascinating experience because it offered me the possibility of going very deeply into the narrative mechanisms of the novel. It was a great learning experience. Chiara and I are now working on the second book. The challenge is to be able to find a formula for editing the scenes that is authentically derived from the novel but takes advantage of the potential of the graphic form. It is also necessary to take care to do justice to all the major themes of the novel. It’s a beautiful responsibility.

 

Jen DeGregorio is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

A page from My Brilliant Friend. (Credit: Europa Editions)

The Written Image: Ella Hawkins’s Biscuit Art

by

Staff

6.14.23

Like many people, Ella Hawkins turned to baking to cope with the social isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Defying the bread-making craze that swept social media, the British scholar opted to make decorated biscuits—or cookies, as Americans call them—in conversation with her academic field: design history. The first set she posted on Instagram in 2021 was an homage to William Morris, the nineteenth-century British textile designer. She flavored the dough with orange, cardamom, and vanilla; after baking the biscuits, she hand-piped elaborate floral patterns onto them with various shades of royal icing. Hawkins has used a similar method for crafting the many biscuits that have followed, often inspired by literary subjects that intersect with design: costumes from the historical-fantasy TV drama Outlander, based on the novel series by Diana Gabaldon; objects in the collection of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England, where Hawkins was a 2021 artist-in-residence; medieval illuminated manuscripts; Georgian-era bookbinding tools; and more.

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. Each of the twenty-four biscuits corresponds to a different costume, portrait, or place featured in the volume; a key identifying the origin of each motif in the set can be found on her website. While they may function as visual artworks, Hawkins’s biscuits are primarily culinary creations: “As long as I’ve got a good photograph of the finished set, I’m very happy for the biscuits to be eaten and enjoyed,” she says. But that has not stopped her from publicly displaying her edible wares, as she did last summer at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, where she held a residency and made biscuits responding to the gallery’s “Meat and Potatoes” exhibition. While many subjects appeal to Hawkins as a biscuit artist, she expects books to remain her constant muse: “Literature will always be a big source of inspiration for me,” she says, “particularly because it brings together my academic and artistic interests.”

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. (Credit: Ella Hawkins)

The Written Image: Monica Ong—Rewriting the Sky

by

Staff

4.12.23

When Monica Ong composes a poem, she thinks not only about language, but about how readers might encounter that language beyond the page. A designer by trade and training—she has an MFA in digital media—the Connecticut-based “visual poet” marries verse with specially crafted objects that are as much a part of her poetics as word choice and syntactical arrangement. For Ong, to write poetry means to also “design engaging experiences of poetry,” she says. Her first book, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015), stemmed from art installations in which Ong interrogated institutional discourses of the body by altering X-rays, anatomical drawings, and other medical paraphernalia to contain poetry; Silent Anatomies includes images of these visual poems that had originally been objects on display. “My creative practice has always been rooted in a studio practice, but it is also very much deeply engaged with challenging and subverting narratives through lyrical experimentation,” she says.

In her recent work, which she has dubbed her Planetaria series, Ong explores astronomy, imagining “rewriting the sky from a female perspective.” A medieval tool for tracking the heavens, for example, was the basis for Ong’s Lunar Volvelle (2021), pictured above. In a volvelle, paper circles are layered on top of one another and fastened in the center with pointers that the user can spin to understand the movement of the sun or moon. In Lunar Volvelle, Ong put her paternal grandmother’s face where an image of the moon might have been and words that speak to femininity, ancestry, and power in place of astronomical data. The language in Lunar Volvelle may be read in different ways, forming multiple poems. “I want to invite people to think of poetry as stargazing,” Ong says. “When you look at stars you make the connections that feel natural to you.” Lunar Volvelle will be on view May 21 to September 3 at Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, with other work from Planetaria, which was also exhibited last year at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “The gallery space affords one way to open up new possibilities of reading,” Ong says.

Lunar Volvelle (2021). (Credit: Monica Ong)

The Written Image: Crystallized Books

by

Staff

2.15.23

Walking around San Francisco in 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold regularly came across boxes of discarded books and magazines. She suspected all this textual trash had something to do with the rise of digital reading on devices like the iPad, which had been unveiled by Apple the previous year, and Kindle, released by Amazon in 2007. Moved by the “vulnerability of printed media,” Arnold was struck by the idea of making art from the scrapped volumes. “I had been growing crystals on hard objects for various sculptures and installations and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on malleable objects,” she says. “Books can be manipulated in a multitude of ways and connected to what I was interested in conceptually.” Crystallizing a book turns it into a kind of sculpture, transforming it from a literary object into one that evokes “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.”

Characterized by their regularly patterned arrangement of atoms, crystals include snowflakes, amethysts, sodium, and other minerals and gems. To crystallize a book, Arnold boils water with borax, a powdered salt compound with molecules that expand in hot water. She then submerges the book in the solution, which as it cools causes the molecules to shrink and the borax to crystallize on the cover, pages, binding, and any other graspable surface. When the crystals have sufficiently grown, Arnold drains the solution and dries the tome—now sadly unreadable, but strangely beautiful. Arnold has crystallized a small library of computer manuals, science guides, phone books, encyclopedias, children’s stories, and classic and contemporary literature, including Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, pictured above. To see crystallized copies of Moby-Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other books, visit alexisarnold.com.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, crystallized by Alexis Arnold. (Credit: Alexis Arnold)

The Written Image: Contemplation Bowls

by

Staff

12.14.22

Books have been at the center of Swedish artist Cecilia Levy’s practice for nearly twenty years. After training as a graphic designer, Levy studied bookbinding in the early 2000s, crafting handmade notebooks and other products to sell. She also drew and painted directly onto the “canvas” of old book covers. By 2009 the pages inside those covers called to her as a medium, and she began experimenting with a papier-mâché technique to forge the delicate sculptures for which she is now known. Levy works primarily with “old books,” those published before 1960, which she inherits from friends and family or purchases at flea markets or antiquarian shops. “Old book paper…carries several histories simultaneously,” she says. “In the content itself, through traces left by previous owners and by the passing of time, where the sun has turned the book edges yellow or brown.” The idea for a sculptural form typically occurs to Levy first. “I then search for the right paper quality,” she says. “Third comes the content of the book, which I take into account in the piece somehow. Any genre works.” To make Contemplation Bowls (2013), pictured above, Levy used the pages of a Swedish spiritual book, whose title she translated as Contemplations for Each Day of the Year, which contained 365 short texts. “The bowl symbolizes the female primordial form and is found everywhere in nature,” she says. Levy’s work is in the permanent collection of Sweden’s National Museum and can be purchased through the Konsthantverkarna gallery, both in Stockholm.

Contemplation Bowls (2013) by Cecilia Levy (Credit: Hans Bjurling)

The Written Image: The Shape of Words

Writers tend to think of language in two dimensions, a phenomenon embodied on the printed page or digitized on electronic screens. But for Dallas artist Simeen Farhat, language is a three-dimensional form. For more than a decade she has crafted text-inspired sculptures in a complex process that blends literary and figurative composition. Each piece is conceptually and structurally based on an evocative phrase, which Farhat may have devised herself or appropriated from sources such as Homer’s Iliad, the poetry of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi, and social media. Farhat renders her chosen phrase in freehand drawings, typically using them to create molds that she casts in resin. Letters are then forged in multiple sizes and colors, which she fashions into an abstract design that is in conversation with the meaning of the phrase that prompted it.

For example, Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), pictured above, evokes a massive drop of blood exploding as it hits the floor. Built from the words of a prose poem Farhat wrote, which the sculpture is titled after, the laser-cut acrylic piece “is about life and death, love and war,” she says. “My work is very feminist, political. It’s also about hybridity. I live in many cultures.” Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Farhat moved to the United States in 1992, earning her BFA from Arizona State University in Tempe in 1998 and an MFA from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in 2000. From the beginning, her art—including drawings and multimedia pieces—has interrogated symbology and modes of communication. Her recent sculptures resemble word clouds, with letters so densely clustered as to render them illegible, “suggesting the complex contradictions found in everyday life,” according to the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, which exhibited Farhat’s work this year. Farhat’s sculptures also remind viewers of language’s physicality, its emergence from the gesture of shaping individual letters or the gesticulations of impassioned speech. Drawing on the alphabets of Arabic, English, and Romance languages, Farhat’s work also speaks to cross-cultural communication and what gets lost in translation. “I’m very much into wordplay,” she says.

 

Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), a text-inspired sculpture by Dallas artist Simeen Farhart. (Credit: Chris Worley Fine Arts, Kevin Todora)

The Written Image: Unburnable Book

The volume of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale pictured below may look like any other copy of the classic novel. The stark red-and-white image of the eponymous handmaid—now emblematic of the fight for women’s reproductive rights—is the same design that has adorned other covers of Atwood’s best-seller. But if you held it you would feel the difference between those volumes and this one, the so-called “Unburnable Book.” This special edition, released in May, is made of fireproof materials: a hard cover of phenolic resin and a dust jacket and pages made of white cinefoil, a treated aluminum product, hand-sewn with nickel wire.

Doug Laxdal, whose Canadian graphic arts and specialty-bookbinding studio crafted the volume, describes the distinctive tactile quality of this one-of-a-kind tome: “It’s cold because it’s metal, and it also is about twice as heavy as what the regular book would be.” While the 384-page novel can be read for its story, it was not made for entertainment. It was manufactured this spring at the behest of Atwood’s publisher, Penguin Random House, and the Canadian creative agency Rethink to raise awareness about recent efforts to ban books from schools and libraries and funds for the literary nonprofit PEN America, which advances free expression. In a promotional video, which points out that would-be banners have even burned books recently, Atwood herself can be seen with a defiant look on her face as she aims a torch’s flames at The Handmaid’s Tale, a frequent target of book bans. White text floats over the image of unsinged open pages: “Because powerful words can never be extinguished.” Atwood’s words were powerful enough, at least, to help raise $130,000 at Sotheby’s June auction of the “Unburnable Book,” a sum, one hopes, that will go a long way toward fueling PEN America’s free-speech advocacy.

The special edition is made of fireproof materials: a hard cover of phenolic resin and a dust jacket and pages made of white cinefoil, a treated aluminum product, hand-sewn with nickel wire. (Credit: Doug Laxdal)

The Written Image: Ice Receding/Books Reseeding

by

Staff

2.12.20

Artist Basia Irland’s ongoing project Ice Receding/Books Reseeding gives new meaning to the phrase “living text.” Since 2007, Irland, who lives in Albuquerque and founded the Art and Ecology Program at the University of New Mexico, has created more than two hundred “Ice Books” from the frozen waters of rivers all over the world, each embedded with seeds. The sculpted books are intentionally ephemeral; their melting represents an act of renewal as the books disperse their seeds—and a reminder of the ice being lost daily in the arctic.

To make an Ice Book, Irland collects river water, then freezes and carves it. She embeds each book with seeds of native species, such as mountain maple and wild fennel, the “ecological language” that make up the book’s text. Collaboration with local communities is integral to Irland’s process; area botanists and other scientists lend expertise, but important too are the chefs who offer walk-in freezers for the creation and storage of the largest tomes, as some weigh upwards of 250 pounds. Together with these and other collaborators, Irland launches a book by returning it to its riverbank, often with a toast to the river’s health: “May you flow, and may you always flow clean.” As the book melts, the river’s current carries the seeds downstream to repopulate its banks with plants that will in turn curb erosion, support pollination, and sequester carbon. Irland hopes the books allow people to “understand on a deeper level the necessity of working together cooperatively to come to the assistance of bodies of water around the world.” As she says, “The rivers of the world need all the reverence and protection we can provide.”

(Photo by: Eduardo Fandiño)

The Written Image: Bookworm

by

Staff

5.1.07

Readers who love—really love—books, who take special care in arranging them on their shelves, may at first glance find Rosamond Purcell’s artwork somewhat off-putting. The image above, titled “Book/nest,” is taken from Bookworm (Quantuck Lane Press, 2006), a collection of Purcell’s photos and collages of books that are in the process of being slowly destroyed by forces of nature. Included in Bookworm are images of weather-beaten novels, books that were buried in mud, partially burned books, waterlogged books, and even a nineteenth-century French economics textbook that has been eaten by termites. Purcell writes that many of the books she has photographed are now in her studio in Arlington, Massachusetts. Although they are almost impossible to open and can no longer be read, “the sight of these books comforts me,” she writes. “A book that is still a book but cannot be read imparts peace and promise.” Despite the miserable condition of the volumes she chooses to photograph, Purcell says that she, too, loves books. “I love them whole and unprovoked. I cherish them in perfect condition and care, too, for the not quite pristine,” she writes. “I pillage only those books already in an outlaw condition, those visited by termites, silverfish, mice, moths and beetles, damp, mold, rot, or fire. The tenacity of pages and bindings to survive such assaults seems miraculous.” In his introduction to Bookworm, Sven Birkerts, the editor of AGNI, writes that the “vivid illumination of damage” in Purcell’s work “isolates and heightens the idea of the book as material object. We are reminded that this emblem of mental life is subject like any other thing to the processes of erosion and decay.”

The Written Image: Shelley Jackson’s “Snow”

by

Staff

12.11.19

This winter readers can look forward to the next installments of writer and artist Shelley Jackson’s “Snow,” which she calls a “a story in progress, weather permitting.” Since 2014, Jackson has delivered the story by writing one word at a time on the slushy playgrounds, frosted stoops, and other snowy spaces of her neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. A photograph of each word is then shared on Instagram (@snowshelleyjackson).

“To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,” begins the text, which describes fantastical snow made up of such unexpected wonders as clock faces and the scalps of shrews. “Snow” is just one of Jackson’s projects in which ephemerality is integral to her text. “Skin” exists only as tattoos of words on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers; when each dies their word is lost from the story. The last storms of spring 2019 left “Snow” at a cliff-hanger—only the next blizzard can reveal what’s coming with “the long thaw of…”

The Written Image: “Skin”

by

Staff

1.1.07

In the summer of 2003, fiction writer Shelley Jackson, the author of the novels The Melancholy of Anatomy (Anchor, 2002) and Half Life (HarperCollins, 2006) as well as the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, announced that she was starting a new writing project. The “mortal work of art,” as she called it, would be a short story titled “Skin.” Over three years later, Jackson still hasn’t completed her work of art—even though she finished writing the story a long time ago. These photographs were taken by participants in Jackson’s project, each of whom

agreed to tattoo one word from “Skin” on their skin. The full text of the 2,095-word story will be known only to the participants—as of this writing, nearly nineteen hundred people have signed up to get tattoos, and over ten thousand have expressed interest. Once a person is accepted for participation in the project, Jackson replies with a registered letter specifying the assigned word, which can be tattooed anywhere on the body (unless the word is a specific body part, in which case the tattoo may be anywhere but the body part named). The participant must then send a signed and dated photo of the tattoo to Jackson, who replies with the full text of the story. On her Web site, www.ineradicablestain.com, Jackson refers to the project’s participants as her “words” and states that “they are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments…. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.”

The Written Image: Heaven’s Vault

by

Staff

10.9.19

Finding the right words is a matter of a civilization’s survival in Heaven’s Vault, an adventure video game centered on translation. Released in April 2019 by the Cambridge, England–based company inkle, Heaven’s Vault stars character Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist tasked with locating a missing robotics professor and uncovering a lost chapter of her society’s history. This archaeological sleuthing requires players to translate the runes of an ancient language. Accurate translation unearths more of the game’s story, while mistranslation leads to false starts and dead ends. The glyphs of the game are inspired by Ancient Egyptian and Chinese pictographs; players learn to join them into larger words, much as the German language builds complex words from smaller ones.

Heaven’s Vault is the latest in a lineup of video games from inkle founders Joseph Humfrey and Jon Ingold that structure gameplay around interactive narrative, allowing players to push a game’s story in any number of directions. These forking narratives are made possible by inkle’s scripting language, ink, which can be downloaded from inkle and used by anyone to code interactive stories of their own. The sophisticated storytelling of Heaven’s Vault has not gone unnoticed: It is on the official reading list for the next Nebula awards, which added a category for Best Game Writing in 2018. The game, which was originally released on PS4 and Steam, will be available for Nintendo Switch in 2020.

The Written Image: Memoranda

by

Staff

2.10.16

For all the Haruki Murakami fans who have dreamed about being in one of the fiction writer’s strange, surreal landscapes, the perfect opportunity is just around the corner: Memoranda, a video game inspired by Murakami’s short stories. Released this month by the Vancouver-based game studio Bit Byterz (bitbyterz.com), Memoranda is based primarily on Murakami’s story “A Shinagawa Monkey,” which was first published in a 2006 issue of the New Yorker. As in the story, the main character of Memoranda has forgotten her name and is trying to remember it. Throughout the game she explores a small town where she encounters a host of characters who guide her through a series of puzzles. For inspiration, the game designers incorporated dialogue and ideas from more than thirty other Murakami stories. “Whenever we are not sure what a game character should do, we refer to Murakami stories—and in 90 percent of the cases, we find what we are looking for,” says game designer Sahand Saedi. “The magic-realism aspects and the loneliness of the main characters that you find in most of Murakami’s stories were interesting for us.” The style of the game itself is a bit of a throwback; it’s a two-dimensional point-and-click adventure game, which, according to Saedi, requires players to be patient, pay attention to the story, and be willing to solve puzzles that do not involve violence. Saedi says that the Bit Byterz team hopes players will enjoy the game’s atmosphere, its references to Murakami stories, and its original art, created by Maliheh Rahrovan. Saedi adds, “We wouldn’t mind encouraging gamers that are not big book fans to dedicate some time to reading instead of playing.” 

 

Video Games Redefine the Classics

by

Rachael Hanel

6.14.17

Tracy Fullerton, a game designer at the University of Southern California (USC), has felt a connection to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden ever since her father gave her a copy of the book when she was a kid. After rereading it during a stressful time in her life, Fullerton was inspired by Thoreau’s meditations in the novel—namely, how to meet our basic needs, refresh our souls, and connect with nature. “That spoke to me as a game designer,” she says. “I wanted to make a virtual experiment out of it.” Walden, a Game began to take shape. 

After ten years of development, the game is now nearing completion and is set for release later this year, to coincide with the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth on July 12. In the game, players take on the role of Thoreau when he moved to Walden Pond in the summer of 1845 and started building his cabin. As players move through the seasons, they make choices about shelter, food, and clothing to ensure survival. But the game also aims to re-create the reflective tone of the book, encouraging players to pause and observe nature around them. In fact, if players become too busy focusing on tasks, the game sounds a warning: “Your inspiration has become low but can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude, and interacting with visitors, animal and human.”

The video game field has long been dominated by stories featuring violence, sporting action, or cartoon characters on simple missions. But more and more, literary adaptations and digital narrative immersions like Walden, a Game are carving out their own space in the gaming world. At Boston College, English professor and James Joyce scholar Joseph Nugent and a team of students are developing Joycestick, an adaptation of Joyce’s sprawling stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses. In the adaptation, players strap on a pair of virtual-reality goggles and explore the world of the novel. There is no quest or end goal; instead, players are invited to explore individual settings from the book, such as a café in Paris or the Martello tower in Sandycove, Dublin, where the novel opens. When players touch different objects that figure into the novel—such as a bowler hat or a can of potted meat—they hear narration from the book. Joycestick will be unveiled at various festivals and conferences this summer, including in Dublin on Bloomsday, which is celebrated each year on June 16, the date that Ulysses takes place.

Ulysses and Walden are not the first books to have become virtual experiences. In 2014, Inkle Studios, based in Cambridge, England, adapted the classic Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days into a game titled 80 Days. Players race around the globe, compete with fellow travelers, and decide on the best route and mode of transportation—steamer, train, horse, or hot-air balloon—to complete their journey. In January the Canadian studio Bit ByterZ released Memoranda, a game based on Haruki Murakami short stories. And in February the New York Times Magazine featured an interactive video narrative based on George Saunders’s novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Viewers can click and drag their mouse on the screen and see a 360-degree view of a cemetery, in which ghosts featured in the book tell their stories. 

Adapting a work of literature into a game or virtual experience poses a unique set of challenges for developers, who often try to capture a book’s essence, if not its plot. “Novel-esque storytelling is very difficult to gamify,” says Jon Ingold, the narrative director at Inkle Studios. “Games, unlike stories, are usually based around repetitive actions.” Like Ingold, Nugent finds the complex characters of novels particularly difficult to develop. “It’s a different mode for people to identify with a character and emotional experiences,” he says. “It brings up fascinating questions of the nature of literature and representation. What does it mean to be a participant? Through whose eyes are you seeing the scene?” 

These questions are part of why Fullerton and Nugent believe their games can have an educational impact, especially as students might struggle with dense books like Ulysses and Walden. Nugent acknowledges few students have read Ulysses and hopes that Joycestick, along with being an educational experience for the Boston College students who are making it, can offer others a taste of a book they might otherwise be too intimidated to read. Fullerton also hopes Walden, a Game can be used in the classroom, and has already heard from many teachers who want to use the game to make the book more approachable. In public tests of the game at film festivals and gaming shows, Fullerton has witnessed firsthand how people who don’t necessarily connect with the book can latch on to the game. “People come up to us and say, ‘We know this book; it’s so boring,’” she says. “But then they start to play and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember this part; we should do this or that.’ They completely change their tone.”

Literary games also seem to be garnering more respect in the arts world. Walden, a Game has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. “This might have been seen as a technical form before,” Fullerton says, “but in the past decade digital gaming has come to the point where people are working with it as an artistic form, and it’s being recognized.” Nugent agrees, pointing out that creating a virtual experience of a book as classic as Ulysses calls for the effort and attention of an artist. “Ulysses is a work of literature,” he says. “It would be untrue and indecent and improper and wrong for the followers of Joyce to not turn this into something beautiful.” 

Rachael Hanel is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

 The cabin in the woods near Walden Pond that players build in Walden, a Game.

Writing an Elegy for a Dead World

by

Dana Isokawa

4.15.15

A traveler is stranded alone in a deserted world. It is raining, and in the distance a few broken-down machines dot the hills. She begins to walk, and then fly, down the road, her space suit’s jet pack propelling her past some barren trees until she reaches a sculpture of what looks like three giants holding up a boulder. It could be three Atlases. It could be three Incredible Hulks. She is asked to stop and write the opening scene of a story: What is this sculpture? Why is it here?

So opens one level of Elegy for a Dead World, a creative-writing video game launched last December by two Boston-based indie gaming studios, Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal. In the game the player navigates three different deserted worlds—each based on a British Romantic poem—and writes stories or poems inspired by the landscape. As the player’s avatar walks in and out of caves and towers, the game prompts the player to add stanzas or scenes to the poem or story she is composing. When the player reaches the end of the world, she can edit her final piece and publish it to a network platform in order to share it with other players. There are no guns to shoot, no monsters to fight, no points to score, just the challenge of writing a poem or story. “The mantra of this game is to give people a good writing experience,” says Ziba Scott, cofounder of Elegy and head of Popcannibal. “We want to make you feel safe and ready to write.”

From the start, Elegy has not been a traditional video game. When Scott and Elegy cofounder Ichiro Lambe started designing it in October 2013, it was meant to be a weeklong project. Lambe, head of Dejobaan Games, proposed a game in which a player explores a dead civilization. Scott, who credits his awareness of literature to his mother, a retired English teacher, was reminded of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” in which a traveler meditates on the ruined sculpture of the titular Egyptian pharaoh. Lambe and Scott sketched out a world inspired by Shelley’s poem and then showed it to a friend and asked for his interpretation. When he came up with a story wholly different from the one Lambe and Scott had imagined, they realized that writing stories could be the goal of the game.

After their initial brainstorm, Lambe and Scott put together a mockup and trailer of the game and shared it with the gaming community. Gamers, writers, and educators responded so enthusiastically that the creators were convinced to set aside their other projects and focus on building the game. With Lambe acting as designer and sound engineer and Scott as designer and programmer, the pair signed on two artists, an additional programmer, and a business developer to join their team. They launched a Kickstarter campaign in September 2014 to fund the project, and twenty-one days later they had raised $72,339 from 3,666 backers, a sum well over their original fund-raising goal of $48,000. The game, which took a little over a year to produce, was launched in December on the online gaming platform Steam and sells for fifteen dollars.

Throughout Elegy’s development, Lambe and Scott worked to make writing approachable. Initially the game offered no writing prompts, but after observing how intimidated early trial players were by writing an original story or poem, the founders decided to add prompts. Each world now offers an array of prompts—in one world, for example, a player can write a letter to a loved one as a stranded traveler, or the story of how this world came to be deserted, or a poem from the perspective of the world’s deposed ruler. Some of the prompts are straightforward and constructed in the style of Mad Libs, while others throw in narrative wrenches that force a player to drastically shift the direction of the story. Scott says that many prompts are written in deliberately simple language in order to bolster a player’s confidence.

The game’s art also helps set the mood for writing, with its vividly colored, dreamy landscapes and its balance of clearly definable objects—bookcases, mirrors, towers—and mystifying fragments of machinery. The three worlds are loosely based on “Ozymandias,” Keats’s sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” and Byron’s “Darkness.” Luigi Guatieri, the game’s lead artist, drew on those poems’ themes of the insignificance of man in relation to nature, as well as the work of Romantic painters, to guide his illustrations. “I’ve always been in love with J. M. W. Turner’s landscapes,” says Guatieri. “I wanted to emulate some of his style, but with a sci-fi twist.”

With the game’s unusual premise, it’s no surprise that Elegy has attracted a slightly different gaming audience. “The people who play this are largely people who don’t play games,” says Lambe. “There are no mechanics, there’s nothing to really overcome, so the people who play tend to be a little older than the average gamer audience. The ones who really dig into it tend to be very thoughtful.” Even so, while Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal don’t publicly share their sales figures, Lambe reports that sales for Elegy have been comparable to their more traditional offerings. While other studios have produced storytelling games—Protagonist Labs, for example, is set to release a collaborative storytelling game called Storium later this year—few games are so explicitly focused on writing or so thematically linked to literature.

Educators have also responded positively to Elegy, with more than two hundred elementary schools, high schools, and colleges throughout the world using the game to teach creative writing, language skills, and English as a Second Language. As one of its fund-raising pledges, the Elegy team also donated the game to more than sixty schools in fourteen countries, as distant as Brazil and Norway. In the future, the founders hope to tailor it to be more suitable for schools by adding new writing prompts and developing an offline version.

For now, Lambe and Scott are happy with how people have latched on to the game. Lambe tells the story of a player who found herself in tears after she used the game to write a letter to her grandfather who had died a few years earlier. Lambe says, “This is something that I’ve always wanted to do in my career in development: to build a game that creates an emotional reaction to something and does so in a participatory way.” Scott, meanwhile, hopes Elegy will empower people to write. “A game is when a player comes to something with a willingness to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” he says. “I think that’s something that can also be true of creative writing. Unless someone is holding a gun to your head it’s probably an unnecessary obstacle to write something. But you want to. And you’re trying really hard and applying yourself to do that. I think that’s where writing and games meet.”

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

 

 

 

Writing an Elegy for a Dead World

by

Dana Isokawa

4.15.15

A traveler is stranded alone in a deserted world. It is raining, and in the distance a few broken-down machines dot the hills. She begins to walk, and then fly, down the road, her space suit’s jet pack propelling her past some barren trees until she reaches a sculpture of what looks like three giants holding up a boulder. It could be three Atlases. It could be three Incredible Hulks. She is asked to stop and write the opening scene of a story: What is this sculpture? Why is it here?

So opens one level of Elegy for a Dead World, a creative-writing video game launched last December by two Boston-based indie gaming studios, Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal. In the game the player navigates three different deserted worlds—each based on a British Romantic poem—and writes stories or poems inspired by the landscape. As the player’s avatar walks in and out of caves and towers, the game prompts the player to add stanzas or scenes to the poem or story she is composing. When the player reaches the end of the world, she can edit her final piece and publish it to a network platform in order to share it with other players. There are no guns to shoot, no monsters to fight, no points to score, just the challenge of writing a poem or story. “The mantra of this game is to give people a good writing experience,” says Ziba Scott, cofounder of Elegy and head of Popcannibal. “We want to make you feel safe and ready to write.”

From the start, Elegy has not been a traditional video game. When Scott and Elegy cofounder Ichiro Lambe started designing it in October 2013, it was meant to be a weeklong project. Lambe, head of Dejobaan Games, proposed a game in which a player explores a dead civilization. Scott, who credits his awareness of literature to his mother, a retired English teacher, was reminded of Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” in which a traveler meditates on the ruined sculpture of the titular Egyptian pharaoh. Lambe and Scott sketched out a world inspired by Shelley’s poem and then showed it to a friend and asked for his interpretation. When he came up with a story wholly different from the one Lambe and Scott had imagined, they realized that writing stories could be the goal of the game.

After their initial brainstorm, Lambe and Scott put together a mockup and trailer of the game and shared it with the gaming community. Gamers, writers, and educators responded so enthusiastically that the creators were convinced to set aside their other projects and focus on building the game. With Lambe acting as designer and sound engineer and Scott as designer and programmer, the pair signed on two artists, an additional programmer, and a business developer to join their team. They launched a Kickstarter campaign in September 2014 to fund the project, and twenty-one days later they had raised $72,339 from 3,666 backers, a sum well over their original fund-raising goal of $48,000. The game, which took a little over a year to produce, was launched in December on the online gaming platform Steam and sells for fifteen dollars.

Throughout Elegy’s development, Lambe and Scott worked to make writing approachable. Initially the game offered no writing prompts, but after observing how intimidated early trial players were by writing an original story or poem, the founders decided to add prompts. Each world now offers an array of prompts—in one world, for example, a player can write a letter to a loved one as a stranded traveler, or the story of how this world came to be deserted, or a poem from the perspective of the world’s deposed ruler. Some of the prompts are straightforward and constructed in the style of Mad Libs, while others throw in narrative wrenches that force a player to drastically shift the direction of the story. Scott says that many prompts are written in deliberately simple language in order to bolster a player’s confidence.

The game’s art also helps set the mood for writing, with its vividly colored, dreamy landscapes and its balance of clearly definable objects—bookcases, mirrors, towers—and mystifying fragments of machinery. The three worlds are loosely based on “Ozymandias,” Keats’s sonnet “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” and Byron’s “Darkness.” Luigi Guatieri, the game’s lead artist, drew on those poems’ themes of the insignificance of man in relation to nature, as well as the work of Romantic painters, to guide his illustrations. “I’ve always been in love with J. M. W. Turner’s landscapes,” says Guatieri. “I wanted to emulate some of his style, but with a sci-fi twist.”

With the game’s unusual premise, it’s no surprise that Elegy has attracted a slightly different gaming audience. “The people who play this are largely people who don’t play games,” says Lambe. “There are no mechanics, there’s nothing to really overcome, so the people who play tend to be a little older than the average gamer audience. The ones who really dig into it tend to be very thoughtful.” Even so, while Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal don’t publicly share their sales figures, Lambe reports that sales for Elegy have been comparable to their more traditional offerings. While other studios have produced storytelling games—Protagonist Labs, for example, is set to release a collaborative storytelling game called Storium later this year—few games are so explicitly focused on writing or so thematically linked to literature.

Educators have also responded positively to Elegy, with more than two hundred elementary schools, high schools, and colleges throughout the world using the game to teach creative writing, language skills, and English as a Second Language. As one of its fund-raising pledges, the Elegy team also donated the game to more than sixty schools in fourteen countries, as distant as Brazil and Norway. In the future, the founders hope to tailor it to be more suitable for schools by adding new writing prompts and developing an offline version.

For now, Lambe and Scott are happy with how people have latched on to the game. Lambe tells the story of a player who found herself in tears after she used the game to write a letter to her grandfather who had died a few years earlier. Lambe says, “This is something that I’ve always wanted to do in my career in development: to build a game that creates an emotional reaction to something and does so in a participatory way.” Scott, meanwhile, hopes Elegy will empower people to write. “A game is when a player comes to something with a willingness to overcome unnecessary obstacles,” he says. “I think that’s something that can also be true of creative writing. Unless someone is holding a gun to your head it’s probably an unnecessary obstacle to write something. But you want to. And you’re trying really hard and applying yourself to do that. I think that’s where writing and games meet.”

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

 

 

 

The Written Image: Make/Shift

by

Staff

6.12.19

Books typically might seem out of place at a runway show, but at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s Couture Night in April, one book had a moment in the spotlight. In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of indie publisher Sarabande Books and its Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature, designer Andrea Hansen used copies of Joe Sacksteder’s recently published story collection, Make/Shift, to create a couture dress, which she then modeled herself at the show. Challenging herself to transform the stiff materials of books into something soft and flowing, Hansen turned the books’ pages and covers into a feathered skirt and woven bodice. She then made erasure poems out of the text on the skirt’s feathers. “Making the gown was a cathartic process,” she says. “I’ve shared a bit of my own story within Joe’s.” Since the show, the dress has been displayed at the Kentucky Derby and at other Sarabande events.

Andrea Hansen

(Credit: Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft)

The Written Image: Library of the Infinitesimally Small and Unimaginably Large

by

Staff

6.14.17

In her ongoing project “Library of the Infinitesimally Small and Unimaginably Large,” South African artist Barbara Wildenboer (barbarawildenboer.com) transforms old reference books into intricate, fantastical pieces of art, like the one above, “Atlas (Parallel Universe).” Wildenboer, who started the project in 2009, takes found books—dictionaries, atlases, psychology manuals, astronomy and gardening books—and lays them out flat, then cuts their pages into hundreds of tiny tendril-like shapes. The symmetrical patterns of the pieces are reminiscent of other scientific phenomena: A book on biological psychology looks like a set of nerves, a dictionary suggests a pair of feathery wings, and a book on vertebrate morphology calls to mind rivulets of blood. “The intention is to draw emphasis to our understanding of history as mediated through text or language and our understanding of the abstract terms of science through metaphor,” Wildenboer writes on her website. Wildenboer’s work includes a broad range of sculpture, collage, and photography that has been exhibited around the world, including galleries in South Africa, Jordan, and Hong Kong. She recently held a solo exhibition, The Invisible Gardener, a collection of paper sculptures and other pieces, at the Everard Read/CIRCA Cape Town gallery.

The Written Image: Imagine Wanting Only This

by

Staff

4.12.17

“Someday there will be nothing left that you have touched,” writes Kristen Radtke in her debut graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, published in April by Pantheon Books. Throughout the book, Radtke examines ideas of loss and decay as she travels around the world exploring ruined places after the sudden death of a beloved uncle from a rare genetic heart disease. With evocative black-and-white illustrations, Radtke explores the many ways in which ruin can pervade a life, whether it be mold creeping up the walls of a dilapidated Chicago apartment or the degeneration of the body through illness. “Anything we build will eventually crumble and decay,” she wrote in an e-mail to Poets & Writers Magazine. “It’s something I’ve come to find comfort in—that things we cherish can be both lasting and ephemeral.”

The Written Image: B. A. Van Sise’s Children of Grass

by

Staff

2.15.17

In his ongoing series Children of Grass, artist B. A. Van Sise photographs American poets who are influenced by Walt Whitman. Each photo is based on a poem—the one below of Nikki Giovanni is inspired by her poem “Allowables”—and a concept developed by Van Sise in collaboration with the poet. Van Sise, who also happens to be one of Whitman’s closest living descendants, hopes to photograph eighty poets, and since he began the project in Spring 2016, he has featured more than twenty-five, including Robert Hass, Rita Dove, Ada Limón, Robert Pinsky, and Cornelius Eady. The project can be viewed on Van Sise’s Instagram account, @b.a.vansise.

 

The Written Image: The Art of the Affair

Creative people are drawn to each other, as notorious for falling in love as they are for driving each other insane,” writes novelist Catherine Lacey in her latest book, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence. “Seen a certain way, the history of art and literature is a history of all this love.” Throughout the book, out this month from Bloomsbury, Lacey maps many romantic entanglements, collaborations, and friendships between some of the most famous writers and artists of the twentieth century. Accompanied by Forsyth Harmon’s vivid watercolors of each writer and artist, the book spans many disciplines, with anecdotes about the legendary salons of Gertrude Stein, the modern-dance luminaries Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and denizens of the jazz world of Ella Fitzgerald.  

       Caroline Blackwood                      Robert Lowell                         Elizabeth Hardwick

Lacey excavated these connections by reading artist biographies, obituaries, articles, and letters. While many of the liaisons discussed in the book are well known—like the fraught affair between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas and the rocky marriage between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald—Lacey also constellates seemingly disparate sets of artists whose lives happened to intersect: how, for instance, Pablo Picasso once met and drew on the hands of the heiress and writer Caroline Blackwood (above left), who later fell in love with the poet Robert Lowell (center), who then divorced the writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (right), who once profiled the singer Billie Holiday, who in turn had an affair with the filmmaker Orson Welles, and so on. The book is a reminder that art is not created in a vacuum, but arises out of the chemistry, envy, and camaraderie among those who love and create it.

The Written Image: Jennifer Collier

by

Staff

2.10.15

For more than fifteen years, English artist Jennifer Collier (jennifercollier.co.uk) has crafted whimsical sculptures of household items out of books and papers salvaged from flea markets and thrift shops. “The papers themselves serve as both the inspiration and the media for my work,” Collier writes in a note on her website, “with the narrative of the books and papers suggesting the forms.”

Some of Collier’s pieces include a pair of stilettos made from the pages of Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel Little Women (pictured above), an apron and pair of long-sleeved gloves fashioned from the illustrated text of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and a sewing machine constructed entirely of old dressmaking patterns. With her work, Collier hopes to “give new life to things that would otherwise go unloved or [get] thrown away” and embraces accidents as part of the artistic process. In a recent interview with the Make It in Design blog, she said, “I enjoy nothing more than finding a cookbook splattered with food stains or a water-damaged paperback that I can save from a landfill and transform into something beautiful.” Collier looks to literature for ideas, citing Jeanette Winterson’s novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as the inspiration for one of her first shows in 1999 at Manchester Metropolitan University. Collier premiered a new exhibit last summer in her studio in Stafford, England, titled “A Room With a View” after E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The exhibit consisted of a room outfitted solely with paper objects, including armchairs, lampshades, a dustpan and brush, a vacuum cleaner, and flowerpots. Collier creates works on commission and has exhibitions opening this month in Alkersum, Germany, and in Antrim, Northern Ireland. 

Art: courtesy of Jennifer Collier.

The Written Image: Cara Barer

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the Information Age we might find our homes crowded with reference books we no longer use—a phone book, a set of encyclopedias, a long-outdated computer manual. Rather than throwing away such books, Houston artist Cara Barer has transformed them into a new form of art. Since the early 2000s, Barer has been turning books into sculptures, creating intricate radial patterns from their pages and spines that she then dyes and photographs. “Books, physical objects and repositories of information, are being displaced by zeros and ones in a digital universe with no physicality,” writes Barer on her website (carabarer.com). “Through my art, I document this and raise questions about the fragile and ephemeral nature of books and their future.” The project is ongoing, and Barer, who has shown her work in galleries and museums across the United States, will open a new exhibit in June at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco.

The Written Image: Mira Jacob’s Good Talk

by

Staff

2.13.19

It’s a complicated thing, talking,” says Mira Jacob, whose graphic memoir, Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations, comes out in March from One World. “Social media has us believing that the only conversations worth having are the ones that affirm us, the ones we can align ourselves with by clicking Like. Meanwhile most of us are pretty clumsy when we’re trying to talk. We say too much or too little or the wrong thing entirely.” The tricky art of conversation is on full display in Good Talk, which depicts several of Jacob’s conversations with her inquisitive six-year-old son, who is both Jewish and Indian American. Her son’s questions—Was Michael Jackson brown or was he white? Is it bad to be brown? Are white people afraid of brown people?—cut to the heart of many issues concerning race, family, parenthood, and America.

With humor and a willingness to examine her own beliefs, Jacob explores how people struggle to speak to one another about hard topics. “I’m hoping readers will leave the book thinking about their own conversations,” she says, “the ones that have formed them, the ones they’ve only ever had in their imaginations, the ones they might need to have, the ones they might need to open themselves up to.” 

The Written Image: Are You My Mother?

by

Staff

5.1.12

This month, artist and author Alison Bechdel follows up her best-selling, National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), a coming-of-age story centered on Bechdel’s relationship with her late father, with a memoir focused on the other half of her parentage, Are You My Mother? In her new “metabook,” also published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bechdel investigates her mother’s life—and the aspirations and wounds the two women share—from every accessible angle, using recorded conversations, recollected therapy sessions, photographs and documents, and renderings of dreams and memories as the connective tissue of the narrative. The author weaves literary allusions into the memoir

as well: The panels above, which are preceded in the book by a flashback into the imagined world of Virginia Woolf, capture a slice of phone conversation that begins when Bechdel’s mother mentions she’s been reading Sylvia Plath’s diaries. While the most immediate aspect of Bechdel’s work is indeed visual, the dual processes of her storytelling—writing and drawing—are inextricably intertwined. “I’m conceiving of the page in terms of images and design at the same time that I’m writing the narration and the dialogue,” she writes in a note on her artistic process that accompanied prepublication copies of Are You My Mother? For a more detailed look at Bechdel’s graphic and textual oeuvre, visit the author’s website, dykestowatchoutfor.com.

Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World

by

Staff

1.1.10

Fearless, inventive, persistent, beautiful,
or just plain badass—here are some of the living authors who shake us awake,
challenge our ideas of who we are, embolden our actions, and, above all,
inspire us to live life more fully and creatively. Add your favorites to the
list in the comments section below.

Chinua
Achebe

The best-selling Nigerian novelist sets
universal tales of personal and moral struggle in the context of the tragic
drama of colonization.

André Aciman
An uprooted Alexandrian
Jew, Aciman is a writer whose careful reflections, couched in dense and
unapologetic prose, unfurl like lifelines flung out to all the world’s
wanderers.

Uwem
Akpan

His is the perfect story line: Jesuit priest
from Nigeria becomes a best-selling, Oprah-chosen author. “I was inspired to
write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after
Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humor and endurance of the poor,” he
writes on his Web site.

Elizabeth
Alexander

There was too much chatter about the quality
of the poem. What matters is that she was up there reading it—a poem!—on the
biggest and most inspiring stage in recent history.

Aharon Appelfeld
As William Giraldi wrote, he is “a man for whom
language is dangerous, a man who measures every word because every word is
sacred.”

John
Ashbery

One of the best and most enduring poets that
this country is lucky enough to have. Period.

Alison
Bechdel

The graphic memoirist shows us that perhaps
the truest way to make sense of memory is by investigating the pictures of our
past (both physical and mental).

T.
C. Boyle

He’s like Santa Claus, only thinner. You can
count on a damn good book of fiction under the tree every year.

Anne
Carson

She was bending genres like silly straws long
before it was fashionable or commercially successful to do so. Plus, she’s
probably the smartest author we know.

Kang Chol-Hwan
His memoir,
The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was the first account of North Korea’s gulag
system by someone who had survived it.

Susanna Clarke
She took one of the
staples of fantasy writing, the magician, and turned it into a high literary
epic, removing Jonathan Strange
and Mr. Norrell
from the confines of genre entirely.

Billy Collins
He’s made accessible a dirty word by
celebrating the poetic pleasures and small comforts of ordinary life in a way
that encourages us to celebrate them too.

Joan
Didion

Check for the pulse of anyone who wasn’t deeply moved by The Year of
Magical Thinking
. Didion’s simple, unsentimental prose is
pure inspirational power.

Katherine Dunn
It’s been more than
twenty years since she introduced us to Arturo the Aquaboy, Ephy and Elly the
twins, and Oly the albino hunchback, but we’ll gladly wait another twenty for
anything approaching the genius of Geek
Love
.

Cornelius
Eady and Toi Derricotte

Two poets, two words: Cave Canem. The fact
that they have eleven poetry collections between them is icing on the cake.

Dave
Eggers

From A
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
to McSweeney’s
to 826 National to Where the Wild Things Are. He might just be the hardest-working writer in publishing.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The last Bohemian. A
cofounder of City Lights Bookstore. Publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl—and defendant in the
obscenity trial that ensued. Author of A
Coney Island of the Mind
. His audience treats him like a rock star.
Because he is one.

Donald
Hall

The image of the eighty-one-year-old on the
cover of Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in
Poetry
pretty much says it all.

Kathryn Harrison
It takes courage to
write The Kiss. Plain
and simple.

Brenda Hillman
Reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich
is also the language we use to make art. Her environmental concerns prove
writers can offer more than just aesthetic pleasure.

Duong
Thu Huong

A former member of the Vietnamese Communist
Party, Duong, especially in No Man’s Land, reassures us that beauty tends to be oblivious to the threats of thugs.

Philip Levine
He conveys and
memorializes the struggles of the American working class in a way that is
authentic, heartfelt, and all too rare in contemporary poetry.

Jill
Magi

Her grassroots efforts to build community
through a micropublishing model prove that you don’t need a lot of money to
make an impact.

Gabriel García Márquez
He makes the most
magical of circumstances believable. And this nonsense that he’s finished with
writing? Don’t believe it.

Cormac
McCarthy

He made it okay for literary snobs to read
bloody westerns and postapocalyptic thrillers.

Pat Mora
The feminist poet and
founder of Día de los Niños/Día de los Libros is also an energetic advocate in
the bilingual community.

Toni
Morrison

A portrait of strength and beauty, the 1993
Nobel laureate writes utterly compelling novels about the whole arc of American
experience.

Haruki Murakami
He consistently
demonstrates how far the narrative form can bend and proves that a story with
surrealist tendencies can be both moving and compelling.

Barack Obama
Let’s never forget that
our first African American president is also a best-selling author.

Tim
O’Brien

In The Things
They Carried
, he gave us the ultimate meditation on war,
memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

Lucia
Perillo

Stares down multiple sclerosis and laughs in
its face. Plus, anyone who has the guts to title a book of poems Inseminating the Elephant has our vote.

Salvador Plascencia
Reminiscent of another
inspirational figure, Roberto Bolaño, Plascencia alters our experience of the
text and challenges our associations of symbol and meaning by incorporating
drawings, figures, and text objects into his writing.

Reynolds Price
The Southern poet,
novelist, and memoirist has done some of his best work after becoming a
paraplegic following surgery in the 1980s to remove a spinal cord tumor.

Thomas Pynchon
He’s like Proust. We
could live our whole lives and never read Gravity’s
Rainbow
…and still be inspired by it.

David
Rhodes

He may have been down, but he’s never been
out. The author of Driftless still has a glimmer in his eye when he talks about motorcycles.

Marilynne
Robinson

She proves that great art takes time. With
the publication of Gilead, we were
reminded that twenty-four years isn’t too long to wait for a novel.

Salman
Rushdie

Possession of The
Satanic Verses
will still get you arrested in much of the
Muslim world. It’s probably worth it.

Kay
Ryan

The quietness and measured quality of her
poetry also informs her lifestyle: As both a runner and cyclist, she
establishes a balance between the heady work of writing and the need of the
body to do its own work.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
His novels contain
heartbreakingly honest and unsentimental portraits of people struggling with
such traumas as alcoholism and sexual molestation.

J. D. Salinger
He found a way to write
characters, dialogue, and scenes that seem effortless. And he’s managed to stay
hidden for decades—how is that even possible in the twenty-first century?

Frederick
Seidel

Sure he’s filthy rich, but the man knows how
to spend his money. He owns four Ducati motorcycles and he writes poems about
them (probably while wearing a suit).

Floyd
Skloot

Despite virus-induced brain damage, he writes
with surprising tenderness and candor about recreating a life for himself and,
in the process, makes us think about our own.

Wole Soyinka
The first black writer
to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he’s written in nearly ever genre while
relentlessly pursuing freedom in his homeland of Nigeria.

Ruth
Stone

Six years ago, when she was a mere
eighty-nine years old, the poet was quoted in our pages as saying, “You have to
allow yourself to take joy. Otherwise, you’re no good to anyone.”

Wisława
Szymborska

The most famous living poet in Poland proves
that quality is more important than quantity. The eighty-six-year-old Nobel
laureate has published no more than 250 poems.

Gay Talese
The New Journalism.

Elie Wiesel
“I was the accuser, God
the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world
without God and without man.” —from the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s memoir Night.

C.
D. Wright

She’s a true original, who manages to be odd, beautiful,
tough as nails, and wonderfully inventive all in the same poetic line.

Authors who would have
made the list had we compiled it a little over a year ago: Jim Carroll, Frank McCourt, Reginald Shepherd, John Updike, David Foster Wallace.

We’ve shared our list. Now we want to hear from you: Which authors inspire you most?

Post a comment and let us know. 

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

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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

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“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

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“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

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“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: 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.”

The Written Image: Jane Mount’s “Bibliophile”

by

Staff

8.15.18

The goal of this book is to triple the size of your To Be Read pile,” writes illustrator Jane Mount in the introduction to Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, published this month by Chronicle Books. It is sure to do just that: The book is chock-full of Mount’s colorful illustrations of volumes to read and bookstores to visit—including BooksActually in Singapore, below, which is watched over by Cake, one of the shop’s resident cats—as well as notes, literary trivia, quizzes, and quotes from writers. Bibliophile also features Mount’s illustrations of rows and stacks of books, which were the subject of My Ideal Bookshelf (Little, Brown, 2012) and which she paints on commission (www.idealbookshelf.com).

The Written Image: Kerry Mansfield’s “Expired”

by

Staff

6.13.18

Ever since she unearthed an old library checkout card tucked into the back of a book in a Goodwill store several years ago, San Francisco artist Kerry Mansfield has collected hundreds of old library books and stored them in her studio, which she calls “the wayward home for ex-library books.” In 2013 Mansfield began documenting the books in her ongoing project “Expired” (kerrymansfield.com/expiredportfolio), which features photos of books against simple black backgrounds. “I tend to anthropomorphize the books since each one has its own character and damaged beauty,” says Mansfield. “Each one shares the stories not only written on the pages, but through pen markings, coffee splatters, filled-in checkout cards, or yellowed tape stretching the book’s life out before its demise.” Mansfield, who in October self-published Expired, a book of 175 photos from the project, selects books that have a story behind them. “What may look like a simple checkout card actually maps one kindergartner’s love of a book through several years, expressed by the improving quality of her handwriting over time,” she says. “I look for books that have a deep sense of history via travel, time, and readers combined.” Mansfield still has more than eighty books to photograph, which she plans to feature in a second collection.

The Written Image: “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso

by

Staff

4.11.18

At first glance, Nick Drnaso’s second graphic novel, Sabrina—which begins when its title character, a young woman living in Chicago, goes missing—might seem like a mystery. But after Sabrina’s disappearance is picked up by both the media and conspiracy theorists, the book quickly becomes much more—namely, an exploration of what privacy and grief look like in the Internet age. Sabrina, which is out this month from Montreal comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, braids the narratives of three characters who grow more isolated and paranoid as they struggle to address Sabrina’s disappearance.

Drnaso deftly contrasts the fear and heartbreak of the story with his understated style of illustration—muted colors, clean lines, and unshaded images reminiscent of Chris Ware’s work—while amplifying the sense of loneliness and entrapment. The characters, for instance, often appear expressionless and are almost never depicted talking to one another in the same frame. Drnaso used the same approach in his first graphic novel, Beverly (Drawn & Quarterly, 2016), which offered a similarly nuanced view of American suburbia. In a 2016 interview with the Comics Journal about that book, Drnaso said of his style, “I’ve fully embraced rigidity. There’s simplicity in it, I think. At a certain point I realized that stripping away was more effective than going in and adding things….I wanted to tear things down to their essence.”

The Written Image: The Little Book of Feminist Saints

by

Staff

2.14.18

Modeled after a Catholic saint-a-day book, The Little Book of Feminist Saints draws together the stories of a hundred women—scientists, activists, artists, engineers, civil servants, entertainers, and others—who have changed the world. “I would argue that all the women in this book have done something with their lives that makes them worthy idols,” writes author Julia Pierpont in the book’s introduction. “So let this be the little, secular book of feminist saints.” 

Illustrated by Manjit Thapp and released this month by Random House—which published Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, in 2015—The Little Book of Feminist Saints offers brief descriptions of women throughout history, from Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician and philosopher living in the fourth century, to poet Forugh Farrokhzad (above left), who spoke out against the repression of women in Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age seventeen. Each “saint” is also assigned a Feast Day and title: Valentine’s Day is the Feast Day of ancient Greek poet Sappho (above right), dubbed the “Matron Saint of Lovers”; June 14 is the Feast Day for the Mirabal sisters, the “Matron Saints of Rebels,” who led the Fourteenth of June Movement against the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960; and April 15 is the Feast Day for the Brontë sisters, the “Matron Saints of Dreamers,” since it is also the birthday of their mother, Maria Branwell. While the women vary widely in their pursuits and beliefs, they seem to share a determination, as Wilma Mankiller, the book’s “Matron Saint of Leadership,” once said, to “take risks [and] stand up for the things they believe in.”

The Written Image: The Poets Series

by

Staff

12.13.17

Poets have long drawn inspiration from visual art, from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Canadian painter and poet Melanie Janisse-Barlow is turning the tables on this tradition with her Poets Series project (www.poets-series-project.com), a collection of painted portraits of contemporary poets. Inspired by Ann Mikolowski, who painted portraits of poets in Detroit, Janisse-Barlow started her project three years ago and has since painted nearly eighty poets from North America, including Hoa Nguyen and Christian Bok (both pictured below), as well as Matthew Rohrer, Jordan Abel, and Claudia Rankine. Each poet selects an image to be painted—a traditional headshot or a broader interpretation of a portrait; for example, poet Anna Vitale sent a photo of the school she attended in Detroit—and Janisse-Barlow then reads some of the poet’s work before painting the portrait. While she initially chose her subjects, Janisse-Barlow now asks each poet she paints to choose the next poet for the series. The result is a map of portraits that trace a network of poetic influence and friendship. “I wanted the series to grow itself and expand and form along its own trajectories,” says Janisse-Barlow. “I have nothing but respect for the beautiful and challenging work of making poetry. Who better to celebrate than those who dedicate themselves to the reachings of language and ideas?”

The Written Image: David Sedaris Diaries

by

Staff

10.11.17

From his first “diary” (a Kodak film box stuffed full of ephemera from his travels through the U.S. Pacific Northwest, collected in 1977) to more recent notebooks of art, writings, mementos, and postcards, writer and humorist David Sedaris has kept 153 diaries in the past forty years. In May Little, Brown published Theft by Finding, a selection of text from the diaries, and in October followed it up with David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium. Edited and photographed by artist Jeffrey Jenkins, a childhood friend of Sedaris’s from their days in a Boy Scout troop, the book includes photos and cutout images from Sedaris’s layered and collage-like diaries.

The collection shows Sedaris’s skill as an artist; Jenkins says he was surprised by the “visual, interactive nature of the diaries themselves—the fact that every time you turn a page or element in the diary, it may reveal and reframe all of the pages below it into something new and different.” Jenkins also notes how thorough and disciplined Sedaris is in keeping a diary; in his introduction to the book, Sedaris admits it’s an unshakable habit and cops to obsessively going through the trash while out on walks so he can look for ephemera. The visual diaries embody the same talent Sedaris displays in his writing: the ability to transform what others might discard as trivial—whether a stray comment overheard on the subway or a luggage tag pulled from the garbage—into something humorous or arresting. And the diaries offer more than just insight into Sedaris’s work—they serve as proof that writing, or visual art, or even just keeping a diary, revolves around paying attention and finding that anything, no matter how small, is fair game for inspiration.

 

Photo by David Hamsley.

The Written Image: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere

by

Staff

8.16.17

Neil Gaiman’s first solo novel, Neverwhere, takes place in a shadowy underground world filled with a fantastical set of characters: an elfin young woman with a magical power to open doors, an imperious marquis inspired by Puss in Boots, a man who speaks to rats (pictured below), and a pair of slimy assassins, to name a few. A new edition of the novel—published last year in the United Kingdom and this month in the United States by William Morrow—brings these characters to life with artwork by illustrator and U.K. children’s laureate Chris Riddell, whose black-and-white illustrations take up full pages and adorn the margins of the text. “One hopes it creates a mood—it’s a little bit like some good stage lighting,” Riddell says in a video filmed by the U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones, adding that the illustrations help the reader “concentrate on the very heart of the book, which of course are the words.” Gaiman originally published the book in the United Kingdom in 1996 as a novelization of a BBC television miniseries of the same name. The new edition, the author’s preferred text, also includes an alternative scene and an additional short story about one of the characters. “I wanted to talk about the people who fall through the cracks,” writes Gaiman in the book’s introduction. “To talk about the dispossessed, using the mirror of fantasy, which can sometimes show us things we have seen so many times that we never see them at all, for the very first time.”

 
(Illustrations copyright © 2016 Chris Riddell, from “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell.)

The Written Image: Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere

by

Staff

8.16.17

Neil Gaiman’s first solo novel, Neverwhere, takes place in a shadowy underground world filled with a fantastical set of characters: an elfin young woman with a magical power to open doors, an imperious marquis inspired by Puss in Boots, a man who speaks to rats (pictured below), and a pair of slimy assassins, to name a few. A new edition of the novel—published last year in the United Kingdom and this month in the United States by William Morrow—brings these characters to life with artwork by illustrator and U.K. children’s laureate Chris Riddell, whose black-and-white illustrations take up full pages and adorn the margins of the text. “One hopes it creates a mood—it’s a little bit like some good stage lighting,” Riddell says in a video filmed by the U.K. bookstore chain Waterstones, adding that the illustrations help the reader “concentrate on the very heart of the book, which of course are the words.” Gaiman originally published the book in the United Kingdom in 1996 as a novelization of a BBC television miniseries of the same name. The new edition, the author’s preferred text, also includes an alternative scene and an additional short story about one of the characters. “I wanted to talk about the people who fall through the cracks,” writes Gaiman in the book’s introduction. “To talk about the dispossessed, using the mirror of fantasy, which can sometimes show us things we have seen so many times that we never see them at all, for the very first time.”

 
(Illustrations copyright © 2016 Chris Riddell, from “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell.)

The Written Image: David Sedaris Diaries

by

Staff

10.11.17

From his first “diary” (a Kodak film box stuffed full of ephemera from his travels through the U.S. Pacific Northwest, collected in 1977) to more recent notebooks of art, writings, mementos, and postcards, writer and humorist David Sedaris has kept 153 diaries in the past forty years. In May Little, Brown published Theft by Finding, a selection of text from the diaries, and in October followed it up with David Sedaris Diaries: A Visual Compendium. Edited and photographed by artist Jeffrey Jenkins, a childhood friend of Sedaris’s from their days in a Boy Scout troop, the book includes photos and cutout images from Sedaris’s layered and collage-like diaries.

The collection shows Sedaris’s skill as an artist; Jenkins says he was surprised by the “visual, interactive nature of the diaries themselves—the fact that every time you turn a page or element in the diary, it may reveal and reframe all of the pages below it into something new and different.” Jenkins also notes how thorough and disciplined Sedaris is in keeping a diary; in his introduction to the book, Sedaris admits it’s an unshakable habit and cops to obsessively going through the trash while out on walks so he can look for ephemera. The visual diaries embody the same talent Sedaris displays in his writing: the ability to transform what others might discard as trivial—whether a stray comment overheard on the subway or a luggage tag pulled from the garbage—into something humorous or arresting. And the diaries offer more than just insight into Sedaris’s work—they serve as proof that writing, or visual art, or even just keeping a diary, revolves around paying attention and finding that anything, no matter how small, is fair game for inspiration.

 

Photo by David Hamsley.

The Written Image: The Poets Series

by

Staff

12.13.17

Poets have long drawn inspiration from visual art, from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Canadian painter and poet Melanie Janisse-Barlow is turning the tables on this tradition with her Poets Series project (www.poets-series-project.com), a collection of painted portraits of contemporary poets. Inspired by Ann Mikolowski, who painted portraits of poets in Detroit, Janisse-Barlow started her project three years ago and has since painted nearly eighty poets from North America, including Hoa Nguyen and Christian Bok (both pictured below), as well as Matthew Rohrer, Jordan Abel, and Claudia Rankine. Each poet selects an image to be painted—a traditional headshot or a broader interpretation of a portrait; for example, poet Anna Vitale sent a photo of the school she attended in Detroit—and Janisse-Barlow then reads some of the poet’s work before painting the portrait. While she initially chose her subjects, Janisse-Barlow now asks each poet she paints to choose the next poet for the series. The result is a map of portraits that trace a network of poetic influence and friendship. “I wanted the series to grow itself and expand and form along its own trajectories,” says Janisse-Barlow. “I have nothing but respect for the beautiful and challenging work of making poetry. Who better to celebrate than those who dedicate themselves to the reachings of language and ideas?”

The Written Image: The Little Book of Feminist Saints

by

Staff

2.14.18

Modeled after a Catholic saint-a-day book, The Little Book of Feminist Saints draws together the stories of a hundred women—scientists, activists, artists, engineers, civil servants, entertainers, and others—who have changed the world. “I would argue that all the women in this book have done something with their lives that makes them worthy idols,” writes author Julia Pierpont in the book’s introduction. “So let this be the little, secular book of feminist saints.” 

Illustrated by Manjit Thapp and released this month by Random House—which published Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, in 2015—The Little Book of Feminist Saints offers brief descriptions of women throughout history, from Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician and philosopher living in the fourth century, to poet Forugh Farrokhzad (above left), who spoke out against the repression of women in Iran in the 1950s and 1960s, to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age seventeen. Each “saint” is also assigned a Feast Day and title: Valentine’s Day is the Feast Day of ancient Greek poet Sappho (above right), dubbed the “Matron Saint of Lovers”; June 14 is the Feast Day for the Mirabal sisters, the “Matron Saints of Rebels,” who led the Fourteenth of June Movement against the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1960; and April 15 is the Feast Day for the Brontë sisters, the “Matron Saints of Dreamers,” since it is also the birthday of their mother, Maria Branwell. While the women vary widely in their pursuits and beliefs, they seem to share a determination, as Wilma Mankiller, the book’s “Matron Saint of Leadership,” once said, to “take risks [and] stand up for the things they believe in.”

The Written Image: “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso

by

Staff

4.11.18

At first glance, Nick Drnaso’s second graphic novel, Sabrina—which begins when its title character, a young woman living in Chicago, goes missing—might seem like a mystery. But after Sabrina’s disappearance is picked up by both the media and conspiracy theorists, the book quickly becomes much more—namely, an exploration of what privacy and grief look like in the Internet age. Sabrina, which is out this month from Montreal comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, braids the narratives of three characters who grow more isolated and paranoid as they struggle to address Sabrina’s disappearance.

Drnaso deftly contrasts the fear and heartbreak of the story with his understated style of illustration—muted colors, clean lines, and unshaded images reminiscent of Chris Ware’s work—while amplifying the sense of loneliness and entrapment. The characters, for instance, often appear expressionless and are almost never depicted talking to one another in the same frame. Drnaso used the same approach in his first graphic novel, Beverly (Drawn & Quarterly, 2016), which offered a similarly nuanced view of American suburbia. In a 2016 interview with the Comics Journal about that book, Drnaso said of his style, “I’ve fully embraced rigidity. There’s simplicity in it, I think. At a certain point I realized that stripping away was more effective than going in and adding things….I wanted to tear things down to their essence.”

The Written Image: My Ideal Bookshelf

by

Staff

10.31.12

The assignment, notes the preface to My Ideal Bookshelf, was simple: “Select a small shelf of books that represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites.” Artist Jane Mount and editor Thessaly La Force solicited ideas for more than a hundred such bookshelves from creative people around the world—writers, artists, musicians, designers, and pursuers of every discipline in between—to create the new collection of art and essays, published this month by Little, Brown. Each shelf displays the spines of loved, inspiring, and influential books—some aligned neatly, some stacked askew—all hand-illustrated and painted by Mount, and each accompanied by an essay from its contributor.

Pictured above are the dream shelves of writers Mary Karr (top), who felt “less like a weirdo” after reading The House at Pooh Corner and more proud of her roots because of To Kill a Mockingbird, and George Saunders, who, as a geo-physicist fresh out of college, spent long stretches in the Sumatran jungle during which he first discovered, and then devoured, Chekov, Kerouac, and Steinbeck. To commission your own ideal bookshelf, visit www.idealbookshelf.com.

The Written Image: Kerry Mansfield’s “Expired”

by

Staff

6.13.18

Ever since she unearthed an old library checkout card tucked into the back of a book in a Goodwill store several years ago, San Francisco artist Kerry Mansfield has collected hundreds of old library books and stored them in her studio, which she calls “the wayward home for ex-library books.” In 2013 Mansfield began documenting the books in her ongoing project “Expired” (kerrymansfield.com/expiredportfolio), which features photos of books against simple black backgrounds. “I tend to anthropomorphize the books since each one has its own character and damaged beauty,” says Mansfield. “Each one shares the stories not only written on the pages, but through pen markings, coffee splatters, filled-in checkout cards, or yellowed tape stretching the book’s life out before its demise.” Mansfield, who in October self-published Expired, a book of 175 photos from the project, selects books that have a story behind them. “What may look like a simple checkout card actually maps one kindergartner’s love of a book through several years, expressed by the improving quality of her handwriting over time,” she says. “I look for books that have a deep sense of history via travel, time, and readers combined.” Mansfield still has more than eighty books to photograph, which she plans to feature in a second collection.

The Written Image: Jane Mount’s “Bibliophile”

by

Staff

8.15.18

The goal of this book is to triple the size of your To Be Read pile,” writes illustrator Jane Mount in the introduction to Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany, published this month by Chronicle Books. It is sure to do just that: The book is chock-full of Mount’s colorful illustrations of volumes to read and bookstores to visit—including BooksActually in Singapore, below, which is watched over by Cake, one of the shop’s resident cats—as well as notes, literary trivia, quizzes, and quotes from writers. Bibliophile also features Mount’s illustrations of rows and stacks of books, which were the subject of My Ideal Bookshelf (Little, Brown, 2012) and which she paints on commission (www.idealbookshelf.com).

The Intersection of Art and Literature

by

Megan N. Liberty

10.10.18

When Lisa Pearson was a student in the MFA program in fiction at the University of Oregon, she had trouble finding a place for her type of writing. “My work was influenced by visual artists, filmmakers, and theater,” she says, “but neither the faculty nor my fellow students seemed interested in Sophie Calle, Maya Deren, or Elizabeth LeCompte.” This sparked a question in Pearson: If as a young writer she wanted to create multidisciplinary literature but could find no structure or outlet for it, who else was being similarly held back? “It made me wonder about what kinds of self-censorship writers were inflicting on themselves,” she says. She decided to create a space to encourage and publish work that embraced both literary and visual work.

In 2008 Pearson founded Siglio Press, an independent publisher that carries the motto “Uncommon books at the intersection of art & literature.” Over the past ten years, during which time Pearson moved the press from Los Angeles to New York’s Hudson River Valley, Siglio has published more than two dozen books by image-text pioneers such as Calle, Dick Higgins, and Marcel Broodthaers. Pearson has also brought to light the radical autobiographical drawings, paintings, and recipes of Dorothy Iannone, the handmade stamps of Vincent Sardon, and the intimate sketches, collages, and writings of Robert Seydel, a close friend of hers who died in 2011. This fall Siglio will publish two new titles: Karen Green’s Frail Sister, a “fictional archive of altered photos, letters, collages, and drawings” inspired by Green’s aunt who went missing, and Intermedia, Fluxus and the Something Else Press: Selected Writings by Dick Higgins, edited by Steve Clay and Ken Friedman.

Siglio’s first book, published in 2008, was a collection of poet and visual artist Joe Brainard’s “Nancy” comics. Pearson proposed the idea for The Nancy Book to poet Ron Padgett, Brainard’s artistic and literary executor. “The result surpassed my rising expectations,” says Padgett. “I am so glad to have had the chance to work with [Pearson], and I know Joe would have liked her enormously.” Pearson cites “Brainard’s playfulness, his joy, his sense of wonder” as qualities “even the most serious Siglio books have.” 

Siglio exists not only at the crossroads of words and pictures, but at the intersection of intellect and humor. Titles span categories including artists’ books, poetry, and comics, all while remaining uninhibited by these classifications. “There have been so many cross-genre, inter-media movements in art,” says Elizabeth Zuba, who worked with Pearson on several books as an editor and a translator. “But the purveyors of art and the journalism around it can still be, generally speaking, really shockingly divided by category.” When Zuba was working on a translation of Broodthaers’s poetry and compiling an anthology of Ray Johnson’s writing, she learned of Siglio and recognized it would be the right publisher for both projects. “I knew that I could likely find an art publisher, and maybe I could find a poetry publisher, but I wanted both,” she says. Siglio rejects the assumption that one artistic practice must kneel to the other, and as such its books often highlight the writings of artists known primarily for their visual work, like Broodthaers, and the visuals of artists known mainly for their writings, like Brainard.

Siglio is a “wunderkammer”—in Zuba’s words—a cabinet of curiosities that expands and transforms what is expected of visual-verbal literature, including the assumption that multidisciplinary books should include images. This is seen, for instance, in the novel S P R A W L (2010), by Danielle Dutton, which engages with the photographs of Laura Letinsky. The book doesn’t incorporate the photos themselves but is visually striking in its own way: The 144-page book has no paragraph breaks, with page after page of justified text representing the monotony of suburban life. “I think S P R A W L was in many ways the outlier on the Siglio list, but that made it especially interesting to me,” Dutton says. Every aspect of a Siglio title is unique, from its layout and design to its size and paper texture. The physical objectness of Siglio books is what sets them apart.

“What seemed ‘uncategorizable’ ten years ago has changed, and I’m always pushing to the margins to find what now defies categories and challenges paradigms,” says Pearson, who accepts book query submissions in the summer. In the ten years since Siglio was founded, a number of other publishers, including New Directions, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Semiotext(e), have been producing intersectional, interdisciplinary books. Siglio both contributes to and pushes the limits of this expanded publishing landscape.

“[Siglio books] nurture an audience for these works who will embrace and engage them,” Pearson says, “so that they enter the world as if they were inevitable, even necessary—rather than impossible or improbable.”    

 

Megan N. Liberty is the art books editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Hyperallergic, Art in Print, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter, @meganlib.

Clockwise from top left: An interior image from Frail Sister; the cover of the book by Karen Green; “Untitled (‘The Avant-Garde’), Art News Annual #34,” as it appears in Siglio’s first title, The Nancy Book (2008) by Joe Brainard. 

Classic Meets Graphic

by

Elena Goukassian

10.10.18

In late 2016 artist Fred Fordham was having coffee with his agent. “Glancing around conspiratorially,” Fordham recalls, “she passed me a notebook in which she had written, ‘How would you like to do some sample pages for a graphic novel of To Kill a Mockingbird?’” A few weeks later, Fordham met with the team at Penguin Random House UK, who asked him to adapt and illustrate Harper Lee’s iconic coming-of-age story. The result, To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel, was published in October by Penguin Random House UK and HarperCollins in the United States.

Fordham’s agent may have added a conspiratorial flair to her proposal, but creating a graphic adaptation of a classic text is a fairly common occurrence for major publishers these days. In the past several years, HarperCollins has published graphic editions of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (2010), Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (2010), and Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” (2013). Farrar, Straus and Giroux has tackled the 9/11 Commission Report (2006) and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (2016), while Square Fish, a children’s imprint of Macmillan, has taken on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (2012). There have been graphic versions of Shakespeare’s King Lear (Hachette, 2006), Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Norton, 2015), and Homer’s The Odyssey (Bloomsbury, 2012). Penguin Random House’s graphic novelization of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set to come out in March 2019. And those are just the titles put out by major publishers; many indie houses have been releasing graphic adaptations of classics for years.

In October Pantheon published a graphic edition of The Diary of a Young Girl, reimagined as Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, by Ari Folman and illustrated by David Polonsky. The adaptation of both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of a Young Girl—two of the best-selling books of all time, with forty million and thirty million copies sold, respectively—seems to herald the full arrival of the form. “In the last four or five years, there has been a huge uptick in adaptations,” says Pantheon’s Keith Goldsmith, editor of Anne Frank’s Diary. “We live in a visual culture, and this is building upon that. The genre has really come into its own right.”

In his forty years in publishing, Goldsmith had never edited a graphic book before the Anne Frank Fonds, the Swiss foundation that owns the diary’s copyright, approached him with the project. “The foundation had clearly already spent an immense amount of time making the book with David and Ari,” Goldsmith says. “They did all the heavy lifting.”

In addition to adapting the diary into graphic form, Polonsky and Folman were also commissioned by the foundation to make a movie. (The pair is best known for their 2008 film, Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary of Folman’s harrowing experiences as an Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War.) Polonsky and Folman were given creative freedom to interpret the diary to suit the graphic form, yet they chose to keep Frank’s most memorable, philosophical entries completely intact. “When it is pure literature, I think it would be offensive to translate it into graphic language,” Folman said in an interview with the Anne Frank Fonds. “You have to keep it as in the original.” Other sections were turned into illustrations, drastically shortened, or cut altogether.

Polonsky and Folman also highlight Frank’s sense of humor throughout the book. The character of Mrs. van Daan is often drawn sitting on her prized chamber pot, and her antics are sometimes rendered as melodramatic scenes from contemporaneous films like Gone With the Wind. When the character of Anne compares herself to her perfect older sister, she becomes the horrified subject of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Margot, meanwhile, embodies Gustav Klimt’s golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. “The only people [Anne] could refer to were the people in hiding with her, and the way she observed them was unbelievably intelligent and in many ways funny,” Folman says. “I want to glorify the funny parts in her writing and observations and put them into graphic language as much as I can.”

While Polonsky and Folman found their visual inspiration in Frank’s humor and the popular culture of her time, Fordham drew much of the aesthetic for his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird from Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, spending ten days researching and drawing the town that Lee fictionalized as Maycomb in her novel. “It is striking just how much Lee was writing what she knew,” Fordham says. “The description of the layout of the town, the location of the school, the bend in the road where she places the ‘Radley lot’—it all maps Monroeville as it then was.” In tribute Fordham’s graphic novel is set in a Maycomb that’s the mirror image of Monroeville; the Finch house in the new adaptation is the one where Lee herself grew up. 

Like Polonsky and Folman, Fordham had to drastically cut down the original text. “To Kill a Mockingbird is probably technically easier to adapt to the comics medium than some classics since it has so much rich dialogue,” he says. “And for all the eloquence of Lee’s prose, the story is actually told pretty straight.” Fordham estimates that he ended up using about a quarter of Lee’s novel, “bearing in mind that most of the visual description is translated into drawings.” But 90 percent of the text in the graphic novel, he says, is quoted directly from Lee’s book.

Polonsky, Folman, and Fordham all see themselves less as adapters and more as translators—from text into visual language—who understand that something is always bound to be lost in translation. 

“Some novels will probably lose their essence in the comics medium, and it’s important to be able to recognize this,” Fordham says. “This isn’t due to the unique weaknesses of graphic novels but to the unique strengths of literature. Adapting a classic text solely to, say, make it ‘easier’ to read, will likely end up doing both the original book and the graphic novel form a disservice.” 

 

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her most recent work appears in Atlas Obscura, the Calvert Journal, the Art Newspaper, Artsy, and Hyperallergic.

A scene of Tom Robinson’s trial from To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel.

(Credit: HarperCollins)

A Revolution in Listening

by

Thea Prieto

4.11.18

In 1952 in New York City, Barbara Holdridge and Marianne Roney recorded Dylan Thomas reciting a few of his poems, including the famous villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Released on vinyl later that year, the recording offered a rare chance to hear Thomas, who worked for years as a radio broadcaster, read the poem and its memorable last refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It also marked the launch of Caedmon Records, a label dedicated to restoring the spoken tradition of poetry and stories and creating, as its slogan read, “a third dimension for the printed page.” Caedmon Records became Caedmon Audio when it was acquired by HarperCollins in 1987 and made the switch from vinyl to CDs. To this day, the label is still often credited as having laid the foundation for the audiobook industry.

Caedmon’s vinyl recordings seemed to be a thing of the past until January, when HarperAudio/Caedmon announced a new series of literary vinyl, to be released throughout 2018. The imprint’s first title, a recording of actor Nate Corddry reading Joe Hill’s story “Dark Carousel,” came out in April, and records by Nikki Giovanni, Neil Gaiman, and Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket) will be released later this year.

HarperCollins isn’t the only big publisher to venture into vinyl. In February Hachette Audio launched a new vinyl audiobook series with its first title, David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water. Later this year the imprint will release recordings by David Sedaris, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Amanda Palmer, among others. Both HarperCollins and Hachette are looking to capitalize on the unexpected revival of vinyl in recent years, despite the format’s near-demise in the 1980s with the introduction of CDs. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, revenues from vinyl were as high in 2015 as they were in 1988. Jeff Bowers of Wax, the independent record label partnering with both Hachette Audio and Harper Audio, said in a January press release, “This well-curated, thoughtful series of spoken-word releases is a response to the tremendous growth in audiobooks and vinyl, part of a new moment in what has become a listening revolution.”

In the foreground of this revolution are Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions, independent literary presses committed to recording language on vinyl. Even as music streaming dominates as a listening format, Third Man Books and Fonograf Editions aim for a literary listening experience that is both meaningful and tangible, that necessitates the physicality and fuller sound of a vinyl record. “People were saying fifteen, twenty years ago that records were going to go away,” says Chet Weise, cofounder of Third Man Books. “People said paper books were going to go away too. The craze is settling down, and paper books are still a majority of what people read. There is something to [their] tangibility. It isn’t just rationalizing that these things we love are worth something and should stay around.”

Third Man Books is the partner publisher of Third Man Records, launched in 2001 by multi-Grammy-winning musician Jack White in Detroit. In 2014 Third Man Records claimed the best-selling vinyl album since Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy in 1994 with White’s Lazaretto. The label also boasts “the world’s only live venue with direct-to-acetate recording capabilities” in Nashville, where writers as well as musicians can record their work straight to vinyl. “For me, poetry has to exist in the audio spectrum—got to hear those words with some breath behind them,” says Weise. “It’s music, and if we believe that music sounds best on vinyl and is best presented on vinyl, we’re going to put poetry on vinyl too.”

Third Man Books released its inaugural title, Language Lessons: Volume 1, in 2014, a box set that includes an anthology of contemporary poetry and prose by writers and musicians such as C. D. Wright, Adrian Matejka, Richard Hell, and Tav Falco, plus two vinyl LPs of jazz, psychedelic punk, poetry, blues, and pop, and five poetry broadsides. Since then Third Man Books has maintained a multimedia aesthetic; its April release, Destruction of Man, a book-length poem about farming by Abraham Smith, includes photography and an audio flexi disc of Smith reading his own poetry.

Jeff Alessandrelli, the director of Fonograf Editions, shares Weise’s reverence for literary vinyl. “It allows for a listening experience that is also an emotional experience,” he says. “When I listen to an MP3, I don’t get the same emotional sensation that I get when I listen to a record.”

Fonograf Editions, an imprint of Portland, Oregon–based independent publisher Octopus Books, was established in 2016. Since then the vinyl-only poetry press has quickly garnered national attention by releasing records featuring readings by Rae Armantrout, Eileen Myles, and Alice Notley, who performed her work live in Seattle. Fonograf’s latest record, Harmony Holiday’s The Black Saint and the Sinnerman, released in March, features poetry by Holiday along with music sampled from Charles Mingus’s 1963 album, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

“We live in a digital age, and I think in a lot of ways that’s great; it streamlines a lot of experiences,” says Alessandrelli. “But I think increasingly there’s going to be both the desire and a need for things that are tactile and for things that you can hold on to, and that means something greater than an MP3.” For more and more readers, listeners, record labels, and publishers, that something can be found with a needle traversing the grooves on a vinyl record. 

 

Thea Prieto writes and edits for Portland Review, Propeller Magazine, the Gravity of the Thing, and Oregon Music News. Her website is theaprieto.com.                              

Ten Writers Reading Ten Short Stories for Short Story Month

by

Staff

5.11.17

In celebration of Short Story Month, we’ve assembled ten of our favorite audio recordings of authors reading from story collections featured in Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin over the past five years. All of them were recorded exclusively for Poets & Writers Magazine and illustrate the irresistible and inspiring power of the short form. 

Roxane Gay reads “Florida” from Difficult Women (Grove Press, 2017). 

 

 

Mia Alvar reads “Legends of the White Lady” from In the Country (Knopf, 2015). 

 

 

Kelly Link reads “Light” from Get in Trouble (Random House, 2015). 

 

 

Kyle Minor reads “The Question of Where We Begin” from Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books, 2014). 

 

 

Laura van den Berg reads “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name” from The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). 

 

 

Aimee Bender reads “Appleless” and “Tiger Mending” from The Color Master (Doubleday, 2013). 

 

 

Rebecca Lee reads “Bobcat” from Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 2013). 

 

 

Jessica Francis Kane reads “Lucky Boy” from This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013). 

 

 

Manuel Gonzales reads “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” from The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead Books, 2013). 

 

 

Marie-Helene Bertino reads “Free Ham” from Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press, 2012). 

 

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.12.17

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including Mary Gaitskill’s Somebody With a Little Hammer and Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, for a glimpse into the worlds of these new and noteworthy titles.

“Manacled to a whelm.” Fast (Ecco, May 2017) by Jorie Graham. Fourteenth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Daniel Halpern. Publicist: Martin Wilson.

“On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness.” The Dinner Party (Little, Brown, May 2017) by Joshua Ferris. Fourth book, first story collection. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Reagan Arthur. Publicist: Carrie Neill.

“I’ve been dreaming about my violin.” Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung (Crown Publishing Group, April 2017) by Min Kym. First book, memoir. Agent: Annabel Merullo. Editor: Rachel Klayman. Publicist: Rebecca Welbourn.

“That year, toward the end of my childhood, I was living in Jacmel, a coastal village in Haiti.” Hadriana in All My Dreams (Akashic Books, May 2017) by René Depestre, translated from the French by Kaiama L. Glover. Fifteenth of twenty-seven books, third of four novels. Agent: None. Editor: Johnny Temple. Publicist: Susannah Lawrence.

“Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning.” The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press, April 2017) by Jay Baron Nicorvo. Second book, first novel. Agent: Jennifer Carlson. Editor: Elisabeth Dyssegaard. Publicist: Dori Weintraub.

“Ezinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s affection.” What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (Riverhead, April 2017) by Lesley Nneka Arimah. First book, story collection. Agent: Samantha Shea. Editor: Rebecca Saletan. Publicist: Claire McGinnis.

“I did not have a religious upbringing, and for most of my life I’ve considered that a good thing; I’ve since come to know people who felt nurtured by their religious families, but for a long time, for me, ‘religious upbringing’ meant the two little girls I once walked home with in the fourth grade who, on hearing that I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, began screaming, ‘There’s a sin in your soul! You’re going to Hell!’” Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon Books, April 2017) by Mary Gaitskill. Seventh book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Deborah Garrison. Publicist: Michiko Clark.

“Descending the subway stairs / in a crowd of others, slow / steps, everyone a little / hunched in their coats, probably / as unhappy as I was / to have to go to work.” The Others (Wave Books, May 2017) by Matthew Rohrer. Eighth book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Matthew Zapruder. Publicist: Ryo Yamaguchi.

“I’ll begin our story with that afternoon, after we hadn’t spoken for a year—like so many years when we didn’t speak—when you pulled up next to me on my walk to work and offered me a ride.” Sunshine State (Harper Perennial, April 2017) by Sarah Gerard. Second book, first essay collection. Agent: Adriann Ranta. Editor: Erin Wicks. Publicist: Martin Wilson. 

“It was summer.” Woman No. 17 (Hogarth, May 2017) by Edan Lepucki. Second book, novel. Agent: Erin Hosier. Editor: Lindsay Sagnette. Publicist: Rachel Rokicki.

“Every turning toward is a turning away: / poets have always known the truth / of this.” The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, April 2017) by Craig Morgan Teicher. Fourth book, third poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Peter Conners. Publicist: Ron Martin-Dent.

“When Albert Murray said / the second law adds up to / the blues that in other words / ain’t nothing nothing he meant it” Field Theories (Nightboat Books, April 2017) by Samiya Bashir. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Kazim Ali. Publicist: Lindsey Boldt.

Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin

by

Staff

4.11.18

With so many good books being published every month, some literary titles worth exploring can get lost in the stacks. Page One offers the first lines of a dozen recently released books, including How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee.

“By some concoction of sugar, prescription painkillers, rancor, and cocaine, my father, Gregory Pardlo, Sr., began killing himself after my parents separated in 2007.” Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America (Knopf, April 2018) by Gregory Pardlo. Third book, first memoir. Agent: Rob McQuilkin. Editor: Maria Goldverg. Publicist: Jessica Purcell.

“I am running late for the airport, trying to catch a cab on my street corner.” Look Alive Out There (MCD Books, April 2018) by Sloane Crosley. Fourth book, third essay collection. Agent: Jay Mandel. Editor: Sean McDonald. Publicists: Jeff Seroy and Kimberly Burns.

“Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice fields / and no two brick houses in a row.” Eye Level (Graywolf Press, April 2018) by Jenny Xie. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeff Shotts. Publicist: Caroline Nitz.

“I spent the summer I turned fifteen on an exchange program in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, in Mexico, some three hundred miles north of the Guatemalan Border.” How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, April 2018) by Alexander Chee. Third book, first essay collection. Agent: Jin Auh. Editor: Naomi Gibbs. Publicist: Michelle Triant.

“Strangers are building a new house next door.” Negative Space (New Directions, April 2018) by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika. Eleventh book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Jeffrey Yang. Publicist: Mieke Chew.

“Tucker had been walking for six hours through early morning ground fog that rose in shimmering waves.” Country Dark (Grove Press, April 2018) by Chris Offutt. Seventh book, second novel. Agent: Nicole Aragi. Editor: Amy Hundley. Publicist: John Mark Boling.

“Riley wore blue contact lenses and bleached his hair—which he worked with gel and a blow-dryer and a flatiron some mornings into Sonic the Hedgehog spikes so stiff you could prick your finger on them, and sometimes into a wispy side-swooped bob with long bangs—and he was black.” Heads of the Colored People (37 INK, April 2018) by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. First book, story collection. Agent: Anna Stein. Editor: Dawn Davis. Publicist: Yona Deshommes.

“The book lied.” That Kind of Mother (Ecco, May 2018) by Rumaan Alam. Second book, novel. Agent: Julie Barer. Editor: Megan Lynch. Publicist: Sonya Cheuse.

“It’s a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage.” The Ensemble (Riverhead Books, May 2018) by Aja Gabel. First book, novel. Agent: Andrea Morrison. Editor: Laura Perciasepe. Publicist: Liz Hohenadel.

“Frenching with a mouthful of M&M’s dunno if I feel polluted / or into it—the lights go low across the multiplex Temple of // canoodling and Junk food” Junk (Tin House Books, May 2018) by Tommy Pico. Third book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Tony Perez. Publicist: Sabrina Wise.

“When I was five years old, back when my old man was still sort of around, I watched a promotional video for Disneyland that my mom got in the free box of VHS tapes at the library.” Lawn Boy (Algonquin Books, April 2018) by Jonathan Evison. Fifth book, novel. Agent: Mollie Glick. Editor: Chuck Adams. Publicist: Brooke Csuka.

“There is a hole.” The Dream of Reason (Copper Canyon Press, April 2018) by Jenny George. First book, poetry collection. Agent: None. Editor: Michael Wiegers. Publicist: Laura Buccieri.

The Endangered Poetry Project

by

Maggie Millner

2.14.18

Nearly half the world’s languages are endangered to some extent, with one language becoming extinct roughly every two weeks, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Barring swift revitalization efforts, more than 2,500 of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken in the world today are predicted to disappear by the end of the century. More than two hundred, such as Peru’s Panobo and Angola’s Kwisi languages, have become extinct since 1950.

Losing a language is not like losing a precious ancient artifact, such as a piece of jewelry or a Grecian urn. A language is not a synchronic object, encapsulating a culture at a single moment in time, but rather a dynamic force that binds people together within a shared, ongoing history. When a language vanishes, it takes with it something intrinsic and irreplaceable about human experience in general and a marginalized culture in particular. Chris McCabe, the poetry librarian at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library in London, had this in mind when he launched the Endangered Poetry Project, which seeks to collect poetry written in endangered languages and archive it in the library’s permanent holdings.

McCabe first conceived of the project, which launched in the fall, after coming across a striking bit of literary trivia: Instead of the official Latin expected of him, Dante composed the Divine Comedy in a medieval Tuscan vernacular. “That got me thinking about how many great poems there might be out there in dialects and endangered languages,” says McCabe. “After looking into endangered languages more closely, I realized how many languages are under threat.”

At the time, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library already included poems in more than two hundred languages. Within its first three months, the Endangered Poetry Project had ushered in over a dozen more, including the Shetlandic dialect of Scots as well as Kristang, a severely endangered creole language spoken in Singapore and parts of Malaysia by a community of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent. McCabe and his team crowdsource poems from around the world, and encourage anyone familiar with a well-known poem in an endangered language to submit it through the project’s website (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/endangered-poetry). After collecting both written and audio versions of each poem, staff members at the National Poetry Library then print them on handmade paper and store them in a specially made conservation box. Although the foremost goal of the initiative is to gather poems in their original languages, McCabe also strives to procure English translations whenever possible. There are also plans to make some poems accessible online, and McCabe says that the initiative will “continue in perpetuity to gather poems from languages under risk.”

The fear of losing language—and specifically losing the poetry of a language, which can often help crystallize and communicate the experiential and linguistic information of a given culture—is part of what motivates McCabe, who is also a widely published poet and writer. “Poetry has a place in most cultures and languages where other art forms might not have gained traction,” he says. “This could easily have to do with economic factors—poetry costs nothing to create, especially in oral forms—and also with the fact that when a language comes into existence, it becomes the material for the human imagination to capture events, ideas, and emotions.”

The Endangered Poetry Project owes some of its early success to a rousing inaugural event in October during the fiftieth anniversary of Poetry International, a biennial poetry festival in London founded at the Southbank Centre by poet Ted Hughes in 1967. During the event, called “Seven Thousand Words for Human,” multinational poets Joy Harjo, Nineb Lamassu, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, and Nick Makoha read pieces they had written for the occasion in languages such as the Ugandan Luganda and Muscogee Creek. Southbank Centre translator-in-residence and festival organizer Stephen Watts furnished English translations of each poem, and a member of the public even volunteered to recite a poem in the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian.

Another highlight for McCabe was the moment, a few weeks later, when he received a selection of poet Claude Vigée’s “Schwàrzi Sengessle Flàckere ém Wénd” (“Black Nettles Blaze in the Wind”), a long Alsatian requiem written in tribute to the language, which was banned in schools in the Alsace region after World War II. The poem is special to McCabe because it captures the anguish of losing one’s native tongue: “Our hoarse voices, broken long ago / Suddenly stopped: / Already, on our school bench, / In the thrall of the forceps of language / We felt like tongue-cripples / Tangled up in our songs.”

 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at New York University, where she is pursuing an MFA in poetry. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.

The National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London.

(Credit: India Roper-Evans)

The American Prison Writing Archive

by

Gila Lyons

12.13.17

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Larson, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, first became involved with the incarcerated population when a friend invited him to a discussion group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. Larson listened to men speak about how they were coping with being in prison and was “floored by the honesty and earnestness of those conversations,” he says. A few months later he started a writing group at Attica and became interested in prison writing as a genre. “I spent two summers at the Library of Congress reading all the prison writing I could. I wanted to start an undergraduate course on it. There are a few anthologies of [work by] political prisoners like Martin Luther King Jr. and some small collections from prison writing workshops, but I couldn’t find a wide, national sampling from currently incarcerated people.”

With more than 1,200 essays from people all across the country, the APWA fills that need. The database currently holds three million words’ worth of writing, enough to fill more than eighteen volumes the size of Fourth City, which is a hefty 338 pages. “While reading individual essays can be moving and inspiring, it’s reading in the aggregate that’s valuable and instructive,” says Larson. “One of the extraordinary things has been to see the same themes emerging: staff violence, neglect and abuse at home, drug and alcohol addiction, police aggression.” These shared experiences are part of what inspired Larson to name the collection Fourth City—to represent the fact that the prison and jail population in the United States is larger than that of Houston, Texas, currently the fourth largest city in the country,  and that stories told from inside any prison in the nation can seem as if they’re all coming from the same place.

The APWA is part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative. With additional funding for the archive from the NEH grant, Larson plans to continue to solicit, preserve, digitize, and disseminate the work of incarcerated people and prison workers and to hire a part-time assistant. The grant will also go toward finishing an online tool that will allow anyone to transcribe handwritten essays into fully searchable texts and to improve the site’s search functions so users can search by author attribute (race, religion, age, ethnicity), keyword, location, and more.

Larson hopes the archive will be a resource that people will use regularly for academic, policy, and social research. “In the age of big data, we’re trying to help create the era of big narrative, people writing very concretely about what works and doesn’t work,” he says. “Policy-makers might consult this to investigate: How much human pain might be caused because of this policy? When does the law become little more than legalized suffering?” Larson published a book last July, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Rowman & Littlefield), that compared prison writing in Ireland, Africa, and the United States; he is currently working on another book about the archive tentatively titled “Ethics in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

The APWA doesn’t espouse any political view. “The advocacy is done by the writers,” Larson says. “You read ten Holocaust or slave narratives and no one has to tell you what the message is. The difference is that there is a fixed number of slave and Holocaust narratives. But this collection will continue to grow.”      

 

Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, Good Magazine, and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website, gilalyons.com.

Doran Larson, founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. 

Lit Mag Gives Voice to Homeless

by

Adrienne Raphel

10.12.16

Every Tuesday morning, twenty to thirty writers gather in a meeting room in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston. Each member of the Black Seed Writers Group gets a pen and a yellow legal pad and, after catching up with one another, sits down and gets to work. The writing they produce will eventually fill the pages of the Pilgrim, a literary magazine celebrating its fifth anniversary this December. The Pilgrim looks like just about any of the small literary magazines lining the shelves of local bookstores and cafés, but it is different in one major respect: Its contributors are all part of Boston’s homeless community. 

The Pilgrim is the brainchild of James Parker, a contributing editor and cultural columnist for the Atlantic. In 2011, while on a sixty-mile pilgrimage with the MANNA ministry of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Parker was inspired to launch the writers group and journal with the idea of pilgrimage as a guiding theme. “Homelessness is a state of acute pilgrimage,” writes Parker on the journal’s website, “a condition of material and occasionally moral emergency, and thus a place where the world reveals itself under the pressure, or the pouring-in, of a higher reality.” When he returned from his own pilgrimage, Parker established the Black Seed Writers Group to give homeless people in downtown Boston an opportunity to gather, write, and share their work. The group is named for the nearby café where it first met, but its ranks soon swelled beyond the café’s capacity and it moved to the cathedral next door. Each week, Parker provides a few open-ended prompts to get the writers going. There is no formal workshop, and anyone who is homeless, recently housed, or transitioning into a home is welcome to join. Members of the group come and go, though each week there are at least a few regulars.

“If we’re the Black Seed Writers Group,” says Margaret Miranda, a writer in the group, “the people helping us are mission figs: They surround the black seeds at the center, they’re nurturing, and they’re on a mission. Besides,” she adds, “think of the literary significance of figs.” (When Miranda presented her metaphor to Parker, he asked her if that makes him a mad vegetable. Miranda replied, “In forty years, you will be.”) In addition to Parker, the other volunteers who help facilitate the workshop include Kate Glavin, an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; Libby Gatti, a diocese intern; and James Kraus, a graphic artist who refers to himself as “the other James.” 

Miranda and several other regulars set the group’s tone: After a few minutes of greeting and banter, they settle into their various writing processes and work diligently through the hour. A man named Joe dictates into his phone and transcribes his recording; Steven thumbs through a dictionary; Cody paces back and forth before plunging into his work. Rob, a wiry writer in a Red Sox hoodie, brews the coffee.

“This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Parker, who first connected with the homeless community through music. At age twenty-two, Parker was immersed in Washington, D.C.’s independent music scene, and discovered the city’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a thriving facility for the homeless, through the liner notes of a music album. Parker lived at CCNV as a volunteer for several months, but soon moved to Boston and lost touch with the homeless community over the next two decades, until founding the writers group.

After each session, Parker gathers all the work and splits it among himself and the other volunteers to transcribe. He then prints the writing in packets that he distributes the following Tuesday. Within a week of attending the Black Seed Writers Group, therefore, every participant is a published author; additionally, the packet entices writers to return the next week. Parker then chooses work from these packets to include in the Pilgrim, which he publishes eight to ten times per year. The Pilgrim is printed right where it’s produced; the administration at the church lets Parker use its printers, and subscription fees—the journal has a circulation of a few hundred—provide funding for the paper and ink. 

As a writer himself, Parker believes fervently in the power of publication. While he was writing his first book, his wife had one of the chapters printed as a chapbook, and it transformed the way Parker approached his work: “It was so powerful to me to have something published,” he says. When he founded the Pilgrim, the heart of his mission was to publish as many voices as possible—particularly those that would normally go unheard. In 2015, according to government census figures, the homeless population of Boston was 7,663—a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. Since it was established, in December 2011, the Pilgrim has published more than 150 different writers.

The Pilgrim does not have a specific style; instead, writers are encouraged to find their own style, and to push their voices deeper. Participants write poems, stories, memoirs, prayers, protests, and everything in between. One regular attendee, Rolando, is a journalist who catalogues various aspects of life at the shelter through a series of bullet points that create something between a list, a poem, and an essay. One week he wrote about lost property; the next week he categorized the various safety nets at the shelter. Cody writes prophetic images from his imagination. He describes a dream cover for his book, were he to write one: a rendering of the globe with a seven-headed serpentine monster crawling out of a deep chasm in the center.

In 2014 Parker expanded the Pilgrim to include a book imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its first publication was Paul Estes’s science fiction novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, a madcap space opera featuring the intergalactic adventures of Dave the Spy, who encounters many multispecies creatures, such as rebel alien cats that yell, “Hairrbawlz, kill ’em all!” This year, the press published Miranda’s debut collection of poetry, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street. The book is at once devotional and jocular, weaving together portentous subjects with light banter; think John Donne meets Kenneth Koch. 

 

Now, Parker says, No Fixed Address Press is concentrating on what he calls broadsheets—chapbook-length collections that are easier, cheaper, and quicker to produce than full-length books. Any profits that the Pilgrim and No Fixed Address Press might bring in from sales go directly into producing the next publications. Parker is excited to watch the group’s reach naturally expand, but is careful to avoid a “dissipation of essence,” as he puts it. As the group grows, it’s important for Parker to maintain an environment of openness, encouragement, and safety—an intimate space where members can nurture each other as writers. “We want growth that’s real growth,” said Parker. “Growth as writers.” 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. 

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.

Literature and the Environment

by

Maggie Millner

8.16.17

In 1992 in Reno, Nevada, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) to promote interdisciplinary research and conversation about the connections between humans and the natural world. Comprising professionals in both the humanities and the sciences, ASLE encourages collaboration, supports environmental education, and convenes a community around the twin goals of literary excellence and ecological sustainability. Now, twenty-five years later, the organization is more robust—and necessary—than ever.

The intersections of poetry and conservation biology, or speculative fiction and environmental activism, may not seem intuitive. But in the early 1990s many scholars working at the crossroads of these increasingly siloed disciplines sought a way to share ideas and enlist creative, scientific, and ethical advice from specialists in other fields. With the advent of ASLE, members gained access to a directory of multidisciplinary scholars, as well as environmental studies curricula, a list of awards and grants, mentoring programs, and a bibliography of ecological writing, among other resources. In 1993, ASLE launched the semiannual (now quarterly) journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which publishes academic articles in addition to poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews.

Since 1995, ASLE has also hosted a biennial conference, each event held in a different U.S. city, at which intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration can happen in person. The twelfth conference, titled “Rust/Resistance: Works of Recovery,” took place in June and doubled as a celebration of ASLE’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Hosted by Wayne State University in Detroit, the 2017 conference featured more than eight hundred presenters as well as keynote addresses by writers and environmentalists such as poet Ross Gay and historian and novelist Tiya Miles. According to ASLE copresident Christoph Irmscher, these conferences serve as “sustained intellectual experiences in which an array of amazing speakers complements the serious conversations that take place in individual panels.”

ASLE’s quarter-centennial comes at a critical moment. As an organization committed equally to literature and to environmentalism, ASLE and its membership are doubly threatened by the massive rollbacks in arts and climate spending proposed by the Trump administration. The White House’s 2018 budget plan, unveiled in May, would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third, eliminating 20 percent of its workforce and leaving the agency with its smallest budget in forty years, adjusting for inflation. Predicated on a staunch denial of the urgent reality of climate change, the plan proposes crippling reductions to programs that clean up toxic waste, determine the safety of drinking water, and research and predict natural disasters, among others.

In June, President Trump announced that the United States will also be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, an agreement between nearly two hundred nations to reduce emissions and mitigate global warming that was adopted by consensus in 2015. “As we have known ever since Rachel Carson, the environmental crisis can only be addressed globally, not within traditional national boundaries,” says Irmscher. Branches of ASLE have been established in nearly a dozen countries or regions outside the United States, including Brazil, India, and Japan, and this year’s ASLE conference drew around a thousand members from twenty-five countries. Irmscher describes the organization’s international, interdisciplinary conferences as its “pièce de résistance against Trumpian unilateralism.”

The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Though such cuts seem unlikely at this point—Congress thus far having upheld federal funding for both agencies—the proposal itself is indicative of an attitude that devalues the importance of art and literature to American life and culture. In light of such threats, Irmscher looks to literature for models of political environmentalism. “Panels and presentations on Thoreau’s Walden—to mention one of the intellectual progenitors of ASLE—can no longer ignore the fact that his philosophy of resistance has assumed new importance in an era when the government systematically suppresses scientific evidence,” he says.

In a sense, the joint disavowal of both environmental protection and the arts can be seen as a confirmation of what ASLE has always known: that these disciplines are deeply linked and even interdependent—that, as Rachel Carson once said, “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In the face of these most recent threats, ASLE will continue to serve as a meeting point. “In a climate that discourages innovation, scientists have adopted new roles as dissenters and protesters,” says Irmscher. “As they unite and march, they find new allies in the arts and humanities that have long spoken truth to power. ASLE, whose core mission is to promote collaboration and public dialogue, provides an organizational framework for such new alliances.”
 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at NYU, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Previously, she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.              

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)

Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers

by

Staff

8.17.16

In a little over two months, we the people will choose the forty-fifth president of the United States. Between now and then, the nominees will present their policy proposals and debate the issues, shaping a national conversation about some awfully big and important topics. But before we get to those televised debates (the first of three is scheduled for September 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York) we wanted to give some of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens—poets and writers—a chance to offer their perspective. Because, as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove remarked, “Our nation needs to learn to value its independent writers and artists as the heralds of a richly textured, inclusive national identity.”

The request was simple: Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be—and, in a few sentences, write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years. It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them. The contours of some of America’s biggest issues—education, health care, gun violence, racism, immigration, and the environment among them—start to come into sharper focus, the collective discourse rises above the rhetoric of political pundits, and the pomp and circumstance of the political process falls away, so that we are left with a discussion of real problems, real concerns, and, if not solutions, then at least some honest ideas that may inspire action of real, lasting value. 

Dear President,

“The countless complex problems facing the world require complex critical thinking. Please reinvest in public higher education systems like UC, SUNY, CUNY, and the other once-strong and accessible state systems of higher education. Restore and privilege humanities and arts education at the K–12 and higher-ed levels. Reduce the military budget and make a real commitment to social and educational infrastructure.” —Kazim Ali

“Please listen to the stories being told right now by the scientists who study, and the citizens who live, amid the catastrophic changes taking place across the planet. They are not fiction; without courageous leadership they will become fate.” —Steve Almond

“Your critics, most of them, would have called me a superpredator back then, when the memory of the pistol was heavy in my palm—so that’s not my focus. But now, unlike then, you have power, and I’m left to wonder what you will call the young men and women lost in the system, those who walked down paths they regret. Do they earn your scorn, your mercy?” —Reginald Dwayne Betts

“I would like President Clinton to know that I support her and her agenda fully, especially as it relates to education, the arts, and the environment. The single greatest problem facing our species is the erosion of the environmental conditions that allowed us to evolve and thrive and tap out messages like this one on our phones and computers. We are doomed, yes, but later rather than sooner, I hope.” —T. C. Boyle

“Once the body arrives in the world it immediately becomes fragile—fragile in that it needs nourishment, protection, education, and endless chances; bodies of color, in particular, have had these basic human rights revoked, and it continues. I call for a protection of these bodies through a reassessment of the justice system and retraining of authorities who violate the civil liberties of citizens of color through racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and abuse; human life is at stake, and my wish is that the next four years will reflect back the beauty and not the wreckage of our existence.” —Tina Chang

 

“America has often seen itself as a beacon of democracy, but the American project has always been about a settler project of inclusion and exclusion: democracy for those imagined as real Americans, and inequality for slaves, immigrants, black and brown bodies, and those who live in places the United States has colonized or destabilized, most recently Iraq and Libya. I hope that you can see yourself not just as a standard-bearer for a global economic elite, but as a force for equality and justice for all.” —Ken Chen

“There’s so much I could ask of you—a list of demands—but first to ensure our safety as citizens. Too many lives have been lost to gun violence—mass shootings, gang related, and otherwise—and now it is more than a false dilemma, it’s a reality that can no longer be ignored.” —Nicole Dennis-Benn

“There is no present or future without immigrants; white supremacy (and all of its sequelae) is one of the gravest threats to our democracy.” —Junot Díaz

“I want an America with tougher gun laws. I want an America that nurtures and embraces diversity.” —Chitra Divakaruni

“Eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. Our government has to get involved in legislation that reduces one-use plastics, invests in alternative-packaging ideas, and dramatically decreases pollution in the oceans, or by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.” —Anthony Doerr

“If we are ever to attain our forefathers’ aspirations for ‘a more perfect union,’ educating our young—not only in the sciences, but also the arts—cannot, dare not, be neglected. If our children are unable to say what they mean, no one will know how they feel; if they cannot imagine different worlds, they are stumbling through a darkness made all the more sinister by its lack of reference points.” —Rita Dove

“I would say to the president that she should work to dismantle the global culture of corruption present at all levels of society, which prevents any meaningful change or accountability, and whose primary victims are the powerless and disenfranchised. This complicity is a symptom of larger systems of discourse and economy that exist to preserve the status quo, and I would say that in the absence of means to transform those systems outright, she should start, at the level of the law and of media, to model ways of addressing concrete problems with transparency and tenacity, showing that even at the most entrenched levels of corruption, change can be effected.” —Robert Fernandez

“The stakes are too high for you to ignore the grievances voiced by those of us who believed you when you spoke of progress and equality. We can’t afford for you to go slow.” —Angela Flournoy

“Climate change—stop dicking around. War—use only as the ultimate last resort.” —Ben Fountain

“I’d like our next president to know compassion and compromise. I’d also like her to know how thrilled I was when I received a thank-you note from her husband after I sent Chelsea a birthday card when I was fifteen.” —Carrie Fountain

“The occupation of Palestine by Israel—mass incarceration, presumption of guilt, withholding of resources, wanton destruction of human life, all underscored by the creation of physical barriers and the emotional propaganda of persecution, exclusion, mythmaking, and fear—are mirrored, one by one, in the policies of institutionalized racism in the United States. Unless we face this singular fact, and acknowledge our collective culpability as architects and sponsors of state terrorism here in our American cities, and in our foreign policy regarding Palestine (which is the bedrock of all other foreign policy), we will continue to be unable to fulfill the potential of our democracy for our people, and remain excoriated abroad for our impotence and hypocrisy.” —Ru Freeman

“Dear Madam President, our undocumented families are not silent or invisible in our hearts. May they be just as present in your actions as we continue to build this home, this country, together.” —Rigoberto González

“None of the problems of this country will be solved without things getting messy, and without your commitment to listen, truly listen, and to govern for the people who have the least in this country—black and brown women of color, undocumented women, trans and lesbian women, poor women, the people you usually wish to have behind you at a podium but rarely invite to the room where decisions are being made. Invite us in and listen and then act.” —Kaitlyn Greenidge

“President Clinton, after celebrating with a tall flute of Prosecco, please make gun reform your first order of business. In four years, I hope to live in a country where the pen is mightier than the gun (and the money that keeps it in power).” —Eleanor Henderson

“Ms. President, I want you to know that the power of having our first woman as president doesn’t escape me; I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. And I want you, as the first woman president of the United States, to place the liberation and justice of historically marginalized people at the center of your work—
terrifying, hard, necessary work. We need this more than ever.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam

“I would like the next president to know that the 2016 presidential campaign has awoken a sizable portion of this country’s electorate to the limitations of a two-party system that is beholden more to its own status quo than the interests of its constituencies; that we are more awake than ever to the corruption of politicians who claim allegiance to ‘the people,’ but whose votes and policies are purchased outright by producers of weaponry and manufacturers of economic disparity. I would like the next president to know that we will be watching and taking note of their promises to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, that we will call out their positions on trade deals that betray American workers, their complicity with a prison-industrial complex that seeks profit from incarceration, their commitment to a justice system that frees criminals in uniform while killing people of color with impunity, and that we will organize beyond their scarecrows of fear to create a movement capable of replacing this oligarchy with the highest of this nation’s ideals: democracy.” —Tyehimba Jess

“Madam President, thank you for sparing us your opponent’s dismal and clownish stupidity, his blind and blinding hate. I’m still scared, though. I’m scared that you think beating him will be the hardest part of your job, and I’m scared of what’s happening to the environment, to our schools and water supply and our tolerance, scared of people being out of work and people being hooked on painkillers and people not being allowed to use the restroom where they feel most comfortable. I don’t give a rip if you’re honest or transparent or running a thousand different e-mail servers, but I need you to be compassionate and smart and clear-eyed, to be decent and flexible and open-minded, to be afraid with me—with all of us—and despite our fears, not least yours, I need you to be brave and resilient and, well, hopeful.” —Bret Anthony Johnston

“I’d like to talk about government subsidies for mental-health care. We tend to speak about mental health after some extreme event, like a shooting spree, but mental health is an everyday thing. So many people—especially poor people and minorities—are suffering in silent pain.” —Tayari Jones

“Make fighting bigotry a priority—bigotry of all sorts, from race to sexuality to gender to class. I feel it’s especially the responsibility of our candidates this time around, as this very election unleashed a whole new wave of intense bigotry directed at all sorts of minorities—so I feel like it is the urgent responsibility of the elected official to face this and work to increase the dialogue, education, and awareness required to heal and advance.” —Porochista Khakpour

“I watch my students invest in cultural, economic, and financial change despite their pessimism and frequent belief that we live within a system that profits from their disenfranchisement. How do we convince the next generation of thinkers that their engagement and participation in the political system matters as they watch so much of the progress facilitated by activists of the past dismantled?” —Ruth Ellen Kocher

“Madam President, please pay more attention to, support, and build up public education. Our schools are the democratizing cornerstones of our communities—and this country’s future.” —Joseph O. Legaspi

“I’d like to trust that the voice of any suffering person, regardless of category, had as much currency with you as some power broker. I’d like not to doubt you knew that suffering was of a piece with the planet’s emergency, the ongoing story of oil, water, war, animals.” —Paul Lisicky

“Your country is complex; it is hard to imagine a foreigner being able to fix it for you. Keep this in mind when you consider invading another nation.” —Karan Mahajan

“What’s really important to me is the radical reconceptualization of our broken criminal-justice system that targets young black and brown people—increasingly girls and young women—for arrest, detention, and incarceration, thereby continuing the program of relegating generations of people of color to second-class citizenry. It is clear to so many of us that the increased presence of police in daily life, alongside the militarization of police forces, is the wrong path to go down, and that we have to think progressively in our imagining of the future we’d like to create.” —Dawn Lundy Martin

“Please put climate change at the front and center of our national conversation, and follow up by funding initiatives toward developing and using sustainable energy.” —Cate Marvin

Peace is a good word for politicians to look up, understand the meaning of it, use it once in a while, learn to practice it. You are committing environmental child abuse by poisoning our food, polluting our air, and totally destroying the environment so that a few of your cronies can make a few extra billion or two while the rest of us will not survive even to serve you.” —Alejandro Murguía

“The blight on ‘American exceptionalism’ is the recurring cycle of black youth raised in communities where poverty, inadequate education, and insufficient recreational and job opportunities exclude too many of them from the promise of the American Dream. It is urgent that you fund programs now to address this shameful problem.” —Elizabeth Nunez

“Dear Madam President, help us lift up the least advantaged among us. Put your strength and determination behind education, jobs, and equality. We have benefited greatly from the moral guidance of the last administration. Please keep the spirit of ‘yes we can’ alive. God bless you.” —D. A. Powell

“What the world wants, demands, deserves, and needs from you is that you guide your leadership and base your decisions on just one principle: love. Because isn’t that the whole point to it all—love? Isn’t that why we all keep on going?” —Mira Ptacin

“Madam President, the influence of the Israel lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many Palestinians who have been living in degradation and increasing terror under the Israeli occupation for the last half century, just as the influence of the NRA lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many U.S. citizens who have been injured and killed due to gun violence.” —Emily Raboteau

“There should be a new cabinet post—Secretary of the Arts. For the inaugural six poets: European, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Native American, Muslim.” —Ishmael Reed

“I want the president to know that we are tired of having our voices silenced and our needs unmet. I want the president to know that we want better gun control, higher minimum wages, recognition of women’s rights, better education, and most of all a greater sense of our shared humanity—unity, not division.” —Roxana Robinson

“President Hillary Clinton, I live in Portland, Oregon, where every day I watch our homeless camps grow in size. Homelessness is a national crisis that has barely been discussed this election season. You’ve pledged ‘to direct more federal resources to those who need them most.’ As you do so, please don’t forget about some of your most vulnerable constituents: homeless Americans. It’s an issue at the nexus of economic inequality, joblessness, rising housing costs, lack of affordable housing, health care accessibility, and systemic racism. Please make connecting all Americans to safe, stable homes and services a priority.” —Karen Russell

“Madam President, where has all the funding gone for arts in the schools? Could those kuts be the reesen we are all getin dummer?” —George Saunders

“The growing disparity in wealth in this country undermines any hope we have for achieving social justice. Changing this won’t be easy, and will require more courage, conviction, and political leadership than you have exhibited in the past.” —Dani Shapiro

“Since arts and humanities programs enrich our American lives beyond measure, connecting and inspiring people of different backgrounds and inclinations better than anything else does, it would be reasonable to support them threefold or more, without question. The fact that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish American, found it possible to be frank about the injustice and criminal oppression that Palestinian people have suffered for the past sixty-eight years suggests other politicians might be able to do this too—injustice for one side does not help the ‘other side’ and everyone knows this but does not act or speak as honestly or honorably as Sanders did.” —Naomi Shihab Nye

“I would like you to know that we do not have any more time—at all—to postpone addressing the issue of climate change. And while you’re working to ensure the survival of the planet, please remember that some of us are dying at an even faster rate from poverty, lack of health care, gun violence, police brutality, war, and twenty-seven kinds of intolerance—so please use your authority to help ensure that we live to see (and help implement) the climate-change solutions you set in motion.” —Evie Shockley

“I want the next president to shout from the housetops that violence is not a source or sign of strength but of weakness, whether inside a home or between nations. I want us to address violence at all scales, from domestic violence and gun violence to our endless, failed, one-sided, expensive foreign wars to the subtle violence against the poor and the unborn among our species, against more fragile species, and against the earth and the future that is unchecked climate change and the brutal fossil-fuel industry.” —Rebecca Solnit

“Did you know we need to find more jobs for the unemployed? Also, Palestine and Israel need to work it out.” —Tom Spanbauer

“If you can’t do everything, at least do what you say. I just wanna live in a country that knows the difference between love and hate.” —Ebony Stewart

“Our public-education system is in desperate need of resources, specifically in marginalized communities, as well as a more learner-centered, diverse curriculum emphasizing perspectives across race, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, and the multiple intersections therein to challenge all of us to be better human beings on this planet. And, Madam President, if I can focus our last few minutes on my beautiful, complicated city: Your support of Rahm Emanuel terrifies me. Thank you for listening. Please, keep listening. To all of us. Not some. All.” —Megan Stielstra

“Free Leonard Peltier. Free Chelsea Manning.” —Justin Taylor

“No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life—and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.” —Ocean Vuong

“The greatest threats facing the United States are not terrorism and illegal immigration but rather injustice, bias, inequality, and fear. To be a great nation we must focus on criminal-justice reform; the eradication of the vestiges of slavery; education; and human and civil rights for all.” —Ayelet Waldman

“Please stop separating families through deportation; let it be understood that they did not want to be in this country to begin with (which reminds me, please stop bombing children, stop invading countries, stop sending the young and poor onto the battlefields). Please create a path toward citizenship for everyone, not just the ‘dreamers,’ because we all learn to dream from our parents.” —Javier Zamora

 

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.

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.

The Written Image: Kerry Mansfield’s “Expired”

by

Staff

6.13.18

Ever since she unearthed an old library checkout card tucked into the back of a book in a Goodwill store several years ago, San Francisco artist Kerry Mansfield has collected hundreds of old library books and stored them in her studio, which she calls “the wayward home for ex-library books.” In 2013 Mansfield began documenting the books in her ongoing project “Expired” (kerrymansfield.com/expiredportfolio), which features photos of books against simple black backgrounds. “I tend to anthropomorphize the books since each one has its own character and damaged beauty,” says Mansfield. “Each one shares the stories not only written on the pages, but through pen markings, coffee splatters, filled-in checkout cards, or yellowed tape stretching the book’s life out before its demise.” Mansfield, who in October self-published Expired, a book of 175 photos from the project, selects books that have a story behind them. “What may look like a simple checkout card actually maps one kindergartner’s love of a book through several years, expressed by the improving quality of her handwriting over time,” she says. “I look for books that have a deep sense of history via travel, time, and readers combined.” Mansfield still has more than eighty books to photograph, which she plans to feature in a second collection.

The Written Image: Cara Barer

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the Information Age we might find our homes crowded with reference books we no longer use—a phone book, a set of encyclopedias, a long-outdated computer manual. Rather than throwing away such books, Houston artist Cara Barer has transformed them into a new form of art. Since the early 2000s, Barer has been turning books into sculptures, creating intricate radial patterns from their pages and spines that she then dyes and photographs. “Books, physical objects and repositories of information, are being displaced by zeros and ones in a digital universe with no physicality,” writes Barer on her website (carabarer.com). “Through my art, I document this and raise questions about the fragile and ephemeral nature of books and their future.” The project is ongoing, and Barer, who has shown her work in galleries and museums across the United States, will open a new exhibit in June at the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco.

The Written Image: Shelley Jackson’s “Snow”

by

Staff

12.11.19

This winter readers can look forward to the next installments of writer and artist Shelley Jackson’s “Snow,” which she calls a “a story in progress, weather permitting.” Since 2014, Jackson has delivered the story by writing one word at a time on the slushy playgrounds, frosted stoops, and other snowy spaces of her neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. A photograph of each word is then shared on Instagram (@snowshelleyjackson).

“To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,” begins the text, which describes fantastical snow made up of such unexpected wonders as clock faces and the scalps of shrews. “Snow” is just one of Jackson’s projects in which ephemerality is integral to her text. “Skin” exists only as tattoos of words on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers; when each dies their word is lost from the story. The last storms of spring 2019 left “Snow” at a cliff-hanger—only the next blizzard can reveal what’s coming with “the long thaw of…”

The Written Image: Stopan

by

Staff

6.15.22

A book that blooms. The enchanted codex of a superstitious villager. An illuminated scroll that unspools with the story of a hero doomed to kill his own king. These are just some of the extraordinary artist’s books of Stopan, a bookbinder in Bulgaria who draws on his country’s craft traditions to create artworks “both in and out of folklore.” While Stopan began making books in 2013, it was only more recently that he began to explore the more fanciful possibilities of the medium. “I came to the realization that a book has a lot more capacity than just holding text,” says Stopan. “I’m striving to find out what else I can fit within it as a vessel for expression.” To realize these ambitions, Stopan turned to two collaborators he knew well: his mother and father, Gergana Daskalova and Ivo Daskalov. “My father works with metal, gemstones, and wood—rather hard and monochrome materials,” explains Stopan. “He’s also very conservative and strict in his designs. My mother, on the other hand, works with very soft and colorful textiles and yarns, favoring a more abstract or asymmetrical visual style. I consider myself somewhere in between and try to balance each of our tasks to produce something harmonious.”

Every book, including Harvest Book, shown above, begins in Stopan’s Sofia studio, where he tries to translate “a persistent feeling” into the “shape of a book,” before developing exterior decoration and, finally, interior text, sometimes mailing the book to his parents’ town of Pleven for their contributions. Stopan, who was officially named a master bookbinder by the Bulgarian National Craft Chamber in 2018, says his work makes him sometimes feel he is “going backward in time, to when bookmaking traditions in Bulgaria were interrupted.” Yet the books themselves create “an active dialogue with the past and a broken tradition,” each a “tangible proposal” for how these time-honored arts might birth something fantastically new.

Bound in “a flowering body of goatskin, cotton and silver,” Stopan’s Harvest Book contains the lyrics of songs of tribute to the harvest and the sun. (Credit: Image courtesy of the artist.)

The Written Image: Julie Chen

by

Staff

8.12.20

Julie Chen’s artist’s books (flyingfishpress.com) are as inventive as they are beautiful. For more than thirty years, the Berkeley, California, artist and professor of book art at Mills College has used the medium to give literal shape to the ideas that compel her, including our relationship to time, to knowledge, and to one another. In Chrysalis, shown above, an unfolding cocoon reveals a small book about the transformations of grief; Wayfinding uses textural paper casts of semaphore flags and pages that rattle to engage the senses in interpreting signs; Personal Paradigms: A Game of Human Experience, which includes a board that resembles a map and dozens of game pieces, presents life as topography to navigate.

Each new book demands a unique fabrication process, and Chen often makes several prototypes as an idea finds its form. “I love doing proof-of-concept models as well as thought experiments about what I need for a project regardless of whether I have any idea if I can come up with a feasible approach to getting something made,” says Chen. “The one guiding principle for me is to trust that at a certain point in the process the book will tell you what it needs.” She says developing the folded shape for Chrysalis was both a technical and an artistic challenge, but it’s these kinds of challenges that keep her going: “It’s always exciting to figure out if you can do something that you’ve never seen done before.”

Chrysalis by Julie Chen. (Credit: Sibila Savage)

The Written Image: Ben Shattuck

by

Staff

4.13.22

When the visual artist and writer Ben Shattuck set out on the first journey in Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (Tin House, April 2022), he did not have a book project in mind. Instead, he walked through Cape Cod’s outer beaches out of compulsion—to escape nightmares and the “constellation of grief” that shrouded him in his early thirties. Throughout all six of the excursions around the Northeast he recounts, each inspired by a walk Thoreau once made, Shattuck’s desires remain this humble and sincere. He recalls writing in his journal: “Would love to have the thoughts of the firs traded for my own.” He describes the “compact dramas” of people he encounters: On a walk to Sakonnet Point in Rhode Island, he overhears a boy decide to drop a rock on a crab; at Walden Pond he watches an older man wade into the water assisted by a walker. Bearing witness to these scenes and the landscape, he gleans new insight into masculinity, intimacy, climate change, and the politics of outdoor spaces but never strays too far from the immediacy of his surroundings. He also renders select scenes in graphite drawings, which are as poignant as the text: The markings are dark and assured, and errant smudges only lend a sense of intimacy.

Shattuck describes the state-of-mind of drawing as akin to walking, noting both can “empty the mind” in the most necessary sense, which is quite different from his experience of writing: “Writing still feels hard, no matter how much of it I do. There are moments of joy, but for the most part it’s difficult, defeating, and laborious. I drag my feet to the writing desk—but I run to the painting studio.” The drawings represent a unique period in Shattuck’s practice as an artist, since he lost a half inch of a finger from his dominant hand not long before the first walk and had to relearn to draw. “I used a lot more wrist and whole hand,” he says. “But in the end my drawings looked like my drawings of the past. It was an accidental experiment in what I’ve always suspected—that drawing isn’t about the hand, or some innate physical skill really at all, but something far more interior, something that happens between the eye and the mind, between observation and decision making.”

 

Image: Copyright © Ben Shattuck

The Written Image: Patricia Hanlon

by

Staff

6.16.21

Patricia Hanlon knows New England’s wild salt marshes perhaps as intimately as anyone—as a swimmer, as a writer, and as a painter. She started writing about tidal estuaries around twelve years ago, when she and her husband began swimming the Essex River Basin in eastern Massachusetts regularly in the summer and even into the fall. Her swim journal grew into Swimming to the Top of the Tide: Finding Life Where Land and Water Meet, published in June by Bellevue Literary Press, a lyrical account of her encounters with wetlands and a citizen scientist’s testimony to what it may take to preserve them. Four years ago Hanlon trained her eyes on these estuaries in a new way—as a landscape painter. In the saturated colors and rich light of oil paintings like Newburyport Salt Marsh, shown below, Hanlon captures the thrum of life in these wild places. “As I swim I’m often bombarded with thoughts and perceptions that I want to translate into a painting or a bit of text,” says Hanlon. “Always there’s this poignant sense of things being much more complex than I can ever do justice to—but I try anyway.”

Working in both mediums has required ingenuity: “At times I’ve swum with a pad of waterproof paper and stub of pencil tucked into my bathing suit or wetsuit,” she says. “I’ve also duct-taped my camera to a small barge and floated it downriver with me, in hopes of capturing something of the sheer deliciousness of a summer salt marsh at high tide.” Most ideas with a narrative or moral dimension find their way to language, says Hanlon. “On the other hand, if I’m floating in that same creek and I’m more in visual mode, I’m thinking color, form, light, motion. Back in the studio I’m not thinking about salt marsh ecology or environmental threats; I’m mixing paint, hunting down color juxtapositions, looking for surprises.” 

Patricia Hanlon’s oil painting Newburyport Salt Marsh. (Credit: Patricia Hanlon)

The Written Image: Blue Quilt

by

Staff

2.17.21

A leaping fish with a steely gaze, a tally of days in lockdown, and the lyrics to Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” are among the motifs that adorn author and illustrator Jillian Tamaki’s Blue Quilt, a singular diary of life in the pandemic. Tamaki began embroidering the quilt in March 2020 when stay-at-home orders went into effect in Toronto, where she lives. “I guess it says something about my personality that my first panic response was to start a big project,” jokes Tamaki. She says the project offered both engagement and respite in a moment when focus on her book-in-progress felt impossible. “Needlework, while requiring a lot of attention, I view as much more ‘brainless.’ I mean that in the best way possible—it’s meditative, instinctual, in-the-moment,” she says.

The resulting quilt is both a literal document of the events of the past year and an articulation of feelings that transcend those more granular details. “I think objects and things you make are imbued with a lot of meaning regardless of any artistic intention,” says Tamaki. “It doesn’t matter what images or words I put on there; looking at it will always take me back to those months sitting on the couch—fearful, angry, bored, grateful.” 

Jillian Tamaki’s Blue Quilt. (Credit: Jillian Tamaki)

The Written Image: Black Futures

by

Staff

12.16.20

What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” This is the question that editors Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham ask in the introduction to Black Futures, published by One World in December. In more than five hundred pages of poetry, artwork, memes, essays, lyrics, and other texts, Black artists speak to the “unique paradox” of the present moment: “We have never been more empowered and yet, in many ways, are still so disenfranchised.”

Contributors include writers Eve L. Ewing and Morgan Parker, critic Wesley Morris, and artist Amanda Williams, who repaints abandoned houses in shades that mimic, for example, the purple of a Crown Royal whisky bag or the deep blue of a jar of Ultra Sheen—products long marketed to Black consumers—in her series Color(ed) Theory Suite (2014-2016). “Williams’s houses transform an otherwise bleak landscape into something rich and brilliant, and simultaneously raise an eyebrow at how colors are tethered to notions of race and class,” Wortham and Drew wrote of the art (above) in the New York Times Magazine in October. Throughout the book, “recipes,” culinary and otherwise, invite readers into the book’s project, each exercise meant “to inspire you beyond the book, to care for yourself, to start an archive, and to feed you as you create your own Black Futures.”

From the series Color(ed) Theory Suite by Amanda Williams. (Credit: Courtesy of the Artist, Amanda Williams)

The Written Image: Quarantine Public Library

by

Staff

10.7.20

What’s a booklover to do when to do when a pandemic shuts down their library? Create their own! Artists Katie Garth and Tracy Honn have made it possible with Quarantine Public Library, a growing collection of artists’ books created by illustrators and writers across the United States—all available for free and ready to be assembled with the use of an ordinary home printer. “QPL started from the spark of an idea I’d had for an online exhibit of downloadable books using this one-sheet, eight-page format,” says Honn. “Katie blew life into it by recognizing how potent it could be in this awful time of pandemic.”

The library’s curated collection of more than forty visually stunning books include narrative mini-comics, meditations on proximity and quarantine, even a humorous illustrated “journey of love for frozen treats” starring a Technicolor batch of popsicles and ice cream confections. Some titles touch on the pandemic explicitly; others offer escape. “Readers have printed full collections and created their own housing for the library, have been inspired to make their own books, have added color to the linework in contributors’ printed works, and have shared videos of themselves creating and reading books in the collection,” says Garth. One such reader, artist Laurie Moorhead, created a custom slipcase for her complete set of the titles, shown above. Honn says, “In a sense, every person who comes to the site and interacts with the books is collaborating with us.” The library will continue to add titles through at least the end of the year.

Laurie Moorhead created a custom slipcase for her complete set of titles. (Credit: Laurie Moorhead, @lauriemoorhead)

The Written Image: Fallen Books

by

Staff

3.1.10

Books are earthquake proof,” proclaim Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson in Fallen Books, a collection of photographs from earthquake-rattled libraries, published by the Paris-based independent Onestar Press in 2008. The image above is a photograph of the stacks inside San Benito County Free Library after an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter Scale (significantly weaker than the earthquake in

Haiti on January 12) struck Hollister, California, on April 8, 1961. The photos in Fallen Books, many of them taken by librarians and accompanied by the photographers’ notes, are organized according to the particular earthquake’s measurement on the Modified Mercalli Scale, an alternative to the Richter Scale that quantifies how strongly an earthquake affects humans and man-made objects. The 1961 earthquake that resulted in the relatively slight damage shown above measured VI (or Strong) on this alternative scale, meaning that windows, dishes, and glasses were broken and some heavy furniture was moved or overturned. Given the recent catastrophe in Haiti, such an image is a reminder not only of the durability of books but also the vulnerability of those who read them. Fallen Books will be on display at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, from March 25 to May 1.

The Written Image: Home Cooking

No one who cooks cooks alone,” writes Laurie Colwin in the foreword to her beloved Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Knopf, 1988). This spring found writers alone, together, cooking their way through orders to stay at home. Writers, it turns out, make excellent chefs, and Instagram lit up with images of their dishes, a story behind each. Memoirist T Kira Madden cooked Sichuan chili fish in tribute to Flushing, New York, which, like many Asian communities in the city, has seen a rise in incidents of xenophobia. Fiction and nonfiction writer Ann Hood recreated a favorite breakfast from her neighborhood diner—three days in a row.

Agent Meredith Kaffel Simonoff made the bagels that she and her stepdaughter could no longer get at the deli. And essayist Tabitha Blankenbiller cooked a Lebanese dinner to remind her of restaurant meals in Portland, Oregon. “If I start missing my favorite foods right now, the only way they’re showing up is through my own kitchen,” she says. “The brightness of the hues and flavors when all of these components joined up on the dinner table was so much more striking than the casseroles and braises I’d been hunkering down with. A promise of impending summer, and eventual resolution to this disaster; a reminder that favorites were still out there to be loved again, someday.” 

Top row: Ann Hood’s diner breakfast; Joseph Osmundson’s pork tenderloin; Manuel Gonzales’s biscuits. Middle row: Cari Luna’s oatmeal bread; Hanif Abdurraqib’s strawberry chiffon shortcake; T Kira Madden’s Sichuan chili fish. Bottom row: Jessica Handler’s cauliflower crust pizza; Tabitha Blankenbiller’s Lebanese dinner; Meredith Kaffel Simonoff’s bagels. (Credit: Abdurraqib: Eloisa Amezcua)

The Written Image: Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

by

Staff

4.8.20

It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes poet Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her new book of the same name, published in May by Siglio Press. Memory is what Mayer has called an “emotional science project,” an experimental attempt to record the complete experience of her consciousness for one month in 1971. (“I really thought it would be interesting for other people to become me,” said Mayer, laughing, during a 2017 panel discussion at the Canada gallery in New York City.) Every day for the month of July forty-nine years ago, Mayer shot a 36-exposure roll of Kodachrome film and wrote a journal as an “excavation” of her mind, capturing images of daily life at its most quotidian and most lyrical—the back-seat view from a moving convertible or light passing across a rain-green field.

Together the text and images create a procedural work of extraordinary scale: Memory comprises more than 1,100 photographs and 200 pages of writing, a document that makes a moment viewed in retrospect feel immediate, granular, visceral—and still inevitably out of reach. As in installations of the work, Siglio’s edition arranges Mayer’s photographs in a grid, allowing them to be surveyed simultaneously and in multiple directions. “While you’re reading it, you end up seeing in your peripheral vision the other photographs that are from different times, just like memory works,” Mayer has said. The result is a singular rendering of the way we make meaning of and across time, and of one summer in a legendary poet’s life, almost half a century ago.

Excerpt from Memory by Bernadette Mayer (Siglio, 2020). Images courtesy of the Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

The Written Image: Quarantine Public Library

by

Staff

10.7.20

What’s a booklover to do when to do when a pandemic shuts down their library? Create their own! Artists Katie Garth and Tracy Honn have made it possible with Quarantine Public Library, a growing collection of artists’ books created by illustrators and writers across the United States—all available for free and ready to be assembled with the use of an ordinary home printer. “QPL started from the spark of an idea I’d had for an online exhibit of downloadable books using this one-sheet, eight-page format,” says Honn. “Katie blew life into it by recognizing how potent it could be in this awful time of pandemic.”

The library’s curated collection of more than forty visually stunning books include narrative mini-comics, meditations on proximity and quarantine, even a humorous illustrated “journey of love for frozen treats” starring a Technicolor batch of popsicles and ice cream confections. Some titles touch on the pandemic explicitly; others offer escape. “Readers have printed full collections and created their own housing for the library, have been inspired to make their own books, have added color to the linework in contributors’ printed works, and have shared videos of themselves creating and reading books in the collection,” says Garth. One such reader, artist Laurie Moorhead, created a custom slipcase for her complete set of the titles, shown above. Honn says, “In a sense, every person who comes to the site and interacts with the books is collaborating with us.” The library will continue to add titles through at least the end of the year.

Laurie Moorhead created a custom slipcase for her complete set of titles. (Credit: Laurie Moorhead, @lauriemoorhead)

The Written Image: Black Futures

by

Staff

12.16.20

What does it mean to be Black and alive right now?” This is the question that editors Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham ask in the introduction to Black Futures, published by One World in December. In more than five hundred pages of poetry, artwork, memes, essays, lyrics, and other texts, Black artists speak to the “unique paradox” of the present moment: “We have never been more empowered and yet, in many ways, are still so disenfranchised.”

Contributors include writers Eve L. Ewing and Morgan Parker, critic Wesley Morris, and artist Amanda Williams, who repaints abandoned houses in shades that mimic, for example, the purple of a Crown Royal whisky bag or the deep blue of a jar of Ultra Sheen—products long marketed to Black consumers—in her series Color(ed) Theory Suite (2014-2016). “Williams’s houses transform an otherwise bleak landscape into something rich and brilliant, and simultaneously raise an eyebrow at how colors are tethered to notions of race and class,” Wortham and Drew wrote of the art (above) in the New York Times Magazine in October. Throughout the book, “recipes,” culinary and otherwise, invite readers into the book’s project, each exercise meant “to inspire you beyond the book, to care for yourself, to start an archive, and to feed you as you create your own Black Futures.”

From the series Color(ed) Theory Suite by Amanda Williams. (Credit: Courtesy of the Artist, Amanda Williams)

The Written Image: Bernadette Mayer’s Memory

by

Staff

4.8.20

It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes poet Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her new book of the same name, published in May by Siglio Press. Memory is what Mayer has called an “emotional science project,” an experimental attempt to record the complete experience of her consciousness for one month in 1971. (“I really thought it would be interesting for other people to become me,” said Mayer, laughing, during a 2017 panel discussion at the Canada gallery in New York City.) Every day for the month of July forty-nine years ago, Mayer shot a 36-exposure roll of Kodachrome film and wrote a journal as an “excavation” of her mind, capturing images of daily life at its most quotidian and most lyrical—the back-seat view from a moving convertible or light passing across a rain-green field.

Together the text and images create a procedural work of extraordinary scale: Memory comprises more than 1,100 photographs and 200 pages of writing, a document that makes a moment viewed in retrospect feel immediate, granular, visceral—and still inevitably out of reach. As in installations of the work, Siglio’s edition arranges Mayer’s photographs in a grid, allowing them to be surveyed simultaneously and in multiple directions. “While you’re reading it, you end up seeing in your peripheral vision the other photographs that are from different times, just like memory works,” Mayer has said. The result is a singular rendering of the way we make meaning of and across time, and of one summer in a legendary poet’s life, almost half a century ago.

Excerpt from Memory by Bernadette Mayer (Siglio, 2020). Images courtesy of the Bernadette Mayer Papers, Special Collections & Archives, University of California, San Diego.

The Written Image: Unburnable Book

The volume of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale pictured below may look like any other copy of the classic novel. The stark red-and-white image of the eponymous handmaid—now emblematic of the fight for women’s reproductive rights—is the same design that has adorned other covers of Atwood’s best-seller. But if you held it you would feel the difference between those volumes and this one, the so-called “Unburnable Book.” This special edition, released in May, is made of fireproof materials: a hard cover of phenolic resin and a dust jacket and pages made of white cinefoil, a treated aluminum product, hand-sewn with nickel wire.

Doug Laxdal, whose Canadian graphic arts and specialty-bookbinding studio crafted the volume, describes the distinctive tactile quality of this one-of-a-kind tome: “It’s cold because it’s metal, and it also is about twice as heavy as what the regular book would be.” While the 384-page novel can be read for its story, it was not made for entertainment. It was manufactured this spring at the behest of Atwood’s publisher, Penguin Random House, and the Canadian creative agency Rethink to raise awareness about recent efforts to ban books from schools and libraries and funds for the literary nonprofit PEN America, which advances free expression. In a promotional video, which points out that would-be banners have even burned books recently, Atwood herself can be seen with a defiant look on her face as she aims a torch’s flames at The Handmaid’s Tale, a frequent target of book bans. White text floats over the image of unsinged open pages: “Because powerful words can never be extinguished.” Atwood’s words were powerful enough, at least, to help raise $130,000 at Sotheby’s June auction of the “Unburnable Book,” a sum, one hopes, that will go a long way toward fueling PEN America’s free-speech advocacy.

The special edition is made of fireproof materials: a hard cover of phenolic resin and a dust jacket and pages made of white cinefoil, a treated aluminum product, hand-sewn with nickel wire. (Credit: Doug Laxdal)

The Written Image: Stopan

by

Staff

6.15.22

A book that blooms. The enchanted codex of a superstitious villager. An illuminated scroll that unspools with the story of a hero doomed to kill his own king. These are just some of the extraordinary artist’s books of Stopan, a bookbinder in Bulgaria who draws on his country’s craft traditions to create artworks “both in and out of folklore.” While Stopan began making books in 2013, it was only more recently that he began to explore the more fanciful possibilities of the medium. “I came to the realization that a book has a lot more capacity than just holding text,” says Stopan. “I’m striving to find out what else I can fit within it as a vessel for expression.” To realize these ambitions, Stopan turned to two collaborators he knew well: his mother and father, Gergana Daskalova and Ivo Daskalov. “My father works with metal, gemstones, and wood—rather hard and monochrome materials,” explains Stopan. “He’s also very conservative and strict in his designs. My mother, on the other hand, works with very soft and colorful textiles and yarns, favoring a more abstract or asymmetrical visual style. I consider myself somewhere in between and try to balance each of our tasks to produce something harmonious.”

Every book, including Harvest Book, shown above, begins in Stopan’s Sofia studio, where he tries to translate “a persistent feeling” into the “shape of a book,” before developing exterior decoration and, finally, interior text, sometimes mailing the book to his parents’ town of Pleven for their contributions. Stopan, who was officially named a master bookbinder by the Bulgarian National Craft Chamber in 2018, says his work makes him sometimes feel he is “going backward in time, to when bookmaking traditions in Bulgaria were interrupted.” Yet the books themselves create “an active dialogue with the past and a broken tradition,” each a “tangible proposal” for how these time-honored arts might birth something fantastically new.

Bound in “a flowering body of goatskin, cotton and silver,” Stopan’s Harvest Book contains the lyrics of songs of tribute to the harvest and the sun. (Credit: Image courtesy of the artist.)

The Written Image: The Shape of Words

Writers tend to think of language in two dimensions, a phenomenon embodied on the printed page or digitized on electronic screens. But for Dallas artist Simeen Farhat, language is a three-dimensional form. For more than a decade she has crafted text-inspired sculptures in a complex process that blends literary and figurative composition. Each piece is conceptually and structurally based on an evocative phrase, which Farhat may have devised herself or appropriated from sources such as Homer’s Iliad, the poetry of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi, and social media. Farhat renders her chosen phrase in freehand drawings, typically using them to create molds that she casts in resin. Letters are then forged in multiple sizes and colors, which she fashions into an abstract design that is in conversation with the meaning of the phrase that prompted it.

For example, Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), pictured above, evokes a massive drop of blood exploding as it hits the floor. Built from the words of a prose poem Farhat wrote, which the sculpture is titled after, the laser-cut acrylic piece “is about life and death, love and war,” she says. “My work is very feminist, political. It’s also about hybridity. I live in many cultures.” Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Farhat moved to the United States in 1992, earning her BFA from Arizona State University in Tempe in 1998 and an MFA from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in 2000. From the beginning, her art—including drawings and multimedia pieces—has interrogated symbology and modes of communication. Her recent sculptures resemble word clouds, with letters so densely clustered as to render them illegible, “suggesting the complex contradictions found in everyday life,” according to the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, which exhibited Farhat’s work this year. Farhat’s sculptures also remind viewers of language’s physicality, its emergence from the gesture of shaping individual letters or the gesticulations of impassioned speech. Drawing on the alphabets of Arabic, English, and Romance languages, Farhat’s work also speaks to cross-cultural communication and what gets lost in translation. “I’m very much into wordplay,” she says.

 

Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), a text-inspired sculpture by Dallas artist Simeen Farhart. (Credit: Chris Worley Fine Arts, Kevin Todora)

The Written Image: Ice Receding/Books Reseeding

by

Staff

2.12.20

Artist Basia Irland’s ongoing project Ice Receding/Books Reseeding gives new meaning to the phrase “living text.” Since 2007, Irland, who lives in Albuquerque and founded the Art and Ecology Program at the University of New Mexico, has created more than two hundred “Ice Books” from the frozen waters of rivers all over the world, each embedded with seeds. The sculpted books are intentionally ephemeral; their melting represents an act of renewal as the books disperse their seeds—and a reminder of the ice being lost daily in the arctic.

To make an Ice Book, Irland collects river water, then freezes and carves it. She embeds each book with seeds of native species, such as mountain maple and wild fennel, the “ecological language” that make up the book’s text. Collaboration with local communities is integral to Irland’s process; area botanists and other scientists lend expertise, but important too are the chefs who offer walk-in freezers for the creation and storage of the largest tomes, as some weigh upwards of 250 pounds. Together with these and other collaborators, Irland launches a book by returning it to its riverbank, often with a toast to the river’s health: “May you flow, and may you always flow clean.” As the book melts, the river’s current carries the seeds downstream to repopulate its banks with plants that will in turn curb erosion, support pollination, and sequester carbon. Irland hopes the books allow people to “understand on a deeper level the necessity of working together cooperatively to come to the assistance of bodies of water around the world.” As she says, “The rivers of the world need all the reverence and protection we can provide.”

(Photo by: Eduardo Fandiño)

The Written Image: Contemplation Bowls

by

Staff

12.14.22

Books have been at the center of Swedish artist Cecilia Levy’s practice for nearly twenty years. After training as a graphic designer, Levy studied bookbinding in the early 2000s, crafting handmade notebooks and other products to sell. She also drew and painted directly onto the “canvas” of old book covers. By 2009 the pages inside those covers called to her as a medium, and she began experimenting with a papier-mâché technique to forge the delicate sculptures for which she is now known. Levy works primarily with “old books,” those published before 1960, which she inherits from friends and family or purchases at flea markets or antiquarian shops. “Old book paper…carries several histories simultaneously,” she says. “In the content itself, through traces left by previous owners and by the passing of time, where the sun has turned the book edges yellow or brown.” The idea for a sculptural form typically occurs to Levy first. “I then search for the right paper quality,” she says. “Third comes the content of the book, which I take into account in the piece somehow. Any genre works.” To make Contemplation Bowls (2013), pictured above, Levy used the pages of a Swedish spiritual book, whose title she translated as Contemplations for Each Day of the Year, which contained 365 short texts. “The bowl symbolizes the female primordial form and is found everywhere in nature,” she says. Levy’s work is in the permanent collection of Sweden’s National Museum and can be purchased through the Konsthantverkarna gallery, both in Stockholm.

Contemplation Bowls (2013) by Cecilia Levy (Credit: Hans Bjurling)

The Written Image: The Shape of Words

Writers tend to think of language in two dimensions, a phenomenon embodied on the printed page or digitized on electronic screens. But for Dallas artist Simeen Farhat, language is a three-dimensional form. For more than a decade she has crafted text-inspired sculptures in a complex process that blends literary and figurative composition. Each piece is conceptually and structurally based on an evocative phrase, which Farhat may have devised herself or appropriated from sources such as Homer’s Iliad, the poetry of the thirteenth-century Persian mystic Rumi, and social media. Farhat renders her chosen phrase in freehand drawings, typically using them to create molds that she casts in resin. Letters are then forged in multiple sizes and colors, which she fashions into an abstract design that is in conversation with the meaning of the phrase that prompted it.

For example, Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), pictured above, evokes a massive drop of blood exploding as it hits the floor. Built from the words of a prose poem Farhat wrote, which the sculpture is titled after, the laser-cut acrylic piece “is about life and death, love and war,” she says. “My work is very feminist, political. It’s also about hybridity. I live in many cultures.” Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Farhat moved to the United States in 1992, earning her BFA from Arizona State University in Tempe in 1998 and an MFA from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth in 2000. From the beginning, her art—including drawings and multimedia pieces—has interrogated symbology and modes of communication. Her recent sculptures resemble word clouds, with letters so densely clustered as to render them illegible, “suggesting the complex contradictions found in everyday life,” according to the Grace Museum in Abilene, Texas, which exhibited Farhat’s work this year. Farhat’s sculptures also remind viewers of language’s physicality, its emergence from the gesture of shaping individual letters or the gesticulations of impassioned speech. Drawing on the alphabets of Arabic, English, and Romance languages, Farhat’s work also speaks to cross-cultural communication and what gets lost in translation. “I’m very much into wordplay,” she says.

 

Blood Shot Is Blood Loved (2017), a text-inspired sculpture by Dallas artist Simeen Farhart. (Credit: Chris Worley Fine Arts, Kevin Todora)

The Written Image: Crystallized Books

by

Staff

2.15.23

Walking around San Francisco in 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold regularly came across boxes of discarded books and magazines. She suspected all this textual trash had something to do with the rise of digital reading on devices like the iPad, which had been unveiled by Apple the previous year, and Kindle, released by Amazon in 2007. Moved by the “vulnerability of printed media,” Arnold was struck by the idea of making art from the scrapped volumes. “I had been growing crystals on hard objects for various sculptures and installations and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on malleable objects,” she says. “Books can be manipulated in a multitude of ways and connected to what I was interested in conceptually.” Crystallizing a book turns it into a kind of sculpture, transforming it from a literary object into one that evokes “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.”

Characterized by their regularly patterned arrangement of atoms, crystals include snowflakes, amethysts, sodium, and other minerals and gems. To crystallize a book, Arnold boils water with borax, a powdered salt compound with molecules that expand in hot water. She then submerges the book in the solution, which as it cools causes the molecules to shrink and the borax to crystallize on the cover, pages, binding, and any other graspable surface. When the crystals have sufficiently grown, Arnold drains the solution and dries the tome—now sadly unreadable, but strangely beautiful. Arnold has crystallized a small library of computer manuals, science guides, phone books, encyclopedias, children’s stories, and classic and contemporary literature, including Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, pictured above. To see crystallized copies of Moby-Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other books, visit alexisarnold.com.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, crystallized by Alexis Arnold. (Credit: Alexis Arnold)

The Written Image: Contemplation Bowls

by

Staff

12.14.22

Books have been at the center of Swedish artist Cecilia Levy’s practice for nearly twenty years. After training as a graphic designer, Levy studied bookbinding in the early 2000s, crafting handmade notebooks and other products to sell. She also drew and painted directly onto the “canvas” of old book covers. By 2009 the pages inside those covers called to her as a medium, and she began experimenting with a papier-mâché technique to forge the delicate sculptures for which she is now known. Levy works primarily with “old books,” those published before 1960, which she inherits from friends and family or purchases at flea markets or antiquarian shops. “Old book paper…carries several histories simultaneously,” she says. “In the content itself, through traces left by previous owners and by the passing of time, where the sun has turned the book edges yellow or brown.” The idea for a sculptural form typically occurs to Levy first. “I then search for the right paper quality,” she says. “Third comes the content of the book, which I take into account in the piece somehow. Any genre works.” To make Contemplation Bowls (2013), pictured above, Levy used the pages of a Swedish spiritual book, whose title she translated as Contemplations for Each Day of the Year, which contained 365 short texts. “The bowl symbolizes the female primordial form and is found everywhere in nature,” she says. Levy’s work is in the permanent collection of Sweden’s National Museum and can be purchased through the Konsthantverkarna gallery, both in Stockholm.

Contemplation Bowls (2013) by Cecilia Levy (Credit: Hans Bjurling)

The Written Image: Monica Ong—Rewriting the Sky

by

Staff

4.12.23

When Monica Ong composes a poem, she thinks not only about language, but about how readers might encounter that language beyond the page. A designer by trade and training—she has an MFA in digital media—the Connecticut-based “visual poet” marries verse with specially crafted objects that are as much a part of her poetics as word choice and syntactical arrangement. For Ong, to write poetry means to also “design engaging experiences of poetry,” she says. Her first book, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015), stemmed from art installations in which Ong interrogated institutional discourses of the body by altering X-rays, anatomical drawings, and other medical paraphernalia to contain poetry; Silent Anatomies includes images of these visual poems that had originally been objects on display. “My creative practice has always been rooted in a studio practice, but it is also very much deeply engaged with challenging and subverting narratives through lyrical experimentation,” she says.

In her recent work, which she has dubbed her Planetaria series, Ong explores astronomy, imagining “rewriting the sky from a female perspective.” A medieval tool for tracking the heavens, for example, was the basis for Ong’s Lunar Volvelle (2021), pictured above. In a volvelle, paper circles are layered on top of one another and fastened in the center with pointers that the user can spin to understand the movement of the sun or moon. In Lunar Volvelle, Ong put her paternal grandmother’s face where an image of the moon might have been and words that speak to femininity, ancestry, and power in place of astronomical data. The language in Lunar Volvelle may be read in different ways, forming multiple poems. “I want to invite people to think of poetry as stargazing,” Ong says. “When you look at stars you make the connections that feel natural to you.” Lunar Volvelle will be on view May 21 to September 3 at Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, with other work from Planetaria, which was also exhibited last year at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “The gallery space affords one way to open up new possibilities of reading,” Ong says.

Lunar Volvelle (2021). (Credit: Monica Ong)

The Written Image: Crystallized Books

by

Staff

2.15.23

Walking around San Francisco in 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold regularly came across boxes of discarded books and magazines. She suspected all this textual trash had something to do with the rise of digital reading on devices like the iPad, which had been unveiled by Apple the previous year, and Kindle, released by Amazon in 2007. Moved by the “vulnerability of printed media,” Arnold was struck by the idea of making art from the scrapped volumes. “I had been growing crystals on hard objects for various sculptures and installations and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on malleable objects,” she says. “Books can be manipulated in a multitude of ways and connected to what I was interested in conceptually.” Crystallizing a book turns it into a kind of sculpture, transforming it from a literary object into one that evokes “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.”

Characterized by their regularly patterned arrangement of atoms, crystals include snowflakes, amethysts, sodium, and other minerals and gems. To crystallize a book, Arnold boils water with borax, a powdered salt compound with molecules that expand in hot water. She then submerges the book in the solution, which as it cools causes the molecules to shrink and the borax to crystallize on the cover, pages, binding, and any other graspable surface. When the crystals have sufficiently grown, Arnold drains the solution and dries the tome—now sadly unreadable, but strangely beautiful. Arnold has crystallized a small library of computer manuals, science guides, phone books, encyclopedias, children’s stories, and classic and contemporary literature, including Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, pictured above. To see crystallized copies of Moby-Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, and other books, visit alexisarnold.com.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, crystallized by Alexis Arnold. (Credit: Alexis Arnold)

The Written Image: Ella Hawkins’s Biscuit Art

by

Staff

6.14.23

Like many people, Ella Hawkins turned to baking to cope with the social isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Defying the bread-making craze that swept social media, the British scholar opted to make decorated biscuits—or cookies, as Americans call them—in conversation with her academic field: design history. The first set she posted on Instagram in 2021 was an homage to William Morris, the nineteenth-century British textile designer. She flavored the dough with orange, cardamom, and vanilla; after baking the biscuits, she hand-piped elaborate floral patterns onto them with various shades of royal icing. Hawkins has used a similar method for crafting the many biscuits that have followed, often inspired by literary subjects that intersect with design: costumes from the historical-fantasy TV drama Outlander, based on the novel series by Diana Gabaldon; objects in the collection of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England, where Hawkins was a 2021 artist-in-residence; medieval illuminated manuscripts; Georgian-era bookbinding tools; and more.

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. Each of the twenty-four biscuits corresponds to a different costume, portrait, or place featured in the volume; a key identifying the origin of each motif in the set can be found on her website. While they may function as visual artworks, Hawkins’s biscuits are primarily culinary creations: “As long as I’ve got a good photograph of the finished set, I’m very happy for the biscuits to be eaten and enjoyed,” she says. But that has not stopped her from publicly displaying her edible wares, as she did last summer at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, where she held a residency and made biscuits responding to the gallery’s “Meat and Potatoes” exhibition. While many subjects appeal to Hawkins as a biscuit artist, she expects books to remain her constant muse: “Literature will always be a big source of inspiration for me,” she says, “particularly because it brings together my academic and artistic interests.”

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. (Credit: Ella Hawkins)

The Written Image: Monica Ong—Rewriting the Sky

by

Staff

4.12.23

When Monica Ong composes a poem, she thinks not only about language, but about how readers might encounter that language beyond the page. A designer by trade and training—she has an MFA in digital media—the Connecticut-based “visual poet” marries verse with specially crafted objects that are as much a part of her poetics as word choice and syntactical arrangement. For Ong, to write poetry means to also “design engaging experiences of poetry,” she says. Her first book, Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015), stemmed from art installations in which Ong interrogated institutional discourses of the body by altering X-rays, anatomical drawings, and other medical paraphernalia to contain poetry; Silent Anatomies includes images of these visual poems that had originally been objects on display. “My creative practice has always been rooted in a studio practice, but it is also very much deeply engaged with challenging and subverting narratives through lyrical experimentation,” she says.

In her recent work, which she has dubbed her Planetaria series, Ong explores astronomy, imagining “rewriting the sky from a female perspective.” A medieval tool for tracking the heavens, for example, was the basis for Ong’s Lunar Volvelle (2021), pictured above. In a volvelle, paper circles are layered on top of one another and fastened in the center with pointers that the user can spin to understand the movement of the sun or moon. In Lunar Volvelle, Ong put her paternal grandmother’s face where an image of the moon might have been and words that speak to femininity, ancestry, and power in place of astronomical data. The language in Lunar Volvelle may be read in different ways, forming multiple poems. “I want to invite people to think of poetry as stargazing,” Ong says. “When you look at stars you make the connections that feel natural to you.” Lunar Volvelle will be on view May 21 to September 3 at Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey, with other work from Planetaria, which was also exhibited last year at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. “The gallery space affords one way to open up new possibilities of reading,” Ong says.

Lunar Volvelle (2021). (Credit: Monica Ong)

The Written Image: My Brilliant Friend

by

Jen DeGregorio

8.16.23

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels have become an international juggernaut, selling more than 15 million copies in forty-five languages and inspiring adaptations across artistic genres: an award-winning HBO series and several staged productions. Not only popular but critically acclaimed, the books have been reimagined once again as graphic novels, the first one of which, My Brilliant Friend, will be published in English in October by Europa Editions. Italian artist Mara Cerri was tapped to illustrate this latest version of Ferrante’s beloved series. Cerri’s art appears with text adapted from Ferrante’s language by Italian writer Chiara Lagani, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the Neapolitan Quartet for Europa. A multidisciplinary creator of animated films, children’s books, and designs for publications such as the Washington Post, Cerri discussed her artistic practice, the challenges of rendering an esteemed novel in images, and her experience working with one of world’s most elusive authors—Elena Ferrante is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. Europa Editions editor Edoardo Andreoni translated Cerri’s comments from the Italian for this interview.

Whose idea was it to make a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend? How long did this project take from start to finish?
The idea of creating a graphic novel based on Ferrante’s novel came from Giovanni Ferrara, director of Coconino Press in Italy. It was he who made the proposal to me and Chiara Lagani. Giovanni knew that Chiara had adapted My Brilliant Friend for the theater and produced it with her theater company, Fanny & Alexander, and that I had created the animations for the documentary Ferrante Fever, directed by Giacomo Durzi. I believe that Giovanni’s proposal was the natural interweaving of many different threads—something that a perceptive publisher like him would come up with. It took about two years from the initial proposal until the publication of the book by Coconino in 2022. Two very intense years, during which Chiara and I had the opportunity to work alongside people of great professionalism and humanity: Davide Reviati, a cartoonist and illustrator whom I admire immensely and who introduced readers in Italy to the then largely unknown language of comic books; the graphic designer Leonardo Guardigli; and Giovanni Ferrara himself.

I see that you illustrated a children’s book by Ferrante, La spiaggia di notte (Il Baleno, 2007), published in English by Europa Editions in 2016 as The Beach at Night. How did you come to work with Ferrante on that project?
I had read a few novels by Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love, The Days of Abandoment, The Lost Daughter, and the essay collection Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. I was completely enraptured by Ferrante’s writing. I felt that it vibrated with a profound understanding of reality, one that seemed closely connected to my own life experience. I had already collaborated with Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, designing covers for the children’s imprint Il Baleno, which at the time was directed by Giovanni Nucci. Il Baleno was publishing very interesting authors, including one of my favorite authors and illustrators, Wolf Erlbruch. At a book fair in Rome dedicated to independent publishing, Nucci asked me to illustrate Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, La spiaggia di notte. I also owe this opportunty to Fausta Orecchio of Orecchio Acerbo Editions, who recommended me to Nucci. It was a very important moment in my career. With Sandra Ozzola, the founder and owner of Edizioni E/O, acting as intermediary, I corresponded with Ferrante via e-mail. I wanted to know what her expectations and desires for the book were, and I told her what images came to my mind reading the story, as if to ask her permission. I was happy and excited, but also slightly nervous about the responsibility of illustrating the work of an author I felt was so powerful. At the same time, I felt an entirely new and thrilling sense of freedom.

What was your approach to illustrating My Brilliant Friend? How did you make decisions about the aesthetic of the illustrations, the color palate, and other artistic considerations?
I wanted the line and the technique to have the same quality as the writing, which often feels material and rough. The physicality of Ferrante’s writing was a natural inspiration for me. The close collaboration and dialogue with Chiara, who adapted the text, was fundamental. As a playwright, she has spent her life in the theater. Listening to her talk and read passages from the book gave me further insight into the text. I found great inspiration in her interpretation and her voice, as if I were listening to a “living” script.

The colors of the illustrations are linked to the rhythm of the story; each narrative segment has its own dominant color. The first illustrations are gray and earthy, introducing the reader to the Neapolitan neighborhood. The trip to the sea is drawn in pastel and airy colors. The tunnel that Lila and Lenù go through reveals a different, almost dreamlike world; crossing into it is like a rite of passage and rebirth. The scene of the “smarginatura,” the dissolving of margins, is illustrated with fluorescent and bright colors that cut through the dark sky above the buildings. They are colors that have a narrative and symbolic function. The panels are painted in acrylic and India ink on paper, without digital support.

What do you hope a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend can add to readers’ understanding of the original novel? Why make a graphic version of the novel at all?
Because every form of language has the power to reveal new points of view of a story. This is intrinsic in the very nature of comics and graphic novels, since they draw on the symbolic power of images. From the collision between words and images, new narrative circuits are generated, associations that act deeply on the reader. I have been profoundly changed by the experience of illustrating My Brilliant Friend, because somehow the journey made by Ferrante’s characters Lila and Lenù has pierced through me.

You mentioned corresponding with Elena Ferrante for your work on The Beach at Night. What advice did she have for you as you worked on your illustrations for My Brilliant Friend? What is she like?
Coconino Press sent the first twenty drawings for the book to Ferrante via Edizioni E/O, and included a short letter from me and Chiara, asking for her opinion. Her reply was very encouraging; she was happy with the work. I felt an intimate contact, much affection in the way we shared this story.

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an artist?
Reading and drawing were the activities I loved most as a child, something amazing that I could do on my own. When I started working in publishing as an illustrator, I felt that secret joy possessing me again, like an inexhaustible resource. After attending the Urbino Book School, I exhibited my works at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and at the illustration biennials of Bratislava, Slovakia, and Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2002 I have been working as an illustrator of children’s books for some publishing houses in Italy and abroad. I have also published books that I both authored and illustrated: Dentro gli occhi cosa resta (Fatatrac, 2004), A una stella cadente (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2007), and Via Curiel 8 (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2009). Together with animator Magda Guidi I created an animated short film based on my book Via Curiel 8, produced by Sacrebleu Productions of Paris. Some of the animation sequences from Via Curiel 8 were included in Ferrante Fever. It felt like a natural development, since I had drawn for the short film after reading Ferrante and illustrating The Beach at Night, and there are definitely echoes of Ferrante’s writing in my work.

Directing and designing animated films has always been part of my work as an illustrator. I also made a second short film with Magda, Sogni al campo, presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and coproduced by Withstand Film of Italy and Miyu Productions of France. I was lucky enough to collaborate with wonderful writers such as Paolo Cognetti; author of The Eight Mountains; Andrea Bajani; Nadia Terranova; and Davide Orecchio. The book I created with Terranova, Il segreto, or The Secret (Mondadori Ragazzi Editions, 2021), won two important prizes in Italy: the Andersen Award and the Youth Strega Prize. For a few years, until about 2016, I collaborated with the U.S. illustration agency Riley Illustration, thanks to which I created illustrations for campaigns by United Airlines and Barnes & Noble and for some magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post.

What are your plans as an artist moving forward?
Chiara and I will work on the subsequent books in the Neapolitan Quartet. The second, The Story of a New Name, should be released in Italy in 2024. The stage show based on our graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend [in which images from the graphic novel are projected on stage while Lagani reads the accompanying text]—called L’Amica geniale a fumetti, or My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel—has been performed in various Italian cities during the last year and will continue touring with Lagani’s Fanny & Alexander theater company. We are considering putting together a Chinese version of the show to accompany the publication of the book in China and hope to do the same in other countries.

In 2024 two other books I illustrated will be published in Italy by Orecchio Acerbo Editions as part of a new series called “I Terremoti.” The authors of the two books are very special to me: Nadia Terranova, the author of The Secret, and film director Alice Rohrwacher, whose movies have touched my soul. For Alice, I’ve already made the poster of her movie Happy as Lazzaro. In the future I hope to work again on animated movies.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you about here, regarding My Brilliant Friend or anything else?
Creating this graphic novel was a fascinating experience because it offered me the possibility of going very deeply into the narrative mechanisms of the novel. It was a great learning experience. Chiara and I are now working on the second book. The challenge is to be able to find a formula for editing the scenes that is authentically derived from the novel but takes advantage of the potential of the graphic form. It is also necessary to take care to do justice to all the major themes of the novel. It’s a beautiful responsibility.

 

Jen DeGregorio is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

A page from My Brilliant Friend. (Credit: Europa Editions)

The Written Image: Ella Hawkins’s Biscuit Art

by

Staff

6.14.23

Like many people, Ella Hawkins turned to baking to cope with the social isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Defying the bread-making craze that swept social media, the British scholar opted to make decorated biscuits—or cookies, as Americans call them—in conversation with her academic field: design history. The first set she posted on Instagram in 2021 was an homage to William Morris, the nineteenth-century British textile designer. She flavored the dough with orange, cardamom, and vanilla; after baking the biscuits, she hand-piped elaborate floral patterns onto them with various shades of royal icing. Hawkins has used a similar method for crafting the many biscuits that have followed, often inspired by literary subjects that intersect with design: costumes from the historical-fantasy TV drama Outlander, based on the novel series by Diana Gabaldon; objects in the collection of Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, England, where Hawkins was a 2021 artist-in-residence; medieval illuminated manuscripts; Georgian-era bookbinding tools; and more.

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. Each of the twenty-four biscuits corresponds to a different costume, portrait, or place featured in the volume; a key identifying the origin of each motif in the set can be found on her website. While they may function as visual artworks, Hawkins’s biscuits are primarily culinary creations: “As long as I’ve got a good photograph of the finished set, I’m very happy for the biscuits to be eaten and enjoyed,” she says. But that has not stopped her from publicly displaying her edible wares, as she did last summer at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, where she held a residency and made biscuits responding to the gallery’s “Meat and Potatoes” exhibition. While many subjects appeal to Hawkins as a biscuit artist, she expects books to remain her constant muse: “Literature will always be a big source of inspiration for me,” she says, “particularly because it brings together my academic and artistic interests.”

Hawkins made the set pictured above to celebrate the release of her book, Shakespeare in Elizabethan Costume: ‘Period Dress’ in Twenty-First-Century Performance, published in 2022 by Bloomsbury. (Credit: Ella Hawkins)

The Written Image: The Comfort of Crows

by

Staff

10.11.23

When Billy Renkl was crafting the artwork that accompanies each essay in his sister Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year (Spiegel & Grau, October 2023), he sought to capture the spirit of the wildlife under consideration while emphasizing the message of the prose: “I wanted the collages to make those plants—sticky willy, passionflower, clover—and animals—foxes, skinks, bluebirds—into concrete references that are factual and tender in equal measure but that nevertheless echo Margaret’s commitment to confronting the frightening truth of global warming,” he says. An illustrator and fine artist with “a giant stockpile of imagery” ready to be snipped from three decades of collected materials, Renkl found his main creative challenge to be selecting the precise components for each collage: “I wanted to honor Margaret’s careful observation,” he says. “Not this swallowtail butterfly but that one.”

Renkl made each piece with cut paper derived from a variety of sources: vintage packaging, seed envelopes, a 1950s-era billboard, a wedding invitation, and antique chromolithographs, among others. Renkl also incorporated original painting and drawing with watercolor, ink, colored pencil, and other media, making each design a layered puzzle for the eyes. In the collage pictured above, which precedes the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox,” Renkl used a cube as a visual metaphor for a trap. Behind the captive fox is “a cyanotype made by superimposing drawings of four or five houses, suggesting a tangled, unnatural, impenetrable structure,” says Renkl. “The whole is backed by an encyclopedia illustration, suggesting the problem-solving that suffuses the essay.” The Comfort of Crows represents the second time Renkl collaborated with his sister on a book; the first was for Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions, 2019). 

The collage preceding the third essay in the collection, “How to Catch a Fox.” (Credit: Courtesy of Spiegel and Grau)

The Written Image: My Brilliant Friend

by

Jen DeGregorio

8.16.23

Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet novels have become an international juggernaut, selling more than 15 million copies in forty-five languages and inspiring adaptations across artistic genres: an award-winning HBO series and several staged productions. Not only popular but critically acclaimed, the books have been reimagined once again as graphic novels, the first one of which, My Brilliant Friend, will be published in English in October by Europa Editions. Italian artist Mara Cerri was tapped to illustrate this latest version of Ferrante’s beloved series. Cerri’s art appears with text adapted from Ferrante’s language by Italian writer Chiara Lagani, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the Neapolitan Quartet for Europa. A multidisciplinary creator of animated films, children’s books, and designs for publications such as the Washington Post, Cerri discussed her artistic practice, the challenges of rendering an esteemed novel in images, and her experience working with one of world’s most elusive authors—Elena Ferrante is the pen name of a writer who wishes to remain anonymous. Europa Editions editor Edoardo Andreoni translated Cerri’s comments from the Italian for this interview.

Whose idea was it to make a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend? How long did this project take from start to finish?
The idea of creating a graphic novel based on Ferrante’s novel came from Giovanni Ferrara, director of Coconino Press in Italy. It was he who made the proposal to me and Chiara Lagani. Giovanni knew that Chiara had adapted My Brilliant Friend for the theater and produced it with her theater company, Fanny & Alexander, and that I had created the animations for the documentary Ferrante Fever, directed by Giacomo Durzi. I believe that Giovanni’s proposal was the natural interweaving of many different threads—something that a perceptive publisher like him would come up with. It took about two years from the initial proposal until the publication of the book by Coconino in 2022. Two very intense years, during which Chiara and I had the opportunity to work alongside people of great professionalism and humanity: Davide Reviati, a cartoonist and illustrator whom I admire immensely and who introduced readers in Italy to the then largely unknown language of comic books; the graphic designer Leonardo Guardigli; and Giovanni Ferrara himself.

I see that you illustrated a children’s book by Ferrante, La spiaggia di notte (Il Baleno, 2007), published in English by Europa Editions in 2016 as The Beach at Night. How did you come to work with Ferrante on that project?
I had read a few novels by Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love, The Days of Abandoment, The Lost Daughter, and the essay collection Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. I was completely enraptured by Ferrante’s writing. I felt that it vibrated with a profound understanding of reality, one that seemed closely connected to my own life experience. I had already collaborated with Ferrante’s Italian publisher, Edizioni E/O, designing covers for the children’s imprint Il Baleno, which at the time was directed by Giovanni Nucci. Il Baleno was publishing very interesting authors, including one of my favorite authors and illustrators, Wolf Erlbruch. At a book fair in Rome dedicated to independent publishing, Nucci asked me to illustrate Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, La spiaggia di notte. I also owe this opportunty to Fausta Orecchio of Orecchio Acerbo Editions, who recommended me to Nucci. It was a very important moment in my career. With Sandra Ozzola, the founder and owner of Edizioni E/O, acting as intermediary, I corresponded with Ferrante via e-mail. I wanted to know what her expectations and desires for the book were, and I told her what images came to my mind reading the story, as if to ask her permission. I was happy and excited, but also slightly nervous about the responsibility of illustrating the work of an author I felt was so powerful. At the same time, I felt an entirely new and thrilling sense of freedom.

What was your approach to illustrating My Brilliant Friend? How did you make decisions about the aesthetic of the illustrations, the color palate, and other artistic considerations?
I wanted the line and the technique to have the same quality as the writing, which often feels material and rough. The physicality of Ferrante’s writing was a natural inspiration for me. The close collaboration and dialogue with Chiara, who adapted the text, was fundamental. As a playwright, she has spent her life in the theater. Listening to her talk and read passages from the book gave me further insight into the text. I found great inspiration in her interpretation and her voice, as if I were listening to a “living” script.

The colors of the illustrations are linked to the rhythm of the story; each narrative segment has its own dominant color. The first illustrations are gray and earthy, introducing the reader to the Neapolitan neighborhood. The trip to the sea is drawn in pastel and airy colors. The tunnel that Lila and Lenù go through reveals a different, almost dreamlike world; crossing into it is like a rite of passage and rebirth. The scene of the “smarginatura,” the dissolving of margins, is illustrated with fluorescent and bright colors that cut through the dark sky above the buildings. They are colors that have a narrative and symbolic function. The panels are painted in acrylic and India ink on paper, without digital support.

What do you hope a graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend can add to readers’ understanding of the original novel? Why make a graphic version of the novel at all?
Because every form of language has the power to reveal new points of view of a story. This is intrinsic in the very nature of comics and graphic novels, since they draw on the symbolic power of images. From the collision between words and images, new narrative circuits are generated, associations that act deeply on the reader. I have been profoundly changed by the experience of illustrating My Brilliant Friend, because somehow the journey made by Ferrante’s characters Lila and Lenù has pierced through me.

You mentioned corresponding with Elena Ferrante for your work on The Beach at Night. What advice did she have for you as you worked on your illustrations for My Brilliant Friend? What is she like?
Coconino Press sent the first twenty drawings for the book to Ferrante via Edizioni E/O, and included a short letter from me and Chiara, asking for her opinion. Her reply was very encouraging; she was happy with the work. I felt an intimate contact, much affection in the way we shared this story.

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an artist?
Reading and drawing were the activities I loved most as a child, something amazing that I could do on my own. When I started working in publishing as an illustrator, I felt that secret joy possessing me again, like an inexhaustible resource. After attending the Urbino Book School, I exhibited my works at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and at the illustration biennials of Bratislava, Slovakia, and Lisbon, Portugal. Since 2002 I have been working as an illustrator of children’s books for some publishing houses in Italy and abroad. I have also published books that I both authored and illustrated: Dentro gli occhi cosa resta (Fatatrac, 2004), A una stella cadente (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2007), and Via Curiel 8 (Orecchio Acerbo Editions, 2009). Together with animator Magda Guidi I created an animated short film based on my book Via Curiel 8, produced by Sacrebleu Productions of Paris. Some of the animation sequences from Via Curiel 8 were included in Ferrante Fever. It felt like a natural development, since I had drawn for the short film after reading Ferrante and illustrating The Beach at Night, and there are definitely echoes of Ferrante’s writing in my work.

Directing and designing animated films has always been part of my work as an illustrator. I also made a second short film with Magda, Sogni al campo, presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2020 and coproduced by Withstand Film of Italy and Miyu Productions of France. I was lucky enough to collaborate with wonderful writers such as Paolo Cognetti; author of The Eight Mountains; Andrea Bajani; Nadia Terranova; and Davide Orecchio. The book I created with Terranova, Il segreto, or The Secret (Mondadori Ragazzi Editions, 2021), won two important prizes in Italy: the Andersen Award and the Youth Strega Prize. For a few years, until about 2016, I collaborated with the U.S. illustration agency Riley Illustration, thanks to which I created illustrations for campaigns by United Airlines and Barnes & Noble and for some magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post.

What are your plans as an artist moving forward?
Chiara and I will work on the subsequent books in the Neapolitan Quartet. The second, The Story of a New Name, should be released in Italy in 2024. The stage show based on our graphic novel version of My Brilliant Friend [in which images from the graphic novel are projected on stage while Lagani reads the accompanying text]—called L’Amica geniale a fumetti, or My Brilliant Friend: The Graphic Novel—has been performed in various Italian cities during the last year and will continue touring with Lagani’s Fanny & Alexander theater company. We are considering putting together a Chinese version of the show to accompany the publication of the book in China and hope to do the same in other countries.

In 2024 two other books I illustrated will be published in Italy by Orecchio Acerbo Editions as part of a new series called “I Terremoti.” The authors of the two books are very special to me: Nadia Terranova, the author of The Secret, and film director Alice Rohrwacher, whose movies have touched my soul. For Alice, I’ve already made the poster of her movie Happy as Lazzaro. In the future I hope to work again on animated movies.

Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you about here, regarding My Brilliant Friend or anything else?
Creating this graphic novel was a fascinating experience because it offered me the possibility of going very deeply into the narrative mechanisms of the novel. It was a great learning experience. Chiara and I are now working on the second book. The challenge is to be able to find a formula for editing the scenes that is authentically derived from the novel but takes advantage of the potential of the graphic form. It is also necessary to take care to do justice to all the major themes of the novel. It’s a beautiful responsibility.

 

Jen DeGregorio is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

A page from My Brilliant Friend. (Credit: Europa Editions)

The Written Image: John Yau’s “Wanted!” Series

by

Staff

12.13.23

Among the perversely iconic artifacts of Americana is the “Wanted” poster. A broadside stamped with the face of an alleged criminal and fugitive, it conjures the Wild West and early-twentieth-century celebrity gangsters like John Dillinger. This odd bit of penal-turned-popular culture inspired a new project by poet, art critic, and renaissance creator John Yau and visual artist Richard Hull. But their “Wanted!” series of twenty-three monotype prints highlights praiseworthy subjects: artists whom Yau and Hull believe deserve wider acclaim.

The monotypes pictured above, for example, call for “more eyes on” John D. Graham, a Ukrainian-born A