Writers Confront Climate Crisis

Gila Lyons

Author and activist Toni Cade Bambara has said the role of the artist is “to make revolution irresistible.” So when Jenny Offill, author of the novels Dept. of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) and Weather (Knopf, 2020), heard about the work of Writers Rebel—the writers’ arm of Extinction Rebellion, an international activist group that works against climate change—she felt compelled to get involved. “I’d been working on Weather and was thinking and reading a lot about climate change, trying to figure out how, when I was done, I was going to do something that was actual activism and not just hole up in my room writing,” Offill says. “In October 2019 I saw that this Writers Rebel group was about to have its first event in England and sent a note of solidarity. They got in touch and said, ‘We’ve been wanting to start a New York City branch; how do you feel about that?’”

Founded in 2018 in the United Kingdom, Extinction Rebellion is a global movement of grassroots activists who use civil disobedience and other nonviolent means to address the urgent threat of climate change. Their massive protests, some filling London’s Trafalgar Square with colorful puppets and performance art, have demanded government action on policy change and called on the voices of writers including Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood to articulate the realities of the climate crisis. The movement boasts over a thousand local groups in more than seventy countries, including several Writers Rebel chapters: coalitions of writers, editors, and others in publishing who seek to “position literary creativity, language, and storytelling as crucial means of inspiring courage, conversation, and action for our climate and environment,” as Writers Rebel NYC says in its mission statement. Writers Rebel NYC was launched on November 25, 2019, when at Offill’s invitation a dozen writers met at the Center for Fiction in New York City to “see what we, as members of the literary community, could do to raise the alarm that this isn’t the slow-moving disaster that people think it is,” Offill says. “Amitav Ghosh was at that first meeting, and many of us had read his book The Great Derangement, which argues that literature is failing at tackling the greatest crisis of our time. He asks, ‘When people look back at this time, they’re going to wonder, why weren’t there more books about this?’”

The first Writers Rebel NYC events were planned to take place in person in 2020; as the pandemic altered that plan, the group adapted—and expanded their reach—through Zoom events. They partnered with the Brooklyn Public Library to launch Climate Reads, a reading group that works for climate change action by choosing one book a month for participants to read and then hosting discussions among activists, writers, scientists, and others. The first Climate Reads event featured former National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas, climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, and author Emily Raboteau discussing Octavia Butler’s prescient dystopian novel, Parable of the Sower, which imagines a California plagued by drought and rising sea levels from global warming. At another, Jenny Offill and her daughter, Theo Hirmes, discussed Greta Thunberg’s book No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, a rallying cry for action against global warming and the climate crisis. More events are planned throughout 2021. Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut novel, Bangkok Wakes to Rain (Riverhead Books, 2019), which depicts a futuristic Bangkok half-drowned by rising sea levels, will be the Climate Reads title in March. “When you have a crisis as large as the climate, narrative is everything,” says Sudbanthad. “Literature makes the crisis more palpable to more people, because fiction is rooted in truth. This truth helps to destroy the false narratives and denialism out there.” 

But can reading and discussion foment significant climate activism? Novelist Alexandra Kleeman, who joined Writers Rebel NYC out of a craving for an activist writing community in which authors grapple with climate crisis in their work, thinks it can. “We absolutely need massive policy change. But literature is a way of making the problem more relatable and more discussable.” She believes climate representation in literature changes the way readers experience reality and offers a true vision of our human condition and agency. Editor and fiction writer Elissa Schappell, a member of Writers Rebel NYC since its inception, agrees. “Reading demands that readers surrender themselves to the experience the writer is offering them, forcing them to inhabit the lives and the landscape of characters that may be very unlike them,” she says. “Writers have a unique ability to capture the realities of the climate disaster in ways that reach people on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level.” 

For fellow Writers Rebel NYC member and fiction writer Emily Raboteau, literature is not merely a good place to confront the climate crisis, but an essential one: “Words are what some of us do, and books are how readers learn about the world…. At this point, if we are to survive, everything and everyone must confront the climate crisis. All hands on deck.”   

 

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

Pandemic Pen Pals

by

Emma Hine

2.17.21

Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.

At the time, Penpalooza was less than two months old and swiftly growing, thanks to the inventiveness and charm of its founder, New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, and to an evident need for social outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Syme, who lives in New York City, began mailing letters to friends and family in April 2020, when, she told Pop-Up Magazine, she rarely left her apartment and “couldn’t write for more than a few minutes at a time.” Writing letters, she said, helped jump-start her work. In late June, Syme asked her Twitter followers—they currently number more than 111,000—if anyone would be interested in finding a pen pal. In a matter of days she received more than five hundred replies, and on June 30, she launched Penpalooza on Elfster, an online platform designed to facilitate Secret Santa gift exchanges. By July 9 more than 1,500 people had signed up. By the time 2020 came to a close, nine thousand pen pals had found correspondents from more than fifty countries. Penpalooza is the largest exchange ever hosted on Elfster, so large that the platform’s engineers altered their code specifically to accommodate this demand.

Through Penpalooza, Chaudhury has connected with numerous pen pals, one of whom lives twenty minutes from her; others live in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Toronto, Dublin, London, and Vancouver, British Columbia. In their correspondence she has read about job losses, relationships, kids, and daily life. Her pen pals have also mailed recipes, crossword puzzles, pictures of family dogs, and even a pair of warm socks. For Chaudhury, whose pre-pandemic work required meeting new people every day, the exchange has offered “something unexpected and whimsical in this stretch of time that’s been so monotonous, so depressing, and so hard.” She says, “To wake up every morning and think to myself, ‘Who shall I write to today?’ and, ‘Is today the day that I’ll get a response?’ is utterly fantastic.”

Like Syme herself, some of those who have come to Penpalooza are also working writers. Kristin Keane—the author of the fiction chapbook Luminaries, which is forthcoming from Omnidawn in April—joined the program in September. Her father was a mail carrier for thirty years, and she sees letter-writing as “sacrosanct.” And while some thriving Penpalooza exchanges take place over e-mail for accessibility reasons, for Keane and many others, a physical letter is “a little boomerang of hope.” Keane says, “Understanding that someone else is thinking of you and taking the time to put their hand down to real paper and tell you that matters a lot right now.”

Syme describes mail in similar terms, like “a message in a bottle”—handmade, well-traveled, the result of  “so many miracles that have to happen for it to arrive on your doorstep.” And many of these miracles have found a second home on Twitter, as senders and recipients alike share the process and products of their “mail art.” A scroll through #penpalooza reveals shots of beautiful handmade envelopes—addresses obscured, of course—held in front of mailboxes, of delicate embroidery, of stationery collections and favorite stamps and even gift baskets. Many participants, Chaudhury included, have found additional pen pals on Twitter, rushing to adopt strangers whose initial letters were never answered.

Since Syme embarked on Penpalooza, letters have become another part of her writing life. “It’s a different part of my brain,” she says, “and it’s a different part of my creative tool kit, and I really love it.” She isn’t alone: Many people have told her that participating in Penpalooza has “opened up long-dormant desires to communicate this way, to be creative,” she says. As of this writing, Penpalooza remains open to new participants; Syme doesn’t know what the demand will be for the exchange once “our sense of isolation has receded,” whenever that may be, but she plans to keep Penpalooza alive as long as it’s wanted. Maybe, she says, it’ll even become “an alternative to your big, outside partying world—maybe you’ll then come back in and write letters.”   

 

Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and was recently published by Sarabande Books. Her poems and essays have appeared in Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, the Offing, the Paris Review, the Southern Review, and elsewhere.

Vintage stamps and calligraphy adorn a letter from Sharon Kolbet LeBond to a Penpalooza pen pal (left); Ali Abel hand-stitched pen pal achievement badges to celebrate her correspondence. (Credit: Letters: Sharon Kolbet LeBond)

The Written Image: Floating Worlds

by

Staff

9.1.11

In the late sixties, artist and writer Edward Gorey, known for his sophisticated, macabre illustrations and slyly dark narratives (the introductory sequence still in use for Masterpiece Mystery! and books such as The Gashleycrumb Tinies andThe Doubtful Guest exemplify his style and humor), collaborated for a short but productive time with author and translator Peter F. Neumeyer. Released this month by Pomegranate, the book Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Neumeyer, showcases the copious correspondence between the two artist-writers, with

Gorey’s elegantly wrought letters on display—even his envelopes were illustrated and addressed with calligraphic flair. The image above features a note from Gorey to Neumeyer written in 1969, less than a year after they’d met to collaborate on a children’s story—Donald and the…—for publisher Addison-Wesley. “I’m all right (this is only sepia ink, not blood),” Gorey writes, revealing an intimacy in his nascent friendship with Neumeyer. “But I’m so distracted from?/by? drawing that I just can’t cope with anything else for the present, however long that is. O the horror of it all.… (I think this is a shade more poetic than ‘Oh, the…etc.’) The Penguin Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the great Dismal Works. Excuse handwriting.” On the accompanying envelope, a rotund headless creature utters, “Mumble….” Gorey and Neumeyer, both voracious readers, also exchanged book recommendations, quotes, and insights on art and existence, in addition to storyboards and pieces of text and art for what grew into three book collaborations.

Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer

During their collaboration on three books in the late sixties, artist and author Edward Gorey exchanged a wealth of missives with writer Peter F. Neumeyer. The letters and accompanying ephemera showcased in the book Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Neumeyer and published by Pomegranate in September, reveal the power of creative connections and the boundless artfulness of correspondence.

Art of Correspondence

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Even the envelopes Gorey sent to Neumeyer were often illustrated and addressed with calligraphic flair.

Floating Worlds

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Edward Gorey (left) and Peter Neumeyer pose on the buoy in Barnstable Harbor, Gorey’s first home on Cape Cod, where the two first met.

Fly for Donald

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Early correspondence between Gorey and Neumeyer centered on the children’s book Donald and the…, which Neumeyer had originally written and illustrated in watercolor for his children. On the upper left corner of the letter accompanying this housefly illustration, Gorey taped the head of the “model.” (“I add that it was a corpse before I began using it,” Gorey wrote.)

Ghastly Gastropod

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Gorey is known for his creature creations, wrought with slyly dark humor. In his own life, he had great respect for the tiny lives that inspired his drawings—in fact, he dedicated his estate to the benefit of animals, “not only cats, dogs, whales, and birds, but also bats, insects, and invertebrates.”

Gorey’s Quotation Postcards

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Edward Gorey and Peter Neumeyer, both voracious readers, often exchanged insights discovered in books. Here, Gorey quotes Lady Murasaki, author of The Tale of the Genji; ancient philospher Gorgias; Jorge Luis Borges; and Ouida, pen name of novelist Maria Louise Ramé. (To read the quotations, click here.)

Mumble

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“O the horror of it all,” Gorey writes in a February 1969 letter to Neumeyer. “I’m so distracted from?/by? drawing that I just can’t cope with anything else for the present, however long that is.”

Taking of the Blue Infant

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“Yet another infant carried off—how sad,” Gorey wrote of the scene on this envelope. “The altitude is in process of turning it blue with cold. It has reached the lavender stage apparently.”

Triumph of the Blue Infant

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“I wrote to Edward Gorey that Helen had found his envelope illustration of the blue infant sad,” Neumeyer says of his wife’s reaction to the previous image. “We soon received another, wherein the baby triumphs.”

First-Class Mail: A Poet’s Letters

by

Kevin Larimer

11.1.03

The published correspondence of famous poets often accounts for more real estate on bookstore shelves than their books of poems. The letters of Ezra Pound, for example, are collected in nearly 30 volumes published primarily by university presses over the last three decades. For academic scholars who spend their weekends in the special-collections rooms of libraries, the value of these books is obvious. But what are they worth to the general reader, or the practicing poet?

Three new books—The Humane Particulars: The Collected Letters of William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Burke, published by the University of South Carolina Press in July; The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, to be published by Stanford University Press this month; and The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky, forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in December—collect nearly 1,500 letters, each offering a glimpse into a poet’s private life and creative process. And, according to the editors of these books, they are a poetic gold mine compared with the literary biographies and books of criticism that are devoted to these literary figures.

Barry Ahearn, a professor of English at Tulane University and the editor of the letters between Zukofsky and Williams, says that a poet’s correspondence is the raw material of biography: the poet’s firsthand perceptions, unguarded, unpolished, and uncensored. “It’s a way of recovering the warts-and-all humanity of these individuals, because they are writing things about themselves which they might not otherwise,” says Ahearn, who also edited a selection of letters between Pound and Zukofsky, published by New Directions in 1987, and Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings (University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Of course, plenty of warts are uncovered in literary biographies, several of which have been written about Williams—most notably Paul Mariani’s William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (McGraw-Hill, 1981), which was a finalist for the National Book Award—but Ahearn says that a biographer must be selective about the details of an entire life and therefore offers an incomplete image of the poet. “A biographer is obliged to create a narrative, and in a way the reader of the letters has to create his or her own narrative to try to make sense of what this person must have been like to write these things.”

Much of Ahearn’s collection consists of letters, written from 1928 through 1962, in which Zukofsky critiques Williams’s work. Theirs was a unique twist on the typical poet-mentor relationship, since Williams was 21 years older than Zukofsky. “The reason for the reversal may lie in the two poets’ differing approaches to the art,” Ahearn points out in the book’s preface. “Williams tended to emphasize inspiration, while Zukofsky emphasized craft.” Of course, their relationship was not without its periods of conflict. One such instance occurred when Zukofsky evaluated Williams’s proposed opera on George Washington, The First President, a project that Williams refers to in a letter from January 1936 as “that God damned opera and the fiddling and fussing that went with it…”

Seven years later, after the rift between the poets had been smoothed over, Zukofsky addressed the disagreement: “You know, I remember the squabble of a few years ago and the reason it happened was that I felt you really didn’t care to see me much, and well I never liked to make a nuisance of myself if I’m smart enough to catch on.” The letter, and the 700 others like it, present a human, vulnerable side to the poets, revealing them as ordinary folks stripped of the status of Major Poets of the Twentieth Century that both of them achieved only after their deaths. In fact, a number of the letters refer to their disappointment in having poems and manuscripts returned by magazine editors and publishers. “It should be encouraging to writers,” Ahearn says. “Now Williams is canonized as a major American poet, which certainly wasn’t the case when he was alive. Even in Zukofsky’s case, toward the end of his life, in the last few years he was still getting poems sent back by magazines.”

The disputes between Williams and Zukofsky seem inconsequential compared with the chasm that opened up between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. It was only after years of warm friendship and correspondence that the two realized there were basic differences in their beliefs about the relationship of poetry and politics. Their persistent, often passionate debate is revealed in the 450 letters written between 1953 and 1985 that are collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, edited by Albert Gelpi, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, and Robert J. Bertholf, curator of the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at SUNY Buffalo.

“It’s a huge argument,” Gelpi says. “It brings the correspondence to a remarkable personal as well as literary climax, because these two poets who were so close, who thought of themselves as anima and animus to each other, as brother and sister, suddenly find themselves having to recognize that there are actually fundamental disagreements about what poetry is and how the imagination works and how poetry functions in society.”

The disagreement was incited by the Vietnam War and the questions the conflict raised for poets writing in the 1960s—how poetry should address violence and whether the poet should engage politics—but the source of their differences could be traced back to their divergent religious backgrounds. Levertov was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition; Duncan was adopted by his theosophical parents (who selected him based on his astrological chart). Nevertheless, Duncan and Levertov wrote letters to each other, at the rate of one or more per month, for more than 30 years. “They’re both too strong and too honest and too committed to poetry to obfuscate or to simply pass it over, and they end up really arguing it out,” Gelpi says. Through all of the political and ideological debate, they sent each other poems, critiquing and revising the other’s work. Included as an appendix to the book are a number of the poems Duncan and Levertov discuss in their letters. According to Gelpi, “It’s very revealing about the creative process—the way in which texts take shape, in which the imagination verbs out its understandings.”

These glimpses of creative origin and process—the nuts and bolts of articulate minds engaging in the act of poetry—offer a much fuller understanding of the poets’ published essays and poems. “We get this image of the artist as a kind of demigod because their work is so good,” Ahearn says. “We don’t see the drafts, which get referred to in these letters. We see these people sort of groping and fumbling, making first tentative steps toward trying to grasp the merits of the other person’s work.”

James H. East, an English teacher at Brookstone School in Columbus, Georgia, and the editor of The Humane Particulars, says the fascinating aspect of the letters between Williams and Kenneth Burke, a literary critic who contributed to the modernist conversation in New York City in the 1920s, is the personal disclosure: “They’re allowed in the letters to drop their guard, whereas their public faces and their public articulations of ideas won’t allow the hesitation in sometimes—I mean the real human hesitation, the real human fear.”

In addition to wrangling over the origin and nature of literary form, a subject that preoccupied both writers, the two often discussed medical matters. Williams was a physician as well as a poet; Burke was a hypochondriac. A number of their letters contain Burke’s description of his ailments and Williams’s sometimes chastising medical advice. In a letter dated November 25, 1935, Williams responds to one of Burke’s physical woes: “It sounded as though you really had something this time but I suppose the bugs got mixed up trying to get through the intricate maze of your psychologic entity and just lay down and died of starvation without reaching the spot where they could piss on your essential fires.”

Whatever the merits of the collected correspondence of famous poets—the humor, the historical context, the political commentary, the artistic insight—there will surely be more on the way. In February 2004, for example, Oxford University Press is publishing the fourth volume of The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. All 840 pages of it.

Kevin Larimer is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Secrets Hidden in the Stacks

by

Adrienne Raphel

6.10.20

When University of Virginia (UVA) professor Andrew Stauffer sent his class to the library in the fall of 2009, he expected them to focus on the printed text of the books they brought back. But Stauffer and his students soon realized that was just one story being told in these volumes. While looking at nineteenth-century copies of work by Felicia Hemans, a poet wildly beloved at the time for her sentimental verse, the students were immediately drawn to everything else happening in these books: not just the expected underlining and dog-ears, but bookplates, diary entries, letters, quotes, pressed flowers, and readers’ own poetic flights of fancy. One reader had even penned an elegy for her daughter Mary, who had died at age seven. What they found in the Hemans books “opened our eyes,” Stauffer says. “It suddenly clicked. This wasn’t noise or damage—this was augmentation.” 

In 2014, Stauffer founded the Book Traces project to investigate what else the library might be hiding in plain sight. He started an online archive of his findings at booktraces.org, and has since invited anyone from around the world to submit photographs of the “traces” they find in library books published before 1923—meaning books that are in the public domain—in circulating collections.

Interested in formally expanding the project, Stauffer and Kara M. McClurken, the library’s director of preservation services, successfully applied for a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. He recruited Kristin Jensen to manage the project and hired research assistants to comb through thousands of books on the open shelves of UVA’s libraries and catalogue the extra material the books yielded.

What they found went far beyond expectations. Traces were everywhere. “We realized there was a whole hidden collection within the collection,” says Jensen. Readers from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it turned out, used books as souvenirs, journals, greeting cards, funeral programs, and invitations, among myriad other purposes. And while scholars such as Leah Price have long observed the many uses Victorians had for their books, Book Traces researchers were astonished by the breadth and depth of annotations, insertions, marginalia, and inscriptions right in front of their noses. And all this material was unsorted and undocumented—when any one of these volumes got deaccessioned or shifted off site, these traces could vanish forever. 

Stauffer had a hunch that if this much material was in UVA’s library, then there was more to be found elsewhere, and the project expanded to invite contributions from more institutions. Today, Book Traces extends to schools from Arizona State University and Bryn Mawr College, and has documented more than three thousand traces, including a sketch of a woman breastfeeding a baby in The Story of a Beautiful Duchess; a ticket labeled “Admit Bearer” in The Spirit Messenger, a nineteenth-century spiritualist text; a tracing of a schoolgirl’s hand in a copy of The Works of William Shakespeare; and annotations in Longfellow’s Poems and Ballads that detail when and where a woman read the marked lines with her long-lost lover. One of Stauffer’s favorite finds—doll clothes pressed into an 1833 copy of Sir Walter Scott’s The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte—appears on the cover of Book Traces: Nineteenth-Century Readers and the Future of the Library, his book on the project forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania Press in January 2021. 

Rare-book historians have long studied the marginalia of famous readers—a volume of Montaigne’s writings believed by some to have belonged to Shakespeare may suggest that the Bard lifted not just ideas, but also direct phrases from the famous essayist, and the books in Newton’s and Dickinson’s libraries testify to their influences. Book Traces, on the other hand, shows how everyday readers interacted with books and how physical copies of the same work could wildly differ depending on its readers. The extra material also often reveals families of books, or books that once belonged in the same library but have since been scattered across several institutions.

In this way Book Traces celebrates what Stauffer calls bibliodiversity: appreciating each book as its own object with its own life and history. “We’re fighting against the idea that once you’ve digitized a single copy, then you don’t need others,” says Stauffer. However, Jensen and Stauffer stress that Book Traces is hardly antidigitization: On the contrary, the project would not be possible without technological tools. Book Traces comes at a pivotal moment when many libraries, pressed for resources, find themselves shuttling books off site and deaccessioning swaths of their collections. The kinds of books that typically go first are the ones at the heart of Book Traces: circulating books on the open shelves but not rare volumes, and not ones belonging to important historical figures. Stauffer and Jensen’s goal is to have a mechanism in place for all libraries to sift through the collections and discover what traces might be lurking in their copies. Of course, Jensen concedes, libraries have to make compromises since there’s a finite amount of physical space and new books keep coming in—and a global pandemic has made scholars increasingly reliant on digital texts. “We’re not saying you have to leave every single physical book in place,” Jensen stresses. “But you have to consider each as a unique artifact with a history.”

During the COVID-19 crisis, of course, physically collecting new data is impossible. But Book Traces is as busy as ever. Stauffer and Jensen are working with machine vision researchers to streamline the process of searching for traces: By noting patterns across the data, they hope to be able to figure out what types of books might yield traces and where physically in the books readers were likely to make their marks.

And even when students can’t get into libraries, Book Traces gives students the chance to do original research. The project still has thousands of pages scanned that haven’t been transcribed, which Stauffer and Jensen see as a potential gold mine for students in cultural history, an opportunity to get up close and personal with historical documents right from their computers, training them in the art of literary detective work. “It’s not a canned practiced experiment,” says Jensen. “We really don’t know what’s out there. It’s up to them to discover it.” 

 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures With Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them (Penguin Press, 2020) and What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017).

Doll clothes pressed into an 1833 book. (Credit: Image courtesy of the University of Virginia Library Digital Production Group)

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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: 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: 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 Invisible Library

by

Alex Dimitrov

9.1.09

The late German novelist Hans Reiter, who wrote under the pen name Benno von Archimboldi, is famous in part for his second novel, The Endless Rose. The story, set in Prussia in the first half of the twentieth century, is loosely based on the author’s life—from his early years as a servant in the country house of the Baron von Zumpe to his final days as a foot soldier in Nazi Germany. It’s a provocative book about human nature and fragility. Only it doesn’t actually exist.

Archimboldi is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, a paperback version of which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and The Endless Rose is one of several imaginary novel titles mentioned in Bolaño’s narrative. The phenomenon of such imaginary works alluded to in real books led fiction writers Levi Stahl and Ed Park in 2007 to start a blog called the Invisible Library, where titles like The Endless Rose are catalogued. “The genesis of the library was very simple,” says Stahl. “I happened to read Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair in quick succession, and was struck by the number of nonexistent novels mentioned, and at times even described in each book.”

Since its inception, the blog has continued to grow as readers submit the titles of unwritten books they’ve discovered in their own reading. This past summer it also served as the primary inspiration behind the Invisible Library exhibition, which ran from June 12 to July 12 at the Tenderpixel Gallery in London.

The exhibition was conceived by INK Illustration, an art collective founded in 2007 at the Royal College of Art in London by illustrators Chloé Regan, Rachel Gannon, and Fumie Kamijo. For the Invisible Library project, INK collaborated with Real Fits, an online arts periodical and literary foundation, to choose forty titles of imaginary works from Stahl and Park’s blog, which they then transformed into actual books. Some of the titles included When the Train Passes by Elisabeth Ducharme, mentioned in Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (Henry Holt, 1947); You Can’t Do Anything Right by Margery McIntyre Flood, mentioned in Caitlin Macy’s story “Bad Ghost” from her collection Spoiled (Random House, 2009); and Archimboldi’s The Endless Rose.

While INK artists illustrated and designed the book covers, they invited best-selling novelists, nonfiction writers, and other artists to contribute a page to each of the books. Among those who participated were British author and filmmaker Ian Sinclair, young adult author and screenwriter Saci Lloyd, American musician and cartoonist Peter Blegvad, Real Fits editor Mark Donne, and former Elle staff writer Ellen Burney.

During the exhibition, the Tenderpixel Gallery, located in Cecil Court—the renowned Victorian bookshop thoroughfare considered by many to be the heart of literary London—was transformed into a library, where attendees were encouraged to “sign out” books and write their opening or closing passages based primarily on the titles and cover illustrations. At the close of the exhibit the once-empty pages of the books were transformed into vivid narratives, full of various voices and shifts in perspective and style, making the library a postmodern literary experiment.

A series of workshops, with a focus on collaboration and individual production, was also held during the monthlong exhibit. For one of these workshops, INK invited the graphic collective Europa to lead participants in making six sixteen-page books with hand-sewn bindings, all based on titles from the library.

Part of INK’s creative mandate is to make cutting-edge yet inviting, viewer-inclusive art. “We have always been interested in the relationship that viewers have with exhibited work and in how to make their experience richer, more informative, and more diverse. We want our work to be totally accessible, and for you as a visitor to feel at home and comfortable in the space rather than excluded,” says Gannon, who adds that they have a special fondness for literature. “Stories matter to us. They are accessible; they draw readers in and take them on a journey.”

The goal of the exhibition was to bridge the gap between the imaginations of viewers and artists, leading to the production of a physical book that enriched everyone’s gallery experience. After it closed in mid-July, the books went on display in libraries throughout London.

At a time when book publishing, and print culture in general, are looking for more ways to go digital, INK Illustration’s Invisible Library was a successful attempt to enliven the culture’s relationship with stories, remind readers of the importance of books, real or not, and reinforce their place in our collective imagination.

Alex Dimitrov is the awards coordinator of the Academy of American Poets. He is also the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City.

Diversity Efforts Lead to Salary Hikes

by

Priscilla Wu

2.17.21

Big Five publishers Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster, as well as several independent presses, recently committed to raising entry-level salaries to between $40,000 and $45,000 at the end of 2020 or in 2021. Intended to make opportunities in publishing more financially accessible to BIPOC and other historically excluded professionals, this latest attempt to reckon with publishing’s whiteness was spurred by the country’s outrage at the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other Black Americans at the hands of the police and the ensuing push to interrogate racism and anti-Blackness at a systemic level, including within the publishing industry, this past summer. 

Entry-level workers, often assistants in editorial, marketing, design, sales, production, and other departments, do the essential work of reviewing book proposals, creating sales and marketing materials, proofing manuscripts, and much more. Industry norms often perpetuate low pay and long hours, which can include unpaid overtime. Low entry-level salaries ranging from $30,000 to $36,000 have been cited as one of the various barriers to diversifying publishing—many who aspire to work in publishing are unable to live on low wages in New York City or other expensive industry hubs with the burden of student loan debt and without supplemental support from family. “Higher starting salaries are an important step in attracting and retaining employees of color and from less-privileged backgrounds,” says an executive at a large publisher that has committed to an increase.

A mid-level professional at a small publisher who identifies as BIPOC cites the industry’s low wages as a significant barrier to entering and staying in the industry. “If I had not been with my partner, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would not have survived beyond my first publishing job. I wouldn’t have been able to afford it with school loans. It’s what a lot of people of color in the industry have to deal with, because many of us—I don’t want to speak for all of us—don’t have generational wealth to fall back on.” 

While there is excitement about the raises, the sense prevails that this wage increase, though long fought for internally, is only a start, given the industry’s struggle to keep pace with continually rising costs of living. “It’s helpful, but now we need more, just because it’s taken so long to get to this point,” says Foyinsi Adegbonmire, who works as an editorial assistant at an imprint of Macmillan, which raised its starting salary by $7,000 from $35,000 this past December. “It’s great, but because there’s [a high] cost of living in New York, there are student loans to pay, it’s hard to fully breathe a sigh of relief,” she says. 

Industry professionals also want to see salary adjustments outside of the entry-level tier. Although HarperCollins and Penguin Random House have committed to raises at other levels, other publishers have yet to follow suit with public announcements of widespread adjustments. The mid-level professional who relied on her partner’s support to stay in the industry early on—and whose company has yet to announce any formal wage bumps—says that this wage suppression has had lasting effects on her plans for her future, including saving for retirement and purchasing a home, and has seen it affect her peers’ plans for having children or even owning a pet. Even ten years into her career, she still considers leaving publishing. “I feel very jaded, because on the one hand, I get to do something I love, but on the other hand, I don’t even love it anymore, because I can’t afford to do it,” she says. 

Professionals say it is difficult to navigate career advancement, particularly when seeking promotions, because of a lack of transparency about salary structure and how pay determinations are made. “For true equity, to get there at some point, we need full transparency,” says Adegbonmire. When it comes to asking for salary increases, the mid-level professional says the people in power at her press, often older white women, can lack understanding of or empathy for this situation. “Their response to mid-level employees who hope to be where they are someday is, ‘Well, you know, people don’t get into publishing for the money. It’s about the books.’”

Jennifer Baker, who has been in the industry since 2003 and is a managing editor at Random House Children’s Books and the host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, agrees. “There’s such a gap between understanding what it is like at an entry-level place and even beyond that. But I just never forget what it was like to be an assistant. And I’ve met so many people, who, once they get to a position, they forget,” she says. 

Living wages are only one piece of cohesive diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Where publishers do outreach for open positions, their efforts to build inclusive management and company culture and the availability of mentorship and advancement opportunities all play a part in ensuring BIPOC employees are able to bring their talents to publishers and thrive alongside their white counterparts. Black women in particular have cited lack of mentorship, representation in leadership, accountability for racism in the workplace, and an unwillingness from executives to provide support for books from Black authors as other reasons the industry remains a difficult place for them to succeed.

“I think pay is only part of the problem. The racist things that happen, the racist books that get published and printed, the pay gaps between white authors and illustrators versus authors and illustrators of color, all of that is incredibly draining. Even if they get more Black people into the industry, those people still aren’t going to stay. They’re going to be burnt out—there’s going to be emotional burnout after a certain amount of time because they won’t have the support network in place,” says the mid-level professional.

While professionals of color are hopeful about the wage increases as one step toward addressing these various issues in their workplaces, they remain cautious. “I just want a comfortable working environment and to be respected,” says Baker, who identifies as Black. However, she adds, “If we’re still going to have to tiptoe around white privilege, white supremacy, none of this is going to change. Ever. It’s just going to look different. But it’s going to be the same.”

Executives at several large publishers cite willingness to continue remote work post-pandemic, trainings, and ongoing assessments of demographics and pay as pieces of the work that will continue to address issues of DEI, in addition to top-level appointments of people of color. But the culture of isolation can be hard to shake, particularly at small publishers without much diversity to begin with, says the mid-level professional. 

The longevity of this wave of efforts remains in question. “I’m cautiously optimistic. So much of what happened in 2020 has been reactionary. Being reactionary isn’t sustainable,” says Baker. With the industry’s history of variable interest in Black issues, she wonders, “So what’s different this time? We’ll see.”   

 

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

A Letter From a Black Woman in Publishing on the Industry’s Cruel, Hypocritical Insistence That Words Matter

by

Mariah Stovall

6.8.20

Dear White people in publishing,

 

In the publishing industry, we deal in words. We know, perhaps more than anyone, that words matter and the pen is mightier than the sword. But ask yourselves this: Has your love of words become an excuse for complacency?

Right now, many businesses in the industry are rushing to make vague statements in solidarity with Black Americans. They are declaring that Black lives matter. They are promising to do better as gatekeepers and arbiters of culture. I believe there is plenty of sincerity behind these statements. I believe there is opportunism and a fear of being seen as complicit behind them as well.  

Why should Black people like me believe these are more than empty words, when many of these statements assume an entirely White audience and are focused on propping up businesses’ past work with Black people?

Publishing is no different from the other predominantly White liberal institutions in which I’ve spent my entire life. I am all too familiar with White liberal racism, with its unconscious bias and reluctance or refusal to admit fault and be self-critical. This too is racism. It is deeply entrenched in coded language and packaged in a message of self-proclaimed allyship and false empathy. Sticks and stones and state-sanctioned harassment, systemic discrimination, and murder may break Black bones and words also hurt us.

The publishing industry can do better in the future, but nothing can negate its past failures. Think of all the stories that have already been silenced because of passive negligence and willful discrimination. Think of all people who were already pushed to their breaking points and left the industry. Think of all the people who were so alienated that they never even tried to get into publishing in the first place. By all means, keep promoting the Black people you work with and have worked with in the past, but stop congratulating yourselves for it.

This is a call to hire more Black people in every department across every part of the industry, but editorial and acquisitional roles are particularly important to me. A Black marketer, a Black publicist, a Black designer, a Black salesperson, a Black reviewer or a Black bookseller will never have the opportunity to work on a wide array of Black books if White agents, editors, editorial directors, and editors in chief refuse to treat Black submissions with the same open-mindedness as White submissions.

Why are Black stories riskier bets than White stories? Why is there a tacit assumption that there can only be so many Black stories in the marketplace at one time? Look to your peers in other fields. No one is limiting the number of Black artists at the top of the Billboard charts.

I know that you know Black people are extraordinary artists across all disciplines, and that our work resonates with you, because you’ve been selectively borrowing, stealing, and appropriating our culture for years, and when you do acknowledge us, you often fail to adequately compensate us. 

We’ve had the Lee & Low reports for years. We’ve had diversity panels for years. Since my first internship in 2013, I’ve been told that change needs time to trickle from the ranks of exploited and underpaid interns and assistants to the senior and executive levels. Asking individuals with very little power, job security, and in-company support to lead the charge is crazy-making. The reason it feels so impossible for us is because it is. But I’ve kept my head down and accepted this absurd premise because it was effectively my only option.

I am tired of keeping my mouth shut when I encounter racism in publishing, in the hope that someday I will be promoted to a position in which I can do something about it without fear of retaliation, or being told I’m overreacting, imagining things, misunderstanding, or not giving a racist the benefit of the doubt. I am tired of thanking White people for doing the bare minimum. I do not want to be able to name every Black editor and every Black agent. I don’t want to be condescendingly deemed exceptional just because I exist.

I often wonder if I would be where I am today if I had darker skin and curlier hair, if I were naturally loud and outgoing rather than soft-spoken and reserved, if I took up more physical space instead of being petite. I don’t, for a second, doubt my own abilities; I never forget that American meritocracy is a myth and American racism is alive and well, thanks to the masterful ways in which our leaders have woven it, often invisibly, into every aspect of this country—from our legislation to our art—for hundreds of years.

To all the self-proclaimed allies reading this, especially those of you with hiring power, or the power to acquire, or the power to allocate marketing dollars, here’s another cliché for you: Actions speak louder than words.

I demand that those who hold the most power and benefit from the most privilege make changes that are in direct proportion to that power and those privileges. Stop leaning on your Black employees and writers to fix this for you. If you can’t bear the brunt of the responsibility, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your ability to effectively lead a company. Don’t make empty gestures. Don’t make promises you can’t keep because you aren’t willing to do the work.

Right now, Black people have your attention. That is not an excuse to forget about the Latinx, Asian, Native/Indigenous, queer, disabled, rural/non-coastal, and working- and middle-class people of the world (and do not forget that these identities are not mutually exclusive, and can also coexist with Whiteness).

I have no faith that meaningful, measurable, permanent change is on the horizon. Prove me wrong. And if you do, don’t expect me to thank you.

 

Mariah Stovall is a literary assistant at Writers House and previously worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and at Gallery Books. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in Vol 1. Brooklyn, Literary Hub, HelloGiggles, Joyland, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is working on her first novel.

Resources for Writers in Support of Justice and Action

6.12.20

As writers speak up, protest, and stand together with those who seek justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless others who have been murdered, marginalized, and repressed as a result of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, we acknowledge that our commitment to fighting for racial justice must extend beyond the page. To that end, we are compiling a list of resources that we hope will help you in your own response to racial injustice and police violence. We will be updating this list as we learn of new resources. (If you know about a resource not on this list, please send an e-mail to editor@pw.org.)

 

Creative Ideas for Engagement

Organized by Nate Marshall and José Olivarez, a group of over twenty poets is sending personalized poems to anyone who donates $20 or more to any bail fund. Requests can be sent to poemsforthefree@gmail.com

Poets Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis raised more than $10,000 by drawing original comics for anyone who made a donation of $50 or more to any bail fund.

Poet Cameron Awkward-Rich gave copies of his books (up to thirty copies total) to anyone who donated at least $25 to the Okra Project, the Black Visions Collective, or the Emergency Release Fund.

Poet Danez Smith is collecting money via Venmo to distribute food, supplies, toys for kids, and more to community members in Minneapolis and the rest of the Twin Cities. 

Poets Safia Elhillo and Hieu Minh Nguyen raised money for People’s Breakfast Oakland, Bay Area Anti-Repression Committee Bail Fund, and Black Earth Farms by offering one-on-one poetry workshops or readings and copies of books, respectively, to anyone who donated to the funds.

Poet Kate O’Donoghue offered three hand-written poems or short prose passages to people who donated $10 to one of a group of Black-led queer organizations or mutual aid funds.

Publishers Weekly reported on how independent bookstores across the country are supporting the movement for Black lives. Strategies included donating to bail funds, curating reading lists, and opening physical space to protestors and organizers. 

Throughout the pandemic, Brooklyn-based literary nonprofit Wendy’s Subway has organized regular Wednesday writing nights. On June 3 the organizers chose a prompt to express solidarity with protestors: “If you’re not at a protest tonight, join us as we imagine abolishing the prison-industrial complex, imagine defunding the police, imagine an end to senseless Black death.” 

The Center for the Art of Translation and Two Lines Press matched donations up to $10,000 to the Bail Project, Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero, and the Equal Justice Initiative.

Writer Hanif Abdurraqib will donate 100 percent of his book royalties from all copies of his collection A Fortune for Your Disaster sold in 2020 to the Okra Project.  

Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson organized the Kidlit Rally for Black Lives, which was hosted by the Brown Bookshelf on Facebook Live on June 4, 7 EDT. More than twenty-five authors, publishers, and artists gathered to “unite in support of Black lives, speak to children about this moment, answer their questions, and offer ideas about steps we can all take going forward.”

Coffee House Press announced on June 4 that it will donate 10 percent of all profits from website sales to National Bail Out for an indefinite period.

Workers from across the publishing industry are holding a day of action on June 8 in solidarity with the protests around the country. Participants are taking the day off from work to devote time to support the Black community through protesting, organizing, and fundraising. Organizers suggest donating one day’s pay to a relevant fundraiser, and considering making the contribution a monthly commitment. Publishers Weekly reported on the effort. 

Independent publisher Ugly Duckling Presse printed protest signs available for pickup at their Brooklyn headquarters.

Center for Books Arts has also printed free posters for pickup and is hosting a free online workshop on June 13: Posters for Protest.

Broadside PR offered five free one-hour publicity consultations to Black authors with publishing contracts.

Writers Jessica Keener and Lise Haines launched the Writers Against Racial Injustice fund-raiser on Facebook for the Equal Justice Initiative. The first thirty people to donate more than $100 received a copy of Jabari Asim’s essay collection We Can’t Breathe.

Sundress Academy for the Arts is donating $2 from every book sale, entry fee, or application fee to support the Loveland Therapy Fund, which provides financial assistance to Black women and girls nationally seeking therapy.

 

Reading Lists

Black Liberation Reading List, compiled by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.

An Antiracist Reading List by Ibram X. Kendi, the director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center and author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (New York Times)

Do the Work: An Anti-Racist Reading List by Layla F Saad, author of Me and White Supremacy. (Guardian)

A Nonfiction Anti-Racist Reading List (Publishers Weekly)

City Lights Bookstore’s Antiracist Reading List by the venerable independent bookseller in San Francisco.

What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For? Lauren Michele Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue. . . and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, questions the sudden proliferation of anti-racist reading lists, for whom and for what purpose they serve. 

The University of Minnesota Press’s collection of antiracist books is available to read online for free through August 31, 2020.

Investing in Futures: Beyond Policing is “a free workshop of structured conversation, imagination, and play, designed in urgent response to the injustices and racism that resulted in the death of George Floyd which spurred protests across all 50 states and around the globe.”

 

Resources for Activism 

Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University “aims to attract support from visionary philanthropists and foundations to fund teams of scholars, policymakers, journalists, and advocates to examine racial problems anew, innovate and broadcast practical policy solutions, and work with policymakers to implement them.”

Black Lives Matter is “a global organization whose mission is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.”

Campaign Zero is a “data-informed platform that presents comprehensive solutions to end police violence in America. It integrates community demands and policy recommendations from research organizations and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” The Campaign also runs the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which lists eight policies that can reduce police violence, and provides information on which policies your city adopts and how to contact your mayor or sheriff.

The Equal Justice Initiative is focused on ”ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, works to “secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.”

Unicorn Riot is a nonprofit media organization of artists and journalists “dedicated to exposing root causes of dynamic social and environmental issues through amplifying stories and exploring sustainable alternatives in today’s globalized world.”

Actionable Items for New Yorkers is an accessible Google Doc of concrete actions, including places to donate, scripts for calling local officials, and opportunities for volunteering. 

Defund12.org is a crowd-sourced tool for generating an e-mail demanding “government officials and council members to reallocate egregious police budgets towards education, social services, and dismantling racial inequality.”

 

Mutual Aid

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, many communities turned to existing mutual aid programs or started their own. Vice explains that mutual aid is when “communities take on the responsibility for caring for one another, rather than forcing individuals to fend for themselves.” Mutual aid systems also typically lack a centralized hierarchy, and are instead run by volunteers. 

As the fight for racial justice causes further emotional and financial strain on Black communities, mutual funds are emerging as one opportunity for direct action. For instance, one group founded the short-term Disability Justice Mutual Aid Fund, as reported in Variety, which offers aid to disabled protest organizers. One longstanding network is Mutual Aid NYC, a “multi-racial network of people and groups building support systems for people in the New York area during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.” 

Different localities might have several different mutual aid funds, but if you can’t find one, here’s a guide to digital tools for mutual aid groups to help kickstart your own. 

 

Legal Defense & Bail Funds

Note: A number of organizations have reported an unprecedented volume of donations due to media coverage, and some are choosing to ask prospective donors to redirect their contributions elsewhere. Consult each website for updates before you donate.

The Bail Project is a nonprofit “designed to combat mass incarceration by disrupting the money bail system—one person at a time.” They are providing bail for protestors in cities where they have offices.

Brooklyn Community Bail Fund is “committed to challenging the racism, inequality, and injustice of a criminal legal system and immigration and deportation regime that disproportionately target and harm low-income communities of color.”

The Community Justice Exchange “develops, shares and experiments with tactical interventions, strategic organizing practices, and innovative organizing tools to end all forms of criminalization, incarceration, surveillance, supervision, and detention.” It hosts the National Bail Fund Network, a “formation of over sixty community-led bail and bond funds that are part of campaigns to end pretrial and immigration detention.”  

Minnesota Freedom Fund “pays criminal bail and immigration bond for those who cannot afford to as we seek to end discriminatory, coercive, and oppressive jailing.”

The National Bail Out collective is “a Black-led and Black-centered collective of abolitionist organizers, lawyers and activists building a community-based movement to support our folks and end systems of pretrial detention and ultimately mass incarceration.”

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program aims “to preserve and extend constitutionally guaranteed rights to people who have historically been denied their rights on the basis of race.”

Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization “specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation. Based in Montgomery, Alabama, it is known for its legal cases against white supremacist groups, its classification of hate groups and other extremist organizations, and for promoting tolerance education programs.”

The mission of the National Lawyers Guild is “to use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and the rights of ecosystems over property interests.” The Guild is best known for its work defending the rights of protesters through the Mass Defense and Legal Observer Programs, “which have been providing legal support for movements for social justice for fifty years. Guild lawyers, law students, and legal workers observe police actions during protests, provide Know Your Rights trainings, track arrestees through the legal system, and provide free attorneys for protest-related cases.” The NLG has published many analyses on the right to dissent, including Punishing Protest: Government Tactics that Suppress Free Speech (2007), Policing of Political Speech (2010), and Developments in the Policing of National Special Security Events (2013), and provides free Know Your Rights handbooks for encounters with law enforcement in English, Spanish, Arabic, Bengali and Urdu.

The BLACK TRANS LEGAL and CARE FUND by PEACE OUT LOUD is “a fund collecting bail, medical and other necessities for Black Trans Activists” in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Other Resources

Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Protests Against Police Brutality (Rolling Stone) is a list of bail funds, legal aid, and other organizations “working to help activists seeking justice for George Floyd and other victims of police violence.”

Social Justice Resources for the Book Business (Publishers Weekly)

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has launched Talking About Race, an online portal of digital tools, exercises, videos, scholarly articles, and multimedia resources to help individuals, families, educators, and communities talk about racism, racial identity, and the way these forces shape every aspect of society and culture.

A Place to Start is “an incomplete list of resources and organizations for fighting racism and supporting justice and equality” compiled by the Museum of Modern Art.

I’m Writing to You: Letters From Writers of the Black Literary Community

by

Various

8.12.20

On June 11, during the third week of recent protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and against police violence, we posted an open call at pw.org inviting writers of the Black literary community to submit letters written to any individual or group—a friend, a family member, the publishing community, other writers, themselves—that loosely pertained to their lives as writers. Our intention was to give Black writers a platform to directly address whatever they wanted, and on their own terms. The following selection of letters is further evidence that, as Melva Graham puts it, writing, too, is a form of resistance. “Every time you sit down to write your true voice becomes louder,” she writes, “and in the fight for racial justice we need all the voices we can get.” 

Dear Fellow Black Writers by Melva Graham

To My Precious Black Son by Shanay Bell

To the Tentatively Hopeful by Kameron Bashi

A Letter to the Allies by S. P.

To Writers Struggling With Their Whiteness by Sarah Valentine

A Note to the Shareholders by Donald Quist

Dear White Readers, Gatekeepers, and Members of the Media by Candace McDuffie

Dear White Publishers by Noro Otitigbe

Dearest Tayari by Leslie-Ann Murray

Dear Black Queer Boy by Myron McGhee

My Beloved Black Ancestors by India Gonzalez

Top row, from left: Melva Graham, Shanay Bell, Kameron Bashi, and S. P. Middle row: Sarah Valentine, Candace McDuffie, and Donald Quist. Bottom row: Myron McGhee, Noro Otitigbe, Leslie-Ann Murray, and India Gonzalez.  (Credit: Graham: Photos by Jamaal; Bashi: Sean Pessin; Valentine: Marcello Rostagni; McDuffie: Daniel Irvin; Quist: Dalton Rook Barber; McGhee: Gina McGhee; Murray: Veronika Savitskaya; Gonzalez: Justin Aversano.)

Hashtag Highlights Anti-Black Bias

by

Jennifer Baker

8.12.20

The month of June brought the continuation of daily protests around the United States, and the world, in recognition of violence against Black people and the importance of Black lives. As protests progressed, waves of social media posts and newsletters from publishers proclaimed solidarity. Numerous publications made promises to stand with the Black community, insisting comprehension of the significance of Black lives and condemning racism. However, the numbers from various surveys—such as the Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey and Publishers Weekly’s annual salary survey—have continually reflected the dearth of Black people working in book publishing as well as the low numbers of Black authors published and supported within the industry. On June 5 on Twitter, Tochi Onyebuchi, author of the novel Riot Baby (Tor, 2020), noted the discrepancy in the abundance of empathetic posts to the Black community from publishers and the need to truly reconcile industry bias; as a first step he called for an open dialogue about the compensation Black creators receive in book advances. Onyebuchi asked, would white “allies” come forward? Several white authors replied that they would—but didn’t provide any numbers. A day later Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney, author of the young adult fantasy trilogy A Blade So Black (Imprint), created a hashtag and put out the call: “Come on, white authors. Use the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe and share what you got for your books. Debuts as well. Let’s go.” 

Advances were disclosed by hundreds of writers, including both emerging and well-known authors, and ranged in amount depending on publisher. The number of six-figure advances received by white writers eclipsed the number for Black writers, particularly in the case of debuts published by major houses. In genres such as literary fiction, a white male reported receiving $800,000 for his debut, and white authors writing young adult fantasy disclosed receiving more than $100,000 per book. Award-winning, critically acclaimed, and highly respected Black authors such as N. K. Jemisin, Kiese Laymon, and Jesmyn Ward, revealed their book advances or their struggles to advocate for more money even after the publication of well-received, solidly selling works. 

Many within the industry have been watching the progression of #PublishingPaidMe, including Black editors. Cherrita Lee, who has worked as an acquisitions editor at an indie press, says she sees #PublishingPaidMe as a “sad necessity” because it brings clear inequalities to light. “Salaries, advances, royalties, all payment and remuneration should be open, public, and honest. It’s the only way to ensure that payment structures are fair.” A Black editor at a Big Five publishing house, who asked to remain anonymous, says they do not anticipate any direct public response from publishers to #PublishingPaidMe. They said they do hope these publishers are “having internal conversations about the biases associated with advances” and offered some advice: “Stop telling editors to pick ‘realistic’ comparative titles and to be conservative when working on profit and loss statements for diverse books.” Profit and loss statements, or P&Ls, are a set of calculations editors use to project what a book will earn based on monies fronted by the publisher and how much the book is expected to sell; they are often drafted when an editor prepares to make an offer on a title and can influence the size of advances. Numbers are crunched to include in- and out-of-house costs, and when those numbers are based on underestimates of sales, they create advances that reflect flawed and biased thinking. 

While the size of book advances are often hinted at via coded language in announcements on the industry website Publishers Marketplace, one of the most public records of publishing deals, exact numbers aren’t often shared unless there has been an exceptionally large advance (typically six or seven figures) receiving media coverage. Though there are outliers, #PublishingPaidMe showcases that major publishers have often put those funds behind non-Black voices. In making this financial information publicly available, #PublishingPaidMe crystallizes the divergence between “perceived” value for Black stories and the same Black lives the industry proclaims to respect. 

Although publishers remained quiet about the inequities the hashtag laid bare, authors expressed their dismay on Twitter. For some the revelation was validating and for others eye-opening. Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018), is hopeful for change that may come out of the #PublishingPaidMe discussion. “While the [results of the] hashtag [were] demoralizing and disheartening, I generally believe that you can only work with the truth. So my hope is that now that writers of color know this, they will be in a better position to negotiate and advocate for themselves.”

The demand for accountability isn’t losing steam. Since #PublishingPaidMe took off in June, hashtags and accounts popped up to bring more transparency to publishing salaries and to collate this information for authors in the United States and the United Kingdom. The day #PublishingPaidMe went viral, Hugo-nominated illustrator Grace Fong started a spreadsheet compiling the numbers shared online. Since then a Google form was created in which writers, illustrators, graphic novelists, and others can anonymously submit their publishing information. The newly formed Transparency Project, co-led by Onyebuchi, will maintain and compile this data with the help of volunteer statisticians; focus will remain on Black creators, in order to preserve the hashtag’s original intention. But as more information reveals inherent bias, the question remains: Will this lead to an actual dismantling of a problematic system? A second Black editor at another Big Five publisher, who also asked to be anonymous, says it remains to be seen: “I’m not sure I believe it all just yet, but I’m cautiously optimistic that if ever there was a time to shake the table and demand them to do more, to do better, it would be now.” 

 

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, and a contributing editor for Electric Literature.

Tochi Onyebuchi and Leatrice “L. L.” McKinney. (Credit: Onyebuchi: Christina Orlando; McKinney: Nicole McLaughlin)

Dear White Publishers

by

Noro Otitigbe

8.12.20

Why did it take a public lynching for the literary community to want to hear my big Black voice? I have been submitting query letters and sending out manuscripts. I have been subscribing to literary magazines so that I can keep abreast of the writing community. I researched the agents who claim their interests are most in line with my work. I followed all the submission guidelines. I submitted poems and short stories to literary magazines that insist they are eager to hear bold new voices. I took the time to select my best material, attached it to a well-constructed introductory e-mail, then pressed Send. Then I waited. I waited to hear back from an agent, an agent’s assistant, or an editor. I waited to hear back from a gatekeeper who has access to resources that can advance my writing career. I waited.

I started writing when I graduated from New York University in May 2000. My meager administrative assistant salary afforded me an apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant      neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, located two blocks from the G train. The G train is a neglected New York City transit line that is constantly malfunctioning and sporadically serves what was once considered a low-income section of the city. I spent many hours on the dreary train station platform waiting for the G train, which connected me to the A train, which finally shuttled me to and from my place of employment in Manhattan. The wait became mind-numbing, so I bought a set of black Moleskin notebooks and I began to scribble whatever came to my mind during those long gaps of immobility. During that time I penned a lot of flash fiction and poetry. Expressing myself with a pen and paper kept me sane when I felt I had very little power to change my squalid living situation. I entered some of my work in writing contests. I waited.

In the years since then, I have spent most of my time honing my writing skills. I have actively participated in numerous writing workshops, creative writing classes, and critique groups. I became a regular on the open mic scene, and I completed a novel and a book of poetry. I submitted my manuscripts to various literary agencies and publishers, and I eagerly awaited a response. I waited.

This past May the whole world bore witness to a public execution that was reminiscent of both a decapitation during the Reign of Terror and a Black man being lynched in the South after the Civil War. While millions of Black people responded in outrage by taking to the streets, sharing stories of racism and calling out companies for racist practices, white people publicly aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, and companies expressed the sudden need to support Black businesses, influencers, writers, etc. I want to believe that after years of fighting oppression, white people finally see that systemic racism is a problem, but I can’t help but wonder whether publishers and other companies are taking advantage of the momentum while also taking a preemptive strike in case someone points out that they, too, are racist.

Dear white publishers, I am a Black woman who has been writing for many years. I have invested a lot of time and money to enhance my writing skills. There isn’t an agent I haven’t sent a query letter to or a publisher I didn’t research to make sure my work fits their guidelines. I do the work, and I have seen my white peers advance while I am told that my stories are controversial, or “we can’t take a risk on you.” You are now calling for the Black stories that you’ve been pushing aside for years. I really don’t care what your motives are. I do ask that when you publish me and my fellow Black writers, you offer us the same money, contract, and marketing you would to a white man writing yet another western novel. You decide which books are worthy of reading, so now it’s your chance to tell readers that books by Black authors belong on the front shelf at Barnes & Noble. Black novels should be debated in book clubs. Black stories should be turned into movies.

It is unfortunate that it took a man’s public demise coupled with massive demonstrations of white rage for this moment to come to fruition. But so be it. I would like to be among the crop of Black writers who emerged from the ashes of a torched racist system—or at least a system that was forced to publicly acknowledge institutionalized racism. 

Noro Otitigbe

 

Noro Otitigbe is an author, poet, and spoken word artist who has performed on stages in New York, Berlin, Nigeria, and Italy. She is the recipient of the 2019 Jericho Fellowship Playwright Prize. Otitigbe holds a bachelor’s degree in communication studies with a minor in cultural anthropology from New York University. Her debut novel, “ideations,” was completed while participating in the Community Literature Initiative Workshop at the University of Southern California. She can be found on Instagram, @noroskoo

Dear White Readers, Gatekeepers, and Members of the Media

by

Candace McDuffie

8.12.20

The conversations around racism and anti-Blackness in the media industry are finally rising to the surface. It feels like a long overdue reckoning. Because of the constant occurrence of police brutality and violence against us—which caused subsequent global protests—Black America’s struggle to receive any semblance of justice has permeated the nation’s consciousness. But as white folks in publishing start to use their voices to state that Black lives do indeed matter, I feel that it’s evident they show up for us only when it’s fashionable and pertinent for them to do so, with no real interest in advocating for Black communities.  

The language surrounding how we acknowledge racism has changed. I have been shocked by the fact that white people are using the word Black with such specificity and so blatantly (although the “all lives matter” crew still manages to rear its head now and then). And while this awareness is vital—coupled with a “new” understanding of how white supremacy is embedded in journalism/media—some of it remains quite performative. Suddenly there’s a need for white consumers of my work as well as editors to offer up allyship and resources when they previously participated in biased systems without any remorse.  

I wrote about COVID-19 three separate times over the past three months: how it impacts communities of color more severely. (Since the start of quarantine, my mother, brother, and niece have been and still are frontline workers.) Not one white person crawled into my inbox feigning concern about racism or asking about how the Black community is doing (to put this in perspective, I received over a dozen of these messages since the Minneapolis riots). The resources currently being offered to Black writers like myself from white editors—including free workshops, pitching advice, and contacts—is something I thought I would never see since I started my freelance career over a decade ago. 

When I did my entrepreneur profiles that highlighted people of color at Forbes (which ended two years ago), white folks weren’t asking how to elevate their achievements—they only reached out if they wanted to pitch their clients to the series. I’ve written about anti-Blackness in the fashion industry, how the country disposes of Black women and girls, how Black folks are punished for their methods of protests. It was crickets then, too. Systemic racism has been the basis of America for the past four hundred years—so why are you suddenly publicly supporting Black people? The truth is: These acts of solidarity are worthless if you are not consistently supporting and standing up for us every single day. 

This means routinely acknowledging, questioning, and working to eradicate systems you benefit from. It means recruiting diverse hires, giving them leadership positions, and paying them their worth. It means giving Black writers the space and support to authentically be themselves in the newsroom. It means soliciting us to write different kinds of articles, not just ones centering our traumas. It means reading and sharing our work when it’s about social issues—not just fashion tips, viral dances, or rappers you should listen to. It means showing support for Black people on social media without using their likeness as avatars and making yourself the center of the conversation. We’ve been Black, which means we never had the luxury of learning and unlearning racism because we’ve always been on the receiving end of it. But if you’re truly devoted to helping Black people in this field, then you must not only show up for us regularly—you need to do it right. 

Candace McDuffie

 

Candace McDuffie is a culture and music journalist whose work has been featured in outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Al Jazeera, Rolling Stone, and NBC News. She is currently based in Boston.

(Photo: Daniel Irvin)

Q&A: Girmay Edits BOA Selections

by

Dana Isokawa

2.17.20

In October 2020, BOA Editions, an indie press located in Rochester, New York, named poet Aracelis Girmay the first editor-at-large of its Blessing the Boats Selections, a line of poetry books written by women of color. As the editor of the selections, which are part of the press’s American Poets Continuum Series and named after Lucille Clifton’s 2000 collection, Blessing the Boats (BOA Editions), Girmay will choose one or two books for publication each year through 2023. (The inaugural submission period was held during November; the selections will be announced later this spring.) Girmay is the author of three poetry collections, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), and serves on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund. One week before she received her first batch of submissions, Girmay spoke via Zoom about her approach to poetry and her plan for the selections.

How do you see these selections carrying forward Lucille Clifton’s legacy?
I think of her as somebody who was always opening up space—whether it was in her poems or at a reading or around a table—and making space for stories. And I think about how profoundly she told the truth of her life when it was shunned or taboo to talk about abortion or illness or race or whiteness. I think of her legacy as opening up space for herself and for others to live and breathe by—so it feels so right that these selections exist because it’s part of what she did in her poems and in her life. 

Why is opening this space for women poets of color so important?
We are so lucky any time anybody speaks with their full voice and questions—it’s a gift to humanity. Any time anybody carries their complexities and shares how they think, feel through, and try to make sense or undo sense in the world helps us as readers be and imagine more world. I think that’s critical, vital work. To have a space made specifically for women writers of color is a commitment that feels like it should be an obvious one—but we know the world of publishing and how white writers and male writers tend to dominate these spaces. I think the more the work and the books represent what the world looks like, the better we are.

How do you feel when you come across a manuscript that you love?
I am shifted in some tiny or big way. It’s a lot of work to really spend time with somebody else’s effort, and I feel the deep gift and honor of that. Spending time with someone else’s thinking and figuring can shift my thinking and sense of what’s possible in language and thought and can really teach me to pay attention newly, differently. And so when I come across a manuscript I’m excited about, I feel changed in some way. Sometimes it’s a physical sensation; sometimes I can’t even put words to it; and sometimes I can say, This is making me think x, y, z. But in some way I am different.

How do you think you’re changed?
In Deborah Paredez’s book, Year of the Dog, she’s got these famous photographs from the Vietnam War and some photographs from her dad’s personal archive of his time deployed in Vietnam from San Antonio. She repeats these photographs and changes where they are on the page and sometimes hones in on certain details. I move through the world and engage with found materials all the time, but somehow encountering them in the container of this book, and spending focused time on what Deb has made, gives me a chance to ask questions about the making. What does it mean that this photograph repeats? What does it mean that this poem is before this photograph here and later this word is missing? I become attuned to what it makes me think, and I start to wonder about the conditions out of which this piece, this poem, this book emerged. My own thinking is stretched as a reader, because it’s not about pinning meaning down, but about reading for possible meanings. And that feels like a practice that could just go on infinitely—but I also feel like I’m leaning toward the writer and their making. What I can think on my own is different from what I can think with another. I am different and made different by that collaboration as a reader with that writer. 

What do you predict will be difficult about reading for these selections?
I feel as certain as I can be that there will be many manuscripts that are just incredible—I imagine it will be hard to choose at all. It feels super important to me to communicate to people how much we need everyone’s voices as they are. For every book there are so many voices and people who make that book. The ways that we come to our language are always full of other people—each person’s book is teeming with histories, experiences, and peoples. And for each book there are so many other books that, because of logistics and other things, don’t get published. I feel the seriousness and responsibility and joy of this work and also the hope that people keep finding, no matter what, ways to their work and ways to share their work. Because there’s always so much more out there. 

Do you have screeners, or will you read all the manuscripts?
I will read everything. That feels important to me. 

What kind of books do you think are at home with BOA?
I think about the BOA books through which I came into reading poetry: books by Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Lucille Clifton. And I think about the newer books that BOA has published by Deborah Paredez, Chen Chen, Diana Marie Delgado, and Barbara Jane Reyes—they’re so different. I can’t say what a BOA book is, which is part of the gift and luck. I can’t guess what’s going to be next. And even thinking about Clifton’s books—there is such range and change across the books. So I don’t know what a BOA book is, but I will say they are books of great heart and such a range of imaginative strategies.

What kind of questions do you ask of a manuscript when you’re reading it?
Of course it depends on the work, but there are questions like: What are some of the things, whether they’re formal or conceptual, that are being communicated? What are some of the questions and commitments? In this role as an editor, I often take notes and spend time with the manuscript, as a student of the manuscript, and ask: What are the poems asking? What is the shape and order of the manuscript asking or wondering or rejecting? What does it mean or feel like to move from the front to the back in this manuscript—is that important to it, is it not? Is this one book or is it a few books? What does the book make possible, what do the poems make possible, and is there a way to sense what’s vital to this poet? Those are some general questions. Hopefully, I ask different questions with each manuscript.

Are those the same questions you ask yourself when you’re nearing completion of a book?
Yes. There’s another question that I ask myself that I don’t ask when I’m reading manuscripts, which is a question of belief: Do I believe this? Is what I’m saying true? I’m often concerned with truth, even if that has to do with, say, order—like, does this feel disordered, as it must be, because it feels like the truest way to carry this story? But I can’t ask that when I’m reading these manuscripts—I can’t know that for another.

What strategies for revising and putting together a book would you recommend? I read in your interview with Claire Schwartz in the Bennington Review that you had taken all the verbs out of the black maria to detect the ratio of joy to grief in them, which I thought was such a wonderful strategy. Do you have other strategies you use or that you recommend to students?
For a time it is important to let the work be strange to you and to not know everything and all. You can’t know everything and all, and I believe in letting things be mysterious. And then I love it when I get to go to my work, or students go to their work, or I go to their work, and just make observations. I remember the first time I experienced this: Marie Ponsot came to visit a class during grad school, and we were asked to sit in a circle and make observations about poems. No observation was too small. And I remember how hard that was—to not analyze, but to observe. 

I bring that exact exercise to other people I work with and to myself. What are your verbs doing? Which verbs are attributed to which things? What’s happening with your syntax? Is there a structure you’re often following? And observe not with judgment yet, but as a way to meet what you’ve made newly. When you read out loud, if you read out loud, what are the moments that knock at your heart? Which are the moments you feel go on for a long time? And maybe you want that. Then we’ll highlight in different colors different kinds of things and then spread out the work and say, “Oh wow, there’s a lot of heat on these five pages and none for twenty—does that feel like what you want?” Experiments that have to do with going into the work with someone who doesn’t know everything about it—and then reminding yourself to observe and learning what to do with those observations.

What do you do with those observations?
Those observations help to make decisions. Sometimes that decision is not necessarily a resolution, but a decision to let this be what I can make right now. Sometimes I’m going to try and teach my imagination; I’m going to try to teach myself something different and not, for example, keep attributing these verbs to these people. And I’m going to push myself into remembering a range of verbs we can be in. But sometimes it’s okay to just leave things messy and unresolved, and to be aware that’s a thing you’re leaving as it is.

In Claire Schwartz’s interview, you said that when Nikky Finney asked you what you wanted to do with your poetry, one of the hardest things you had to assert was: I want to publish a book. If you can remember—why do think that was?
I’m trying to think about who I was then. One of the reasons was knowing how that one book takes up other people’s time and space. It was hard for me to come to terms with the difference between writing to deepen my own spirit and thinking, and stretching the private work of writing to the outward-facing or community-facing work of writing. It took me some time to reconcile that taking-up space, and feeling convicted enough, or strong enough to say, I want to make space for my voice among the voices. And I want to be part of this conversation. I want to carry my stories in the names of my family out of my house into conversations with this person’s names and this person’s stories and this person’s trees and land. I think it took me some time to say that it was important, not just to me, but that I had a piece of a story, a tatter of a story, that could meet somebody else’s tatter, and that my tatter was meaningful or important enough to share with others. 

What force helped move you to the space to want to publish a book?
Joy, probably. I’ve always loved to read. I love the feeling in my mouth when I’m reading; I love finding out what catches when you’re on the train and suddenly somebody’s lines come back to you. In life, when I’m in something really hard, a poem suddenly is something to lean on—I’m always shocked by that. I think the joy from reading eventually made me feel like, let’s try. Let’s try! 

I think people of color face a lot of pressure to write in ways that make their language or culture or background legible to a white reader. What would you maybe say to those writers who face that pressure?
I so want to know, I so want to read and hear the work and languages that are people’s marrow languages. And whether that’s a question of image, diction, syntax, whatever—privacies or semi-privacies of mind and imagination are so interesting to me. The ways that people write toward their different selves, the others who share their languages—it’s critical. I feel like I’m saying obvious things, but we lose and lose when we’re always facing whiteness, which diminishes everyone. Everyone. Including white people. It’s hard to be in some Englishes and publishing in the United States, in a publishing world dominated by white people. It can be really hard to hold onto our compasses and imaginations. And those are the things that we most need. I think of Toni Morrison, who was writing about Black people and for whom we were the center of her eye and ear and self—and look what that’s done for everyone.

Saidiya Hartman talks about holding on to one’s illegibility, which is not as simple as whether we’re legible to white people or not, but a greater question about the extent to which we try to be read by others. I think the gift of reading is that we find ourselves in these spaces of friction and unease with the possibility of resolution and rupture. We’re alive for this much time [snaps fingers]. We lose when we’re trying to be someone else. 

It’s such a fraught question, I feel—I have compassion for the parts of me and the parts of people I love and students I’ve had the chance to work with [that make us] feel like we have to imitate another in order to be taken seriously or allowed into the room or the school. And I understand those pressures. And I think it’s a devastation of place, imagination, and ancestry.

What books are on your desk? I can see a few of them.
I’ve got Mangaliso Buzani’s a naked bone, which is a beautiful book. Dionne Brand’s An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading. Lucille Clifton’s How to Carry Water. Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother. Deborah Paredez’s Year of the Dog—whoops! A horse’s eye just came out of that! [Holds up a small scrap of paper with the image of a horse’s eye on it.] Maybe my youngest squirreled this away—I was making a collage and I couldn’t find it.

Eyes literally falling out of your books! What would you recommend writers reach for?
My friend Ross often talks about trying to make a thing he doesn’t know how to make. That speaks to me. I encourage people to reach for what moves them in the making, what resuscitates or revitalizes their thinking and being. 

What would recommend writers guard against?
I recently saw footage of Lucille Clifton talking about writing as “taking the risk to go out on your fear.” I think that it sometimes does take courage just to write. And then it can take courage to send your writing out into the world to be considered and read by others. I want to remember that I am reading courages, among other things, as I read submissions. And I hope that those whose manuscripts are not chosen don’t grow discouraged. Disappointment is one thing. But discouragement can be really hard to overcome, especially because we are so often conflating worth with being chosen. It’s hard not to do that. And so it feels important for me to say what my Aunt Margaret said to me almost a decade ago: “I used to always sing and then I stopped. Don’t let anybody stop you from singing.”

 

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

Aracelis Girmay (Credit: Richard Louissaint)

No Ordinary Woman: Lucille Clifton

by

Hilary Holladay

3.4.10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you consider Yeats—
I like Yeats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dodge Poetry Festival Launches YouTube Channel

4.23.09

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

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

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

 

Conferences, Festivals Taking a Hit

by

Kevin Nance

5.1.09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balancing the Books

by

Kevin Nance

1.1.09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Approves $50 Million in Stimulus Funds for NEA

1.30.09

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

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

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

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

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

The Senate will begin debate on the bill on Monday.

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

NEA Appoints Grants Director as Literature Department Expands

7.26.07

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

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

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

 

NEA Chairman Set to Return to a Life of Writing

9.12.08

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

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

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

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

NEA Crosses Borders With Literary Exchanges

11.8.06

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

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

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

NEA Launches Initiative to Celebrate Historic Poetry Sites

9.27.07

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

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

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

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

 

NEA Responds to “Reading at Risk”

by

Kevin Canfield

3.1.06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Canfield is a journalist in New York City.

The Grim Reader

by

Kevin Nance

3.1.08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Discussion Topics

Ideas and opinions to spur reflection and debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers Guide Category: 

The Poetic Appraisal

by

Sarah Davis

7.1.06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Law of Diminishing Readership

by

Joseph Bednarik

5.1.06

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

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

1. Production of creative writing far exceeds consumer demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednarik is the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press.

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

The NEA Launches the Big Read in Egypt

4.21.08

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

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

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

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

The NEA’s Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

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

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

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

 

 

The NEA’s Big Read Reaches Readers Around the World

11.14.07

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

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

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

 

 

The Poetic Appraisal

by

Sarah Davis

7.1.06

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unemployment Rate Among Writers Hit 6.6 Percent in 2008

3.5.09

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

1.12.09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Stimulus Bill Includes $50 Million for the NEA

2.13.09

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

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

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

Senate Votes to Cut Arts From Economic Stimulus Bill

2.9.09

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

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

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

 

University of New Mexico Press Staff Shaken Over Layoffs

4.1.09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dodge Poetry Festival Gets New Digs

9.25.03

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dodge Suspends Biennial Poetry Festival

1.16.09

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview With Poet Li-Young Lee

by

Liz Logan

2.11.08

Li-Young Lee has said he doesn’t know whether to call himself Chinese, Chinese-American, Asian-American, or American. He was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1957. His father, a deeply religious Christian who served as Mao Tse-Tung’s physician, fled China to Indonesia with his family in 1949. They later fled that country after his father had been imprisoned in President Sukarno’s jails. Brief stays in Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan followed before the family settled in America. It’s no wonder that so many of his poems are about searching for an identity.

Lee is the author of four books of poetry and a prose poem memoir. His latest collection, Behind My Eyes, was published in January by Norton. Lee’s immigrant experience manifests itself in some of the new poems, such as “Self Help for Fellow Refugees” and “Immigrant Blues.” In others, Lee manages to uncover the mystical in everyday life, as in “To Hold,” in which he describes making the bed with his wife.

Lee has won numerous awards, including three Pushcart Prizes, the Lannan Literary Award, and the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award for his collection Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001). He has lived in Chicago since 1981, and makes a living by teaching and giving readings.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Lee how the urban setting of Chicago affects his work.

LL: I’m trying always to escape the city. I’ve lived in cities all my life. I’ve never really loved them. I feel kind of exiled from nature. In my work, I’m always trying to get beyond the human. And here I am living smack in the middle of the human, 24/7. So [the city] forces me, I think, to attempt to move toward a greater, deeper interior.

P&W: How do you get in the mental place where you find this deeper interior and write?

LL: Mostly just meditating and taking vows of silence: staying off the phone and even talking as little as possible to my family—being friendly and loving, but only speaking when I have to, and not speaking automatically.

The difficulty for me is, I wake up and I feel a multitude of personalities. There’s a person in me that somehow experiences the entire world as a kind of poem—the whole world around me is saturated with meaning and presence, and even the presence of God. There are connections everywhere, and everything sounds like a poem, everything’s the beginning of a poem.

And then there’s a part of me that isn’t prepared, and even afraid to really look at that condition of saturation and meaning and presence and order in the world. It’s too much to even grasp. Then there’s part of me that’s trying to see that and then hear the poem that comes from that condition of saturation and meaning.

The minute I wake up, there’s something inside of me that’s reading the world for its poetic state. I feel there’s a part of me that’s doing it even when I’m not jotting things down: I’m looking and listening and feeling, trying to stay in meditation. I’m listening for poems all the time.

P&W: Do you ever feel you are unable to write out of fear?

LL: Oh, all the time. And it’s frustrating because the poem is constantly there—constantly looking me in the face, constantly murmuring in my ear, constantly murmuring in my heart, in my soul. I don’t know what it is…. I’m afraid to write it.

The paradigm of poetry is DNA: the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space. When we read really great poems, we unpack more and more and more information every time we read it. And a lot of information is not even paraphrase-able—a lot of it is emotional and spiritual.

P&W: What were you trying to achieve with Behind My Eyes?

LL: I just wanted to go to a deeper understanding, a deeper music, deeper arguments with God, deeper encounters with God. I wanted to ask deeper questions.

P&W: What’s different about the book?

LL: I hope it’s clearer than Book of My Nights. I think I had to go through some real wilderness, tangled vines and trees and being lost in Book of My Nights, confusion about who I am and what’s going on, and what is language, what’s a poem, why am I writing—all that stuff—to get to this book. I hope it’s deeper and simpler.

P&W: In Behind My Eyes, there’s a poem titled “Standard Checklist for Amateur Mystics.” Do you consider yourself a mystic?

LL: An amateur mystic, that’s exactly what I am. A total amateur.

P&W: I was surprised to see that the poem “Bring Home Her Name” rhymes, since your poems usually don’t. What made you decide to write a rhyming poem?

LL: I love writing formal poems. I have a bunch of them; I’ve just never published them. It’s something I do to stay warmed up.

P&W: You ask a lot of open-ended questions in your poems, especially in the new book. What do the questions add to the poem?

LL: They’re a way to admit my own condition of not knowing. I think that asking a question that can’t be answered can move a poem forward. I feel like my whole being is a question.

P&W: You write about the difficulties of being an immigrant in the new book, as you have in the past. How has your writing about your experience changed?

LL: I think I integrate it more into the work, so it’s not the only subject. For instance, in the poem “Immigrant Blues,” the real subject in that poem is how social trauma can make it difficult for a person to experience love. The act of love requires so much courage, so much faith, that if one’s faith and courage is destroyed by persecution or terror or violence, it makes the experience of love almost impossible. That poem is really about love. I was able to integrate my experience not just as historical data, but try to get to the emotions and the spiritual significance.

P&W: You said in an interview in 2001 that by writing Book of My Nights you were trying to make contact with a bigger consciousness in order to be “a reliable compass” for your sons, who are now twenty-two and twenty-four. Have you become that reliable compass?

LL: No. I am such a troubled individual—as Goethe called it, “a troubled guest on the earth.” If I didn’t have children, I would just resign. But because I have children, I thought, “Well, if I’m a troubled guest, the likelihood of them being troubled guests is greater, and I don’t like that.” So I’ve been struggling hard to obtain some view of the world where I’m more at home. I have not been successful.
 

I’ve always talked to [my sons] about the human mission. I tell them, we’re here to add value to the world, or to uncover value in the world. I hope that by the time I die I will have achieved a little bit of that wholeness, so that they know somebody put their shoulder to the wheel.

[Poetry] is like any other yoga. It’s a practice to try to get to that state of ultimate sanity. Great poems are models of human sanity. If sometimes they seem insane, [it’s because] greater sanity always challenges the status quo. Jesus seemed insane. I’m sure Joan of Arc seemed insane. But on retrospect, we recognize that there was a greater sanity that encountered the status quo.

P&W: So poetry is about making peace with the world?

LL: Yes, definitely. I feel that language and the poetic condition is basically made up of actions—that is, the words—and rests—that is, the pauses. And I think that the deeper the rests that are imparted to the reader, the deeper the peaces. We see it prominently in the Judeo-Christian belief of the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest. And that rest isn’t just a cessation from thought or a cessation from speech or a cessation from action, but it’s a deep, rejuvenating, fulfilling silence and restitution and renovation of even time. Those rests from language are ultimately trying to achieve the deepest rest of Sabbath at the end of the poem, which is kind of a mystery to me, because the silence that a poem comes out of is, on the one hand, disturbed when the poem starts to speak. But by the end of the poem, the silence that exists is not the same silence as the origin, but is the silence of destiny, which is Sabbath. It’s the rest, the peace of Sabbath.

P&W: Are you able to take comfort in knowing that your sons see that you’ve struggled to achieve peace with the world?

LL: I do sometimes take comfort in that. And yet I don’t want to contaminate them. But they are a lot better adjusted than I am. They didn’t have my history either. People weren’t trying to kill them since the day they were born.

I’m not a very safe person to be around. I’m safer now—safer, not completely safe. I’m troubled because I didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t a safe person. I was emotional and volatile. I want to know what it means to be a safe person to be around. I know that’s not a very interesting thing to say, because most people think they want to be a little bit dangerous. I’m not interested in that at all. I feel that all that stuff is just ego—wearing leather jackets and all that. I want to get to a safe place to contribute to the world being a safe place, so I don’t contribute more fear and more terror or insecurity. Which is weird, because part of the pleasure of a poem is the kind of jeopardy you experience when you’re reading a poem. But the ultimate gift of reading a poem is a deep sense of satisfaction, safety, refuge, Sabbath, peace. And all of it is because I just really want my children to feel safe around me.

P&W: In the poem “First World” from Behind My Eyes, you write about you and your sister “dying in childhood.” Is that about being aware of death when you were growing up?

LL: Yes. When I was a child, I felt like there was death all around me, in a good and bad way. Neighbors were being hauled off and executed. While we were traveling, we would hear news of close people we loved that had died at the hands of Sukarno and Mao Tse-Tung. But also because my father was in pretty bad health, his death was always there, very present, and it became a source of mystery and anxiety for me, even a source of richness.

I became obsessed with the unknown things in the world—the stairs to the basement, the stairs to the attic, and when we moved to the U.S., the place in our yard in Seattle where the woods began. We were not allowed to go into those woods, and I projected all kinds of things into there. Death, mystery, sleep.

My mother seemed like such a mystery to me. There was something about her being beyond encroachment. I could never access her. It troubled me. And because of my simplistic mind, that somehow got married with death. Sometimes I thought she was the source of my death, and it didn’t scare me. It was warm. She used to comb her hair, and the distance between the hair and her neck made like a little tent. There was like a whole universe rolled in there of death and mystery.

My relationship with death was almost to a relative. I think I actually said that in a poem: “We shunned death for less faithful playmates.” I felt death was a kind of faithful and abiding cousin. I felt warm about it—not morbid. I associated death with the underside of the pillow. When I went to bed at night, I remember there was the side that I could see, and the underside, where all the dreams come from, and that must be death.

We live constantly in the present, but there’s just always a little something distancing us, by mystery.

P&W: Your wife Donna is a frequent presence in your work. How did you meet her and has your marriage had an impact on you as a poet?

LL: We met in fifth grade, at my father’s church in Pennsylvania. I was just mad for her. It wasn’t until high school that I actually became friends with her, but I was too weird and poor. My father was this country minister making like a thousand dollars a year, and I was working at a carwash to help the family income. So I had no money to take her out or anything. So I was just a stupid, violent, poor country minister’s son who was in love with this sweet little Italian girl.

The encounter with romantic love has been the most important thing in my life. Because of my love for [Donna], I’ve tried to become a more whole person, a more safe person.

P&W: When did you start writing poetry, and what moved you to start?

LL: The minute I started learning English—I was about nine years old when I started to understand English—I started rhyming words. I remember very specifically that I went fishing with a friend and his family, and caught a little fish. I remember writing, “Here is a fish, make a nice dish,” and giving it to my mother. And I thought the repetition of fish and dish—the repetition of sounds—was shamanisticly magical, like somehow I had turned the fish into a dish just by saying that. All kinds of English words I kept confusing, and was happy, because I thought it was rich. I kept jotting down little rhyming things. But it wasn’t until college that I was actually moved to put words together into more sustained things called poems.

P&W: What’s your revision process like?

LL: I have to develop a real dialogue with a poem so that the poems can tell me how much work they need. When I read the poem, I’m trying to listen to some deeper order. And when that aesthetic order emerges, I’ll touch it. Sometimes that deeper order doesn’t emerge, and I know that I was distracted and didn’t get that part of the poem or something, and I have to go back and try to unearth more stuff.

Sometimes the poems come so fast that certain words are actually placeholders for the real words that are supposed to be there, and the work is to go back and figure out which words are the placeholders and which words are destined.

P&W: You once said in an interview that you consider every poem “a descendant of God.” What about failed, or flawed poems?

LL: There are great poems that have flaws. There are failures of perception, failures of understanding, but those flaws become a part of the poem’s integrity, so I still feel that those poems are descendants of God. But if a poem isn’t even good enough to be a poem, I don’t think it’s descended from God: [If] there is no “I” [as in Martin Buber’s I and Thou], there is no God. The “Me” talking about “Me”—that’s not enough.

P&W: Heaven is a big theme in Behind My Eyes. Do you believe in it?

LL: I believe that heaven on earth is possible. As far as if you go to heaven after you die, I have no idea about that. But I think heaven on earth is not only possible, it’s a mission. And that’s part of the mission of poetry: to help build heaven on earth.

 

Liz Logan is a master’s candidate at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her poems have appeared in Potomac Review and the anthologies Becoming Fire: Religious Writing From Rising Generations from Andover Newton Theological School and Tree Magic from Sunshine Press.

The paradigm of poetry is DNA: the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space.

Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would a