(Above, left to right: Christopher Hennessy, Wendy Millar, Matt Shears, Lauren Russell)
I now realize that there’s no way to write about AWP without name-dropping, so let it rain!
We took Brooklyn Arts Press to the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference for the first time this year. It was held in Chicago, a city I love, a chilly city, a city with dense little clusters of Williamsburg-esque neighborhoods – bars with 80’s dance beats, indy bookstores, vinyl music shops, and well-lit cafes where feverish writers tap-tap-tap and slurp chai lattes and mine their inner-space to the tunes of the New Pornographers or beam their minds to outer- with Skrillex while keeping their Twitter accounts working overtime.
We didn’t quite know what to bring along, having never done this before, so we decided on shipping 30 copies of each book from our catalogue to the Congress Plaza Hotel, where we were staying, along with 400 handmade books (print, cut, whiskey, staple) containing a few samples of each writer’s work, which we intended to hand out to attendees who signed up for our mailing list. (This paid off: we left with 220 emails and lots of business cards.)
But the trip didn’t start off so smoothly. Arriving at the airport, we found our bags had been placed on a later flight, which we were assured would arrive in 15 minutes. We were given a choice to have the bags delivered or to wait, so we waited. Though a $12 Starbucks coupon may be tempting, I’d encourage anyone in this position to go ahead and leave for your hotel, as your bag may not actually be on the next flight, and the time you spend playing computer chess (while the TV in the common area blares a grisly interview with the parents of a child shot to death by his schoolmate) might have been better spent nodding off in a cab.
Upon arriving at the Congress, I found that the shipped box carrying the 400 pocket-sized books had been squashed, with the small books emptying out the side. No worries, though, not too many damaged (did they not have tape at the hotel?), but then our room brought a bit more distress – the internet ethernet cord was broken and I locked my laptop into a safe that refused to prompt me for a security code, for which I had to call hotel security. After taking a deep breath, washing up, and settling in, Wendy and I took a stroll down to Buddy Guy’s Legends, a blues joint downtown. The food was amazing raging cajun (I ordered the catfish smothered in crawdad gumbo) and served in large portions; the band onstage was adequately bluesy. After a bit I wandered to the bar to grab a local pale ale and watch the Bulls game. Next to me sat an elderly gentleman in a workman’s lined blue shirt and brown Stetson hat and we watched the game together and made the appropriate oohs and aahs and eyeballs for great shots. Pretty soon an entourage of musicians showed up and accosted the old man and after two cognacs he stood up and said Fuck It and walk up to the stage to great applause and sang some of the best old school blues I’ve ever heard live. This was Buddy Guy.
That’s him in the photo signing a CD for Wendy.
After we left, we closed down the hotel bar playing darts with poet Michael Vizsolyi, who lives in our Brooklyn neighborhood but who we had to fly all the way to Chicago to meet. Michael won the National Poetry Series in 2010 and had his book put out late last year, and was psyched to see it on display. The bartender at the Congress is also named Mike, I believe, and he was a great bartender – good service, blind pours, quick with his jokes and a busybody of sorts with anecdotes of amusing local scandals on reserve.
The next day I spent selling books to a substantial portion of the roughly 10,000 attendees.
At AWP I learned that if I ever lose the taste for writing and publishing, I can always make it as a carney barker. I become somehow actively more socially adept than most when I have little to lose and much to gain. Nobody got by the BAP table without some offering of my interest in them: a smile, a wave, a slatternly wink. Before arriving, I’d read an account by a blogger who credited his ability to sell more books at AWP than his rival presses by simply being prepared to engage people on all manner of subject (much like my bartender, whom I tipped generously). If our book covers didn’t catch their eye, I called out to people, pulling them back and engaging them in conversation about poetry or Brooklyn or our decision to make our chapbooks using felt 80lb paper because we admired the look and feel of it. I sold poetry to fiction writers who didn’t normally read poetry, to small press owners, to avid poetry readers, and to writers who – and this is always exciting – people who already knew of BAP, who followed the press or our writers or had read a review of one of our books. Some people actually wandered over just to talk about Brooklyn, and I sold them books, too (there were lots of Williamsburgians and Park Slopers in attendance). This back-and-forth is the great pleasure of attending AWP as the representative of an independent press. I carried on a fifteen minute conversation with one woman comparing the subtle differences between lyrical short fiction (in the case of Carol Guess’ book, Darling Endangered) and prose poetry. I spoke with a poet whose publisher had told her it was impossible to put out any poetry book as an eBook, which is simply not true, it’s just difficult, and only truly difficult if the poet uses tabs and realizes the full usage of the blank page as a spatial reality. A person from Poets & Writers stopped by to say she loved our press, and Clay from Small Press Distribution paid us a visit and tried to make us feel like rock stars. Over and over, we received the same praise – for our choice of authors and the quality of our books. It was overwhelming. If you have a small press with over 5 solid books and are wondering if the $450 table fee is worth it, I’d reply with this: $450 can get you a quarter to half-page ad in a decent-sized lit journal, or it can get you a seat at a sold-out conference full of core potential buyers, writers, supporters, reviewers, bloggers, etc who share your general if not specific interests. Now, when your press begins pulling in a little more money, you may consider seeking larger avenues of advertisement (especially in terms of supporting great literary journals), but for sheer publicity, the AWP has a lot to offer the small publisher on a budget.
We sold 75 books and gave away 5 to potential reviewers for big-name journals, which means we made back the money we put into renting the table BAP, including my pass, and the books’ shipping costs. Hotel and meals were monetary losses, but worth every minute of face-time with writers and publishers and panelists. Plus, you get invited to after-parties and off-site readings, and famous writers and writers you’ve admired over the years will simply walk up to the table and start conversing with you, as if fame were an illusory stoplight at the crossroads of Fear and Celebration replaced this day by a Yield sign where you, a lonely tinker, can peddle his wares without concern that the sheriff….The AWP will not make you better at off-the-cuff elliptical metaphors. The point is, it was worth the time and money to attend.
I also finally met the wonderful Bryan Borland from Sibling Rivalry Press and Assaracus, who did Christopher Hennessy and myself such a kindness by placing postcards of ours in his books, and Martin Ott, whose book BAP will publish this summer. Matthew Hittinger stopped by and showed us his forthcoming book Skin Shift (the cover is beautiful; it looks like something from a Hayao Miyazaki film) and we ran into Eduardo C. Corral (an old friend from Iowa who won the Yale Prize last year) several times as he wandered around promoting his first book, which is due out on March 11th (got my copy). I was so busy that first day that I actually forgot to eat. I did, however, get the opportunity to check out the books at the Ugly Duckling Presse table, which is my favorite small press on the planet. Their books are beautifully rendered and perfect little example of how far care, book arts craftsmanship, and strict editorial curating can carry a small publisher. UDP is the oft-overlooked cousin to the premier-level platypuses, publishers now referred to as the Big Six. If I were a dirt-flecked, mild-mannered boy with a bowlcut at a prom I would stare down Ugly Duckling all night long wondering what rash bit of daring I might enact to get her to notice me. I would imagine building an empire out of thought-provoking hand-sewn limited-editions of 19th Cent. Russian translations, which I would use to woo her, and together we would adopt and nurture little Factory Hollow Presses and Milkweed Editions and Coffee House Presses and grow them into the Groves and Eccos and New Directions of their time, and buy several islands in the Keys or Everglades and pronounce them Poetry Cities on the Swamp and defend them against pirates and gatormen and rabid critics all. But as that child I’d probably just end up trying to introduce myself and spilling punch all over the front of my jeans. The rage comic I’d go home and make afterwards would be badass, though. Shit would get mad upvotes on Reddit.
Blogging is an artform of economy and grace.
After the end of the first day, trekking back to our hotel, Wendy and I ran into Steve Marlowe of Foxhead Books and Paul Kerschen. We sat with them for a drink and I noticed across the way Nikki Giovanni (whom I’d met a long time ago in Virginia) and NBA-winner Nikky Finney. Famous people everywhere. Later I rolled out with Spencer Short, who has been a big supporter of BAP and my own writing, to meet Amy Lingafelter and listen to Tanya Larkin and Debbie Kuan read their work for Saturnalia with Campbell McGrath at a tater-tot-serving bar. Later still, we migrated to the Hilton for some drinks and oysters and deep poetry talk and ran into Megan Levad, Stephanie Soileau, and Jorge Sanchez (friends I rarely get to see, being in different cities) and was introduced to Steph’s old roommate, Jesmyn Ward, who just won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones. We had some drinks and laughs and then Spencer and Tanya and I headed out to another reading/karaoke thing, where we lost Tanya but picked up Heather Gibbons, who has a wonderful chapbook out, and headed down to a local townie bar for a nightcap and some dancing. I remembered to rehydrate before grabbing a cab.
And that’s a pretty typical night for AWP, from what I understand.
AWP is a mixer, really. It’s a place to make connections, talk about writing and publishing, get feedback and, truthfully, let loose a bit. The experience can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve seen plenty of people retreat into the corner, overcome, each with that thousand-yard stare. I’ve seen people drink their drinks too quickly out of sheer nervousness and lose balance quickly. There are definitely social butterflies in attendance, but most of us get carried along for the ride, because there are lots of panels to attend, plenty of readings to catch, plenty of book tables to sort through, new people to meet, and all of the bars and restaurants of a city to explore, that to stay still isn’t much of an option unless you choose to disappear into your hotel room, which you should probably do one night or risk getting Vegas-legs and Times-Square-eyes.
The best part of AWP, for myself as a writer, is to go around thumbing through and purchasing books published by different presses and literary magazines in the hope that I might locate a few seemingly specifically tailored to my interests, aesthetics, and writing style – places I can send my work to.
The best part of AWP, as a publisher, is to sit down with your writers at the table and explain to passersby just how awesome they are.
We were joined first by Matt Shears, and later by Christopher Hennessy, Joe Fletcher, and Lauren Russell, each of whom took time to sit with us and sign books. Over the course of several days I had developed a shorthand way of selling each of their poetry books. I’d ask the customer what sort of poetry most interested her/him: “lyric, narrative, experimental, mythic, urban, language-y, a mixture?” For each answer, I had a book in mind. And I sold a lot of books with that simple formula in mind. If it was obvious they weren’t going to purchase a book, I pointed out the rows of handmade samplers: “Well, we’re giving away free samplers in exchange for an email address…”
Christopher was having a particularly busy day when he sat down: he’d just hosted a panel that included Mark Doty, David Trinidad, Kevin Killian and Stephen Motika called “Recovery/Discovery: The Art of Bringing Queer Literary Heroes Back into Print.” And it was by some stroke of cosmic fortune that his poem “Carriers,” which we’d published in his book Love-In-Idleness, was up on the Poetry Daily website as their poem-of-the-day during the conference!
Unfortunately, Carol Guess was one of the many writers locked out of the conference by limited ticket sales, and we missed her dearly (I still have yet to meet her and was looking forward to it) but we sold more copies of her book, Darling Endangered, than any other. Carol has quite the following, and fiction writers especially seem drawn to her wonderfully sonic, tightly crafted narratives. We also sold a good number of Broc Rossell’s new chapbook, even though Broc was up in Vancouver and couldn’t attend. AWP is for writers, but we brought along the art books of Jonathan Allen, Anne Beck, and Greg Slick anyhow, and those books sold as well.
I could go on describing each day, but I think I’ve written enough to give you, reader, a taste of AWP as seen from the viewpoint of a small press owner attendee. The only panel I was able to attend was friend Seth Harwood‘s, as my main mission in Chicago was to stick close to the table and sell books.
I would also like to take a moment to point out two small presses, started by friends, which I think you may enjoy: Nate Hoks’ press Convulsive Editions and Genevieve Kaplan’s Toad Press. Enjoy these cared-for editions to literature.
I also have to say, even though you have to wait in line out in the cold for half an hour, the tacos and margaritas at Big Star in Wicker Park are to die for. My friend Johnny Schmidt, who drove up from Knoxville for the event, concurs.
Shout outs to Vu Tran, Nick Arvin, the cigar-smoking Tim Liu, and Brendan Kiely from the Coffin Factory.
In the end gatherings like the AWP are important because they carry forth the necessary torch of writing and reading into this new century in an open and involved way. Some day the AWP, or some conference like it, might be relegated to a Skype-systematized chatroom of sorts where we can peruse panels without concern for slow elevators or alarm clocks or crowded lobbies, but I hope it never comes to that entirely. I enjoy ebooks and I’m an internet junkie, but there’s nothing like handing a printed art object to a reader and having them observe the quality of the thing right in front of you. It’s like magic. Here, have some magic. I worked for months designing this. I read through boxes of manuscripts and edited this line for line because I am a old-school like that and I sent it to a printer who tried their damndest to print it funny but it survived its birth and now it’s here and in your hands and if that isn’t magic then what the hell is?