The day starts off with seeing a report on the NYT "Best Books" panel on the cover of the Show Daily, the free rag for conferees put out by Publisher's Weekly. "Not So 'Beloved'" reads the headline, and the article gives a pretty good precis of the discussion. Since I was taking notes during the session, I have a brief flicker and wonder if some of the people surrounding me will think that I wrote the article. And then, the day's first Celebrity Sighting: America's Test Kitchen's Christopher Kimball, striding quickly across through the registration area in a dark suit. I assume that he's attempting to travel incognito by not wearing his trademark bowtie. It seems to work, as no one appears to notice him but me. I try to point him out to my companion, Folger Shakespeare Library's Teri Cross, but Kimball's moving too fast -- and she has no idea who he is anyway. Obviously, she's not a (TV watching) cook.
This is the first time Teri has been to BookExpo, and the look on her face as she gazes out over the vast Washington Convention Center floor, filled with publishers and their books is priceless. It's like waking up on Christmas morning and finding everything you ever wanted under the tree. It seems almost too big, impossible to cover even in three days. Teri is only there one, today, and so she's going to have to be selective in indulging in this cornocopia.
Personally, I think she's wearing the wrong shoes. Looking sharp and attractive in a dark top and flowered skirt with a short but flowing train, she struts quickly through the aisles in heels. I know from past experience at Library Association Conventions that the key to these things is comfortable shoes or tennis all the way. But this doesn't stop Teri. She moves like a tiny whirlwind. Since she's only there one day, we decide to hit some of the big names and 'musts' for poetry. She's looking not only for publishers of poets she can bring to The Folger in her capacity as Poetry Program Coordinator, but also authors who can be part of the new "Words on Will" series, that attempts to show the influence of ShakeScene in the lives of a wide range of people. So just about anything and anyone might be qualified for this series. Most folk, however, tend to mention scholars and professors when "Words on Will" is brought up. "How do I say 'I don't want academics' without seeming mean?" she asks me. I suggest using words like 'for a wide audience,' 'engaging,'...'popular' perhaps?
Saying "Folger Shakespeare Library" causes a number of people to jump into action. One at Oxford University Press gleefully hands over a copy of the 1200 page Oxford Book of American Poetry gratis, as she strongly suggests David Lehman as a possible moderator for a poetry discussion, for example. I do what I can not to turn too many shades of green as I agree that Lehman would make a good discussion moderator, or even program focus all by himself.
Criss-crossing the convention floor, directory in hand, in search of publishers (W.W. Norton! Simon & Schuster! Ahh...Graywolf ...and FSG!!) perusing, talking, picking up freebies, (passing E J Dionne who's saying, "I came from a family that was always talking politics..."), I'm struck even more than usual by how much I adore the work of small presses. Their books and lists seem the most interesting, the richest in terms of subject matter, range of authors, and they do more to bring work back to life. I find myself reverting to 'fan' mode, going up and thanking folks at Soho Press for reissuing the fiction of Maria Thomas, Coffee House Press for their "Black Arts Movement Series" (They have a small display in honor of Gilbert Sorrentino, who died BookExpo Thursday). I HUG the folks at New Directions, after one mentions being the editor of A Certain Blogger's fantastic novel. The photo of Octavia Butler at the Seven Stories booth saddens me no end: the first and only time I met her was at their booth at a Library Association convention. The midsized presses also seem to have more galleys and books out for the taking, while the majors seem a bit chary, perhaps holding things back for later when their authors are available to sign them. Teri and I still make a trip back to her car, loaded down with bags of books and catalogues (that Oxford American Poetry is heavy as hell), and start in for a second go round.
The Washington area's Gival Press shares a table with the annual journal Gargoyle over at the far end of the hall, where a number of the REALLY small presses are. Poetry is out here in the Cheap Seats as well, which is odd considering how flush with cash the Poetry Foundation is. We rave about the series of Poet's Journals they've been doing (the favorite of the folks in the booth, and one of the most successful, seems to have been our friend Tyehimba Jess' series), and rave again when they show us the Poetry Tool , a new web feature that allows people to find poems based on not only title or first line, but also 'Occasion' (Anniversary, Birth, Father's Day...) or 'Category' (Relationships, Nature, Cycle of Life...). I can hear thousands of libraians sighing in joyous relief, and can't wait to tell the folks at work about this.
We stop by Old Cove Press in the hopes of seeing author Frank X. Walker, who we'll also be seeing later that evening at the Cave Canem reading.
I'm impressed by the enormous blow up of the cover of Frank's book, Black Box they use as a back drop for their table (and lets, face it, that is one Sexy. As. Hell. photo!), as well as all the other promotional material for him. But then when you publish a Lannan-winning author I guess you pull out the stops. It's also a bit of a surprise to me that the folks at Old Cove are white. It takes me two seconds to get over it: anyone who puts such obvious love and care into the quality of their books, and the promotional work they do for Frank X, I'm down with them and happy for him. And I was published by 'a couple-a white chicks' as they'd call themselves, too, so...
In Da Hood
We leave the main floor and head to the upper level, where many children's book publishers, Christian/religious publishers, and what's called 'traditional autographing' is taking place. Also in this area is the new African American Pavilion, two short aisles where black presses like Third World, and the Black Issues Book Review are located. I've been ambivalant about this are ever since I heard about it. It is not as out of the way as I'd feared, since it is just in front of the area where most of the 'big name' authors will be signing. The lines for autographs are very long, and snake into the asiles, so they will get some extra browsing by default. Seeing the lines also makes me consider rethinking my carefully thought out plan of whom I wanted to get books signed from up here.
Its good to see all the blackfolk together, and it does have a kind of family reunion atmosphere. This set up helps the smaller and self-publishers out tremendously I think. But I remain unsure. Because we were not published by black presses, neither Frank X or I would be up here. I also have to wonder how well Lisa Moore's LGBT-oriented RedBone Press would do rubbing kente cloth with some of the more Afrocentric members of the family. It also remains much easier to pass us by when we're up here together like this. And one of the major publishers of "Urban" books, Kensington is down on the main floor with the big boys, because while the authors, bookcovers and readers may be black, they're not a 'black publisher.'
Actor Joseph C Phillips (AKA "Lisa Bonet's husband on The Cosby Show") is in a booth next to Zane and a number of her authors, signing his book He Talk Like a White Boy. People have said this about me many times (particularly when I'm on the phone), I've been interested in seeing him and the book since hearing about it in the pre-BEA promos. I've seen (at the Af-Am booksellers reception) or run into Phillips (on the main convention floor) a few times already. Teri and I wait in line in front of two guys ("After this we're leaving." "One more book and then we got to go.") and I get a signed book. Phillips totally spaces on the fact that while Teri and I are together, she'd like her own copy of his book. Considering how many people there are behind me, I can understand, and it's no big deal to her. A few minutes later I start to look at it, and my heart starts to sink. Praise-filled blurbs from Larry Elder? Shelby Steele? J. C. Watts?! WARD CONNERLY!?!?! Ohmideargawd, just what the world needs, another Black Conservative Republican! I decide I will give the guy the benefit of the doubt and try the book out, but still...sheesh...I looked forward to and waited in a line for this!? A chapter railing against 'Hollywood Liberals'?....Sigh...
CC at the Folger
After eating half a sandwich and drinking some water, and putting on a new shirt (which I'd packed along with copies of my own book and what I'm going to read), it's time for the Cave Canem reading at The Folger's Haskell Center. Scheduled to start at 7 pm, the first person, a friend of one of the readers, shows up around 6:15, but fortunately is content to wait as we finish setting up. Poets and audience begin to show up for a pre-reading reception, and it's reunion time. Some people I know only by their e-mail address, others I've not seen in years.
The reading starts late (no way does 'poets time' mixed with 'black time' equal 7pm on the dot) in part to wait for some missing readers to arrive. Holly Bass' father, for example, lets us know that Holly will arrive, but will be late as she's getting back into town from Philadelphia. I juggle the reading order to cover for the missing, and join Teri in playing host.
Cave Canem readings are legendary for both their quality -- and their length. Our poetic family can tend to go long. Fortunately this one does not. A couple of scheduled readers never arrive (Teri's husband, Hayes Davis jokes that one, DJ Renegade is probably sitting at the ESPN Zone watching the NBA playoffs), and everyone does a good job of obeying the '3-5 minute' time limit. In terms of quality, we all raise the roof, if I do say so myself. The range of styles and voices, forms and subject matter, of everyone -- Holly Bass, Derrick Brown, Carleasa Coates, Teri Cross, Hayes Davis, Deidre Gantt, Joy Gonsalves, Brandon D Johnson, Carolyn Joyner, Jadi Omowale, and Frank X Walker -- is impressive. I don't dare start talking about individual readers or poems (like Frank's linked black writer haiku, Teri on the Halle Berry/Adrien Brody kiss, Hayes as Huck Finn's Jim which had people applauding before he'd finished it, Holly Bass's Seven Crown Man...) because I'll leave out something great about the people I don't mention, when I enjoyed everyone and all were just stunning in their own way. The venue was filled, we sell copies of our own books and the Cave Canem 10-year Anthology, Gathering Ground, and everyone in the audience genuinely seemed to enjoy themselves -- including one woman who Brandon later says is a fixture at DC area readings, who bangs and shakes a tambourine after each poem she enjoys. Sitting in front and playing host, I'd just thought it was someone behind me with an excess of bracelets on her arm.
An early start and a long day tomorrow: I've been advised by an expert to get in line early for, who else? -- Christopher Kimball (wearing his bowtie, no doubt) at the first signing of the day. Edward P. Jones closes out Traditional Autographing at the final, late afternoon session, and I'm sure there'll be a long line for him as well. In between, "I have a Cunning Plan". Tired but happy, I'm wracked by a nagging thought: Where am I going to put all these books when I get home?