30 May 2006

BEA Blog: Day 4

When they begin playing John Philip Souza marches on tubas, you know it's time to go....

Last day of BookExpo and I have the mixed emotions. Very happy, tired (I won't realize how sore from tote-ing books I'll be until well after I'm back home), glad I came -- but also glad to be leaving. There's only so much of this one can take! I repeat the same joke to three people I talk to today: BookExpo is like crack for booklovers.

Spend the morning with Teri and her husband Hayes at breakfast in Silver Spring. Both poet-hyphenates (poet-arts administrator, poet-teacher), they are filled with energy and ideas, and I'm struck by how 'young' they are. Either that or I'm just getting old. I try to insist, particularly to Teri, on the need to slow down, that one can't do EVERYthing, that choices have to be made (you can either watch all those TIVOed episodes of "24" or you can write, but maybe you can't do both), but am not sure I get through. I give them a writing assignment for their upcoming trip to Paris: spend a day walking through the city without a plan, just observing, and come up with notes to write a series of poems "Morning in Paris," "Noon in Paris," etc. Yes they will be 'doing something' but it's also a round-about way to get them to slow down and observe, to just enjoy 'being' for a while. It is obvious thaty they enjoy being with each other, and its very touching to see them unconsciously do little things for each other. Ah, married life...

The three of us also notice how we are in a room in the restaurant where there are no white people. Everyone in our area is black/brown. The restaruant is full, and perhaps 70% black, so perhaps its just a coincidence. But, this being the USA, one never knows...

Back at BookExpo. It is a fantastic but humbling experience to be a writer here. Fantastic to see so many books and publishers and other authors. (A photo of Zane in the African American Pavillion)
But also humbling: how can your one little book possibly break through when surrounded by all this? It reinforces how much work it takes to even try to make it in the writing world, let alone an 'overnight sensation'. I'm struck by how a few of the smaller presses and self publishers are relying on outlandish costumes or gimicks (viz the tubas) to draw people to their booths. Much of the time, it doesn't work, and only makes them look desperate and a little sad. The 'big boys' don't need to do that (although one has a Johnny Depp look-alike in their booth to push a 'Pirates of the Caribbean' tie-in).

Someone in the booth next to Small Press Distributors hears my name and comes over. "You're a poet, aren't you? You've been published, right? I've read your work!" I'm dazed and happy, but also a little unsure. This has happened to me before, in Chicago in 2002, at the Fire and Ink Conference, where someone said, "Oh I have all your books," and proceeded to pull out the collected work of Reginald Shepherd. I suspect this is the case here as well, but I'm gracious and thank the guy. Have to remember to tell the 'Other Reginald' that I met one of his fans....

(Non-chronological aside: This is not the last time I'm mistaken for someone else in Washington DC. Memorial Day Weekend I'm standing in the Lambda Rising bookstore awaiting the start of a reading for Spirited, when an older black woman comes up to me and asks, "Are you E Lynn Harris?" *Sigh*)

Some authors are signing in booths on this final day, and publicists and others with their presses are in the asiles like Carny barkers, drawing people in. "Author signing copies right now!" they say to passers by. Some people however don't need this: the longest line of the day is in the morning for Alice McDermott, in the FSG area. I make it there in time to see her and get a book. I mention being from Baltimore and she whispers to me, "How do you think O'Malley's going to do?" (our Mayor is in the Democratic primary for Governor of Maryland). I say, "I keep worrying they're going to pull out some dirty tricks on him." McDermott nods sadly, and moves on to the next fan.

The last day of the convention can often be a good day for 'hunting and gathering'. Vendors are giving away books they don't want to box up and ship back to their home offices. Some are selling things ("Make me an offer" one says), others not (inspite of our hovering and salivating, coffee table book publisher Taschen ain't givin' up nothin'). There's what can only be described as a frenzy in front of Merriam Webster. You know you're among SERIOUS book and word lovers when you see folk scrambling for dictionaries! It's One Per Customer here, and the MW people are bringing out the title you want. I decide to step aside to allow an over excited teenaged girl to go ahead of me so she can get a thesaurus before she explodes.

I run into Kwame Alexander again, and apologize for missing his party. He understands and says he was exhausted as well, but since people had already been invited he as host couldn't not show up.

Someone points out to me that being from the library makes me a bit of a VIP. Marketing people and publishers spring into action when I mention 'Big city public library', and go looking for books and catalogues, some even offer to mail titles to me once they get back to their offices. Gee, the prospect of sales of 50-100 copies of a title in one order tends to get folks moving, doen't it?

More food (carrot cake with almonds today), a few more signings. The convention hall closes at 4 pm today, but at 2, the sound of adhesive tape being torn off rolls starts to be heard around the floor. Folks are starting to pack up. Wandering among the boxes, I review the weekend. I have few regrets. I only missed one author signing I wanted to make -- David Maraniss and his new Roberto Clemente bio. Otherwise, I'm well satisfied. So what if I missed presentations by Amazon and Google (who have a small fleet of cars to shuttle conventioneers back and forth to their hotels). I've been impressed by how much work gets done at this expo. An editor at Temple University Press described his day as "Breakfast with an author, lunch with two authors, dinner with an author tonight...." Every day I've seen huddles of people sitting at tables making deals and talking about books and the book business. I've surprised myself at how much work I've done in talking to publishers and authors. Its been a really grand four days, and I can't wait to go to BookExpo 2007 in New York City. First order of business next year will be to locate the shipping area, so I can start sending books back to myself from day one.

The weekend ends with what I can only describe as a perfect dinner at Udupi Palace in Takoma Park, a vegetarian South Indian restaurant. Everything is fresh, light, extraordinary, and our waiter looks like he just stepped out of a Bollywood musical. Good food, good friends, good conversation, and books: Heaven must be like this.

...And what do I do when I return from BookExpo? Why, order a book, of course!:) One final title, highly recommended during the convention: So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, by Mexican author Gabriel Zaid (translated by Natasha Wimmer), from the small Philadelphia publisher Paul Dry Books. A short, beautifully written essay on books, reading, and writing, it elegantly states the case for the continued relevance of books as other technologies advance, as well as how reading creates connections between people. Its the perfect end to a perfect series of days.

"The freedom and happiness experienced in reading are addictive, and the strength of the tradition lies in that experience, which ultimately turns all innovations to its own ends. Reading liberates the reader and transports him from his book to a reading of himself and all of life. It leads him to participate in conversations, and in some cases to arrange them, as so many active readers do: parents, teachers, friends, writers, translators, critics, publishers, booksellers, librarians, promotors.

The uniqueness of each reader, reflected in the particular nature of his personal library (his intellectual genome), flourishes in diversity. And the conversation continues, between the excesses of graphomania and the excesses of commerce, between the sprawl of chaos and the concentration of the market."

28 May 2006

A Black man and two Latinos walk into a Chinese carryout....

A true story:

On my way back to a friend's apartment in Hyattsville and hungry, I stop in the Chinese carry out around the corner and order shrimp lo mein. As I'm waiting for the order, two Latinos (Mexican perhaps, or more likely Colombian), one in his twenties, the other forty-something walk in. The younger one is carrying a guitar, and both look a little tired and have possibly/probably had a few drinks. The guys order. I can tell from the repartee that they have been here before, and the older guy is playfully flirting, in English, with the Taiwanese woman taking the orders. From a previous exchange between herself and another Latino who ordered in mangled Spanglish, I believe she understands some Spanish, but doesn't speak it (she'd called over one of the male cooks to translate for her with the first guy).

As the woman puts an order on the counter and motions to me that it's mine, the older Latino takes the guitar from the younger guy and begins to play. He'd been facing away from me all this time, and it's only now that I see that he's wearing a Beatles t-shirt as he begins to sing:

Close your eyes and I'll kiss you,
Tomorrow I'll miss you;
Remember I'll always be true.

I know this song, I think, and so I sing along....

And then while I'm away,
I'll write home ev'ry day,
And I'll send all my loving to you.

.....and we laugh and shake hands. I wish all a good night, and head to my friend's apartment to eat.

An African-American and a Colombian serenading a Taiwanese woman with a forty-year old song by four guys from England, in a suburb of the Nation's Capital on Memorial Day/Black Gay Pride Weekend: Welcome to The United States of America, 2006

25 May 2006

BEA Blog: Day 3

Still under the influence of the Folger reading and reception, I wake up on Saturday morning and write a draft of a poem (No, I will NOT be putting it up here, so DON'T ASK!:). Over breakfast, the topic of Black Books and Street Lit comes up again. Thumbing through the Simon & Schuster African American catalog, I'm struck by how, well, awful, some of the covers for their 'street lit' books are. "It's like when you're first starting out and get one of your friends to design your cover," graphic designer Eunice Corbin says. We wonder if the lack of style or even attempt at quality depiction of figures on some of the covers is some kind of 'sign of authenticity' for these books. Since many of these authors did indeed start out self-published with covers by friends, it is perhaps a way to show that S&S is 'down wit dat' by reproducing crappy graphics. If this is the case, it also smells like a bit of a trick: Think you're helping a brotha or sista out by buying their 'I did this myself and selling it out of the back of my car' book when in fact it comes from one of the world's major publishers.

As much as I enjoyed being with Teri on Friday, following someone around and listening to their pitch, when it's not also your pitch, can get a bit tiring. I'm looking forward to being by myself for most of the day, and have a plan: Start at one end of the main convention floor and work my way aisle by aisle to the other end. What ever I miss I can make up and do 'mop up' on Sunday.

But first: the new America's Test Kitchen's cookbook. Its 10 am, the autographing doesn't start until 10:30 am, and already the line is like a bookaholic anaconda. The signing doesn't even start for another 45 minutes and there are more than 100 people in this line alone. Some of the others are long, some not, depending on the 'name' of the author. The America's Test Kitchen people hand out info about their other publications while we wait. These signed books are free, but there are glass containers at the ends of some of the numbered aisles where a suggested donation of $1 per book can be given. Soon, it's time to start, and the line begins to move. I've been told that Kimball does the quick sign and go thing, and the line does flow fairly smoothly. But he does engage in some chat with those who have been waiting. I ask for the book to be signed to The Other Half, and he asks if that's me. "No, but we both watch every week." He's handed a book, nods, signs, says thanks, and off I go.

By now most of the lines have calmed down (note to self: show up after the announced start time to avoid the crowd), and I stop by for books from a couple other authors, and head down to the main floor. Start at one end, up one aisle and down the other across and cover the entire floor.

There are things you can tell by both booth size and booth placement. On one end of the floor is the 'premium small press' area, where there are actual booths. At the other, where Teri and I saw Poetry, Gival Press, and others, are the, I suppose 'non-premium' small presses. They get a small table and one or two chairs, not really a booth. The majors are in the middle sections of the floor, with multiple booths, large displays, banners, etc. And better carpet. Yes, if you pay more, you can have something more plush to stand on than the standard hard on the feet indoor/outdoor carpet lesser mortals have. You can truly tell just by walking into a section who has spent some cash to be here and who's not.

Another pointer for future convention attendees. On day one I said it's all about the shoes. When you're browsing and picking up items, it's all about the bag. If you're going to really stock up, canvas is better than paper (although I'm told that one publishers shopping bags are excellent and hold up very well). You want something that's going to last and be able to handle everything you pile into it. Some bags become the 'hot gets' of the convention. This year it's Captain Underpants, a series for young readers popular with kids that some parents have challenged in a number of libraries, and a bag for an upcoming Nelson Mandela photo book, with very striking images of the man himself on both sides. There are apparently enough Mandela bags to go around, but the Underpants have to be rationed (yeah, that's a phrase I couldn't resist), and only a few bags are put out each day, increasing the frenzy to get one. I get a mix of different types, canvas and shopping/paper, the paper bags acting almost as collectors items: City Lights books? University of Minnesota Press? How can I resist?

The bag issue becomes important at mid-day, as I have to take a break, and go to the convention center's food court. Yeah I know I said, "Bring a sandwich" but, well, you know...I make it with my multiple bags into the food court, order, get something and am about to try to find someplace to sit to rearrange what I've got when the strap on one of the paper bags breaks. Fortunately, out of the blue, a woman comes to my rescue, offering not only to take the food try while I regather myself, but even to take it to a table for me as I struggle. Its a small moment of kindness from one book-loving stranger to another, but I'm genuinely touched and I thank her profusely for her help.

And it's not like I'm indiscriminate in what I'm gathering. True there are a number of things that interest me personally, but coming from a 'bookish' family, I see things that would be good for my sisters, nieces and nephews, friends...It's like Christmas shopping early, and in fact someone I know does indeed hang on to items picked up at BookExpo until the holidays. I try not to pick up too many catalogues, and have learned from past conventions that without mailing tubes, posters get crushed very easily, so those are out. Fortunately, I call my friends, who were arriving later in the day, and they are on site. I can take my morning's haul to their car, and come back unburdened.

I go through the section of publishers from Spain, Argentina, Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries for a collegue with an interest in Latin American issues. I've also been tasked to look for books and authors that might make good choices for programs at the library, and think I find one in Tom Sancton and his memoir of growing up in 1950's New Orleans, Songs for My Fathers. Also here, signing at the Small Press Distributors booth is poet, activist, and Washington Wizards baskeball player Etan Thomas, who I've been pushing to have invited to the library for almost a year. I talk to and exchange cards with his publicist. So, I'm working, I convince myself, I'm working. And I head down the aisle where most of the comic book publishers are.

Its there that I pick up the Find of the Weekend: Charles Saunders' Imaro.

Originally published in the 1970's, Saunders was one of the pioneer African American SF writers, after Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. After he moved to Canada, however, his books became increasingly hard to find and fell out of print. Originally marketed as a 'black Tarzan' when in fact it is a refutation of that character and those books, Imaro is the first in a trilogy of heroic fantasy books about an African warrior. Blood, guts, fighting, action, adventure, it's a stereotypical 'boys book' if there ever was one. And all Black, based on genuine African cultures, legends, and myths. I'm thrilled beyond belief by this reissue, and pick up TWO copies, which I don't let out of my presence for the rest of the day.

Connecting with friends blows the 'start at one end' plan, as they want to start at the opposite end from where I began, and we have a 'newbie' with us, who is dazzled and stops quite a bit. But its okay, I made it about halfway through, and going to the other side will leave only a 'middle section' I haven't covered.

As the afternoon wears on, some publishers start to offer things to entice tired Expo goers. Publisher TokyoPop (not with the rest of the comic/manga publishers, I notice, and sporting nice plush carpet) is offering free champange, which we sip while wandering into an area for a publisher with a number of Christian-oriented titles. I feel a bit self conscious about drinking there, but am reminded that 'they drank wine in the Bible' and continue sipping. Another publisher offers wine and cheese, a third Twinkies, still another amazing mac & cheese from Philadelphia. Famous Amos signs and gives away cookies.

Harcourt, which had been showing previews of the new version of Robert Penn Warren's All The Kings Men (Sean Penn's not bad, but I miss Broderick Crawford) has turned that off and their reps are watching the Preakness (I don't stay and miss Barbaro's accident)

Checking the time, I see its time to head up for Edward P Jones' autographing his new book of stories, Aunt Hagar's Children. I'd expected this to be a Christopher Kimball-like mess, but by not being in the area right at his start time, I've missed the mess, and have a short wait. I go up and greet him, shake his hand, remind him that he's been to the Pratt Library twice (once after his smash The Known World came out, and again later, within days of his winning the Pulitzer. He smiles and I think he rembers me (I'd done the introduction for him both times) but he does remember the library. He still seems a little reticent, but better than what I remember of his first reading, where he was a nervous wreck beforehand, which I put down to shyness. Later, someone that knows him well tells me that he's not as shy as I might think, and judging from how very dryly funny he can be during Q &A sessions, I can believe it.

I wander the autographing area a bit more, and notice a short line for another, different kind of star, former New Jersey Governor (and "Gay American") Jim McGreevey, here to push his new autobiography. I get in line...and wait...and wait...and wait. As the person at the head of the line leaves, she comments, "He's chatty," and apparently is asking everyone questions about where they're from, what they do, why they came, and so on. And he's not even signing the book, but a few page excerpt and book jacket mock-up. Seeing my friends in the area in front of the autographing aisles, as well as that there is an older gay male couple in front of me, meaning, I imagine a major debriefing by the Gov, I decide I can give McGreevey the slip, and leave. I do see him later, as he's leaving the building. Up close he looks heavily made up, and I assume he's done a session in the CSPAN Book Bus.

Either that or somebody went a little too heavy on the pancake this morning.

I'd run into writer and (former) publisher Kwame Alexander on four separate occasions as we traveled back and forth across the convention floor. He invites us to a party he's having at DC's new but already legendary BusBoys and Poets that night. We agree, but by the end of the day, and stopping in College Park for something to eat, all of us are completely dead by the time we get to Hyattsville. I hope Kwame understands.

The three of us sort through our finds, sharing, exchanging, doing the 'ooh, where'd you find THAT!' thing over items we've missed. I end the day on the fold-a-way bed, flipping through Watchmen, and reading the introduction and authors note in Imaro. All three books to be reissued! Saunders is writing a new Fourth title to complete the series, then another book mixing African and Celtic myths and traditions! Feeling giddy like a kid again, I fall asleep tired and happy, surrounded by books.

23 May 2006

BEA Blog: Day 2

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?

18 May 2006

Blogging BEA

(My apologies for the rough cut nature of this. I'll fix this up a bit with links, etc after I return)

Day one: Thursday May 18

Lisa Moore doesn't like the way Ernest Hardy looks. Or rather, Moore, owner/publisher/all-around-everything for RedBone Press is less than pleased with the way the cover of her latest book, BloodBeats: Vol. 1 -- Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions, a collection of essays, interviews, and reviews by Los Angeles-based writer Ernest Hardy has turned out. She has recieved a galley of the cover, featuring a black and white photograph of an African-American man in horn rimmed glasses' eyes and forehead against a black background, it is dark. VERY dark. You can barely see the guy. "It's like OJ on the cover of 'Time'," Moore says somewhat dejectedly. The printer had sent one set of proofs, which to her eye looked too light, and she'd suggested darkening the image.

They sure did that, all right, and the layer of lamination on the cover has made it even more opaque. Moore hopes that stopping the print run and sending the printer another version of the cover will fix the problem -- and that she won't be charged extra for their mistake. This may put a slight delay in the delivery of BloodBeats, which she'd hope to have available for advance and review copies next week. She's already in the midst of publicity for RedBone's latest effort, Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity, and she needs to work on another book she has planned for Fall publication, which is already being considered as a required text at some colleges thanks to the promotional work of its author at conferences and meetings around the country. If it's not one thing, its three at the same time: Such is life for a small publisher, and the last thing she needs as BookExpo America kicks off.

All Hail The Queen

After walking from one end of the huge Washington Convention Center to the other (ie from subway exit to the front of the building where Registration is -- the somewhat discombobulated older black woman behind the counter starts my BEA experience off right by commenting that her husband and I have the same first name), I make my way to the area where the African American Booksellers Consortium is holding its programs. I've missed the opening lunch, and note that some others may have done so as well, but are making up for it, and have one, two, and in one case even three plastic covered 'box lunches' of sandwich, salad, and cookie in their publisher-supplied canvas bags. We're crowded into one of the rooms, waiting for Queen Latifah to arrive to give the Keynote to the group. Clara Villarosa of Harlem's Hue Man Bookstore vamps until she arrives. Latifah is resplendent in white and the crowd gives her a standing ovation. She proves to be extremely engaging, warm, and funny in person, and quickly has us all in the palm of her hand. She's there to promote a children's book she wrote, Queen of the Scene. Posters for the book are on every seat (I'm standing in the corner and don't get one). I'm very happy that The Queen names the late Octavia Butler as her favorite author. Apparently she's a Sci-Fi fan, and names Orson Scott Card as a favorite as well. I skip out during the Q & A to get something to eat (a Quiznos sandwich at outrageous Convention prices -- Note to self: bring your lunch tomorrow).

Quarter-Century's Best (Redux)

"Are the presenters here?" someone from the convention asks? A man in front of me says, "They're out in the hall." The person nods and starts to leave. "Well, at least ONE of them is here," someone else says. I look over and indeed one of the panelists is already in the room: white haired and owlish-looking Cynthia Ozick is sitting on the aisle amongst the rest of us great unwashed, waiting for the start of the session on the New York Times Book Review's recent "Best American Fiction since 1980" poll. Soon the rest of the panel arrives, looking like a law firm striding into court: Tannenhouse, Cowles, Mallon, and Schillenger, Attorneys at Law.

NYT Book Review editor Sam Tannenhouse says some of the impetus for their recent poll was from the mention on the cover of 'Invisible Man' that in 1965 it had been named "Most distinguished work of fiction since World War II". He wondered 'by whom'? and how was it chosen. Also in the mix were the many requests from people asking for suggestions of books to read.

It's interesting to me that no one on the panel had listed the eventual 'winner', Toni Morrison's Beloved as their top pick. Tannenhouse likes it, but thinks Song of Solomon (published pre-1980) a better book. I don't think he says which book he voted for. Thomas Mallon, another Song of Solomon fan, as well as of John Updike's Rabbit Redux, picked DeLillo's Underworld, even though he thinks there's a point in the middle where it sags, then picks back up again. Mallon also bemoans the fact that novelists don't write reviews anymore, and that the reviews they do write are all favorable. He misses the days when fiction writers wrote more non-fiction (Mailer, Baldwin, etc) and there was a vigorous magazine culture (Esquire in particular commissioned a significant number of pieces). He also thinks novelists 'should get out more' -- as in out of the academy, as he feels it is limiting their creativity.

Cynthia Ozick thinks the NYT should have asked for the "Best WRITER of the last 25 years" and praises Saul Bellow, thinking his work will endure. Her choice was William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic, although something about her comments leads me to suspect that that choice is something of a place holder for him since JR and The Recognitions were published before the 1980 start date. She doesn't care for Beloved, thinking, "it goes well in the History Department, Political Science, but doesn't fit in the Literature Department." This after praising the books' passion and compassion, and it's artful language. However, she doesn't care for the 'illusive, poetical, elliptical' narrative, and she cannot isolate one scene, voice or character. She also dislikes the dedication "60 Million and more" thinking its a poke at the Holocaust, and smacks of an attempt at setting up some kind of hierarchy of suffering. I like Cynthia Ozicks work, and respect her, but at this point she's starting to get on my nerves. She works me again later when she declares, "there's no such thing as experimental fiction any more. It's dead. It's all been done. What are you going to experiment on? There's nothing more 'old hat' than Experimental Fiction."

There's also an interesting side bar on how there were no 'younger' (40-something) writers on the list, and also how 'respectful' of their elders the current generation of writers were. Even the younger writers chose work by their elders. No Anxiety of Influence here it seems.

Part of the discussion turns into a Philip Roth love fest (as a Roth fan myself, I don't mean that maliciously), and the "Roth Mystery" as the panel trys to figure out how he manages to turn out such strong work again and again using what at first seems such simple vernacular language (Mallon points out his complex syntax and long sentences). Six Roth books were got a number of votes, and it looks like he (not Ozick's beloved Bellow, so there!) would be the judges' choice for 'Best Writer of the past 25 years.'

Someone from the audience (who appears to have an axe to grind -- twice he mentions sending cookies to the NYT Book Review office) asks about the relatively small number of women on the list of judges who votes. Tannenhouse says that over 200 writers were asked to participate; the names listed were the ones who actually voted. The number of women who chose not to participate was 'significant', he says....Again, interesting. I wonder why.

Another question: Will the complete list of novels suggested be posted to the NYT website? No plans at the moment but maybe. It might be interesting to see. None of the novels belwo the top 22 got more than two votes.

And I asked a question (a thick black man in a red shirt, close to the front, I'm easy to spot when my hand goes up) -- would they consider doing another poll for the 'missing years' 1965 - 1980. Tannenhouse says no, but someone else should. But not him. But that 'gap' does bother him. But no, not the Times. But someone should. But not him...well, maybe cause that gap really bothers him....but no...

If the Times Book Review puts out a "Best American Fiction 1965-1980", you know who to thank. (PS: I vote for Song of Solomon, followed by Gravity's Rainbow and Portnoy's Complaint)

The MFA vs The Ghetto
Back amongst the black folk (I was the only black male at the NYT presentation, but noted two black women and a few Asians and Latinos) they've already started the "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" panel on 'ghetto/street/thug' fiction. The room is packed, as I'd suspected it would be, and there's at least one person (a woman in the front row) vigorously nodding her head at every pro-StreetLit statement. I worry if the convention needed to consider insurance against whiplash.

The presenters Malika Adero, Benilde Little, Nikki Turner, ask some interesting questions: are booksellers themselves obsticles to presenting the range of black fiction by having such huge, prominant displays of StreetLit to the exclusion of everything else? Turner says literary writers need to 'come out of their ivory tower' and relate to their audiences the way StreetLit authors do. "Talk to your fans. Take your book to the beauty shop and sell it!" Little bemoans the fact that she doesn't see the same level of artistic quality in the Street works she's read as she sees in the classic Manchild in the Promised Land. Adero and Turner (and the head shaker) immediatly disagree. "Its there! Its there!" but offer no specific titles.

Feeding Time
The African American Booksellers host an end of the day reception mixing food with free books and authors signing. A good mix of children's books, 'street lit', non-fiction, and literary novels. The 'divide' alluded to at the earlier panel disappears as folks crowd to pick up books and sip open-bar wine. Someone who works for the convention center comments on how good it is to see black people in a rush to get books, 'brain food instead of stomach food.' I nod and agree, although since the lines for the authors were so long, I decided to eat first and get books later. The well groomed brotha from the Convention Hall then mentions he's in line to get books for his wife. I wonder to myself why some straight guys feel compelled to mention their wives or girlfriends within the first five minutes of talking to someone. Do they think that others will think they're gay if they don't? Oh well.

I introduce myself to Passion Marks (and Passion Marks 2) author Lee Hayes as he waits for his books to arrive. He walks away to talk to friends and fellow authors and immediately someone asks me, "Are YOU Lee Hayes?" No baby, he's the Man in Black over there...

Villarosa tries to settle the crowd down to start the evenings program of award presentations. While she manages to quiet the crowd (after seeing her 'reading' someone for passing out flyers at the reception for his own events off-site, I know she's a woman no one wants to mess with) but after introducing the new owner of Black Issues Book Review, the group continually returns to schmooze and chat mode. Give us food, books and authors, then expect folk to be quiet? I don't think so...

The Road Home
Meet two librarians from Collection Management in the train station on the way home. We're all going back together. There were more posters available, and they both have signed pre-pub copies of Queen Latifah's children's book, which is quite nice and beautifully illustrated by Frank Morrison, and signed posters. AND a photo of the two of them with The Queen (who said to one, "You look like someone in my family"). I mention not sticking around to eat. "Just like a man, worrying about your stomach!" one says. Note to self: Be more patient.

Big day Friday: All day at the convention, a list of autograph sessions I want to attend, and if I can I want to catch Google's presentaion on their next steps in their efforts at World (Wide Web) Domination. Then the Cave Canem reading at the Folger, followed by the usual post-reading hang. Looks like a looong day....where are my sensible shoes?

16 May 2006

Of the making of (book) lists there is no end....

Ah, the New York Times, at it again: Sunday's question "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" (Answer: Toni Morrison's Beloved) has sparked a good deal of comment and conversation. The rest of the "Best" in alphabetical order by author are: Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From; Don DeLillo, White Noise, Libra, and Underworld; Richard Ford, Independence Day; Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale; Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Cormac McCarthy, Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian; Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Philip Roth, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, Sabbath's Theater, Operation Shylock, and The Counterlife; Norman Rush, Mating; John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces; and John Updike, Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels.

Comment has been about not only the list itself, but also about the judges themselves (137 judges, 24 women, 12 'People of Color' including non US-born writers by my estimation). Brother John, of course, has his usual intelligent comments and Role Call of notable MIAs from the list.

This list brings to mind the Modern Library's (in?)famous "100 Best Novels of the Century" which they rolled out for the turn of the 21st Century (and also to sell some titles in its collection, no doubt. But then shameless self-promotion isn't just in the purview of the Modern Library/Random House: note how the 'Reader's List' appears to have been hijacked by the Ayn Rand Society!). There was a lot of list making going on as the last century came to an end: The Publishing Triangle did the same for Gay and Lesbian Fiction and NonFiction, for example.

I'm sure we've not heard the end of this. I found a couple of intriguing notes crammed into one paragraph of A.O. Scott's commentary about the list:

The last time this kind of survey was conducted, in 1965 (under the auspices of Book Week, the literary supplement of the soon-to-be-defunct New York Herald Tribune), the winner was Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which was declared "the most memorable" work of American fiction published since the end of World War II, and the most likely to endure. The field back then included "The Adventures of Augie March," "Herzog," "Lolita," "Catch-22," "Naked Lunch," "The Naked and the Dead" and (I'll insist if no one else will) "The Group." In the gap between that survey and this one is a decade and a half - the unsurveyed territory from 1965 to 1980 - that includes Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and William Gaddis's "JR," as well as "Humboldt's Gift," "Portnoy's Complaint," "Ragtime," "Song of Solomon" and countless others.

Hmmm...the last time they did this, an African American author's book was chosen. This time, again, an African American author tops the field....Gee, almost makes you think that Black writers are central to American Literature, and have written (and are continuing to write) our most enduring, powerful, and influential fiction, huh? How odd, then, that most of the time Black Lit gets shunted off into the literary version of the ghetto. Couldn't be fear of the strenght of the work, could it? Of course not....

Secondly, setting aside my problems with lists for the moment, I'm somewhat sorry that there wasn't a similar survey done for that period from '65 to '80. It would have been interesting to see what people would have come up with. Just off the top of my head, I'd put Pynchon's 'Rainbow' at #1, but also adore 'Solomon', 'Ragtime', 'Portnoy', 'The Salt Eaters', 'Meridian', 'Dhalgren'....

'Who's "best"?' list like this really don't work when it comes to works of art/the imagination. What's "The Best" painting, song or symphony, sculpture, piece of architecture in recent years? Its very subjective. To my mind, the best retort I've seen was made in response to Ron Silliman's comments about the list on his blog: "What works of American Fiction written in the past 25 years would you recommend to a friend?"

Now THERE's a good question! To a winnowing of the NYTimes List --
Morrison, Carver, DeLillo (particularly Underworld), Ford, Johnson, Jones, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, O'Brien, Robinson, Roth (I'm a fan, so it's tough to cull here, but I'd say American Pastoral or Counterlife), and Rush -- I'd add the work of too many other writers: Alice Walker, Charles Johnson, Colson Whitehead, David Bradley, Dorothy Allison, E. Annie "She’s more than just ‘Brokeback Mountain’" Proulx, Gayl Jones, Grace Paley, John Edgar Wideman, John Le Carre, Nathaniel Mackey, Octavia Butler, Robert Gl├╝ck, Robert Stone, Samuel R. Delany, Walter Mosley.....

What'd I say about the making of lists? And we're just talking Fiction -- don't get me started on Non-Fiction -- or Poetry!!

Happy Reading. I'll be at BookExpo America in Washington DC at the end of the week, meeting authors, publishers, and bookseller, attending panels, -- and trying NOT to overload myself with more books...yeah right!

15 May 2006

Recent Readings

Imperfect poetry person that I am, I'm really not all that crazy about getting up and reading my work (photographic evidence of me at Austin, Texas' Residencia Bookstore at left notwithstanding). I'm much more comfortable playing host (as I did for sessions at the library's recent CityLit festival), or else being part of the audience. The thought of reading makes me nervous, causes my stomach to churn, my hands to shake, and I always feel, "Thank goodness that's over!" when I'm done.

On the other hand, everyone tells me that I display none of these jitters when I'm on stage/at the mic. I come across as relaxed and in control. This could be a result of having to teach a large number of introductory computer classes over the years, so I'm somewhat used to flapping my jaws in front of a group of people. Either that or I missed my calling as an actor. And in fact, in some ways I do look at poetry readings as a kind of performance. That's not me up there, it's this 'poet' persona I put on that's singing out words. That face and voice you see is a mask I put on, the poem a text for me to hide behind.

After not reading in public for a long time, I've had two readings in the past two weeks. The first was with the wonderful Esther Iverem of Seeingblack.com, at Johns Hopkins University, as part of their 'Telling our Stories our Way: African American Book Festival', put on by the Johns Hopkins University
Black Faculty and Staff Association

Just this past weekend, the Other Half and I traveled to New York City, where I read at the Bowery Poetry Club, as part of a 'Baltimore Invasion' reading with two other poets, Chris Stein and Barbara DeCesare, which was put together by Baltimore to New York transplant Rita Stein. It was great to be there with Chris (who I'd seen at readings but had not heard his 'L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry'-influenced work) and Barbara, who I've known for years and whose work I've always enjoyed. A great plus to the reading was to have folks I hadn't seen in a looong time, like 'Baby Dave' Moore looking wonderful, friends and blog-masters John (thanks for the photos!), Bernie, and Steven in the crowd, Carolyn Micklem of Cave Canem, and poet David Mills. David and I had a mini-workshop session on a poem I'd been working on and had sent to him and others for suggestions before the reading, and I was glad to incorporate some of his fantastic suggestions when I read the work a few moments later.

Overall, it wasn't too bad: in both cases I read a mix of older and new works. And people seemed to enjoy it, which makes me happy. I stumbled a bit at both readings (I only worry if I don't make at least one mistake!) and at Bowery forgot to mention that I had copies of my book 10 Tongues, with me if people wanted to sell (did I mention I'm a lousy marketer as well, as are so many writers? Shoot me an e-mail if you'd like to buy a copy...), but otherwise I'm pleased...and glad it's over!

One more reading to go -- Friday May 19, in Washington DC, with a group of Cave Canem poets to celebrate Book Expo America and Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade. I'll be hosting along with The Folger Shakespere Library's Teri Cross, as well as reading. After that I think I'll take a break from reading and put my butt in the chair to put some finishing touches on my next manuscript....so I can then go out and do more readings!