K. A. Wisniewski

AWP 2013

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With over five hundred scheduled events, seven hundred exhibitors, nearly two thousand panelists, and twelve thousand attendees, the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is circus.

This past weekend, with heavy snow beginning to fall as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, I was prepared for the spectacle already underway in Boston.  I remember my first visit the conference as a graduate student (nearly ten years ago now), my disappointment, this uncomfortable feeling at various panels and readings.  Looking back at a notebook I took with me then, I read a single line scribbled on one page: “Everyone’s performing. No one’s putting on a show.”  What kind of circus is this?  I did attend a couple of nice readings, but presentations and panel discussions, as expected, were generally bland.  But no one’s here for a philosophical debate on art or a practical discussion on the business side of things.

It is promising to see what’s happening outside of the conference.  If the show isn’t all that interesting, why do we attend?  Friendship.  We meet up with old friends, new friends, people with whom we’ve shared sometimes year-long correspondences but never met in person.  This has been a decade of new start-ups—magazines, journals, presses, print and digital—and the rise of so many new writers’ and artists’ co-operatives.  And this weekend has offered an opportunity to experience Craig Saper’s vision of “intimate bureaucracies” that seek to “project intimacy on otherwise impersonal systems.”[i]  After dinner and a couple of beers, small tables of friends debate, laugh, play, share . . . and there’s a renewed enthusiasm, appreciation, meaning, for the daily toils that bog us down and amass into questions and cynicism of our crafts.

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The Book Fair

The real draw at AWP is, of course, the book fair.  At past conferences, I’ve wandered through aisles looking at what’s being published, what’s new, and have stopped at particular tables to talk with specific staff members about their catalog and their future editorial plans (with my own tentative projects in mind).  It can be a dangerous day for young writers, collecting dozens of free past issues of journals and getting seduced to buy lots of books and subscriptions (some of which will in all likelihood never get read when you get home).

AWP5Housed on two floors, during peak hours, aisles are crowded with people browsing, chatting, eating, buying books, signing up for subscriptions and mailing lists, sometimes straining to hear (or hear passed) a blurred reading blaring through the speakers at the end of the room, trying to find a table they had passed earlier.

The first thing you notice is that no matter how distinct presses and magazines try to distinguish themselves, here, every table looks exactly the same . . . Perhaps this one note tells us much more about the state of the small press in the U.S. today.  Despite this uniformity, there were several noteworthy tables and publications.   The list below reflects my own interests in the digital and in the handmade, various assemblings.

Some Highlights

The University of Baltimore / Passager

AWP3My alma mater.  It was nice to catch up with Kendra Kopelke, the program director of the Creative Writing & Publishing Arts M.F.A. program at UB, and refreshing to see an entire table of handmade artist books and student work.  Beside the UB table is Passager, a literary journal and press publishing the work of poets and artists over fifty.

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Tuesday: An Art Project

Tuesday is the journal, the table, the really stood out for me.  I love anything that’s boxed, wrapped, folded, bundled.  It’s a journal for the maker, for the lover of artist books and mail art.  As a kid, My sister and I were raised not to touch anything (when we walked into stores with our parents).  While my sister is the rebel–touching everything within distance (and sometimes still going out of her way to do so)–I still carefully walk around such venues, arms behind my back or hands tucked deeply into my pockets.  The second I walked up to the table, I grabbed the nearest journal and started unfolding it–I immediately knew I found something interesting…I must have given an uncomfortable look at some point during the process.  Jennifer Flescher, the editor, must have noticed some hesitation on my end and very sweetly encouraged further exploration.  Wrapped in a heavy construction paper, the unbound journal collects a set of postcards–one piece of artwork or a poem printed on each.  Here are some photos.  Please check it out.

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Calamari Press

In operation since 2003, Calamari Press began with a few saddle-stapled chapbooks from Derek White, the editor of the press, but has expanded in recent years to publishing really beautiful perfect bound books that experiment with the intersections between art and literature, the visual and textual.

under-the-auspices-front-cover-400I did purchase their most recent work: { untitled: under the auspices } by sturnus vulgaris.  I immediately loved the idea of a book with no words–not even a title or author.  (Only the copyright date and ISBN appear.)  The book is series of photographs taken of skies of birds in Rome.  Here, the birds become the words, the characters; 128 B&W pages painting poetic patterns.

Skimming it over while riding in the elevator back to my room, I think how much I would like to write the introduction for such a book . . . But this would be missing the point entirely.

Here are a few shots:

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Final Thoughts

Obviously, I could go on.

The few graduate students I did meet were certainly interested in DIY (the SDSU M.F.A. students I met, for example, who work with Poetry International, took the initiative to make these little one-poem cards (left)), literary erasure & found poetry, new publishing start-ups, and the digital.  (It is unfortunate then that despite several panels’ topics on e-books and digital platforms, serious conversation around electronic literature–what it means and how we could proceed–and digital displays at table were minimal.)  And I did wish to make some note of Kattywompus who was promoting Cornelius Eady’s latest Book of Hooks (a chapbook with accompanying CD of music) with a nifty display in a bluesman’s traveling suitcase (right).

AWP13AWP7On the digital end of things, I was introduced to one new publisher that I hope to follow–Black Balloon Publishing, who work in both print and digital formats–and had the opportunity to become more acquainted with the catalog of another publisher with whom I had hoped to catch up, Siglio, whose book Between Page and Screen (by Amarnath Borsuk and Brad Bouse) will be the subject of an upcoming post.


[i] Craig Saper, Networked Art (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 24.  A firm supporter of these groups’ work and the small press in general, I do maintain a fear that some of these groups do take themselves too seriously—that some lack the irony, humor, of some of the groups Saper identifies, no longer “business performance masquerading as performance art . . . mocking business” but rather adhering to an institutional model that only further obscures art.

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2013 by in Writing/Publishing.
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