“Metaphors Be With You”: AWP and Beyond Baroque

April 3, 2019

The AWP in Portland did not get off to a good start. The line for book fair exhibitors to get their admission badges so that they could set up their tables moved very slowly on Wednesday afternoon. As I trudged forward to a handful of computer stations, I thought about a message a few months from the AWP that announced the appointment of a new book fair director, who would be “mentored” by another person. That was reassuring, without a doubt. When you’re on an airplane, the statement you most want to hear is that the pilot is going to be mentored by someone in the air traffic control tower at your destination.

I worked the IF SF Publishing table at the rim of the main rectangle of tables and booths, though “booth” is a bit of a stretch to describe an exhibition space with only a back curtain and two extra folding tables to reinforce one’s visibility. Most of those in attendance were searching for potential publishers, and the saturation level of both writers and publishers generated a literary consciousness similar to a mud flow generated by a heavy rain storm after fire season. People oozed down the aisles, rarely pausing to read a book. I don’t believe that a single person picked up a single book published by Brooks Roddan and read a single paragraph. Maybe the social noise squelched their ability to absorb anything that wasn’t already pre-digested through familiarity.

The only thing that managed to snag people’s attention to our table was not a book, but a T-shirt produced by Beyond Baroque that appropriates the late Peter Schneider’s bot mot: “Metaphors be with you.” Several times I heard people walking by suddenly exclaim, “Oh, I’ve got to get this for (name of friend or relative),” and they would slide to the embankment of the mud flow. I sold a half-dozen T-shirts, and raised $120 for Beyond Baroque. This success was largely due to a decision made on the second day to drape the t-shirts over the front of the table, instead of having them hang half-hidden on a hip-high horizontal pole behind our table.

Occasionally I walked around the book fair, and noticed that the exhibits in the center aisles seemed to have attendees pausing long enough to buy some books, so the book fair was hardly a complete fiasco for everyone. It would be interesting to know exactly how much money was taken in by all the presses at the Book Fair, and to compare that figure with the total cost of attending the book fair. I have my doubts that many of the exhibitors actually make a profit for all their efforts given that one must take into account the cost of producing the books as well as shipping them.

My most recent publisher, What Books, had a well-stocked table at the center section of the Book Fair, which I gather from one of may companion tables, the Author’s Alliance, is only bestowed on those who have attended five or more AWP conventions. I am grateful for the assiduity of What Books, since my book was on display throughout the convention and even managed to sell several copies. They also had a lovely broadside, with a color imprint of work by the artist Gronk atop the poem, “The Restoration.”

Perhaps one major problem with the “book fair” is that it is actually a hybrid. An extraordinary number of the tables dedicate themselves to MFA programs at various colleges. They are essentially recruiting stations for an upcoming niche market, and they are the ones who benefit the most from the presence of the independent (aka “small”) presses among which they are seeded. The AWP convention in Portland was only the second one I have ever attended, and I was fairly busy at the first one (in Los Angeles) because the MFA program had decided to get a table in hopes of boosting our visibility in a saturated system. It was only during this second exposure to what I have long regarded with suspicion that I realized how the MFA programs exploit the cultural capital of the independent presses without giving much in return. “Join our MFA program and gain access to publication,” is the implicit premise of this annual enterprise, which erases any distinction between those publishers operating without institutional support and those based in the same academic domains as the MFA programs themselves.

Beyond Baroque’s artistic director, Quentin Ring, attended the convention, but the decision not to have a table there was one I concurred with. Beyond Baroque has lasted more than a half-century because it has stood for a poetics willing to take risks not approved within the academy. There’s no point to pretending otherwise, and anyone who would need AWP to become aware of Beyond Baroque is not someone who would particularly benefit from its programming and workshops.

On the last day, I closed up shop fairly early and walked the aisles. In my next post, I will mention and briefly discuss some of the books I found.

In the meantime, I have a busy second half of the week: on Thursday night, the Loft in San Pedro has a group show at its upstairs gallery that will include work by Linda and me; and I will give a brief reading at the Malibu Public Library on Saturday morning at 11:00 a.m. This reading is the make-up event for the postponed reading in mid-winter.