Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wabi-Sabi at the Twin Cities Book Festival

It snowed that morning, the air was cold and clear, and the streets were largely empty when I arrived at the Twin Cities Book Festival, fifteen minutes early, not quite sure why I was supposed to be there, other than to look at books, enjoy the displays, and chat with colleagues in the industry. It turns out I was supposed to tend the Nodin Press booth until twelve or one. I took a quick trip over to the free coffee and scones section and then settled into my position behind the table, which Norton had expertly loaded with this year’s new books. North Star Press of St. Cloud was right behind me, the Minnesota Historical Society was down at the other end of the aisle.

Before settling in to my post I made a dash down to the Consortium table, three rows deeper into the middle of the room, to borrow a few books from an old friend, Bill Mockler, who recommended a slim volume about Wabi-Sabi. Consortium had been pleased when one of the authors it distributes, the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek, won the Nobel prize in 2004, and I teased Bill with the remark, “I suppose you carry all the works of Herta Mueller, too.” ( Mueller was awarded the prize for 2009 just a few days ago.)

“Actually, we do have a few of her titles,” Bill replied with a chuckle. “We have a book of photos by a Romanian, and she wrote the accompanying text. I called the publisher the other day to inquire whether we could list her as the “author” of the book—sometimes the photographer wants it to be solely under his own name—and the publisher hadn’t yet heard that she’d won! It was kind of a thrill for me to be the one to inform him.”

I bumped into Alicia Conroy on the way back. Her book a short-stories, The Lives of Mapmakers, has drifted to the dim recesses of her publisher’s backlist, but she’s hard at work on a novel—when she can block out a chunk of time in the midst of her teaching chores at Normandale.

Back at the Nodin Press table, I proved myself fully worthy of the book on Wabi-Sabi—the Japanese aesthetic of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete—by spilling coffee on the front cover within ten minutes of having borrowed it.

It was amusing to sit, reading or looking around, as people passed by. Many were strangers, some were aspiring writers with their parents, and a few of them, mistaking me for an expert, asked my advice.(“Listen to your muse… but also listen to your editor,” was the best I could do.) Several people came by with self-published books looking for a genuine publisher who could provide them with wider distribution. Pat Morris stopped by with a flyer announcing an upcoming presentation by “nationally known” book designer Kathi Dunn; a little later Heid Erdrich shared some of her plans to launch a non-profit publishing venture devoted to works in Ojibwe. Steve LeBeau pulled from his very wide pockets a hardcover book of black and white photos of Paris. His client is looking for national exposure—I recommended a local agent. Jill Breckenridge introduced me to her son and recommended a few current films, including a locally-filmed story (the name of which I’ve forgotten) about a priest.

Eric and Kelly Lorberer rushed past from time to time, ear to cell-phone, as various readings and events got underway. I would like to have heard Nicholson Baker and Adam Zagajewski, both of whom spoke that day, but I was chained to the table. By the time my relief arrived, I’d sold ten or twelve books and reaffirmed my belief that the publishing industry is filled with interesting people—though it’s a tough way to make money.

That’s the beauty of this kind of festival. It’s downtown, free, open to the public, and filled with publishers, authors, readers, book crafters, and fringe arts organizations whose dedication to the printed word make all the effort and expense of putting their thoughts and images out there worthwhile.

Back home—the snow had melted, but the air was still very fresh. I opened a book of Zagajewski’s poems and read:

That Force

The force that pulses
in the boughs of trees
and in the sap of plants also inhabits poems
but it’s calm there

The force that hovers
in a kiss and in desire
lies also in poems
though it is hushed

The force that glows
in Napoleon’s dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still.