It's the largest literary conference in the US, and the numbers are impressive: 13,000 attendees, 550 panels, three hundred off-site events open to the public, 46 featured presenters (i.e. writers you might have heard of) and hundreds of booths on the Bookfair floor touting MFA programs, literary presses and journals, mainstream publishers, university presses, philanthropic foundations, printing services, and writing centers.
I noticed that some of the exhibitors were very specific ornithologically—for example, Carolina Wren Press, Barn Owl Books, Carrier Pidgeon, and Anhinga Press. Others had a gustatoral flavor—Black Radish Press, Chop Suey Books, Bodega Magazine, Carve. The geographic terminology extended far beyond the Ojibwe- and Dakota-esque nomenclature we Minnesotans are used to: The Chattahoochee Review, The Afgan Women's Writing Project, Black Mountain Books.
And then there are all the nutty names that might or might not meaning anything but are evocative, or make an impact: Action Books, Cardinal Sins, Alcamadus Press, BOMB Magazine, Antilever Press, burntdistrict, Area Sneaks, Bloof Books, Asterix Journal, Barefoot Muse Press, Cactus Heart, Barrelhouse, Bat Cat Press, Big Lucks, BookThug, Boulevard, Civil Coping Mechanisms.
I'm sure you've noticed that all the names I'm mentioning start with an A, B, or C—only a few of the exhibitors from that section of the alphabet, in fact. Multiply by a hundred and it will give you a fair idea of the enormous range of publications on display in the cavernous hall of the Minneapolis Convention Center.
I hesitate to call these publications obscure, considering I don't know anything about the current literary scene. Conference attendees who are enrolled in MFA programs maintain a clearly defined hierarchy among them, no doubt, and a bevy of cliques and counter-hierarchies surely exist to sooth the egos and grease the career-paths of writers who haven't yet emerged on the top tier. More importantly, perhaps, these small-scale publications, based on the time-honored Shoot the Piano Player philosophy, "the shy can try," sustain a community of litterateurs who are loyal to a lifestyle, a region, an aesthetic, or a small group of friends.
Attendees like me, who know nothing of this plurality of literary worlds, can't help but be impressed by the youthful energy and intelligence of those who fuel them. And also the artistry. I'm not referring to text so much as the manufacturing. Many of the chapbooks and journals I saw were beautifully made. Some were hand-tied.
Wandering the Floor
The productions of Red Bird Chapbooks, a local group, stick in my mind. I was on the verge of buying one of their little pamphlets, Immanuel Kant vs. God, a 48-page erasure poem by a woman I'd never heard of named Lisa Mangini. And I couldn't help noticing the fine products of Ugly Duckling Press, a Brooklyn-based publisher that occupied the table next to ours. I was impressed by the steady stream of young hipsters stopping by their table to buy books and to chat.
In the center aisles near the door, local giants Greywolf, Coffee House, and Milkweed had set up shop in the vicinity of various university presses (Nebraska, Minnesota, Utah, etc.), East Coast organizations like Bookforum and the NEA, hallowed literary presses such as Copper Canyon, and writer's programs from Edinburgh, Surrey, and other far-flung places.
Everyone was eager to talk, though I found myself asking more questions about the landscapes than the literature, which was largely unfamiliar to me. I mentioned to the gentleman at Copper Canyon—one of the few people in the hall wearing a suit—that I'd stopped into their office at a state park outside Port Townsend, Washington, a few years ago.
"It was cool and foggy," I said.
"Gee, who would have thought?" he replied in a mildly sarcastic tone. "I hope they were cordial."
"Oh, yeah. We picked up a few books, including that thick volume of Machado, the Barnstone translation."
He nodded his approval.
"Have you been to any panels?" he asked.
"I'm going to one soon about something that wouldn't interest you, I suspect. Landscapes of the North Dakota imagination."
"Actually, I once bicycled across North Dakota," he replied.
I had difficulty convincing the woman across the way at The New School, perhaps the most statuesque rep at the event, that her organization had been started to give employment for Jewish refugees from Germany during World War Two. (Perhaps because it isn't true. The New School was founded in 1919.)
"You know. Horkheimer, Adorno. I'm talking about the New School for Social Research," I said.
"I don't know about the Jewish element," she said. "And that's just one branch of the New School. There's a New School for design, for jazz."
Back at Versal (booth 536) I was entranced by a nice spread of novels in translation, though the only one I recognized was Elena Ferrante's Story of a New Name. The woman behind the table, Florencia Lauria, told me she had nothing to do with the press, but was standing in for a friend.
"Where are you from," I asked.
"I was raised in Argentine but I've lived many places."
"What are you doing here?"
"I recently graduated from the University of Minnesota's MFA program."
"Of course. I hear the people there are very nice."
"Yes, Patricia Hampl and Charles Baxter are very nice," and she grinned broadly.
I mentioned that I once met a woman from Argentina whose father had been friends with the philosophers Julian Marias and Ortega y Gasset.
"I'm not surprised. In Argentine everyone lives in Buenos Aires, and they all know each other. My parents were friendly with Borges."
"But there must be a class element involved," I replied. (After all, everyone can't know everyone.)
"Oh, for sure. And we've had waves of immigrants. Italians. Then Germans. Recently it's other Latin Americans.
"The daughter of some friends of mine says that if anyone from Latin America starts to dance the merengue, she can tell in two steps what country they're from." She laughed.
By this time in the day I'd talked to enough attendees to know that at a writers' convention, you don't ask, "What was your thesis about?" but rather, "Does your collection have a theme?"
"They're stories about Argentine ex-patriots. I got the kernel for some of them at an Argentine restaurant in South Minneapolis where I used to hang out."
"I remember that place. On Lake Street —"
"—No, it was on Franklin."
"Oh, yeah. South side of the street. I sort of wanted to check it out, but I didn't want to have a steak."
"Yes, we do eat a lot of meat." And she flashed another shy grin.
A few aisles away I came upon another literary goldmine—Archipelego Books. A book by Novalis caught my eye, with illustrations by Paul Klee.
"I just finished reading that," the tall young man behind the table said. "It's strikingly modern."
"Well, the German Romantics aren't fully appreciated today," I said. "They're far more surreal and metaphysical than their English counterparts. Have you read Pollen?" We chatted about Novalis and Frederich Schlegel, and I told the man—I never got a good look at his name tag—a story about trying to secure the rights to an image by Paul Klee for the cover of a book of poems I was designing.
"All the paperbacks are $10," he said. "And you can have these four volumes of Knausgard in hardcover for $40."
I shook my head. "I tried him but it didn't take. Do you like him?"
"Yes, I drank the Kool-Aide."
I left the table with three books in my hand: Ponge's Mute Objects of Expression, the Novalis book, and Time Ages in a Hurry by Antonio Tabucchi, which he gave me with the understanding that I might review it somewhere.
In the midst of the central booths, which were more substantial and had blue sheeting behind them, I came upon the New York Review. It recently issued a nice paperback reprint series of American, British, and European classics.
"I just ordered a few books from you guys," I said. "It was your half-price sale. The Halls of Uselessness, Onward and Upward in the Garden, Kabir's poems, and Sir Thomas Browne..." I paused, unsure of pronunciation, and he rattled off the title as if it were a single French word for a complicated sauce.
"You mean Religio Medici and Urne Buriall."
"Gee. That sounded convincing."
"I don't know if it's right, but what the heck. What did you think of Kabir?" And he flashed a sly grin.
"I'm not sure," I replied. "You're in Bly country here, I hope you realize ... They're certainly irreverent."
"Not your typical classical Indian poems."
As we chatted I became increasingly impressed by the rep's command of his list. He was very young, but anything I mentioned he seemed to have read. I pointed at Stoner, which was face-out on the table. "A Missouri literature professor?" That's all I could come up with.
"Correct." And he told me the entire story, nuancing it in such a way that he left me unsure whether, in the end, the man's life had been fulfilling or not.
"Well, now I won't have to buy that one," I said.
"No, I think you'd enjoy it. And I'm discounting everything."
I picked up a compact volume of Pierre Reverdry's poems with a stunning blue cover and said, "Rexroth did a good version of this guy's work many years ago for New Directions."
We had a chuckle over the fact that whenever you start talking about the New York Review of Books, people think you're talking about the much less detailed or informative New York Times Book Review.
Then I spotted the three volumes of Partick Leigh Fermor's narrative of his walk across Europe in 1933.
"Did you say you were giving some books away?" I asked disingenuously.
"No, I didn't. But I'll give you these for five bucks apiece."
Up next: the panels, the booth