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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Reinventing the Wheel:
The Tradition of Innovation in Poetry

The Steiny Road Poet always tells the people around her that April is her busiest month. April being National Poetry Month in the United States since the Academy of American Poets organized this celebration in 1996. However, the celebration for Steiny usually starts in March when the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) holds its annual conference and book fair.

Every year AWP holds its big event in a different US city. This year, Portland, Oregon hosted and over 14,000 people attended. Steiny had never been to Portland West or East Coast for that matter and was excited to go but in the end had no time to see the town. If she wasn’t selling books at the table of the press in which she has a leadership role, she was either trolling the tables or booths of other publishing houses looking for a publisher for her latest manuscript or taking in a panel in the conference.

So here’s a profile of what the AWP experience was like in case you, Dear Reader, are entertaining the idea of making such a journey.

Thursday, March 28, 2019, Steiny made her way from registration right to The Word Works table that her partner Nancy White had already set up on Wednesday. The primary focus was on six new titles: Gembox by Nils Michals, Fire & Flint by Lisa Hase-Jackson, this body / that lightning show by Elizabeth Gross, The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom by Camille-Yvette Welsch, Volver en Tinta / Reborn in Ink  by Laura Cesarco Eglin as translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval & Catherine Jagoe, and Parasite Kingdom by Brad Richard.


The first person met passing by my table is poet Barrett Warner who like Steiny is there representing a press—Galileo  Press—and his table is in the row 6000 row right behind hers. Steiny tells him she has a manuscript and gives him her one-page book proposal which quickly provides this information: proposed title of the book; author name; genre (poetry of course); number of manuscript pages minus front and back matter; percent of poems published individually in magazines, anthologies, etc.; an overview of the work both in subject and poetic form; a short author bio and on the back of this one sheet of paper a sample poem. Because he is a long-time friend, she also says to him that it is audacious to have a book proposal for a poetry manuscript because book proposals are used for nonfiction books to map out the audience for that particular book. In the world of poetry, the sale of a collection of poems depends heavily on the poet’s network. Therefore, Steiny saw no point in stating the obvious.


Part of the strategy for selling books at the AWP table is to get authors there to sign their books. One of the first authors to come to the table was Elizabeth Gross. Her book this body / that lightning show was selected by Jericho Brown in the Hilary Tham Capital Collection. Steiny’s mode of operation is to walk out from the table and stop passersby so they will approach the table of books and talk to the living breathing author. The Word Works leadership encourages our authors to help sell not only their personal books but also others on the table. Elizabeth took a strong interest in Parasite Kingdom, winner of the 2018 Tenth Gate Prize, by Brad Richard because she and Brad are from New Orleans. Brad is the more credentialed poet but at the last minute he could not make the trip to Portland. However, folks buying this body / that lightning show by Elizabeth Gross often bought Parasite Kingdom as well given the extra encouragement from Elizabeth.


Sometimes Word Works authors come with a whole community. Camille-Yvette Welsch invited her Mother to AWP and pretty early on some of Camille’s students began congregating at the table. Steiny encourages people to hang out at the table because it creates buzz and soon passersby were lingering to find out what the good energy was all about. Additionally, Camille had a good story to tell. Her book The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom was a finalist in The Word Works Washington Prize in 2017 and 2018. She received feedback in 2017 thanks to Nancy White’s painstaking efforts to do that and with those comments Camille made some revisions to her manuscript. It was a tough call on who would win the 2018 Washington Prize and though Camille didn’t win, she was selected in the press’ May Reading Period. So her message to poets approaching the table was the editors at The Word Works are exceptional in giving feedback, feedback that can help get you published.


Anyone looking for publication is fortunate when they go to the publisher’s table and find  the editor-in-chief, the series editor of a major prize, and the winner of that prize with his new book. Adding to that happenstance which most authors can only experience at AWP since, in the case of The Word Works everyone lives widely geographically dispersed, is another Word Works author who runs a popular poetry performance program in New York City and a friend to the press who has been frequently published and publicized in nationally known programs. Meet (left to right) Washington Prize Series Editor Andrea Carter Brown; NYC Poetry/Cabaret host at The Green Room 42 Thomas March; Nils Michals, winner of the 2018 Washington Prize for Gembox; Word Works co-editor-in-chief Nancy White and Poet Barbara Crooker whose 8th book, The Book of Kells (Cascade Books), was launched at the 2019 AWP.


One coming together that Steiny had not seen before was that Word Works leadership met the original language author and lead translator of the new International Editions book Volver en Tinta / Reborn in Ink, which is a bilingual (Spanish/English) book. What’s more Laura Cesarco Eglin who wrote Volver en Tinta is perfectly fluent in English, meaning she could tell the average AWP attendee what this collection of poetry was about and answer questions about her experience of the translation process with Jesse Lee Kercheval & Catherine Jagoe. At various points, the table was a popular gathering point for translators who had never been published by The Word Works. (Left to right: Jesse Lee Kercheval and Laura Cesarco Eglin.)


One of Steiny’s mottos for anyone associated with The Word Works is if you aren’t having fun don’t do this. Pictured here left to right are International Editions Series Editor Barbara Goldberg, co-editor-in-chief Nancy White, and Word Works author Abby Chew—A Bear Approaches from the Sky. Abby’s book was a May Reading Period Selection that was published after the 2018 AWP and received a soft launch in 2019. Getting a book to the AWP doesn’t always take a direct route and having the author there is critical to the book’s success in most cases.


If Steiny plans carefully and she can leave the job of exciting passersby to buy Word Works books in enthusiastic hands, she can steal away to a panel like “Reinventing the Wheel: The Tradition of Innovation in Poetry” where Kazim Ali spoke about the tradition of fragmentation which started with Sappho not because she wanted her poetry known that way but because her work wasn’t valued and her writings on papyrus was used to wrap mummies. Kazim said fragmentation was often mediated by war but still the fragment has been able to evoke what was lost, even as it produced non sequiturs and encouraged concatenation.


Having a press reading is an important event at every AWP and usually The Word Works reading is an “off-campus” event not too far from the convention center of whatever town the AWP is held. We were lucky to get a quiet conference room (as opposed to a bar venue) and drew a crowd of over 40 people—standing room only. Lisa Hase-Jackson was the first to sell out her book Fire & Flint and that’s because she had a considerable number of family, friends, and fans in Portland. By the end of conference all the new titles were sold out which was exciting and meant that fewer books had to be shipped back East. Nancy White videoed all the readings.


Yes, AWP drew in the community even our poet friend Alyse Knorr who came by to introduce Lucy, her 3-month old daughter, who took a keen interest in our books with red images. Never too young to start looking at books and coming to AWP. After all, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas considered Stein’s books their babies.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren LaLonde Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2019 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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May 2019

Volume 19 Issue 12

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