The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Poetry in the Time of a Novel Virus

Karren Alenier

The Steiny Road Poet admits her sadness over withdrawing The Word Works, a predominately poetry press, from the AWP Book Fair, which ran in San Antonio, Texas, March 4 through 7, 2020. All that poet- poetry love. Yes—embracing, handshaking and book handling didn’t happen this year.

For 12 consecutive years, my Word Works colleague Nancy White and I have been participating in the annual AWP conference’s book fair. This means Steiny would put on her POET hat, her big smile (truly sincere since she loves doing this) and personally greet anyone she saw at this gathering with the exclamation, “Poetry!” Picture Steiny in the aisle in front of The Word Works table, walking among the passersby.


Often the response to Poetry! is a confused and sometimes anxious rejoinder, “Poetry?” To this, Steiny answers, “Are you a poet?”—often they are—poets can be a shy lot. “Do you have a poetry manuscript?”—if they do and often that is true, she would continue, “Here is our brochure which tells you how to send your manuscript to us—we have several ways to do that. What kind of poetry do you like?” If he-she-they says prose poetry, Steiny would select a book from the table like Washington Prize winners Gembox by Nils Michals or Zoom by Susan Lewis. And Steiny might say would you like to meet our current Washington Prize winner Annie Kim who is author of Eros Unbroken?

 Eros Unbroken300

If this passerby says, “I write fiction not poetry.” Steiny answers, “Ah, but poetry is the basis of all good writing and we still have something that might interest you.

Try Jessica Cuello’ Hunt, which is a feminist retelling of Melville’s Moby Dick or Roger Sedarat’s Haji as Puppet: An Orientalist Burlesque, an uproarious romp through the ancient Persian psyche into the political Hell of today’s America.


Or John Bradley’s Love-in-idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello, a collection of poems about a fictitious Italian trying to survive World War II.


Steiny might also reveal that there is a little fiction tucked into Myong-Hee Kim’s translation Crow’s Eye View: The Infamy of Lee Sang, Korean Poet. Then someone might say, “So, you do translations?” opening the door for Steiny to show the bilingual Spanish/English Reborn in Ink by Laura Cesarco Eglin as translated by Jesse Lee Kercheval and Catherine Jagoe or, from this year’s books, the trilingual Women of the Big Sky by Liliana Ancalao in Spanish and Mapuzungung as translated from Spanish to English by Seth Michelson.


She might then call on Michelson to talk about this unusual translation of a native language from Argentina that is headed toward extinction.

In longer conversations—and Steiny is never in any hurry to move on to another potential customer—she might find out that the passerby is a volunteer helping to promote contemporary poetry just as folks associated with The Word Works are. In this case, Steiny gleefully offers information about a special niche competition for book publication called the Hilary Tham Capital Collection.


Grabbing a copy of Tham’s Bad Names for Women off the table, Steiny would explain that in 1989, Hilary Tham was a Word Works volunteer who became the first poet published in the Capital Collection. Later when Tham died in 2005, The Word Works renamed the Capital Collection to honor this outstanding poet who had served as editor-in-chief.


Then she would point to other books in this imprint: Brandon Johnson’s Love’s Skin, Sarah Browning’s Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, and the brand-new Transformer by Kathleen Winter selected by Maggie Smith.


Would you like to meet Kathleen Winter and hear about her experience with Word Works? Then Steiny would conclude, in 2012, Word Works began working with outside judges for this competition, such that Cornelius Eady selected Bernadette Geyer’s The Scabbard of Her Throat for the HTCC.

Does Steiny live for this role as salesperson-in-chief who makes sure that Word Works authors congregate at the table and enough books are sold to pay for the conference expenses? You bet, and by Steiny’s example, the fever is often shared by others hanging out at the table. Nancy White had a special surprise this year for Steiny and those who were buying copiously at The Word Works table—a new poet hat with blue letters. Steiny didn’t know about this until after she got home from Texas.

Yes, both White and Steiny were in Texas prior to the start of AWP, which went on without Word Works and thousands of other booksellers because the mayor of San Antonio had declared a state of emergency after a Covid19 victim had been walking around his town and staying in a hotel close to the Gonzalez Convention Center where the AWP was booked. Yes, a hotel where Henry Crawford, our new author of Binary Planet, had reservations, something we didn’t know until after we called it quits.


It was a hard decision but White as president had 50 people asking her what we were going to do, and she realized we would be risking getting quarantined in San Antonio and putting undo pressure on our authors to attend. So we decided on a no-go late the night before and canceled book fair attendance, hotel rooms, restaurant launch site, Steiny’s bus reservation from Austin to San Antonio, notified our list of 50 plus, and Steiny was lucky enough to get a flight home the next afternoon at a reasonable cost.

Was that the end of launching our books? No. We used our website to run a virtual AWP Book Fair just like other presses that had dropped out of the San Antonio AWP. Yes, there was some joy in those sales but, seriously, Steiny still misses the personal contact this year and being among her peeps, those who speak the language of poetry and literature.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren 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. Read her Blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2020 Karren Alenier
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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