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When I Heard the Poet Read

ne of my April traditions for many years has been to consider not writing about Poetry Month, but I always succumb to temptation. It's a weakness. I read poetry almost daily; I write about it from time to time here; and poetry occupies significant real estate on my bookshelves.

Speaking of which: During a recent, noble (if still not quite finished) attempt to bring order to the semi-chaos of our personal library, I became reacquainted with my copy of Adam Zagajewski's Without End: New and Selected Poems. I bought it during the winter of 2002, though I had first heard him read from his work in the summer of 2001. At the time, I wrote about how a poet's words, spoken as well as written, can, in just the right light, open eyes. My eyes, at least. The beginning of Poetry Month 2017 seems like an appropriate moment to reflect on my first encounter with Zagajewski's work.

Begin with lines from his poem "Letter from A Reader":

Too much about death,
too many shadows.
Write about life,
an average day,
the yearning for order.

When the poet read, I hadn't seen any of the poems yet. His voice made words appear in the air before him. When the poet read, I leaned forward into those words to receive the brunt, the wave, the wash of image, and the sound of lines forged and bent in unlikely combinations ("A poem grows/ on contradiction but can't cover it.") that felt as fresh and inevitable as water down a hill (Europe's "coarse plaid of borders" or clouds that "swim on their backs, / gazing calmly at the sun.").

When the poet read, I heard the sketchbook of his work, and wanted more. Later, when I read the poet, sketches filled with color, hazy borders were framed, outlines of images came alive, the words irresistible in their knife-edged engagement with, and disengagement from, a mad and beautiful world.

Contentment is a moment for Zagajewski, a ledge to rest on as he climbs, not a habit or goal. The poet may be in America, but he is not from America. He is wary of our frenzied and well-documented pursuit of happiness. "Dutch Painters" begins with "Pewter bowls heavy and swelling with metal./ Plump windows bulging from the light"; and offers an evocative portrait in words of a place and time where "Doors were wide open, the wind was friendly./ Brooms rested after work well done./ Homes bared all."

Not the poet's home, however, because simplicity and peace are moments frozen. "The painting of a land without secret police," the poet observes and can't help wondering:

Tell us, Dutch painters, what will happen
when the apple is peeled, when the silk dims,
when all the colors grow cold.
Tell us what darkness is.

What is darkness?

where the horizon's razor lay in wait,
and the black spider of evening
and night, widow of so many dreams.

What is hatred?

I found the phrase
'There are blows so terrible...
Don't ask!'
I don't....

What is a poem?

Poetry summons us to life, to courage
in the face of the growing shadow. 

Zagajewski's Without End, like an artist's retrospective, is a timeline. I read, and hear, the poet again. A younger Zagajewski writes of complacency:

Don't let poems lull you
just don't read them you haven't got time
time's got you grips you in its fist
its claws if it's a bird
chokes you slowly you think it's only asthma 

A decade passes and he writes of quiet strength:

That force that grows
in Napoleon's dreams
and tells him to conquer Russia and snow
is also in poems
but is very still. 

Another decade passes and the poet writes of learning

I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride.

And later, when the poet might have been driven to his knees by the world, Zagajewski writes a clear-eyed hymn to beauty and horror:

You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

When the poet read in 2001, I listened. When I read the poet in 2002, I heard. When I reread the poet in 2017, I understood that Zagajewski's poems are still speaking to me. 

It's April. Go find poets. Listen to them

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2975


Çedilla & Co.: 'Translators Are a Living Bridge'

We believe translators are a living bridge, connecting countries and cultures around the world. We are a versatile group with a unique combination of linguistic, cultural, and market expertise. --Çedilla & Co.

Çedilla & Co., a new collective of literary translators, is hosting a launch event this Sunday at KGB Bar in Manhattan's East Village. Co-sponsored by the PEN America Translation Committee, the evening will feature readings from around the world, showcasing works in translation from the collective's portfolio. The Çedilla team is composed of nine members, working across 10 languages: Allison Markin Powell (Japanese), Alta L. Price (Italian & German), Elisabeth Jaquette (Arabic), Heather Cleary (Spanish), Jeffrey Zuckerman (French), Jeremy Tiang (Chinese), Julia Sanches (Portuguese, Spanish, French & Catalan), Marshall Yarbrough (German) and Sean Gasper Bye (Polish).

I first met Powell, founder of the website Japanese Literature in English, in 2014 when BookExpo's Global Forum showcased "Books in Translation." In a conversation with program coordinator Ruediger Wischenbart, Powell had said that translating is "an immersion into another culture and a reading of signifiers. I do try to gear toward a general reader.... I work within trade publishing. I'm looking for work an American audience might want to read."

We spoke briefly after that session, and recently picked up our conversation again to discuss the new initiative. I had a few questions. Speaking on behalf of the Çedilla team after consulting with her colleagues, Powell had some excellent answers:  

Allison Markin Powell

What was the genesis of Çedilla & Co.?
The idea for Çedilla & Co. sprang from a conversation between two of our founding members [Sanches and Bye] on a chilly Sunday afternoon when both were working to finish their respective translation projects and wishing they didn't have to juggle the freelance work they were passionate about with the occasionally less exciting responsibilities of a full-time job. They discussed the reasons why it wasn't worth it, financially, for a translator to have an agent--nor for an agent to represent a translator. The prospect of a "collective" agency, which some actors have in the U.K., came to mind as a possible model for a literary translators' agency. Instead of one person having to do everything to pitch their own project, the plan would be to represent each other--to pool our resources and efforts, at the same time giving translators some professional remove for the submission process. They wrote up a general business plan, discussed what shape it might take and whether they thought it might actually work, then started approaching other translators to join, and taking the practical steps towards becoming an entity that exists on the Internet. That was about a year and a half ago.

Why now?
Obviously right now there is an urgent need to hear from voices beyond our borders, but the collective had been in the works for some time already, and all of us have been working as translators for years. Looking at the market, there does seem to be increased attention on literature in translation, from Stieg Larsson to Elena Ferrante, and a variety of publishers--mostly independent--that are focusing on it. Many of us have also had positive feedback from booksellers about reader interest in books in translation. So we are hoping all of these indicators point to the opportunity for us to serve the industry to publish more of what they and their readers are looking for, at the same time improving our stake in the process.

Why this particular group of translators? 
We came together based on the range of our language skills, our experience, and what each of us could bring to the collective. Some of us work as full-time translators, others have jobs in publishing; while we're all literary translators, we've worked with a variety of genres--fiction, nonfiction, art and architecture, theater, reportage, essays, biography, graphic and illustrated books. And then some of us know more about contracts and the submission process, others have expertise in web design and social media, and we even have a former bookseller on board. Although we like the idea of representing even more languages, there is a benefit to keeping the number of our members where it is for now (nine translators), mostly in administrative terms.

What are your specific goals, short-term as well as long-term?
We hope to fundamentally change how literature in translation is published in the United States, benefiting not only the publishers and readers, but also advocating for ourselves as translators. Each of us is quite knowledgeable and well positioned within our own language specialty, and that "market intelligence"--as we refer to it--is worth a great deal to publishers as well as to booksellers. We understand how the margins within publishing can be quite narrow, and we know that bringing a book into English can ostensibly be less costly than signing up a new native literary darling. And, as you yourself have written, we want to enable people to seek out literature in translation for the breadth and depth it offers, rather than because of a sense of obligation.

Powell also observed that because translation "is often such solitary work, one of our essential goals is to offer mutual support, encouraging best practices for us as professionals. We've each worked with such range of publishers and literary agencies, and the standards can vary widely, so it's immensely helpful to draw from our collective experience."

Independent booksellers are a key component in the process: "Just like your readers, we are--first and foremost--avid readers," she said. "We frequent indie bookstores nationwide and internationally, and when choosing projects we consider both the original text itself as well as its potential readership here in the English-speaking world. Booksellers are a key part of the publishing ecosystem; we're immensely grateful for your dedication to literature in translation, and look forward to hearing about what you and your readers and customers would like to see more of."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2969


Is there Poetry in Sales Numbers?

The uplift in sales of the poetry sector, 
first reported last autumn, 
has been attributed to a host of factors, 
including increased diversity 
among poets 
and young people discovering 
through social media.

--The Bookseller (edited for poetic effect) 

Tuesday was UNESCO's World Poetry Day("Let's celebrate #poetry's power to shake us from everyday life."). I kept thinking of money. I didn't feel guilty because BookNet Canada's annual sales report, The Canadian Book Market 2016, recently noted that sales of poetry books grew 79% last year, "largely due to the success of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur's debut collection, Milk and Honey." The category had increased 10% in 2015, 8% in 2014 and 5% in 2013, and now accounts for 0.37% of the print book market in Canada.

Meanwhile, the Bookseller reported this week that 2016 was the best on record for the poetry category through Nielsen, with 1.078 million poetry books selling for £9.9 million [about $12.4 million]. BookScan statistics show that in 2017 sales are already up 16% in volume to 86,664 copies in the first quarter and 10.9% up in value to £787,800.

Susannah Herbert, executive director at the Forward Arts Foundation and National Poetry Day director, noted that eight of the 10 bestselling contemporary poetry books of 2016 authored by a single person were by women, which she said was helping to grow young female audiences. 

Money is a kind of poetry
A few years ago in the Financial Times, John Lanchester cited a famous Wallace Stevens line ("money is a kind of poetry") and noted that he'd said this "a number of times to people who work with money, and they always seem to know what Stevens meant--even though it's a hard remark to paraphrase. Money is like poetry because both involve learning to communicate in a compressed language that packs a lot of meaning and consequence into the minimum semantic space. It's also like poetry because there is a kind of beauty in the way money works, at least in the mathematical abstract: an absence of hypocrisy, or redundancy, or floweriness, or of anything that is there purely for its own sake."

On World Poetry Day, I kept seeing money:

In a poem on Twitter from London's West End Lane Books:

With #WorldPoetryDay,
the inevitable marketing ploy.
Yes, you guessed,
20% off here ahoy.

In multi-billionaire Richard Branson's "A poem for all entrepreneurs," which he wrote in tribute to his favorite author, Dr. Seuss. It ends: 

Make bold moves, but always play fair,
Always say please and thank you--it's cool to care.

Do what you love and love what you do,
This advice is nothing new.

Now, stop worrying about whether your business will be a hit,
Rise to the challenge and say "screw it, let's do it!"

In this "Poetry Evening"cartoon for the Guardian

Modern Toss/the Guardian

And in Vienna-based coffee roaster Julius Meinl 's annual Pay With A Poem promotion "to awaken inner poets across the globe, and ultimately, showcase the power poetry has to increase optimism." In January of this year, Julius Meinl commissioned a study that found:

  • Of those that have ever written poetry, the majority (54%) haven't since childhood
  • Nearly a fifth of the population believes that poetry is only likely to be written by the well-educated, or members of the 'literati'
  • Just one in 10 people think poetry is likely to be written by people other than well-educated literature fans
  • 7% of people have never read a poem in their lifetime 

Poetry is not a luxury
In her World Poetry Day 2017 message, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said: "Poetry is not a luxury. It lies at the heart of who we are as women and men, living together today, drawing on the heritage of past generations, custodians of the world for our children and grandchildren."

Emma Smith, commissioning editor at Trapeze, told the Bookseller: "Poetry is on the move again: the publishers and booksellers are still obviously vital but--with a few notable exceptions--they have been quite slow to clock how the landscape has changed. If they would just invest in training their poets up in the use of Instagram and YouTube the market would grow even faster."

Michael Schmidt, managing and editorial director of Carcanet Press, observed: "The poetry market is rather erratic just now with some books selling extremely well. The reasons are the same old same old.... Certainly social media contributes to people's (not only young people's) awareness of specific poets and particular events. I don't think poetry as a category is in spate, but certain poets certainly are."

Keep reading. Keep listening. Keep buying. Keep talking. Poetry is a kind of currency ("the fact or quality of being generally accepted or in use").

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2964


Loganberry Books Is 'Illustrating the Gender Gap'

Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, planned several March events this year to honor Women's History Month, including a philanthropic celebration with other shop owners on Larchmere Boulevard; an art exhibition in the bookshop's Annex Gallery; and an International Women's Day/Harriett's 50th birthday combo featuring "refreshments, music, political activism, surprises and a special sale for Loganberry Perks members."

But the centerpiece has turned out to be Illustrating the Gender Gap in Fiction, an inspired and eye-opening performance art project launched March 1, when bookshop staff and volunteers re-shelved works by male authors in the LitArts room backwards, leaving only women's works spine-out to highlight the disparity in numbers. Altogether, 25 columns of general fiction and five sections of poetry--approximately 10,000 volumes in total--were involved. The display will remain in place through March 14.

"I have been bookselling for over 20 years, and every year I have taken the time and effort to highlight women's works for Women's History Month in March," Logan told me earlier this week. "This year I wanted to do something different, something that would highlight not just the good works by women, but also the disparity in the industry. As someone who tries to carry female authors, the white-out effect is shocking. As a new/used/rare bookseller, my inventory has many older titles, and the general fiction section will not include the current bestsellers (which are on display in the front of the store). I am certain the ratio has improved in my generation, and Dickens, James and Trollope take up an awful lot of space, but I took an overview count of the 7,500 works of fiction we worked on, and female authors represent 37%. It's worse in poetry (about 2,000 books), and we didn't work on genre fiction or mass market paperbacks."

Logan said customer response has been "fantastic and warm. Many people just stand there looking at the space, shaking their heads. I want people to think: is the gender gap really this uneven, and why? What does my personal library look like? What can be done to change this imbalance? And then go find a title by a female author you may or may not be familiar with (it's easy to find them), and give it a try."

It's not just customers who have found themselves considering the implications. In addition to local coverage (Cleveland SceneCool Cleveland and more), the project has garnered headlines in publications as various as the GuardianNational PostDaily MailKathmandu PostAdWeekA.V. Club and Upworthy

"I really didn't expect this to be a big deal," Logan observed. "It's a shelving exercise, a temporary art project to answer a question, visually. Everyone who has visited the store (unwittingly or not) has been positive, and inquisitive. The online trolls have been surprising. I guess I'm just not familiar with the troll community, and their outlandish comments are ridiculous. I wish they could actually pause long enough to think about the project and comment appropriately. I don't think I'm pointing out anything new here."

One of Logan's favorite Illustrating the Gender Gap moments occurred during an art opening at the nearby gallery, when "some of the guests came in to see what we were doing. Most were blank-faced and silent as I explained the project, let it sink in, and then the corners of their mouths lifted and they started slowly nodding their heads, saying, 'That's cool.'--and then they helped us shelve for a while."

She added that her favorite response thus far in the the wake of the publicity came from a male teacher from St. Augustine, Fla., "who turned all the male-authored books backwards in his classroom for the month of March, and had a discussion with his students about gender disparity in such an important educational industry. Wow."

I asked Logan if she had speculated about what the gender disparity would look like if she expanded the project to other sections. "This illustration begs the question, and if it makes you look twice, I think it has served its purpose," she replied. "When one troll told me to go back to the kitchen, I thought we should do cookbooks next. You know, a traditionally female realm, with books written by male celebrities dominating the field.

"Women authors will certainly dominate the romance field, and mysteries and fantasy will have closer gender balances. Graphic novels will be heavily male-written, and you can't blame the trends from a century ago there. I'd like to try the exercise on children's picture books and middle grade novels. In my head those genres are more gender equal, but a quick look at the shelves tells me otherwise."

On Tuesday, Logan e-mailed me this update: "So, a guy just brought in three bags of books for sale. He browsed the store while I was looking, and later we discussed the Gender Gap project while settling up. I mentioned that in his three bags there wasn't a single one written by a woman (they're still good books! Beckett, DeLillo, Reich, sure, I'll buy those), and he shrugged. I said, sure, but it's going to affect your world view if you only read books written by men. He conceded this was true, and you can tell he'd never considered it before. So maybe it is worth it, this crazy art project of mine."

As author Joe Hill tweeted: "Wouldn't it be interesting to try this with your own TBR pile for a while? Might try it with mine."

Yes, it would be, I respond, eyeing my bookcases, which look just a little guilty.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2954


Happy #WorldBookDayUK!

We've endured a lot of unsettling headlines in recent months, but yesterday I woke to this one from ITV Cymru Wales: "More than 1,000 Harry Potters parade in Merthyr for World Book Day." I smiled and, quite suddenly, the morning was off to a good start, thanks to #WorldBookDayUK.

While much of the reading planet celebrates UNESCO's World Book & Copyright Day on April 23, the U.K. and Ireland have traditionally gotten a jump on the festivities due to conflicts with school holidays. And so, March 2 has become a day of books, costumes and events.

#WorldBookDayUK's 20th anniversary also marked the release of the National Literary Trust's survey of more than 9,000 pupils, showing that 89.5% were aware of the event and almost 60% were inspired to read more because of it. The Bookseller noted that "one in four children (25.2%) said that the first book they had ever bought was with the WBD token issued last year and for pupils receiving free school meals, this increases to almost a third (32.9%)."

"We're extremely proud of how deep and wide the impact of World Book Day continues to be in the lives of children and young people all over the U.K. and Ireland, particularly in light of the recent news that one in ten people don't own a single book [poll carried out by Censuswide Research on behalf of Aviva last year]," said WBD director Kirsten Grant. "Evidence suggests that there is a lost generation of readers amongst today's adults, but we truly hope and firmly believe that, through giving children and young people greater access to books, World Book Day is ensuring that the next generation carry a love of reading with them on into adulthood."

Kids at Saint Rose of Lima School in Glasgow dressed up as their favorite literary characters to celebrate WBD. (via)

So what was happening yesterday besides the running of the Harry Potters in Wales? Plenty.

Dulwich Books: "Happy World Book Day 2017! Do something booky--bring your token in today for a free book."

The Bookshop Kibworth: "Happy #WorldBookDay! Bring us your #WBD2017 voucher & we will help you make friends with a new book to keep for ever."

Jaffé & Neale, Chipping Norton: "Today the 'Cider Bench' has been renamed The Reading Bench @booksaremybag  #worldbookday".

Booka Bookshop, Oswestry: "All set for a fun packed @WorldBookDayUK with schools & @AndyGbooks @Sibealpounder & @stephanieburgis @panmacmillan @KidsBloomsbury".

Gutter Bookshop, Dublin: "Always lovely to see the guys at @IrelandAMTV3--one day I'll stop getting so excited about books that it sounds like I'm going to explode!"

Emily's Bookshop, Chipping Campden: "Jam Tarts for the #queenofhearts #worldbookday2017 #chippingcampden thank you @thorntonrigg1".

Chorleywood Bookshop: "We are SO excited it's @worldbookdayuk #worldbookday20 we are off to spend the afternoon w/ @chrisriddell50 eeeeeeek!"

Drake the Bookshop, Stockton-on-Tees: "Thrilled to see this when I arrived at #lingfieldprimary this morning."

Linghams Booksellers, Heswall: "Happy @WorldBookDayUK A big shout to Heswall and Gayton Schools who will be joining us today @LinghamsBooks to celebrate! READ ALL THE BOOKS".

Newham Bookshop, London:‏ "wow, 200 children have redeemed their vouchers in the shop today so far. @worldbookdayuk, a great introduction to books."

The University of Glasgow posted a video featuring "a look at some of our local West End book shops."

On a more serious note, Horrid Henry creator Francesca Simon observed in the Guardian that #WBD2017 marked "the third time I've written a Horrid Henry book especially for it. I, like this year's nine other World Book Day authors, who include Jacqueline Wilson, David Walliams and David Almond, get no royalties for these £1 books, and publishers donate all their costs. So why do it?

"I once did an author event in a bookshop, and a child came up to me afterwards. 'Are we allowed to touch the books?' he asked. I realized he'd never been inside a bookshop, and this strange environment was as alien to him as stepping into a betting shop would be for me. A book token is a passport: the 15 million tokens that will be distributed among all school pupils in the U.K. and Ireland will enable them to go to any bookshop to choose a free book. For many, this will be their very first book...."

And on a less serious note, Manchester United soccer legend Wayne Rooney tweeted pics of his kids dressed up as Horrid Henry.

At the end of a long World Book Day, literary Happy Hours were not out of the question. Ian Rankin seemed ready. And Time Out London reported that at Holborn's Bloomsbury Club Bar, "guests who bring a paperback book along to the bar will see their read exchanged for a literature-inspired cocktail." The books will be sold to second-hand bookshop Skoob Books, with all proceeds going to Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity. For patrons of the Lobby Bar at the London Edition, "three original tipples come accompanied with a free copy of a Penguin Classic that complements the cocktail." A £2.50 donation from each drink sold is going to Ministry of Stories.

All for a good cause. Cheers!

Baroness Gail Rebuck, World Book Day U.K. founder and chair of Penguin Random House U.K., told the Bookseller: "In 1997 the level of children's engagement with reading was at a point of national crisis. The previous year a government report had been released showing that 42% of 11-year-olds failed to achieve level 4 in reading and writing on entry to secondary school. We wanted to do something to reposition reading and our message is the same today as it was then--that reading is fun, relevant, accessible, exciting, and has the power to transform lives. I've seen first-hand how World Book Day has affected social change and long may it continue." We agree. Happy #WorldBookDay20!

--Published by Shelf Awarerness, issue #2949