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Thinking Out Loud About Poetry at BEA 

Sometimes you just find yourself thinking out loud, even if the "voice" manifests as words on a screen. Here's a question that has been rattling around my brain recently: What if BookExpo had an official poet-in-residence next year?

That notion was sparked by an e-mail I received a couple of weeks ago from Leslie Reiner, co-owner of Inkwood Books, Tampa, Fla., regarding a column about poetry readers. "I really wish ABA and BookExpo could get the poet laureate each year to do the bookseller equivalent of a benediction at a breakfast," she noted. "Wouldn't that be wonderful? Appropriate? Even essential? Let's start a movement."

I was intrigued by the idea and asked her to elaborate. "I love poetry, and for years we have tried to celebrate Poetry Month by giving a discount if a customer can recite a published poem, no songs or nursery rhymes or limericks allowed, to our sales staff at checkout," she said. "It is almost always delightful (won't go into the exception), and sparks conversation that otherwise would never have happened."

Although bookstore poetry sections tend to be diminutive, Reiner suggested that trade show and conference organizers might still "try to feature it more (who am I kidding... feature it at all!) at our gatherings. Booksellers are so often delighted and inspired by the writers who speak at breakfasts or keynotes, and I feel having a poet read a poem or two at BookExpo or the ABA Winter Institute would be a great way to bring new readers to poetry and educate us all as well."

She also recommended extending an invitation to the U.S. poet laureate (currently Philip Levine), who "would be a natural choice, and the recent ones (Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan come immediately to mind) have done so much to encourage wider readerships with annotated anthologies and other programs. It would be great to have our nation's top poet say hello to us all in verse, and I am sure publishers would be behind this. In particular I fantasize the audience to be one of the large gatherings, where the topic may not be poetry, but the poet can start the event... like an invocation of sorts."

Reiner added that she loves what DIESEL bookstore "is doing on their website, and I am sure others would have great suggestions. But most importantly I would love to have all booksellers, especially those who may not read poetry, hear the poet. Separate panels of poetry related interests would be fine, but my dream is to have the poet laureate address us all."

Whenever I think about the magical combination of poetry, bookseller and publisher, San Francisco's legendary City Lights is the first place that comes to mind, so I asked Paul Yamazaki for his thoughts on the idea. "Poetry is notably absent from BookExpo," he agreed. "I recall that Jack Shoemaker hosted a breakfast at 7:30 a.m. for Gary Snyder in Chicago that must have been interesting, but there is very little that I can recollect. A greater awareness/celebration of poetry is an idea that I would warmly support. A 'benediction' at breakfast is something I would be a little leery of. First it is breakfast and secondly I always think of a 'benediction' that requires distilled spirits. Being in New York, with the resources of St. Marks Poetry Project, Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Poets House, etc., there are a wealth of poets and organizations to collaborate with."

If New York is the city where poetry never sleeps, an official BEA poet-in-residence might just lend an air of, well, poetic justice to the show after all these years. 

I have seen poetry as the center of conference attention--and even business conversation--before and it can be a beautiful thing. During a "Shameless Book Promotion" panel at the 2010 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Denver, I heard poet Todd Boss say, "I want my poetry to reach a popular audience. I find it troublesome that I should be forced to admit such a thing as if it were shameful." At the Bookfair, people were eagerly buying poetry collections from Tattered Cover's display table. Later, I watched Gary Snyder mesmerize 600-plus people in the Colorado Convention Center, telling us: "Fortunately, my poetry is not that complicated. You don't need to be an architect to walk into a building." And speaking of buildings, he also joked, "This is one big hall. I came by earlier to see the room and couldn't see the end of it."

Imagine a poet center stage at the Javits Center's "big hall." I do like it, but I'm really just thinking out loud.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1721.


Tabucchi, Saudade & Reader's Debt

"Have you read Antonio Tabucchi?"

I was asked this simple, yet deliciously complex question in 2001 by author Martha Cooley, my instructor that semester in Bennington College's MFA/Writing program. I responded by scribbling the unfamiliar name into a notebook, and subsequently acquired, as fast as possible, every book I could find before immersing myself in a new world. That is, after all, the best answer.

Have you read...?     

It's something I've asked people hundreds of times during my life as a writer, bookseller, editor and, above all, reader. Evangelizing the works of authors I love is instinctive. That you are reading this means you know the feeling, too. We are the lucky ones. Maybe we should do this for a living. Oh yeah....

Only the best questions can do what Martha's did for me, however. Gradually, book by book and story by story, Tabucchi altered, ever so slightly, my perception of the world. Among many gifts, his fiction enveloped me in an atmosphere of pure "saudade," a Portuguese word he defined as the "melancholic nostalgia one feels for people, things, pleasures and times now lost."

There is a certain level of complete engagement I always aspire to--and rarely achieve--while reading. As I write these words, I'm listening to fado singer Mariza perform "Meu Fado Meu." Although her voice is recorded, I did hear and see her live in an extraordinary concert seven years ago. Without Tabucchi, I might never have understood (as much as I can) saudade; without saudade, the fado music tradition might have slipped by; without fado, no Mariza.

"Fado to the Portuguese people is like our national soul, but fado is universal and the language is not a frontier," she has said. "Fado is melancholic, but I prefer to call it melancholic happiness. A magical melancholic feeling."

"Melancholic" is an apt description of my feelings when I learned about Tabucchi's recent death at 68. After reading the obituaries, I pulled his books from my shelves and flipped through them, searching for underlined passages, the only direct connection I could imagine; a reader's way of mourning.

Letters from Casablanca is irresistibly drenched in saudade. As you move from story to story, the realization gradually dawns that there really is no English equivalent for that word. "The Little Gatsby" is a literary game as well as a poignant look at creative and romantic failure. The narrator, whose own reality is debatable, is a one-book wonder of a novelist who entertains his friends by reciting the beginnings of other people's novels (Fitzgerald, Woolf) and is forever sidelined as an observer. Of his love interest, Nicole, he says, "You had a tragic sense of life, perhaps it was your insuperable selfishness." And later: "I would never have known how to write another [novel], even if everyone pretended to think the contrary, much less could I have written the story of our painful history." Of himself: "I was a character transmigrated from another novel, its stylization in a smaller dimension, without grandeur and without tragedy."

The narrator in Requiem: A Hallucination dreams of a torrid Sunday in Lisbon during which he ventures on a quest to meet a man (Fernando Pessoa) he calls "the greatest poet of the twentieth century," while acknowledging the shaky reality of his situation: "I'm dreaming but what I dream seems to me to be real, and I have to meet certain people who exist only in my memory."

Tabucchi furnishes and populates the spectral places he visits--a restaurant, a guesthouse, a museum, a train, even a cemetery--so deftly that he compels us to accept dream and memory without question, as we accept our own world, in which we appear to be sitting in a chair and reading these words. And his sense of humor often catches us by surprise. Someone described the tango as two sad faces, four happy feet. Tabucchi's writing, with its deft narrative touch and saudade, is something of a literary equivalent.

Rereading him, I was also calculating the reader's debt I owe Martha Cooley for asking that first question.

Have you read...?

Reader's debt is the best obligation imaginable. Even Wall Street hasn't figured out a way to monetize it with convoluted hedge fund word bundling schemes. Reader's debt always grows, and with great interest, for all parties involved in the transaction. It is an investment for the longest of terms--a lifetime.

Since I can never repay my reader's debt to Martha, I'll just have to keep spending lavishly by asking everyone who reads this column the simplest question once again: Have you read Antonio Tabucchi?--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1716.


'Gateway Drug' for Poetry Readers Unveiled

Those of you who read this column regularly know that I'm not just a fair weather, April-is-the-coolest-month sort of poetry reader. I try to acknowledge the existence of the form at other times of the year--June, for example, or August or even January.

In Tuesday's edition of Shelf Awareness for Readers, I tested my poetry reading street cred by confessing that Rod McKuen had been my "gateway drug" to 40-plus years as a reader of poems. The last thing I expected was that I would be back days later to share some of the "confessions" of McKuenism I received from other hardened book trade professionals. And yet, here we are.

"I don't really remember why I picked up Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows--maybe I had heard him sing--but I was completely captivated," recalled my colleague Marilyn Dahl, book review editor at Shelf Awareness. "The poetry spoke to me viscerally, especially at a time in my life when everything was drama and angst and joy and sorrow--you know, a time when no one understands you except a poet. And now, later in life, these lines still ring true: 'and things that might have been/ if I'd had wiser eyes.' So the first time I went to San Francisco, I walked to Stanyan Street on a pilgrimage. Even now, when I am in SF on the way to my sister-in-law's and cross Stanyan Street, I feel the magic of McKuen's poetry and connection. I want to stop and walk that street again."

Stanyan Street also made a literal appearance recently in the life of Water Street Press's Lynn Vannucci, who called McKuen "my gateway drug, too. I had his albums as well and loved his scratchy voice. And, as it happens, my sister-in-law and I were in San Francisco on Friday, driving on Stanyan Street, and spoke about the street and other sorrows (though she has no memory of the book--she is just that much too young)."

"What a joy to see him even mentioned in anything literary!" noted Kathy Schultenover, who now works for Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books after spending 17 years at Nashville's Davis Kidd store. "He was college days to me and thousands of others. His poetry set to Glen Yarborough's music set the background to many a party and tryst. I wouldn't have dared to mention him in my English-major classes or graduate seminar in poetry, but in the dorms, sorority or frat houses, he was king."

Jessica Shoffel, a publicist for Penguin Young Readers Group, "first fell in love with poetry through Rod McKuen. When I was a teenager, I found dusty copies of his love poems in the forgotten annexes of my parents' bookshelves. Given to each other during their courtship. I still hold them dear and credit Mr. McKuen for opening me up to loving poetry, despite the many arguments I’ve heard against his credibility."

Often mentioned was McKuen's career-long flogging by critics and academics. Writer Emilie Staat said the McKuen piece "made me laugh and I can commiserate--as a lifelong reader of Dean Koontz with an MFA in fiction. My mother told me about loving Rod McKuen and a few years ago, I was able to swoop up almost every book he's ever written at the Friends of the LSU Library sales in Baton Rouge. I think I overwhelmed her."

Cheryl Krocker McKeon of Rakestraw Books, Danville, Calif., observed: "Your essay today resonated, as I recall my Ohio State education prof, the quarter I was due to graduate, disagreeing with my interpretation of a poem and saying the fateful words, 'I feel sorry for any student in your class.' I eventually overcame her criticism, but continued to enjoy poetry, including Rod McKuen."

Not all academics have boarded the McKuen-bashing bandwagon. Cynthia Drake, who teaches in the University of Colorado at Boulder's English and Women's Studies departments, admitted that McKuen "was probably my poetry gateway drug as well. He was the only poet that my parents bought or read. They had one shelf lined with those little books with their distinctive lettering. I believe they must have had an LP of McKuen reading his work because all these decades later, I have his voice in my head, so solemn, invoking a stroll by the ocean, a picnic with Chablis. McKuen may not have been a 'great' poet, but there was a sincerity and a decency in his poems."

Her words echo across four decades. In a 1971 New York Times article, Richard Liebermann, then head of sales at Random House, said, "Rod's got a sensitivity and a feel for writing what people want to read." And RH president Robert Bernstein added: "Each year the figures go up enormously. There seems to be no end to it and we have every expectation that it will go on for a long time." And so it has.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1710.


I'm Reading as Fast as I Can!

Maura Kelly sparked a flurry of online commenting, sharing and retweeting this week with her "Slow-Books Manifesto" piece for the Atlantic. "In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature--to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else," she wrote.

The enthusiastic and "real-time" electronic call and response struck me as deliciously ironic, given her censure of the "Fast" entertainment we are subjected to on "the screens that blare in every corner of America (at the airport, at the gym, in the elevator, in our hands)."

And yet, by nature and temperament, I have always been a slow reader and tend to agree with her manifesto, even if I harbor considerable reservations about the dismissal of "non-literary books" and "emphasis on literature."

Before shattering my readerly innocence by accepting a bookseller's job in the early 1990s, I was a lingerer over pages, paragraphs and sentences of the books I loved. I underlined and committed excessive marginalia. I read passages aloud to people I liked, saying, "Listen to this."

I could have been a poster child for the Slow Book Movement before there was one, though as Malcolm Jones pointed out a couple of years ago, the "phrase 'slow reading' goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 described himself as a 'teacher of slow reading.' The way he phrased it, you know he thought he was bucking the tide. That makes sense, because the modern world, i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good and faster is better, was just getting up a full head of steam."

In Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Hana receives this advice: "Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

During my slow reading years, I was habitually monogamous, spending a month with a book, three months with an author's works. Most of those habits became seriously compromised, however, when I entered "the trade" and quickly adopted their bookishly promiscuous ways along with a professional need for reading speed.

For a long time now, I have juggled several books at once--good books and bad books; print books, e-books and audiobooks--while ever casting a covetous gaze toward other tempting titles within reach on shelves and online. There have been far too many one-night-reads, when I scanned 50 pages and bailed.

Despite these ongoing betrayals of my slow reading heritage, I've tried to remain faithful to the ancestral tomes as well (currently slow re-reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens). It may not be enough.

A booklover's life is a complicated affair. As a professional reader--which is what booksellers and editors become--I don't have a vested interest in the titles that land on my desk incessantly, though I begin each with hope and the desire for love. Page one is always virginal.

Books are, in fact, irresistible to me. Always have been. Can I read them all? No. But within the considerable limitations of my ability, time and attention span, I'm reading as fast as I can. Except, of course, when I'm reading... slowly.

As I said, it's complicated. What does that mean?

Not this: "The average person reads between 200 to 400 words per minute. By at least tripling your reading speed you would possess a much wider and more flexible range of reading rates and experience for the first time the thrill of DYNAMIC COMPREHENSION. It is like watching movie."--Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics

This: Reading is journey. On any trip, sometimes I go fast and sometimes slow. The key lies in not choosing one speed over another permanently (you'll hit a tree), but learning how to shift gears. Yesterday, I was reading and writing at high speed in upstate New York. Today I downshift to Our Mutual Friend and will spend an afternoon in 19th century London. I can even see the road sign coming into view. Caution: Slow Reader Ahead--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1704.


Will 'Booksing' Lead to the Bibliocalypse?

"In our new digital lives, we're deluged by text but evermore removed from proper reading. The textures and objects that once filled our lives have been replaced by the bald touch screen, though for every physical thing left behind, the Internet generates a billion virtual simulations. One result is booksing: a palliative appreciation of books as things, which muddles up the nostalgia for a more tactile world with our anxiety about just not reading enough."

I came upon Raghu Karnad's article late last week in Mint, an Indian business daily that has a content partnership with the Wall Street Journal. Provocative writing haunts readers long after their eyes leave the page, and this piece certainly did so for me. Even the headline is a challenge, if not an outright scold: "Fake bibliophilia: Our irritating new tendency to fetishize the physical book is actually an excuse not to read."

What intrigues me about Karnad's damnation of fake bibliophilia is his assumption that the roles of reader and "bookser" are mutually exclusive; that booksing is an inevitable sign of the bibliocalypse. As an old reader and bookser, I must disagree.

A booksing high is best when shared. As Karnad notes, "If you use Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed the recent popularity of 'booksing,' which is very different from reading. Booksing tends to show up as a gushy, shared celebration of the idea of books, rather than of the experience of reading any given one."

I do use Facebook and Twitter, but I've also noticed that the same people getting a little "gushy" about "the idea of books" are just as often evangelizing for works and authors they have read and loved. I'm blessed by the fact that a majority of the people I know are readers. (This was not the case for much of my early life, so I appreciate my bookish clan.) And here's a little secret: Most of them are, as far as I can tell, fully addicted "booksers" as well. Hmm... I wonder if surrounding yourself with people who love books and reading as much as you do is just another deadly strain of booksing.

Karnad contends that booksing "often celebrates books through their most cosmetic aspects." He criticizes, among many things, "the over-scrutiny of cover design, the fetishization of typefaces, the reading of writing about reading and writing." He warns of "an epidemic of Tumblr pages that you can broadly call 'Hemingway, Typewriter,' in which famous authors are seen doing things." He scolds us for the "veneration of the collection, the shelf, the bargain bin, the discount haul, and other forms of textual abundance (or, as we know too well, unread accumulation)."

Well, I'm part of that problem, too. Every day I scout the Web wilderness for items that might be included in our Book Candy section of Shelf Awareness for Readers. As unofficial Booksing Editor, I find stuff like amazing book spaces, unusual book products, even surgically carved book sculptures. And if booksing is really a bad drug for a terminal malady, then beware the recent escalation of Pinterest, which is essentially a booksing doctor writing prescriptions on demand.

Karnad seems particularly miffed about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which recently won an Oscar in the best animated short category. He observed that you can leave it "feeling that both the film and the Academy's tribute are hollow and, all the more for their loveliness, self-defeating. I'd call them 'booksy.' " The Joy of Books video, which currently has three million views on YouTube, is also cited as symptomatic of the decline and fall.

"The joy of reading is harder to access than The Joy of Reading video," Karnad wrote. "I'm as vulnerable to this as anybody. Yet when booksiness gets a big plug from the Academy Awards, it leaves me feeling suspicious and sad and mad, because it looks like a worthless welfare check from a healthy creative form to one that's thought to be moribund. If reading is indeed about to die, then booksing is a good sign of its dropping pulse. If we stopped booksing instead, we'd have one less distraction."

Stop booksing? Never! In fact, I just saw a photo of this amazing "library loft" I want to share with you. And now I'll go back to reading my new favorite book--Geoff Dyer's Zona, an intriguing exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, which ends with a striking shot of a girl reading in a room filled with books. Wait a second. Is that too booksy as well?--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1699.