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AWP Report ii: Whalen on our pecs in the bureaucratic academy .. en vivo

Day 1 (of 3) of the AWP conference (how we got here).. March 7, 09:44 .. sitting here at our bookfair table reading The President in Her Towers by Tom Whalen, which was given to us by Eugene Lim, who is at another table upstairs (Ellipsis Press). Seems an appropriate enough book to be reading at AWP .. written from the p.o.v. of the personal assistant to a megalomaniac president of a university .. in an absurdly bureaucratic & sometimes magical tone reminiscent of Kafka or Terry Gilliam's Brazil .... so far, from what we can tell from the first few chapters. 

Tom Whalen: The President in Her Towers

The President in Her Towers by Tom Whalen

10:11 .. Memories of all the crap that rubs us the wrong away about AWP is starting to resurface .. all the academics, the smarmy marketing publicists & the self-promotional wanna-be writers .. these university people living in their ivory towers. Or the occasional small press peeps griping about how hard it is to eke out an existence .. how unfair it is .... some guy just came by wanting us to sign some petition to AWP to lower the price of a table (it's now $475) for independent presses. Call us apathetic .. but what's the point in complaining about it? Better to just let them have their AWP & focus on something else. But for now, the next 3 days, we are here.

The women president in Whalen's book embodies 'AWP' .. a nebulous bureaucratic & academic juggernaut. And we suppose the hen-pecked personal assistant, the protagonist, is represented by us small presses.

10:26 .. Guy comes by & says, «hey» (in that shmoozy tone), «what's Calamari Press all about»?  To which we look up & say, «uhh .. books? Books with language.» To which the wild & crazy guy knocks twice on the table, points his finger like a gun & says «good answer» .. & walks away ....

.... we don't mean to be ironic .. we thought about it for a second to think if we could come up with a better answer .. but it seems books full of language best encapsulates what Calamari is about.

10:38 .. Only two hours into the first morning & we're already jaded.

Whalen's language reflects the content of the book. In chapter 9, 'Language Difficulties,' Whalen says:

«Perhaps my translations are awry, the language of the bureaucracy impenetrable to a non-native speaker, the syntax a fortress within a labyrinth. By the time I've broken the syntactical code, the meaning of the words have flown through the window of its senses. The sentences of German bureaucracy are a ghetto of broken rooftops, a mouth with decaying teeth, a dry river bed where scorpions scurry between the cracks in the earth that flakes away like burnt paper.»

10:59 .. made the first sale .. an issue of Sleepingfish 8. The first of many people complaining about the price ($10) .. «don't you have discounted prices for AWP?» or «Do you have any cheap books?». To which we have to explain that we have to pay for this table & (believe it or not) it cost money to print the books, etc. Hard to compete with all these university presses that can give away their books & candy & gimmicky nick-knacks for free. We get so tired of even talking about it .. of justifying why our books aren't 'cheap' .. from now on when someone complains about how much something costs we'll just silently nod.

11:50 .. obviously we are no good at this .... suppose we should be doing some sort of dog & pony show when people step up to our table, like our neighboring tables do, giving the same spiel over & over .. but it's just not in our nature. Even making mindless small talk is a struggle. Not that we have anything against small talk .. sometimes the most revealing things are said.

12:07 .. Clay Banes just came by to say hello. Clay is the face to our distributor, Small Press Distribution .. though we're not sure we've ever met face to face. So now we have a real face to put to our face of SPD. A minute later we got an email from John Sakkis, also of SPD, ordering some books. He got stuck holding down the fort. Fired off the order from here .. to our printer Bookmobile, who we imagine are also here.

We suppose we should be taking photos of people & the tables .. but in case you didn't notice we rarely post photos of people here on 5cense. That's because we don't like having our photo taken, so we reciprocate the gesture (or lack thereof). And taking photos inside these things, of tables of books, always seems so .. what? .. a reminder of how stupid it all is. But here .. we'll take a photo of the ceiling for proof we are here.


13:00 .. Fortunately we don't have a lot of first-hand experience with the bureaucracy of academia .. though our better half gets her fill of it now as a professor at Columbia .. & we guess you could call the faculty housing we live in on the river an 'ivory tower'.

It's a strange & intriguing relationship that Whalen sets up in The President in Her Towers .. the dominant alpha female president & the obedient submissive beta male.

And speaking of submission .. funny how we 'submit' to magazines & presses. That's probably the most common question we get .. «are you open to submissions?» What sort of precedent does that send? We send stuff 'in submission' .. as if we are not worthy, showing our necks to the fierce wolfish editors. We feel strange sitting on this side of the table, the publisher side, with all these want-to-be writers wanting to 'submit' to us & us having to bare our teeth or take the aloof & haughty high road (though more often than not, in reality, we bite our tongue & are nice & polite).

view under table

view underneath our table

13:22 .. There's a certain reportorial quality to Whalen's writing we admire & aspire to in our own writing .. The President in Her Towers reads like a series of reports. It's strange (& admittedly distracting) to read whilst eavesdropping on the chatter on the bookfair floor. We just overheard the snippet: «there's a lot of bureaucracy being associated with a university.» The book & reality blending til were not sure what's what. And the book spirals increasingly into obfuscating feedback loops .. the writing of reports on Official Reports, etc .. reminded me some of our own A Mortal Affect by Vincent Standley (who is also here, though we haven't seen him yet).

14:23 .. two youngsters walk by & one of them says «hey, there's my favorite magazine Sleepingfish! .. they used to be cool but now they no longer exist.» To which we look up from our book, «actually .. we do still exist .. & are actually reading for our 10th anniversary issue.» To which the youngster says «oh, you're Derek White, you were like my friend on Facebook, but now you aren't any longer, so i like thought you weren't around anymore or went away somewhere or something.» Ironically, this is what has become of our world .. if you don't have an online presence you don't exist. If you don't socialize on virtual social networks then you are a sociopath.

14:38 .. Another thing we get a lot is «i like your covers» .. & sometimes we say «thanks, they're even better inside» but we felt like a schmuck when we say that. And then there's of course those who launch right into a rehearsed pitch without even asking whether you are even reading submissions or what type of stuff you are interested in. Sometimes we listen just for fun or because we are too polite to interrupt them .. it's interesting how listening in silence makes people more & more nervous .. some women was just telling us about a memoir she's writing about her brother who's dying of some rare cancer or something ... we didn't know what to say & she kept embarrassing herself further & further.

15:08 .. things picking up some. We continue typing this or reading when people step up to the table .. personally, we are more inclined to walk up to a bookmonger's table or into a store if the person working there is busy doing something .. then you can browse freely without having to articulate what it is you are looking for, or how they can 'help' you. Discover for yourself what the books are 'about' .. rather than have someone tell you. We doubt whether this is an effective sales strategy but that's okay .. the people that appreciate this tactic are the types of people that are probably more likely to appreciate these sorts of books.

17:21 .. battery is dying. Already charged it once on a nearby powerstrip. There's no windows in here so have no idea whether it's snowing or dark outside or what.

night view

view from hotel

March 8, 03:55 .. middle of night/morning, can't sleep. Snow is coming down outside. After the bookfair closed up, hopped the T to try to escape the giant mall that we seem to be trapped in. Surfaced at Haymarket & tried to figure out where we were in the blustery & blinding snow & after wandering around with our head down looked up & there was the sign for Ye Old Union Oyster House .. which strangely was where we wanted to go. We know Boston somewhat, having lived 45 minutes north of here in another life. Union Oyster is supposedly the oldest restaurant in America. Ordered some sort of mixed seafood thing that was so serious the waitress strapped a bib on us.

After that went across the street to the Bell In Hand Tavern & saw a bunch of people read: Pam Houston, Joseph Salvatore, Matthew Vollmer, Scott Cheshire, Christopher Kennedy, Sam Ligon, Lily Hoang, Carmen Gimenez-Smith, Robert Lopez & Aurelie Sheehan. It was billed as a East vs. West thing, but seemed most stories were about penises, or metaphors thereof .. by both the men & women. Or titties. Another about web cam sex. Seems writers these days write, or read (out loud, in public), to try to get laid. The penis is an interesting organ, sure, but can we move on from this infantile stage? Like most conventions in big hotels, we suspect there is more than just the swapping of ideas going on .. certainly there's a lot of swapping of spit & other liquids going on too. After all the mutual backrubbing the hands slip further down ....

Getting the T home was strange as a Bruins game had just gotten out & the T was packed. Their subway is already a joke enough as it is .. so small & rickety & toy-like (maybe that's what the T stands for?). Then pack all these huge white dudes with Bruins jerseys into it .. kind of scary, but we suppose it just depends on what you are used to .. we're not used to being around so many white people. Fortunately the Bruins won & everyone was in good spirits. Forgot how white & uniquely redneck/conservative Boston is .. maybe 'whitenecks' would be an appropriate term at least to capture the banker-type white collar people, but then there's the blue collar element mixed in which is what makes Boston Boston.


09:40  .. managed to fall back asleep then woke up too late to work out. So feel like a dog that hasn't been walked. Snow picked up overnight. Trudged down the elevators with the thousands of other book mongers, some haggard like us, others all sprightly like Annette Bening's character in American Beauty, chanting the mantra, «I will sell these books!» Grabbed some food to stake out for the next 10 hours.

Been hanging out with Jason of Sidebrow Press, who we just realized is right behind us .. sharing a table with Les Figures. Good to put a face to these people .. or maybe we've met these people before but it's always at these sorts of events .. briefly in passing. Other notable people we've either put or re-put a face to are Ryan Ridge & Joe Sacksteder, who we also hung out with at last night's reading. Also Joe Phillips of Black Widow Press, who also owns the bookstore in New Orleans where Michael Zell works that we visited last week. The Action Books/Tarpaulin Sky table is not too far from here so saw Xtian & the power couple Johannes & Joyelle. Other than that we're just cloistered over here in our corner, next to the Hobart gang, who fortunately have come equipped with two bottles of whiskey (they give out shots to people who buy books, which is an effetive tactic as you can imagine).

10:15 .. To finish our thoughts on the bureaucracy of academia, spurned by the reading of The President in the Towers, but also hard not to dwell on in such environs .. the good thing is that academia enables writers & literary types to do what they do .. but at the same time they are enabled much as you enable drug addicts .. academics & MFA types are not usually equipped to deal with reality. And AWP is the culmination of this .. a bureaucracy of hypocrisy. Anyway, it's not even interesting to complain about anymore.

11:18 .. Calamari Press authors in the house include Robert Lopez, J'Lyn Chapman & Vincent Standley. Others might be lingering but we haven't seen them yet. Someone just told us we look like Björn Borg .. & we aren't even wearing our sweatband that we normally sport (at least while exercising). So if you are looking for us, just look for Björn Borg.

12:40 .. been flipping through the latest Versal which we picked up at a nearby table. It seems conceptual is Versal's shtick .. not just conceptual texts (both prose & poetry) but some interesting conceptual photos scattered throughout. Like this one (by Hannah Cooke).


This is a photograph of:

«This is









of a GARDEN»

There's also another that we won't even bother to photograph, but it's a photo of a hardback book whose spine reads «A three dimensional drawing of the house I grew up in» which is also the title of the piece (by Freddy Tuppen).

3:56 .. things picking up some .. in spurts. Manning the table solo so haven't even had time to step away to check out other things.

9:52 .. sushi with V & S. After got lost in the giant mall complex.

At the end of the day it's the end of the day .. just though we'd say that for the sake of saying it.

  >> NEXT: AWP Report iii: the big bad wolf in the dog-eat-dog economy of words

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