Last weekend I attended AWP, the huge publishing conference that happened to be held here in Philadelphia this year. I spent Saturday at the Microcosm Publishing booth talking to people and signing copies of my new book, The Kitchen Witch, which was a lovely and energizing experience, in large part because I haven’t done anything like this in … oh, just over two years now. Standing in the middle of the swirl of activity, talking to people about my work and theirs, I was reminded that—yes, I am a person in the world. I have things I want to share and say and do. And it felt really good.
We were busy at the booth all day, so I only got out from behind my own table to check out the others briefly. There sure were a lot of beautiful people with beautiful books. I was lucky to find three fine books of poetry, and it happens that two of them are quite musical—mixtapes of a kind, as the writer Simone Jacobson would have it. I was drawn to them immediately.
One of the books is called Starts Spinning by Douglas Kearney, put out by Rain Taxi, the literary book review journal. I didn’t know they published books and was tickled to see the wide range of sizes and styles on their table, which editor Eric Lorberer, who was there that day, told me was their goal: To make the appearance of each small volume representative of the poet’s work. Mission accomplished. Kearney’s book is small and pleasing to hold, about the size and shape of a CD. Each poem is “about” a song—specifically, the song’s crucial opening moments. There’s “Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jump in the Line’ (first 16 seconds)'” and “Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ (first 17 seconds)'” and “Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ (first 22 seconds).'” Get the picture? The poems, all of them evocative, are fun for the feeling of surprise they invoke, and each one is short and bright, sexy or triumphant or heavy-sad, depending, with wordplay as musical as the songs they commemorate.
Another happy discovery was Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston Brown, published by P.M. Press, who always have any number of titles that excite me. It happened that the poet was there at the booth that day, and he kindly signed my book and told me a bit about the poems. They’re about gentrification in D.C., where he’s from, they’re about characters from Toni Morrison’s Beloved—they’re about lots of things, and the book as a whole has such a lot of sweetness to it, even though some of its subjects are heavy. Brown riffs on romance, favorite songs and beloved poets. There’s even a poem about the nerdy pleasures of playing D&D (and being the only Black kid at the table). He celebrates a whole wide rainbow of blackness, and yes, he makes reference to MF Doom and J-Dilla and delivers a rollicking, loving tribute to Bonita Applebum, the (fictional??) sexy lady from the Tribe Called Quest song. In fact, there is enough variety and musicality here that Jacobson, who blurbed the book, compared it to a mixtape, which I find delightful.
For the title of this blog post I quoted the first poem in Brown’s book, the wonderfully titled “Hourglass Flow,” which starts out as a meditation on the difficulty of sitting down to write and winds up thusly:
“Remember the ritual of trying, falling, the get up and the dust off.
The look to see if anyone is watching. The startover. The hopeful ending.
Remember each day is a draft. Remember possibility. Process.
Remember place. Remember voice. Patience. Remember to forgive
I made a couple other exciting discoveries there in the Book Fair. One was BatCat Press, a table I was drawn to because the people sitting at it looked to me like sweet teenagers, and in fact they were! BatCat is a press run by high school students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School that puts out pristinely beautiful handbound volumes of both poetry and prose. I bought a hand-printed and -bound collection of poetry called “Lot for Sale. No pigs” by Sandy Green, which has a windowed cover and ornate end papers that remind me of Victorian wallpaper. On the BatCat website, the publisher explains the thinking behind the book’s elegant and clever design:
“The design reflects the same midwestern sensibilities found in the writing. With a window cut out in the cover, we get to peer into this woman’s life, her home, and the secrets that lie behind the what appears to be mundane and normal.”
I also spoke to the folks from the Writers Room, an organization local to me here in Philly that is run by Drexel University. All of their programming is free and open to anyone interested in participating, and the beautiful anthology they put out this year is also free. I took home a copy and have gotten a lot of pleasure out of reading the poems and learning about the community of people who worked together to coax them into being.
My favorite part? The portraits of Paul Robeson High School’s Class of 2021. These students, who were seniors during the worst part of the pandemic, missed out on most of the special things a graduating class gets to do, like prom and senior portraits. Photographer Danielle Morris created a photo studio in one of the school’s classrooms, and she and Dejah McIntosh, a 2019 alum, took photos that came out about 100 times more special than the typical cap and gown picture anyway. The project is called But We Keep Going. How perfect is that?