When I talk about my scholarship, I often say I focus on the conflicts within literary communities because I think those conflicts–what we say when we argue about poetry–teach us something about our values regarding poetry. I started my research by looking at two poetry communities that started in the 1970s: the Loft in Minneapolis and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. I wanted to know what their early major conflicts have to teach us in literary communities now, and this is the guiding direction of the book I’m working on.
But I rarely get a chance (at least in traditional scholarship forums) to say why questions of literary community concern me so. Over the last 15 years, I have had the great luck to be involved in a number of literary communities In job applications, I call this “experiential scholarship,” the learning I’ve gained by by participating in poetry communities. One of the most important things I’ve learned from my experience is how important literary communities are to the work of literature. The work that literary communities do, from putting on events, running workshops, providing space for informal and formal gatherings, and encouraging the writing, is vital.
I was thinking about all of this yesterday as I walked back to my car from The Letters Festival, an independent small press festival held in Atlanta. I met poets, fiction writers, teachers, journal and zine editors, publishers, and reading series organizers. I got to see folks such as Bruce Covey, Christeene Alcosiba, Adam Robinson, Laura Relyea, and CA Conrad again and meet the amazing organizers of the fest, Scott Daughtridge and Stephanie Dowda, as well as many other editors and organizers. The fest was held in Goodson Yard, a large and open re-purposed old brick factory building at the Goats Farm Arts Center. The book market part of the fest had about 25 tables circled around a seating area with a few couches, chairs and side tables. A room across the way held readings and workshops throughout the day.
It felt so familiar; it felt like the early years of the Twin Cities Book Festival, held for the first time in 2001 in the Open Book, a re-purposed old brick factory building in Minneapolis. Bookstores, presses, journals, and literary organizations staffed tables upstairs and down, many table occupants knew the people at the table across the way, and a friendly mixing of editors, readers, writers, and bookstore owners was the rule of the day. There was a spirit of “little fish can make a large school.” Most independent literary journals, presses, and organizations don’t have the budgets of mainstream or commercial presses, huge marketing departments, or the institutional heft of the universities in town. But together, they represented the wide liveliness, energy, and diversity that many in Minnesota and the region now look to the Twin Cities Book Festival (and its sponsor, Rain Taxi) to promote and support.
While the focus and reach of the fest has expanded somewhat (to include a Children’s area and other elements.), founder Eric Lorberer and the TCBF team have been very careful about how and when to grow; thus the TCBF has retained this lively spirit of independent camaraderie and a celebration of local and regional scenes as well as ties to national and international scenes.
I came to the Twin Cities to attend Hamline’s MFA Program and I was looking for literary community. Soon after I arrived, I met Eric and started to volunteer. I learned so much about poetry, about how literary communities and scenes work, and about small press publishing from being part of the Rain Taxi community and working events like the TCBF. I learned that while it’s possible to be a successful writer (whatever “success” means to you) without participating in literary communities, it’s usually a lot harder. As I said in my previous post, communities help train you into the work of being a writer, editor, or literary activist. An added benefit of the emphasis on small and local is the joyful welcome afforded to new members, not just because you pay your table fee, but because you show up and want to take part.
Since moving to Atlanta two years ago, I’ve been looking to get more involved in poetry communities, and I’m heartened by yesterday’s experience, the same joyful welcome (even during the short time I spent there). Though only in its second year, TLF has the potential to do for Atlanta what similar festivals and book fairs do for literary scenes in other cities. With a focus that’s emphatically different than commercially-sponsored book / arts / neighborhood festivals, events such as TLF celebrate small and independent presses, journals, and organizations and the local and regional scenes they emerge from. They encourage collaboration, cooperation, and invention: they develop ways to keep doing literature and community without a lot of resources. They welcome newcomers into the work.