The venue: The Raven Lounge in Philadelphia, not far from Rittenhouse Square. A scene for unlikely juxtapositions: downstairs, you’ll find board games, and upstairs, a stripper pole. Strobe lights in the bathrooms. This bar earns bonus points for offering nightly drink discounts for teachers (“Teacher Appreciation: Show your Valid ID and get 50% off drinks!”). And on this hot mid-June evening, approximately 70 people have crammed into the dark second floor of the Raven Lounge to celebrate the publication of English teacher and poet Iain Haley Pollock’s first book of poetry, Spit Back a Boy, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. A local bookstore owner recently informed me that the average number of attendees at poetry readings in Philly—and perhaps across the country—falls between 3 and 10, so drawing this kind of crowd is a major feat. What follows is a series of photos from the book launch party.
I’ve been haunted for much of this month by a bird. Not a real bird, but an animal depicted in “The Documents of Spring,” a poem by Rick Barot that appears in the latest issue of The Asian American Literary Review, which is by far the fattest literary journal to have landed on my doorstep in the past year (RHINO is a close second).
It’s the cruellest month: lilacs, dead land, spring rain…you know how it goes. For several reasons this April has seemed particularly dismal to me, not in small part due to an car accident that occurred earlier, in March. There’s nothing like a face-to-face encounter with Death to make clear how little control we have over our lives, how powerless we are when it comes to protecting those we love and even those who are strangers to us. In this case, thankfully, everyone involved was physically okay after the collision (and I am, of course, deeply grateful for that), but grappling with the idea that we are ultimately helpless in the face of greater, uncontrollable forces launched me, for a good part of the spring, into a deep funk.
In just a couple of weeks, thousands from the literary world will descend upon hotels, bookstores, and eateries in Washington, D.C. for the annual conference of The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. For the uninitiated, the notion of navigating a crowd of 8000 writers, selecting from 350 concurrent sessions over the course of several days, and possibly riding in the conference elevator with one of 500 publishers is, well, more than a little daunting. Whether they create pure pleasure, complete agony, or something in between for those who attend, professional conferences of this magnitude warrant a user guide to put new attendees at ease. To help guide the conference neophytes among us, I’ve invited three friends to shed light on the panels, the people, and the parties: Geeta Kothari, Fiction Editor at The Kenyon Review and Writing Center Director and Senior Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh; Justin Bigos, a poet and alumni of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers; and Neela Banerjee, co-editor of Indivisible, journalist, and activist.