WASHINGTON, D.C. - In an underground art gallery a poet sings Sinéad O’Connor’s 1989 hit “Nothing Compares 2U” to a comfortably crowded audience; half stand, swaying, half sit on wooden benches. As her karaoke set comes to a close, applause and whistles reverberating off the graffitied tunnel walls, the flushed poet, Siel Ju, laughs with the singing crowd.
A book in hand, Ju gives a short disclaimer on the nature of her work and begins to read from her debut novel of short stories, “Cake Time.” The reading hits a chord with the audience of fellow writers, who laugh and cringe until the author bows and closes her book.
“Literaoke,” a combination of a literature reading and karaoke party, was a highlight event at this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair (AWPC), held in Washington, D.C.
The weekend-long AWPC hosted over 12,000 writers and editors, including those from College of the Atlantic’s student-run publication, Bateau Press. The Bateau team traveled to the conference to promote their recently published poetry chapbook, Not so dear Jenny, by Jennifer Tseng. The COA students, guided by Editor in Chief and COA writing professor Dan Mahoney, spent three days interacting with those from other presses on an editor-to-editor level, chatting about genre, their publication’s evolution, the difficulties of choosing submissions, and their own work.
“It’s been really nice to walk around and see the variety of presses,” said Cori Brabazon ’17 while taking in the Exhibition Hall. The largest hall at AWPC, it hosted tables from over 800 publications and organizations. Here, presses showed off their newly released novels, hand-sewn books of poetry, buttons, broadsides, and everything in between.
“It makes me really think about my taste,” said Brabazon. “I had this same feeling in the National Portrait Gallery yesterday. We got to the outsider art, the folk art, and I was like, ‘Yes! This is super weird and I love it.’ I feel the same way picking up a chap, literary magazine, or a novel, and being like ‘Yeah! This is what I feel like I can relate to.’”
“I really like translation,” said Gaia Lopez ’18, an editor for Bateau. “There are so many things you can talk about - what’s lost in the lines themselves, being so close to the work, and the context,” she said after attending a panel titled Translation As A Political Act. “To hear them take it from a political point of view was very interesting.”
Politically charged discussion permeated nearly every roundtable at this year’s AWPC. Attendees spoke openly about their thoughts on using language to heal, to create connection, and as a tool for political action.
“One translator, for example, was working with contemporary Cuban authors and trying to publish them in the U.S. to break that black-and-white perception of what is going on in Cuba - whether people adored the revolution or were absolutely against it,” said Lopez. “Bringing those writers into a U.S. context is important because it breaks that narrative of what Cuba is or can be.”
The author behind Bateau’s AWPC offering, Jennifer Tseng, explores a deep personal connection to translation in the poetry of her new book, “Not so dear Jenny.” She views her work, published through Bateau Press’ annual Boom chapbook contest, as a way to preserve letters sent by her father spanning a 30-year period.
“The documentary character of the work is clear in how Tseng performs the job of dutiful daughter cataloguing her father’s correspondence,” said Mahoney, Bateau Press editor-in-chief. “In responding to her father’s letters, Tseng locates herself, as daughter, and her voice, as poet. We, the readers, are witness to the reckoning.”
Though born in China and a native speaker of Mandarin, Tseng’s father wrote his letters to her in English. Her poems were created through ruminating on a single line of her father’s writing and creating a poem from listening to his words.
Mahoney and the Bateau team read Boom chapbook contest submissions and worked throughout the fall to select “Not so dear Jenny” as the 2016 winner, hand-stitching the print run and traveling to AWPC to sell, share, and explore.
After their weekend in D.C., Bateau editors are preparing to read and select submissions for Issue 6.2 of Bateau’s annual literary magazine. Looking even further ahead, editors are musing over the next year’s AWPC - deliberating whether they will travel by plane or attempt the 1,613-mile, 24-hour car ride to the conference site in Tampa, Florida.