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When Talk Matters - Talking Publishing, Poetry and Diversity at Calabash 2018

Poets Jay Bernard, Malika Booker & Ishion Hutchinson talk writing the unwritten

Along with great readings, during the 2018 staging of The Calabash International Literary Festival, the black sands of Treasure beach was also home to great conversations on the main stage as well as in the dining room at Jakes where the Cafe Series continued. While the conversations took place separately, they created an interesting layered cake of ideas about taste, publishing, diversity and writing from and for the margins. 

A lot of those conversations centred on publishing taking the audience a least a little deeper beyond the veil. 

“It’s always wonderful to hear from people who give you the gift of books as publisher’ said Kwame Dawes, co-founder and programming director of the festival. Dawes was introducing the 2018 edition of ‘Reasonings’ between Paul Holdengraber of the New York Public Library and publisher Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Paul Holdengraber in conversation with publisher Jonathan Galassi

One of the most interesting elements of this conversation was the guarded dance between Holdengraber and Galassi as the former prodded and Galassi dodged the more pointed questions about dealing with writers or missing out on books that then become major works. 

And though the conversation, was missing those bits of information which would have made for more riveting listening, there was a lot of insight provided. One of them was the role of taste. 

“You can tell within a few lines of the book is right for you,” said Galassi. “It’s getting to yes that’s difficult.”

Galassi pointed out that a publisher is guided by personal taste as well as what kind of a mark the book can make in the culture.

“What drew me to publishing and what holds me are the writers. I think writers are the most courageous people,” Galassi said. He explained however that he grew up in an intellectual atmosphere that assumed publishing mattered, but this has changed. 

“Writing is being pushed aside by many other media,” he said, going on to note that many publishers are behaving as though that change is not happening. 

Interestingly, the second publisher in conversation at Calabash Lit Fest 2018, was one of those quite cognizant of the change and with a positive view of possibilities for the way forward.

Kwame Dawes introduces publisher Johnny Temple of Akashic Books

“I think the publishing industry needs to constantly reinvent itself. I think the publishing industry has failed to make books attractive to people other than those with degrees.” said Johnny Temple of Akashic Books. 

Temple remarked that despite changes, publishing remains the realm of the straight white man, as statement made even more interesting when allowed to brush up against  Galassi’s argument about taste. 

“Our industry has a long long way to go before it looks like our society,” Temple said. “It’s still a white person’s game.” 

To take his argument further, Temple pointed out that one of the problems with publishing is that it is intellectually incestuous being written by people with fancy degrees, for people with fancy degrees, talking to people with fancy degrees. 

“To me Calabash is the ultimate reverse gentrification of publishing,” Temple said. He remarked that this reverse gentrification where great books are created for numerous types of people not just intellectuals, is the key to its future.

Kevin Young poet and director of the Schomburg Center

The conversation between poet and New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Black Culture director Kevin Young brought into clear focus about ideas about Black writing and culture. The element that when unsaid, but was an important undercurrent to the conversation between these two powerful men in world of American literature, is the changes that become evident as the reigns of power diversity. 

In their engaging conversation, Young explained that at the Schomburg Center they are  as much about curating digital lives as much as they are about curating paper. He explained, that the insertion of black influence on digital culture, such as black twitter, is significant, and that is an important part of contemporary history.

Young, who is also the poetry editor at The New Yorker also spoke about what to look for when publishing poetry. 

“I think the Quality of poetry is that it can be instant or it can have a slow burn and if you only go for one you miss the punch,” Young said. 

The role of archives for writers was also explored. Poet Malika Booker noted that she finds research in archives useful to her process as she is drawn to the gaps in stories then create stories that fill those gaps. 

Booker, who had also read in the ‘Big Ooman Tings’ segment had read poems which reinterpreted the Bible placing iconic characters such as Lazarus into a Caribbean context. It was an intriguing reframing of the text. 

“I am missing from these archives which is what brought me there in the first place - to find myself,” said as he discusses the tension in using the archives to write the unwritten. He explained however, that there is a constant state of tension between the black writer and the archives. 

“I am writing with the hope that the poem that comes out is in opposition to the very material that I took it from,” Hucthinson said.

The 2018 Calabash Literary Festival took place June 1-3, 2018 at Jakes in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.