Sitting at the UCA table in the AWP bookfair you can certainly feel the record size of the conference. The browsers came in waves yesterday, especially after 11:00 or so. Today the room(s) should be even more jammed, given that conference allows the general public to access the bookfair on the last day. Many people who came by our table were taken by the name of our journal, Toad Suck Review, and about hundred times over we had to explain that Toad Suck is not just a quirky title but a real place name in Central Arkansas, not far from where the journal is produced. And of course we recounted the story behind the place name. Centuries ago, ferry boat captains used to dock at that spot on the Arkansas river, head into the local bars, and then drink so much that "swelled up like toads," or in other words, they became "toad suck drunk." The story, apparently a true one, always gets a laugh and a smile, if not a sale. But sales aren't the only point of being here; national exposure is actually more important, especially now that the journal is affiliated with a brand new MFA program, a program that has not even assembled its first class of students. We're actually hoping that being here at AWP leads to more applicants for that first class.
While I did not attend any sessions yesterday, I did browse the other tables at the bookfair, just as I did on Thursday, and uncovered some sweet finds. One small press called Scout Books publishes pocket sized, hand illustrated versions of classic short stories like "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "To Build a Fire." I was excited to find them, since a former student of mine, Gus Carlson, is a superb illustrator and enjoys drawing pictures to accompany the stories he writes. He seems an ideal candidate to illustrate one of their later books. I told them this, and they seemed interested. (Now I have to tell Gus.) Some interesting finds also came to our table. One fellow was passing around postcards for a web site called Instafiction, which posts one link each day to a short story posted on line. It can be any kind of story anywhere on the net. Sounds like a fun idea, and possibly a way of giving my fiction writing students an eccentric, ever changing textbook. (I'm sure they'd appreciate the free price tag.) Later, a young, kind-looking middle eastern fellow came around asking if I knew of any international students who were good writers. Yes, in fact, I do, I said. Apparently, Notre Dame University is assembling a collection of stories written in English by foreign students, and after publishing this collection--I'm not even sure what that means exactly--they will host a reading on their campus. I mentioned that the student I had in mind was Russian. He seemed a little befuddled by this. He said that if he selected my Russian student's story he also have to find a Russian poet and songwriter and theatrical performer(s). It wasn't clear to me why one good short story wasn't enough for his venture, but the guy walked off before I could get a full explanation. Our neighbors in the bookfair room are from a New York journal called First Inkling. They are noteworthy on several counts. First, the journal only publishes student writing, be that graduate or undergraduate. Second, they actually pay money to their contributors. Third, they've got a great attitude. Students do a considerable amount of work for the journal. I mean real, experientially valuable work. They edit the content; they interview writers for profiles that the journal publishes; they write grants; they organize literary events. That's a magazine that respects the intelligence of its students--freshmen and sophomores in college, no less--and in return gets great work from them. If you're a student, sent First Inkling some fiction, nonfiction, or poetry to look at. If you're a teacher, spread the word.
After the bookfair ended, the second big business of the day started: a reception honoring our new MFA program and the release of Toad Suck Review #2. The event got off to a rough start when we arrived a half-hour ahead of time to find that the hotel staff had set up only three card tables, a modest serving of chips and dip, and a water cooler. We'd been telling everyone about this reception--and we'd been promising "food and drink." Apparently, the Hilton Chicago staff was merely following instructions given on the work order. So we flew into action, begging them for several more tables and chairs and for a cash bar. At first it appeared that no bartender would be available, but a manager appeared moments later to say that, yes, they did indeed have someone. Whew. A bar was wheeled a bit later, just in time for the start of the event. It all went off well, although my wife and I felt obliged to buy one round of drinks for the (21 or older) students to whom we'd promised food and drink. (Many thanks, by the way, to the Hilton Chicago staff for being so helpful and so patient with us. They were truly superb and truly professional.) A representative from AWP came around to the recepton, kindly welcoming our program to the organization; several friends of TSR wandered in, and finally, around 7:30 we began a short reading featuring five contributors to the journal. They all read exceptionally well and showed off the quality of issue #2. Afterwards, we invited some current and former students up to our suite where we caught up and shared UCA stories. It was a late, but wonderful evening.
Now it's off to day #3. One session looks promising, and will get me out of the bookfair for an hour or so: a session on the long poem. Since this semester I'm teaching a course on this form, I figure I better go and hear what is said about it.