Is there any moment more fulfilling and celebratory in a writer’s life than the book party? I have hosted one of my own, but have attended nearly a half-dozen and have found all of them superbly festive. I love that moment when a room full of family and friends raises their glasses in officious honor of a dear friend or relative having achieved the ultimate in creation, the birth of a vision into its final form. There is always a toast at a book party, sometimes ill-timed either too early or too late, yet wonderfully obligatory and replete with adoration and awe. It occurs to me that what this forum needs is a definitive list of “Book Party” Do’s & Don’ts.
Earlier this month, dead in the paperswirl of semester-ending tasks – grading my students’ final exams, poshing up some recommendations, preparing a clod’s worth of composition secrets to share with Bennington’s graduate students, shoveling snow clouds into a heap, and attending a near interminable dream of holiday parties, I was able to catch up and support long-time friends Prageeta Sharma and Tisa Bryant and strengthen an acquaintance with the poet Jack Wiler. Prageeta & Tisa both had book parties in Brooklyn on the same Friday night (that’s The BK for you) and the following Monday, I read with Jack at the Blacksmith House in Cambridge, co-hosted by Morgan Frank and Andrea Cohen, but not before having to drive back to Vermont Saturday evening, as Langston had a snowboarding accident that swelled part of his ankle and foot, having me think he experienced a fracture of some kind, but it turned out to be merely a mild sprain.
At a book party, the published author with wineglass or beer in hand, is understandably sheepish when greeting people at the door or in a courtyard, and almost always over thanks everyone for coming out. Finer book parties are catered events, but most are potluck affairs, well, at least those by the two-book or less crowd, who tend to be underpaid not having achieved literary fame or notoriety.
Some parties will have in attendance at least one well-known literary figure, most likely the author’s graduate school mentor; others will feature two or more accomplished writers, either the author’s friends who have blurbed the back of the book or jealous yet convivial nemeses who quietly reflect about the progress (or lack thereof) of their own projects.
And if one is within driving distance of NYC, one is likely to have not only members of one’s generation in attendance, but also editors and agents hawking the scene. These folk conjure up the best conversation (You must be proud of ________!) with the author’s family who often view such literary events as predictably pretentious and needlessly find those entrenched in the publishing world intimidating and unrelatable.
What was unanticipated and different about Prageeta Sharma’s party in celebration of the publication of her Infamous Landscapes (Fence: 2007), which had a blend of all of the above, was the presence of her former students from the New School. Ms. Sharma is now permanent faculty at the University of Montana. I spoke with some of them (and their partners) who were charming and very congratulatory of Prageeta. Other poets who were in attendance included: Gregory Pardlo, Christopher Stackhouse, Katy Lederer, Mark Bibbins, Sarah Gambito, Caitlin McDonnell, among others who had arrived and left before me to attend Tisa Bryant’s party.
Tisa’s party, held in her apartment, felt like an old school rent party and a booksigning, all at once. There was a room devoted to the signing of her book Unexplained Presence(Leon Works:2007), yet the front living room contained a lively, multiracial set of notable poets and writers of varying ages, backgrounds, and literary tastes including: David Henderson, Brenda Coultas, Tonya Foster, R. Erica Doyle, LeAnn Brown, and Julie Patton. Tisa’s kitchen seemed to brim with a host of family members and well-wishers who spilled out into a narrow hallway.
The rivers run deep with both Prageeta and Tisa, whose brother and I attended a certain university in Philadelphia, not to mention that she and I were both members of the Dark Room Collective. Prageeta and I were once room-mates in Providence, RI. Thusly, I was able to catch up with some old friends including playwright and composer Janice Lowe.
I met Jack Wiler three years ago at The Frost Place during its festival and conference. Just before our reading at the Blacksmith House, Jack & I had dinner with the poet Jeffrey Harrison. As always, Jack was affable and quick with that New Jersey working class wit. We discussed his health, the literary journal Long Shot Magazine (he once served on its editorial board), New Jersey poets, gentrified fears of city rodents and insects, as well as the ubiquitous and tired topic of academic poets (always a sticky subject for me). I read some new poems and was happy to have gone first before an audience of supportive friends, for Jack has a very distinctive delivery, part barroom performance, part standup, and part parlor recitation, but all of it, evocative, entertaining, and fun. He writes explicitly and engagingly about sex, politics, language, and city life. Here is a link (www.jackwiler.com) to his website where you can find more about him and order his book Fun Being Me(CavanKerry;2006).
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...