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Connecting Literary Landscapes
|The Numbers Behind
the California Literary
Year the first
California Literary Roundtable
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participants last year.
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Rosalind Helfand, who cofounded the West Hollywood Book Fair and served as its director for a decade, is a regular at Poets & Writers’ California Literary Roundtable events. We asked her to describe the experience.
On a hot afternoon last summer I drove to Boyle Heights, a primarily Latino neighborhood out in sun-baked East L.A. I parked on a side street and walked to Libros Schmibros, a homey lending library and bookstore. Packed into a narrow gap between bookshelves were twenty members of L.A.’s literati. They had come for the Poets & Writers Los Angeles Literary Roundtable.
Folks shifted about and found me a chair as the store’s founder, David Kipen, the former literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, talked with great enthusiasm about plans to build a pop-up Libros Schmibros inside the Hammer Museum on the Westside of L.A. Scrunched in around me were people from all over the city. There were representatives from bookstores, literary nonprofits, small presses, poetry journals, festivals, foundations, reading series, and libraries. And there were writers. Excited, they leaned in to listen.
Since 2003 Cheryl Klein, director of Poets & Writers’ California office, has organized Literary Roundtables throughout California, with meetings in major cities as well as in small towns, where she says she experiences “the greatest hunger for more literary presence.” Klein describes the roundtable events as beacons “for idea- and collaboration-driven personalities.”
I attended my first roundtable event as the director of the West Hollywood Book Fair. I love engaging with such a large group of passionate literary leaders. Now I’ve become spoiled—Los Angeles is home to three Poets & Writers roundtable events each year. It’s necessary here. That meeting at Libros Schmibros offered just one snippet of what’s happening at one outpost in literary L.A. and who’s at the helm there. This city requires a little extra attention.
Teresa Carmody is the thoughtful codirector of Les Figues Press, a small L.A. publisher known for its experimental works. She’s also a roundtable participant. “It’s more accurate to talk about L.A.’s literary communities,” she says. “There are a lot of different scenes and points of engagement.” Diverse communities range across a vast landscape—it’s a common L.A. theme. Billy Mark, the comanager of The Last Bookstore (the focus of the city’s newest literary love affair), and a recent roundtable host, observes another L.A. truth: “There seems to be a yearning for a connection between the different communities.” The roundtable events are a potent response to that yearning. Through them, Poets & Writers embraces the literary communities and acknowledges the need to connect. At one roundtable, a guest speaker is followed by open discussion; at another the group covers a specific topic such as “small presses.” Always the ideas flow.
One autumn afternoon I drove to the tree-lined, predominantly African American South L.A. neighborhood of Leimert Park. We met at the World Stage, a nonprofit educational and performance arts gallery, to come up with answers to the following question: What does literature in Southern California need, apart from buckets of money dropping from the sky, and how can we address those needs? Twenty-four attendees split into small groups for avid discussion about solutions including a conference, literary exchanges, and advocacy groups. Action items were identified.
For Kipen, the roundtables open the door to new collaborations. “Poets & Writers fills a real void in L.A.,” he says. “I met Chris Heisen from Skylight Books and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and we’ve been in each other’s inbox for the first time.” He laughs. “It would be un-neighborly to not stay in touch.” At each roundtable event, I’m experiencing growing excitement about literature in L.A., and an energized “let’s do it now” desire to work together across genres and organizations. With Poets & Writers, connecting L.A.’s literary landscape is within reach.