Gemini Ink, San Antonio’s center for the literary arts, launched its inaugural Writers Conference July 21–34 at the historic El Tropicano Riverwalk Hotel. The conference, whose focus was the state of the book, created a space for more than 170 writers and readers at all levels to engage in a dynamic, multicultural conversation with authors from around the country.
Attendees could take workshops with five master writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; choose from twenty-seven panels; browse a small press book fair; and attend evening readings and after-parties. The rich array of panels addressed everything from trade paperbacks and e-books to the genre-bending world of contemporary nonfiction and the cutting edge of LGBTQ literature.
The conference kicked off Thursday evening with a reception at El Tropicano featuring a performance by San Antonio spoken word poet Rooster Martinez. Friday’s keynote address by Tom Payton, director of Trinity University Press, laid the groundwork for a stimulating discussion on what the book is and might become.
Gemini Ink was thrilled to host visiting writers Tim Seibles, the new poet laureate of Virginia; Janet Kaplan, an award-winning New York poet; novelist and memoirist Reyna Grande, from Los Angeles; Tim Z. Hernandez, a performance poet and historical novelist; and John Phillip Santos, the first Mexican American Rhodes Scholar. Each writer taught a three-hour intensive workshop with practical advice and new sources of inspiration for writing.
Free evening events included readings by visiting and local authors and music with DJ Rynel on Friday at Viva Tacoland, an open-air lounge along the River Walk; and an author event Saturday evening with Rynel at the Southwest School of Art.
The conference had an inclusive, fun, creative, and relaxed vibe and offered a wonderful opportunity for writers to network, make new literary friends, and gain stimulating new ideas for their work. We’re excited to do it all over again next year.
Alexandra Vandekamp is a writer and the Creative Writing Classes Program Director of Gemini Ink.
I just returned from a seventeen-day trip to Alaska, the longest vacation I’ve taken in more than a decade. Throughout the trip I found myself reflecting about my life in the book business. Like many booksellers-turned-publishers, I have always believed passionately in the importance of books to culture, both broadly and personally.
One such reflection came to me as I hiked in Denali National Park. It took more than four hours to get close to Denali and view the 20,000-foot summit, which plays games with your mind and eyes. The glistening ice block set amid snowcapped, lush green mountains is a study in extreme contrast. When the winds from the west strike the ice, this highest point in North America jumps from sunlight into snow through clouds of its own making. In one turn it is gone, and in another it overwhelms. Seemingly close, you learn you are still ten miles away. Size and vastness quickly become relative ideas.
Later in the day, during a hike along the Savage River trail below the alpine trail I’d just climbed, I stopped by the water to take a break. To my right, seagulls, now hundreds of miles inland, sat on their eggs burrowed in a rocky sandbar. I wondered about their perilous nest placement in a river one rainstorm away from loss of life. But such storms are unusual at this time of year, and they know that.
To the left, on a sandbar thirty feet away, two young caribou with velvet antlers lazed, one asleep and the other looking intently downstream. The thirty-four-degree waters were ready for the king salmon to return, all framed by rocky mountains dotted with slow-moving white Dall sheep. Mesmerized by the water bouncing off the rocks, I noticed a large bird soaring overhead, too fast for me to see what it was—a falcon, perhaps. I’m content not needing to know.
It was a perfect moment, one when I remembered that there are far more questions in life than answers. All was in balance in an otherwise out-of-balance world, one in which I was a visitor grateful for the invitation to intrude.
Shakespeare’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” entered my mind. “Thoughts finished when the time is right,” a writer friend once told me on a backpacking trip in Ireland. This sentiment explained why she felt it necessary to remove herself from the modern world occasionally.
I later read about the history of the name Denali, about the Athabaskan native peoples and their beliefs and traditions and the subsequent American colonization and ironic politicization of the name Mount McKinley. I found myself thinking about history, place, and time and how relative they are. Of course, Denali is the right name—and McKinley clearly isn’t—but either way the place is so much larger than human labels and their often silly manipulations.
The advent of mass-produced books and the subsequent five-century extension of literacy to those beyond the elite led to a larger awareness of our world. The ability to learn about other cultures is a blessing, but like all knowledge the real power is in how we embrace it, what we learn from it, and what we do with it. Some in political circles these days like to characterize these discussions as elitist, but an understanding of the written word is core to our survival. I’m proud that I’ve made my career in the tribe of those who exalt books: writing and reading are sacred and powerful.
During the trip a tour guide entertained us with the names of landscape features and the legends behind them. Later I had an opportunity to tell him about TU Press’s book Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez, and it turned out that he loves Lopez’s work. I’ll send him a copy knowing it will guide him to new stories to share on his tours.
As I sat by the river that day, I felt a bit guilty. Was I right to be here simply because I could? How does our increasing human presence in places like this change them? For me to be allowed this intrusion into this place means that anyone and everyone should have the same opportunity. Despite the fact that modern travel and disposable income allow some to go almost anywhere, should we? These questions frame so much of the ecotourism and adventure travel debate.
Books share stories that are lessons for the future or bring a place or a moment to life for many who will never be able to experience them in person. The written word does this with depth and meaning like no other medium. Just like the river did for me that day, books remind us that there are more questions than answers and that there is always more to be learned or a different way to see things. This is a good thing.
As I write this, I see a news story online that a grizzly bear attacked a hiker just a few days ago in Denali on the alpine trail near where I was. The bear will be killed—as if it is the intruder—to give tourists and a headline-driven culture some false comfort.
I find it curious that the bear, for whatever reason, knew to attack and then walk away, leaving the human able to recover. I crave an essay by one of the many nature-philosopher writers I admire exploring animal instinct, knowing when to stop, and lessons we can learn from animals. I’m now reading Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. I think about the peoples who inhabited these places for eons and their respect for animals, and about how lives coexist within a place.
I’m fortunate to work with a group of colleagues who share my passion for books as armchair exploration—in every sense of the phrase—and as a vital tool for advancing knowledge and promoting debate. Understanding our relationship to place is critical in our increasingly homogeneous world. Time and again, books are the travel that takes us there.
I’m with Gregg Popovich. If I could choose to eat dinner with anyone it would be Timmy. That’s what Coach Popovich said in an interview, going on to describe Tim Duncan, as quoted by the San Antonio Current, as “the most real, consistent, true person I’ve ever met in my life.”
I confess, when I moved to San Antonio fourteen years ago, I didn’t know who the Spurs were. That changed so fast, and so wholeheartedly, that I almost experienced whiplash. Wow. I fell in love with basketball, but I fell in love with basketball because I fell in love with the Spurs. My conversion to utter Spurs devotion was so passionate that it was contagious. My husband—not previously a sports fan—caught it too.
And we loved Tim Duncan the best. Watching the games, we’d sit there chanting, “Give it to Timmy, give it to Timmy!” Whenever there was discussion in our house about who should cook or who should wash dishes, our familiar mantra was quoted: “Give it to Timmy!”
During games I watched Timmy closely. How could he do that inconceivable back dribble into the paint, turn, and shoot it off the glass for a basket? I may be making up words that have nothing to do with the moves, but I know “shoot it off the glass” is a phrase that’s pure poetry.
And yes, it’s corny, but I’m going to say it, because when you love someone, corniness doesn’t count: Tim Duncan was poetry in motion.
By the way, Pop, I’m available to join you and Timmy at Sandbar anytime. We’ll talk about books and wine, and maybe you can explain to me, after countless others have failed, what the f-- is a pick and roll?
After living in Southern California for nine years, I should be used to fire season—and the fact that there is something called fire season—but I’m not.
My wife and I moved to the Southland in late summer 2007, and within the month we saw some of the region’s most horrific firestorms consume vast stretches of chaparral-cloaked foothills, deep canyons filled with alder and oak and, at higher elevations, thick stands of pine and cedar.
From the Mexican border to the Santa Ynez Mountains east of Santa Barbara, wildlands—and more vividly, the many homes and trailers that had crowded into these spectacular terrains—went up in smoke. Journalists were not wrong to proclaim this a fire siege.
Dumbfounded, I began to write a series of essays about the tragic loss of life, the acrid air, and the bewildering sense that the world, and a lot of the neighborhoods my students came from, were on fire.
Many of these pieces appeared in On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and when the book entered its final stages of production, I was relieved. It almost seemed as if its publication would put an end to my having to confront such a disturbing subject, on the ground or in print.
And then the next fire season rolled around, and the one after that, and the one after that. With each wave of fire, nature burned through my wishful thinking and my writerly conceit that somehow I might have the last word.
The natural world’s capacity to dislodge us from our imagined safe havens—places material or intellectual—is one of the central themes of my new book, Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream. It’s no surprise that fire is one of its key subjects, but how we approach it as a biochemical fact, a political reality and a policymakers’ conundrum, matters a great deal.
“The West does not always flame out every summer; it just seems as if it does,” I write in the book’s introduction. “And not every fire is a smoke signal of distress, though many of them are. Picking through the region’s fiery terrain is a tricky business, then, as tricky as trying to extinguish a roaring blaze in the baked heat of August.”
Trying to capture fire’s complexity, its erratic movements as it chews through a forest and the public imagination, led me to write about some of the West’s most fearsome conflagrations.
The 2009 Station Fire roared through 250 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains, filling the Los Angeles basin with a thick shroud of smoke. Water-dumping helicopters and fire retardant–laden jets made sortie after sortie. Every day a massive pyrocumulus cloud absorbed the sky, an eerie sight; and every evening I was transfixed as politicians, pundits, and the public laid waste to the firefighting agencies’ strategies and tactics.
Bigger still was the 2011 Wallow Fire, which burned an astonishing 841 square miles in Arizona but nary a structure—a result of many people’s newfound appreciation for how to build defensible space in their homes and communities.
These large stories dovetailed with a much smaller one, the thirteen-acre Foothill Fire that in 2013 swept through the Bernard Field Station on the northern edge of the Claremont Colleges where I teach. The once-charred landscape is now a living lab for faculty and students to analyze how a coastal sagebrush ecosystem recovers.
These blazes, regardless of their size, had their origin in human action: an inattentive hiker let his campfire blow up into the Wallow, an arsonist ignited the Station, and chop-saw wielding water company workers sent a shower of sparks into the field station’s tinder-dry brush. Fire, in short, is mostly a people problem.
Yet each of these, and their many analogs over the past decade or so, has also been fueled by a climate-changed environment. Collectively they serve as a signal flare: the landscape is in distress, and our addiction to carbon has intensified its vulnerability.
Multiple reminders of our complicity erupted this June. The Fish and Reservoir fires in the San Gabriel Mountains sent a massive plume of smoke over eastern Los Angeles County and beyond; ashes swirled in the air like tiny snowflakes and covered our car. In the southern Sierra the Erskine Fire—pushed by howling winds—raced across 36,000 acres in thirty hours, killing several people. Even the small Marina Fire in the eastern Sierra has much to tell us about fire’s regenerative processes.
Framing these fires is the news that more than 66 million trees are dead in California, a result of drought and wood-boring beetles. The significance of this data is hotly debated. Some believe the die-off will be responsible for catastrophic conflagrations; others, myself included, suggest that dead trees alone do not a catastrophe make. What is undeniable is that the story of fire in California and across the rest of the flammable West is unending.
My friend and I wandered through the main exhibit, taking in The Thinker, The Kiss, and various bronze busts. As we were leaving, a docent announced a short gallery tour beginning in five minutes. My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and decided to stay, and I’m so glad we did.
The docent explained Rodin’s creative process—how he asked his models to move freely so he could study their anatomy, facial expressions, and personality. Some of his subjects, especially the political figures and other notable people he portrayed, were uncomfortable with this scrutiny, but Rodin’s main objective was to convey his subjects’ character, and to do this he had to study them closely.
The docent identified the works that make up The Gates of Hell, Rodin’s seminal piece based on Dante’s Inferno, and explained how each work has added layers of meaning when it functions as part of the whole. She pointed out the seam lines where molds were joined to make the cast. Rodin purposely left these lines, along with thumbprints and other marks—usually viewed as flaws and eliminated during the sculpting process—to pay homage to the artistic process.
The hour-long crash course on Rodin gave me a deeper appreciation for his art in the same way that the AAUP community—full of people with similar challenges but different ways of approaching them—filled me with admiration for the book making process.
I steeped myself in engaging sessions that tackled the terminology of copyediting, manuscript preparation guidelines, the delicate art of acquisitions, and ushering a project through to publication. I participated in discussions about issues specific to university presses, such as fundraising strategies and the peer review process, with acquisitions editors, digital marketing specialists, consultants, designers, press directors, editorial assistants, and newcomers like me.
I was heartened by the common question threading these discussions: How will university presses incorporate changing technologies to publish relevant books—whatever form they take—that will continue to reach their intended audience? I’m encouraged that, as a whole, university presses are expanding traditional publishing models to incorporate delivering information in nontraditional formats. We’re all adapting our views of the industry to evolving modes of education and communication.
When we came to The Three Shades in the garden outside the Rodin Museum, the docent suggested that we walk around the sculpture slowly. “Notice what is the same and different about each figure,” she said. “Notice how your perspective influences your perception.”
No matter how much you enjoy the work you do, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutia of daily tasks. My time in Philadelphia and at the AAUP conference allowed me to take a short walk around university publishing from different perspectives. I returned to Trinity University Press with a deeper appreciation and renewed enthusiasm for the work we do—both process and product.