CLMP’s 50th Anniversary Gala Retrospective, from a Spelling Savant

CLMP’s 50th Anniversary gala took place on November 8, 2017 at the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant in New York City. Ben Greenman, a CLMP Spelling Bee triple-crown holder, and the host of this year’s Spelling Bee part of the evening, wrote a recap of the event.

This year’s CLMP gala was a landmark event that celebrated the organization’s 50th anniversary. That meant that it also celebrated a half-century of evolution in the organization’s mission and identity that stretched from its initial founding in 1967 as the CCLM (Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines) through an expansion into the world of literary presses in 1989 (which was accompanied by a name change, to Council of Literary Magazines and Presses), right up through the present, where the name has shifted slightly yet again—this time to the current Community of Literary Magazines and Presses.

The organization’s silver anniversary program included opening remarks from Jeffrey Lependorf, CLMP’s executive director; reminiscences from the evening’s honorary co-chairs, Chase Twichell and Russell Banks (Banks was a member of the first board back in 1967), along with the co-chair Gerry Howard; awards of special merit given to Wave Press (publisher Charlie Wright accepted; poet Tyehimba Jess presented) and Tin House mastermind Rob Spillman (National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas presented); and the evening’s entertainment, CLMP’s annual Spelling Bee, where literary luminaries lexicographically lunge at one another for fun and profit. Pierogies were also served in abundance.

Or at least those are the paragraphs I would have written if I was a responsible journalist covering the event.

As it turned out, that was impossible. As the host of the Spelling Bee, I was making the news as much as I was covering it. That’s disqualifying for journalism but perfectly okay for a breezy blog post.

Tone switches here.

For the last decade-plus, the Spelling Bee has been a staple of the gala. It has traveled as the gala has moved from location to location. In the old days, when I was just a normal spelling contestant and hadn’t yet been promoted to host, we used to spell over at the Diane von Furstenberg studio space in the Meatpacking District. Then we went to the Standard Hotel, then to the 88 Palace Chinese restaurant under the Manhattan Bridge. This year was the first in the Ukrainian East Village.

Back when I was spelling, my main emotion going into the event most years was anxiety. Contestants pretend that a Spelling Bee doesn’t mean much. We’re all adults, right? But even if winning isn’t a big deal, losing is never a good feeling, especially when you’re losing at something that people believe is intimately connected to the business of writing. You could see it every year: literary giants, whether authors or editors or agents, falling under the wheel of a misspelled word and leaving the stage in frustration, fury, and self-recrimination. Sometimes they even scowled at Jesse Sheidlower, the longtime judge of the Bee. Since I’ve become the host of the event, the pressure on me has decreased greatly. All I have to do as host is make a bunch of jokes and eventually crown a winner.

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This year’s contestants included two past winners or co-winners, Meg Wolitzer and Mary Norris, along with Tracie Morris and Sara Nelson (a last-minute fill-in for Jonathan Burnham). Recapping Spelling Bees round by round is…what’s the word?…boring, so all I can really say is that “abat-jour” really had people back on their heels and “rococo” felled everyone except the eventual winner, Mary Norris. But remember: losing at a Spelling Bee isn’t the same as losing in life. In fact, participating in a Spelling Bee is itself a form of winning at life. Good job, winners!

I didn’t eat any pierogies, but people had happy expressions on their faces as they ate them.

For me, at least, the real highlights came before the Bee. It’s always affirming to see pioneers and pillars of the literary community acknowledged for years of hard work, and CLMP does a great job of recognizing the right people, as this year’s awards for Wave Press and Rob Spillman verified.  But at a time when writers are somewhat under siege—journalists, certainly, but also writers who try to see the world as it is, not as politicians wish for it to be seen—some of the most moving moments came during the remarks by the the honorary and current co-chairs. Gerry Howard introduced Chase Twichell and Russell Banks, and during his introduction emphasized the importance of literature that is not part of the corporate publishing structure, books that come in and out of print, books that represent departures or side projects for authors who are otherwise preoccupied with writing more commercially oriented work. And Twichell and Banks reflected on the writer’s role in fostering other talent (Twichell is herself the founder of a poetry press, Ausable Press) and CLMP’s long tradition of helping bring otherwise marginalized voices into the literary conversation (Banks discussed how he knew, even as a young author, that much of the real writing and criticism was happening not in the country’s publishing centers, but in smaller cities in Texas or New Mexico or North Carolina).

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All three of them have had longer careers than I have, but I felt the heart of their remarks. I have published with both big and small houses, and while I haven’t had any bad experiences at larger houses, it’s the smaller ones that really stick. You’re involved with every aspect of the process, from picking cover art to looking over designs. The concept of the overall project is often something strange and personal, a small idea that lives with the hope that it will leap up into something larger. When the book finally arrives, it doesn’t feel like you’re touching it for the first time. It feels like you’ve been touching it all along. In fact, the night of the gala was also the publication day for a book I recently wrote that followed this path exactly: Don Quixotic, a collection of bizarre, satirical micro-fictions about the 45th President of the United States. (I will not name him so as to spare people additional stress.) Copies of the book were there, as promotional material, but also as proof that the small-press model of publishing still works and will in fact always work.

Next year, we’ll do it again. We’ll eat some more food and give some more awards and get some more spellers onstage. But for now, CLMP can (and should) bask in the glow of their 50th anniversary. Good job, everyone.

CLMP will thank those who can contribute $150 or more this year-end with a copy of Don Quixotic. Celebrate small with us!

Gala photography courtesy of Peter Yuskauskas.