Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Meeting Women Power Brokers

Years ago, getting a new book into a bookstore was what all new authors obsessed over. In the Seventies, my friends and colleagues in the poetry community placed their books in favorite bookstores, usually the independents, by merely walking in and leaving a copy of their book on a prominent shelf where browsers were likely to see it. It was a tactic extrapolated from guerrilla theater. Imagine the surprise at the register, if a customer decided this leave-it-on-the-shelf-and-run book was what the buyer wanted.


Today, people are spending their reading time with TV, computers, and cell phones. They are buying books online if they buy them at all. Yet people are hungry for meaning in their lives and for community. So as an author, I am trying to reach out to other venues, besides bookstores, where people might congregate and also be interested in books.


Lately, dear friends in my swing dance community have taken me to some high-powered gatherings of executive women. On March 4, 2008, the Business and Professional Women’s Council of the National Museum of Women in the Arts presented Gloria Story Dittus with the 2008 Enterprising Woman of Washington award. My stalwart dance friend Victoria Porter invited me to the award ceremony held in the grand foyer of this grand museum of which I also happen to be a founding member. Here’s where you are invited to ask, “How come you haven’t sat down with the program director at this museum to discuss your book?” I’ll park that answer with my book trailer project and just say, I am not going to forget about this.

Gloria Dittus is one of those extraordinary women who knows how to make things happen and if I’m lucky and smart enough, maybe I can go beyond the handshake of congratulations I extended to her relative to her newly acquired award and her life accomplishments.
Left to right: Wilhelmina Cole Holladay NMWA Executive Committee Chair of the Board; Gloria Dittus; Susan Fisher Sterling, NMWA Director

Right now I am working on a lead given to me by a woman I met at this award ceremony regarding marketing my book to the Washington National Opera. This particular woman directed a gala for WNO and she suggested I speak with a woman in the WNO development office. So now I am following through on a ricocheting path between the WNO publicity and development offices. It might be a series of rabbit holes that yield no immediate benefits, but certainly people in that organization are getting familiar with my book because it promotes their general director Placido Domingo and their young artist program as well as giving accolades for the world premiere of Scott Wheeler’s opera Democracy: An American Comedy.


In December 2007, my dance friend Kate Perry took me to the annual tea of Executive Women in Government where I met many movers and shakers from the halls of Federal government. (Yes, I did reinforce who I was when I was introduced to various people by handing them my bookmark.) Federal government was the world I left when I got an early out from the U.S. Department of Agriculture so I could pursue my writing career full time. (After all, I was an undercover poet for those decades that I worked on public programs related to energy, labor, justice, and food.) At the EWG tea where 130 people were honoring the Newton Marasco Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing environmental education (this group gives an annual book award for authors who write about environmental stewardship for children and young adults), I was invited to be a speaker at
the EWG March 2008 Summit and Training Conference: Women’s Vision by Marylouise Uhlig, a supreme networker and the chairperson for this training conference.

I arrived on March 12 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (right across Lafayette Park from the White House) for the Women’s Vision conference on the heels of Michelle Rhee.

Rhee is the Chancellor of DC Public Schools who is daring to shake up the worst public school system in our country in order to establish significant improvements. I have been following the news about her actions with great interest because anything having to do with young people concerns me. The young are the future of this city, country, planet and they are why I carry torches for poetry and opera. So I was thrilled in this quiet moment at the registration table (everyone else had arrived much earlier) to shake the hand of Michelle Rhee, a rabble-rouser of the first degree. What she said in her speech to a conference of over 200 women is I don’t care if no one likes me—the children of Washington, DC need a better school system and I am going to make that happen.

Also on the speakers roster was Elaine Kamarck, author of The End of Government . . . As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work; former Marine Courtney Lynch, co-author of Leading From The Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women; Mary E. Peters, Secretary of Transportation; Michealene Cristini Risley, co-author of This Is Not The Life I Ordered" 50 Ways to Keep Your Head Above Water When Life Keeps Dragging You Down; EWG President Lynn Scarlett, Department of Interior Deputy Secretary; and political forecaster Amy Walter, editor in chief of The Hotline, the National Journal Group's online briefing on politics and policies. Everyone who came to conference was given a bag of books from some of these speakers.


Right now I’m reading Leading From The Front and thinking Wow! I never thought a military officer could ever get my attention and have a message of importance that would speak to me. I’m not saying if I could relive my life that I would join the Marines, an organization I heard about constantly from one of my favorite uncles, but I am inspired by what Courtney Lynch has accomplished as the result of her Marine Corps training. The only thing I regret about this bag of books was that not one of mine was keeping company in this impressive collection. Were the EWG volunteers afraid to ask me for copies of one of my books, thinking I would turn them down or did they think a whole book of poetry was a little too subversive for this group? While it is true I could not afford to give away The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas, I do have other books that I can donate to a worthy cause.

This leads me to: what was the poet’s role in this conference? I’m not entirely sure, but I think the purpose of me speaking was to provide a moment of inspiration, a moment to acknowledge the creative impulse in every woman sitting in that lively audience. So I delivered my Diana, the huntress poem that is part of my opera Gertrude Stein Invents a Jump Early On.


She was a flippy lady—
a real sixer in a deck
of nines. She knew
the handle from the muzzle,

the click of the cock
from the squeeze 

of the trigger.

She listened--

an authentic spoon tuner
in a forest of forks.

Her ear was better 

than a metal detector. 

Sharpened and juicier

than a blowgun, her mouth

tasted the purple plum. 

In short she had more

life in her than the entire

city of New York.

Then I read “Looking for Divine Transportation.”

After the reading, one woman I spoke with recited the lines of this poem to express how much she enjoyed hearing it. As a thank you gift from EWG, I received Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Talk about traveling in interconnected circles!

At the end of the day, I don’t know whom I have touched in a way that will move that person to remember what I said, much less make her or him take action to obtain a copy of any of my books. My business, the business of poetry, is akin to building stalactites. Yes, I’m exhilarated to speak to hundreds of people all at the same time at a conference where everyone seems to be on the same page and listening intently (and I am grateful to get such invitations), but I know it is one-on-one contact that makes the difference. Building those mineral deposits from the ceilings of limestone caves comes one drop of water at a time.

Thanks to Jeuli Barton, Kate Perry, EWG and the National Museum of Women in the Arts for photos seen in this post.