Michelle Mruk

Every year, enclaves of my most book-obsessed friends travel to AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), the largest literary conference in North America. The conference pops up in a different city each time and this year that city is Portland! Hooray! All the book people are coming here!

The funny thing is, none of my book people are going to the actual AWP conference. Instead they’re all talking about a “shadow AWP” or—as it’s actually named—the No Fair/Fair, which is being organized by Octopus Books’ Zachary Schomburg and a team of literature-loving Portland-area volunteers.

Octopus Books is an esteemed local press, but Schomburg might be best known for his part in organizing a series of popular reading nights called Bad Blood, which petered out around 2013. The readings had a reputation for being fun and occasionally a little wild (like when 200 people would show up unexpectedly for a poetry reading). Schomburg says No Fair/Fair is already much bigger than anything he’s planned before. “Bigger than something I would be able to handle by myself,” he says. But he has a lot of help.

Schomburg says the phrase “shadow AWP” makes him think of an upstart, indie cosmetics fair. Surely that must exist, but it’s not what he’s throwing down. “Any time there’s an AWP—or any sort of conference that’s professional, academic, or corporate—small presses have thought about better ways of doing it,” he says. “It’s really difficult for a small, independently-funded press to succeed at a big place like AWP.”

He’s talking about cost (tables at AWP are $650) and scale (the conference puts its attendance at around 12,000). That’s a huge investment (“that could be half a small press’ operating budget for the year”) for an event where small presses hope, at best, to sell enough books to break even. So, since August, he’s been planning No Fair/Fair: a free book fair and literary festival happening in the same city as—and in the shadow of—AWP.

No Fair/Fair is not the first of its kind, but a link in a chain of alternative events existing in response to AWP. Schomburg says he took inspiration from a fair in Tampa—which hosted last year’s AWP—called Whale Prom. “They didn’t have a reading, but they had a book fair, and I invited some of the presses that were involved.” There’s a growing community of small presses organizing these renegade offshoots, which “recognize the need to put the poetry first and not the economy that makes it tick first.”

That economy is inescapable, though. It turns out half the presses at No Fair/Fair will also table at AWP, including Octopus. Schomburg’s press was gifted a booth through its connections to Fonograf Editions (a nonprofit poetry record label) and Lyceum Agency (a lecturer representation agency). Ultimately, if there’s a chance to get your books in front of 12,000 attendees, it’s a hard opportunity to pass up.

“It’s not that AWP is bad and we wanna fight it,” Schomburg says. “It’s just that the conference leaves a real gap for people that aren’t able to succeed there. We’re trying to fill that gap.”


“It’s not that AWP is bad and we wanna fight it,” Schomburg says. “It’s just that the conference leaves a real gap for people that aren’t able to succeed there. We’re trying to fill that gap.”


No Fair/Fair will have a book fair for two days and two readings on the Friday night in between, promising 10-minute sets from nearly 70 poets. Yes, it’s all poetry. Only inviting poetry presses helped with curation. There were a lot of presses the organizers wanted to invite. Also, when Schomburg describes how he hopes the night will go (“like a music festival, you can pick out which poet you want to be up front for. Just come and go”), it just sounds way more conducive to a bunch of poets. Poets almost always have a clear idea of how to read their work. Only a handful of prose authors do. And poems seem like they’d fit better into the short, 10-minute reading slots that demand a lot of stage presence.

It also seems more conducive to what I’ve always heard people really go to AWP for: the hanging out. “It’s always a little bit of listening to poetry and a lot talking about the poetry,” Schomburg says.

The readings will happen in two locations: the Bakery Building (also the location of the book fair) and Kate Bingaman-Burt’s Outlet PDX, approximately three blocks away. If the weather’s nice, Schomburg hopes to use the courtyard in Outlet’s building. “We want to open the garage door so it’ll feel like a concert—indoor stage and then outdoor standing audience. If it’s not raining, it should be pretty magical.”

“It’s not that AWP is bad and we wanna fight it,” he says. “It’s just that the conference leaves a real gap for people that aren’t able to succeed there. We’re trying to fill that gap.”