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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Bee-In: A Benefit for Literature -- and a Great Opportunity for Public Humiliation

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Jill Tracy attempts to spell.
  • Jill Tracy attempts to spell.
Fuchsia. Hullabaloo. Knickknack. Sassafras. Luff. Cannelloni. Naiad.

Naiad? Yes, naiad. According to, it can mean one of three things: "[A]ny of a class of nymphs presiding over rivers and springs; ... the juvenile form of the dragonfly; ... [or] a female swimmer, especially an expert one."

Not the easiest word to remember or to spell. That could be why it eliminated author Matt Stewart last night at the Bee-In, the annual fundraiser for Small Press Distribution at Crown Point Gallery. Among others competing were numerous authors, editors, and event producers (Charlie Jane Anders, Susie Bright, Cara Black, Bill Berkson) as well as the random musician (Jill Tracy), actor (Michael Gene Sullivan), and radio reporter (Laura Sydell). Hosting was the ever-lively Sedge Thomson of KALW-FM's West Coast Live. The judge was Geoffrey Nunberg, NPR commentator, UC Berkeley professor, and board member of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Kevin Killian and Sylvia Brownrigg share the title but will have to fight over who gets the bee.
  • Kevin Killian and Sylvia Brownrigg share the title but will have to fight over who gets the bee.
Small Press Distribution promoted the event as "an old-fashioned spelling bee but with alcohol, tasty nibbles, and more fun." Did the words get more difficult after "naiad"? Depends. Not if you ask 2009 Queen Bee Sylvia Brownrigg and 2010 King Bee Kevin Killian, who went back and forth for nearly 30 minutes, wrong only three times each. (When someone misspells a word, the remaining contestant has to spell it right in order to win.)

Volunteer Zack Haber said he'd "never seen something so epic it became boring ... and then epic again!"

Among the ones Brownrigg and Killian got right? Sacrilegious. Crustacean. Reveille. Pyrrhic. Vicissitudes. Pyx ("the container in the Christian church in which the blessed bread of the Eucharist is kept").

The ones that tripped them both? Eudaemonic. Smaragdine. ("How about I'll spell it and you give me the definition," Thomson joked.) Arythrocyte.

Next were stymie, gynecology, gingivitis, impresario, and logarithm. At that point, Small Press Distribution executive director Jeffrey Lependorf took over and said, "I'm declaring a tie!"

He reminded the audience that Small Press Distribution is the only nonprofit distributor of literature in the nation. Its warehouse is in Berkeley, and it's astounding. More than 500 small presses are represented, with more than 12,000 titles. Started in 1969, SPD adds about 1,000 titles per year. All are run in small batches like good wine or whiskey, potent and pure with distinction.

"The majority of our budget is, in fact, earned income from the books," said Lependorf. "But it's just not quite enough to fully support us all. We are in fact supporting a lot of books that are not commercially viable, even though they might be an important part of our culture. And that's why we exist."

May it continue to be so.

The clearly identified Charlie Jane Anders interacts with the bee.
  • The clearly identified Charlie Jane Anders interacts with the bee.
We leave it to you to look up some of the words above, and try to pronounce them. Or, check out Small Press Distribution's spring catalog and find your own new words that might trip up a novelist.
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