64º ~ overcast but not depressingly so, very little wind, pleasant temps extending our spring in a lovely way
Finally, a chance to catch up with you all about my adventures in poetry and fiction this past weekend. The offerings of the Arkansas Literary Festival this year were outstanding, and on Saturday, I felt like it was AWP with multiple offerings at each time, forcing me to make painful choices. The majority of the events were on Saturday, with a few on Thursday and Friday. The festival folks have played with the schedule a lot. They tried to make it longer, extending events through Sunday, but saw a major decline in attendance on Sunday. No schedule will every be perfect, and I did enjoy the buzz in the air on Saturday as folks milled about the River Market. (I didn't make it across the river to the NLR events.)
So, here's my rundown.
I was super excited to have our final Big Rock Reading Series event of the semester kick off the Arkansas Literary Festival. I think we made great partners, as we had new visitors to campus and our students each received a lit festival program so they could plan their escapades for the rest of the weekend. Many kudos to the lit fest organizers and volunteers, chief among them Brad Mooy who takes on the daunting task of planning and setting into motion this massive event.
Our event, Placed/Displaced, was in two parts, featuring John Bensko, Hope Coulter, Tyrone Jaeger, and Stephanie Vanderslice. The first part was a reading by the authors, and the second part was a panel discussion on the importance (or lack thereof) of place in 21st century literature. The readings knocked my socks off, as we had our first focused group of fiction writers (I confess, I'm heavy on the poets). Then, the discussion of place was spectacular. The panel talked about the way a transitory population adds a layer of complexity to place but doesn't necessarily take away from its importance. The authors also discussed the way certain places "imprint" on us, and those are the places that writers tend to obsess about and use the most in their works. Quite a few of my creative writing students remarked on Friday about how helpful the session was.
This was our first day time event for the series and I was nervous because at the end of the semester, instructors are reluctant to give up a class period for attendance. Luckily, my colleagues came through with shining colors in offering extra credit, so we had a great showing of students who weren't in class at that time. On our anonymous exit survey, I had to laugh when I came across a comment from a student who confessed he came for the extra credit only, "but was surprised how much [he] enjoyed the event." (Another convert to literature?) In addition to the folks from campus, I was delighted to meet a dozen folks from the community who had seen the announcement of the event in the lit festival program and made it a point to take some time out of a busy Thursday to attend.
I'm lucky to teach in the morning, so I was able to attend Good Fellows: Arkansas Arts Council fellowship winning poets Mary Angelino, J. Camp Brown, and Cynthia King. The Arkansas Arts Council is fabulous, and their individual artist awards in writing rotate genres each year. I believe this is the first year that the fellows read at the festival, and I hope they continue this partnership. As a previous winner of a fellowship, I was delighted to celebrate this year's crop and indulge in an hour of poetry on a Friday afternoon.
Frequent readers of the Kangaroo may recognize Angelino's name. She read at PTC, along with my colleague Angie Macri, and I posted video from that event. Again, she did not disappoint. Reading along with her were two other U of Arkansas poets. J. Camp Brown electrified the room with his mandolin poems and poems exploring race in the south. Then, Cindy King gave us a bit of placed/displaced by reading several Arkansas poems and then threw in a Jersey poem (land of her upbringing), along with a true Jersey accent. Wonderful all around.
Friday night I was supposed to attend the big party for the festival: Author! Author! but I was coming down with something and had to cancel to try and rest up for Saturday. I knew I was in trouble when I slept past 10 a.m. on Saturday. So bummed about all I missed Friday night and Saturday morning/noon. Next year, I will take better care!
The first panel I made it to was Ferocious Grace, featuring Greg Brownderville's poetry and Justin Torres' fiction. I vote this the BEST of SHOW! (Yes, it even topped the BRRS/ALF event.) While I'd seen Brownderville's poetry in journals, I had no exposure to Torres' work before this panel. These two writers are at the beginning of their careers (GB = two books, Deep Down in the Delta and Gust and JT = first book, We the Animals), and I predict they will both go on to huge success. The event began with Torres' reading from his incredibly poetic/lyrical novel, set in New York and featuring a trio of brothers growing up in a tumultuous, loving family with hints of darkness and danger interwined. Then, Brownderville read from Gust, his debut book of poetry. These are poems of Arkansas, poems of tornadoes and Holy Rollers, poems that sometimes had us laughing and sometimes had us sighing with insight. Brownderville's other book, Down in the Delta, is a beautiful collection of folktales and prose poems. The folktales come from three years of collecting on Brownderville's part as he scoured the Arkansas delta (the flat, cotton-growing, Eastern part of the state that borders the Mississippi for those of you unawares). On top of the writing, the book contains incredible paintings by Billy Moore, and not just one or two. This book is art object and literature at once.
After the reading, the authors talked with the audience and we wound up talking about place again, with Brownderville firmly rooted in Arkansas and the south, while Torres is the 21st century wanderer, taking in each place as he moves, holding on to what sticks, and letting go of the rest.
The second panel on Saturday that I attended was Queer for You, featuring Nickole Brown, Bryan Borland, and Ed Madden, all three poets from the south, all three involved in publishing in some way. This was a mixed panel that involved each of the writers talking about his/her work in publishing, along with reading from their own books. I liked the mix a lot, as the writers talked about building a leadership for LGBT work and we were able to celebrate their accomplishments. Then, their poems just knocked me out. I highly recommend the following: Sister by Nickole Brown, My Life as Adam by Bryan Borland, and Prodigal: Variations by Ed Madden.
Luckily, the festival organizers scheduled 30 minutes between events (much more forgiving than AWP's scant 15 minutes). I made it to my third event, Magazine, a panel hosted at the Oxford American and featuring editors Marc Smirnoff (OA), Heidi Julavits (The Believer), and Marco Roth (n+1). This was a lively discussion of starting a journal to fill a void, to respond to some current cultural stance not being countered or discussed. There was a lot of banter back and forth between the editors and one thing was clear, how much each of them believes in and cares about the current state of the literary arts, including literary criticism and global reporting.
Finally, I made it for one hour of Pub or Perish, the crowning glory of the lit festival, organized by the untiring David Koon. This is a tradition with the festival and a semi-open mic. A group of local, published authors are asked to participate and then, a week or so before the festival begins, Koon accepts other writers who want to read on a first-come, first-served basis. I do like this approach as each author knows how much time he/she has and the event keeps chugging forward without getting bogged down in some of the chaos that can ensue during an regular open mic. I have to tell you all, there was some remarkable talent there that night. I was sad when my body gave out and I had to head home before the last hour's line up.
Long story short: Way to Go, Arkansas Literary Festival! Can't wait for next year.