I am not a poet, though some of my prose has aspirations. However, if writing is about invention–and re-invention–maybe my prose knows something I don’t.

How glorious to reinvent ourselves through our writing, over and over, on the page (or screen). I do find invention the most exciting part of being a fiction writer, blogger, and even a marketing professional–well, second only to the excitement of connecting with likeminded creative folks.

And so, I was in literary heaven at Lit Youngstown’s fifth annual Fall Literary Festival, held on the campus of Youngtown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. (Heaven is in Ohio? Yes, yes it is.)

Remember in-person literary events? I’d almost forgotten that some of my favorite writerly faces can been seen in the literary wild, outside of their confining Zoom boxes. For those of you readers who’ve been around these blog parts for a while, this festival gave the pleasure of meeting several of my Rust Belt interviewees in person for the first time: memoirist and poet Robert Miltner, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and novelist Margo Orlando Littell. Also, in small-literary-world news, a writer friend I made while attending a writing retreat in Virginia in the spring made it to the fall conference (hi, Rebe!).

So, what exactly goes down at a literary festival? The “gathering in” night at a downtown art studio included a cookie table, a local tradition. And, not only did I cookie, but I also put on my brave writer pants and read a short piece at the open mic (following maybe some of my best advice for speaking–or singing–in public).

The first full day of the festival, I moderated a craft session on writing memoir; attended a panel discussion on rewriting women into history (take that Jack London–just trust me); attended a poetry discussion on transforming grief into a gift; and took an epistolary poetry workshop. Yes, me, the non-poet. At the risk of total embarrassment, here’s my epistolary poem from the class:

Dear Son,
A hotel bed big enough for the four of us, but it sleeps only me. I could say I wish you were here,
but Youngstown, this place I only discovered when I was no longer young, feels like mine
alone. Here, the people talk like me, the nasal accent that cuts through a crowd. You will love
a campus like this someday, a place that will watch you become a stronger you, tempered
like the steel of this place. Your Youngstown might be Annapolis or College Park or Cambridge.
You know we can't afford the Ivies, right? Do your homework, get a good night's sleep, and know
I love you.
~Mom

One of the coolest aspects of having a literary festival on a college campus is the other arts to be found. A short walk took me to a university art museum that was featuring an installation by artist Diane Samuels. My photos don’t do her work justice, so you’re going to want to check out her site. Here, you see Moby Dick, Romeo and Juliet, and The Overstory–with every word of those texts hand-transcribed on various materials. The quilt-like pieces are gorgeous from afar or up close, where you can read every word.

From the art museum, we then had dinner–pierogi and halushki–at a local, historic stone church, where after, in the sanctuary we heard from a jazz trio before the evening’s creative readings. (See pics above.) From there, I followed the locals to a tiny jazz and blues club where we heard, you guessed it, live jazz and blues–some originals and some covers of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and other sing-alongable songs. And my weekend just kept getting more art-full.

The second day of the conference, I played hooky. It’s true. Rule-following me. Of course, before that I did my duty as part of the planning committee and worked at the book fair (which was a lot of fun!). I also took poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry workshop about writing from family history (one of her best tips: to avoid sentimentality, get very specific and use details sparingly); I’m still working on that poem. And later, I took a poetry workshop on the Golden Shovel form (news-to-me: it has nothing to do with a shovel shape). And then, I played hooky.

Book fair book haul: Don’t miss Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ latest book of poems, A More Perfect Union.

For the several years I’ve been attending this literary festival, everyone’s told me I must make it to the Butler Museum of American Art, a short walk from the conference venue. This time, a couple writer friends and I made it, took the tour, the whole thing. Reader, there was an Edward Hopper. I knew I was in the right place. (Pictured: Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, William Gropper’s Youngstown Strike, Henry Martin Gasser’s Intersection, Grant Wood’s In the Spring, a name-that-abstract piece I didn’t take a good enough picture of the id card, Peter Maier’s Horse-Power (Ben)–a floor-to-ceiling rendering of a Clydesdale painted on metal–and Alfred Leslie’s High Tea.)

After my fill of American art, I enjoyed dinner (Italian, if you’re keeping track) and literary conversation that alternately had me jotting notes (the TBR pile grows ever taller) and laughing. There again, my idea of heaven. To cap off the final evening of the festival: another reading (at another downtown art gallery), this time by Jan Beatty–raw, real, and revelational! I can’t wait to dive into this one, too.

Huge kudos to Lit Youngstown director Karen Schubert and outreach coordinator Cassandra Lawton, the board, and planning committee folks–for another successful literary festival. It felt like a miracle that was over too soon!

Have you ever been to a literary festival or conference? What were the highlights for you? Did you stay in your literary lane or reinvent yourself in a weekend? Do you enjoy creative readings? What makes a reading memorable for you?

I’ve been terrible about keeping in touch, but I hope you’ll check in here. What are you reading, writing? What authors have moved you, lately? Are you getting out to any in-person activities?

Hankering for Rust Belt author interviews, book reviews, and more? Check out my categories above. I hope you’ll follow me here, if you don’t already, so you never miss a (quite infrequent) post. Thanks! ~Rebecca

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21 thoughts on “Poet for a weekend, and other literary festival miracles

  1. Love it. Thank you for posting this! Sounds like you had a fantastic time! I would love to visit a literary festival. Haven’t made it to one yet. Will try and find one in London now that lockdown is over! I have started reading The New Nomads by Felix Marquardt. So far so good 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am thrilled about your book publishing news, and I look forward to getting my hands on it! Congrats! Your book reviews are always great–I’m so impressed with the range of stuff you read. Also, I would imagine it must be freeing after publishing your book to not always feel like you need to be reading comps. That’s where I am right now in my process.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say 🙂 I have had 39 sales in my 1st month which I think is pretty good for a self-published author and I can see it’s being read on Kindle Unlimited too. I do like variety in my reading, I read a lot of library books now so it depends what the library acquires! I’m working on my next book and it’s fun to be writing from scratch again rather than endless editing.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like so much fun! I have never been to a literary festival or writer’s workshop, at least not in person. Going to art museums and music outings, readings and dining out all sounds so incredible.

    I know what you mean about spending time reading comps. I’ve done a lot of that lately. I have a proposal out at a small press. If that goes nowhere, then back to the agent search!

    I’m trying to finish up the seemingly interminable Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser, and just starting The Forgotten Garden by Kate Norton.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was great fun. Thanks for reading my lowdown, Eilene! Some of the online literary conferences are great–but for me nothing’s better than in-person. Plus, it’s always a bit nostalgic to be on a college campus again.

      Oh, the endless comps reading. I’m crossing my fingers for your proposal. Don’t know if about the nonfiction agent search but it’s no bed of roses in my experience for fiction. I will likely be back in that fray before too long, too!

      I’ll have to look up your current reads–I don’t know them. I just finished Mary Jane, which was a comp but was such fun–and I listened to it in the car, one way to make the school commute bearable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Never been to a literally conference of festival but I am fascinated from the description you gave. My favorite part have been: those piece of art with whole books written between colors and that you had an Italian dinner 😉. I feel so ignorant but at the same time amused by the beauty of art in its multiple shapes

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was such fun to spend a weekend away being artsy, Silvia (and staying in a hotel room by myself wasn’t too shabby either! HGTV all the time!). The art installation was fascinating–gorgeous, floor-to-ceiling pieces with interesting literary representation. I always find that visual art inspires my writing. A good Italian meal can inspire me too, especially when I don’t have to cook it–ha! You are spot on–there is so much beauty in art of all shapes (even meatball-shaped!). Thank you for reading, my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My goodness, you’ve been productively busy, Rebecca! Good for you! I so enjoyed reading about the lit festival (your description made me feel as though I *did* go!). The writers look phenomenal—and the art! I, too, love Hopper and any museum that has him in their collections is on my A-list. I love going to lit gatherings, although I haven’t been to one is so, so long. But I always return home refreshed, reinvigorated and reinspired. I’m glad you got to go, participate, lead and just have a great time. And btw: I think you’re a wonderful poet! Loved your poem! 🌺

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had such fun, Deb! So much horizon-broadening in one weekend–and catching up and laughing, and seeing art in person. I really needed the connection after so much time siloed! Ha, thank you for the kudos on my maybe-poem. I never stray far from the prose poem form, but some day, perhaps! I appreciate you reading and commenting. I’m still basking in the post-festival glow, as you can tell.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You’re sooo lucky. This is the one big things I miss, as a reader and writer, living out of country — all those literary conferences and opportunities. Sounds like you made the most of it. Well done, xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish you’d been there with me! And some organizations do the online literary events pretty well–I know then you’re up in the middle of the night, right? But, there’s nothing better than in-person. I came home exhausted and with a doozy of a cold, but it was worth it. I hope you’re making time to get some writing in around the new job. I look forward to reading more from you soon! xoxo!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reading about your adventures makes me smile. I love that you did so much in such a short time. Congratulations! I loved your poem, too. I’ve never been to an event like that. But I have been to plenty of art installations when my daughter was at SAIC in Chicago. You’re right, photos are great for the memories, but in person can’t be beaten. Thank you for sharing your adventure with us!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome, sorry it takes me forever to get around to stopping by to check out your posts! We did have fun at the art events. They were also eye-opening as to how much Mr. and I didn’t know about art shows. I think we were on show to our daughter and her roommate. They watched our reactions to some of the installations. Enough said. Amen to many more in-person events!!

        Liked by 1 person

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