Poet for a weekend, and other literary festival miracles

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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Top 5 Things to Take from a Literary Conference (not just swag)

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Saturday, I attended Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference organized by literary magazine, Barrelhouse, chock full of practical lessons from published literary authors, editors, and publishers. Note: I said practical. (Leave your insta-agent-three-book-deal fantasies at the door.) Really, it was like transporting myself back to my MFA program for the day–complete with the insecurities and boxed wine! All right in my world.

  1. Advice: The first of three panels/workshops I attended featured a memoirist, a novelist, a nonfiction writer, and a poet who all engage with the past–and endure much historical research–for their writing. Some of the most helpful advice suggested writers utilize first-person accounts to better instruct our characters in how to engage with historical fact. There was also an interesting discussion exposing the differences between creative nonfiction and fiction when making meaning of historical events. In fiction, the research must become a part of the narrative arc; in nonfiction, the journey to understand can become another part of the story, a knew way of knowing.
  2. Beginnings: For my second session of the day, I attended a hands-on craft workshop on developing short story openings that grab a reader’s attention. Flash Fiction author, instructor, and editor Tommy Dean led us workshoppers using four prompts for four different story openings. All the prompts started with character/setting/conflict, then added another element to complicate the story start–like subverting the setting or flipping a normal, everyday activity. I am not a prompt person, relying instead on the ideas that fly at me and then stick–usually long about 4am–but even I came away with a few solid story starts, a real win.
  3. Connections: MFA programs are a wealth of information on the art and craft of writing. But then what? How do we get our work out there, and just where is there? Enter the literary journal editors with hands-on experience in the world of literary publishing for a 10-minute editing session, a la speed dating. I took a flash fiction piece of mine; however, I knew going in, I wanted to use that precious time to ask advice of the editor on the other side of the desk. My question was about chapbooks (short collections of poetry or stories). But the point is I used my 10 minutes to connect with someone I could learn from. Not to leave out my fellow conference attendees, time waiting in line for the editor session was a good chance to meet local writers (shout-out to Sonora!).
  4. Inspiration: With the growing popularity of spoken-word and oral storytelling heard on programs like The Moth Radio Hour, today’s creative writing readings are not the cure for insomnia they once were. The featured author readings at C&C did not disappoint. Going in, I knew of the work of only one of the authors, essayist Randon Billings Noble, who I connected with in an online critique group years ago (the writing world being both huge and small). I was delighted to be introduced to the poetry of Kyle Dargan and the fiction of Ivelisse Rodriguez and of Gabino Iglesias, who read their work with such passion–the highlight of my day and very inspiring.
  5. Books…and more books: Want to make an author (and their small press publisher) happy and earn your good literary citizen card? Buy the book. I came away with autographed copies of Billings Noble’s essay collection, Be With Me Always; Iglesias’ horror/crime novel Coyote Songs; Matthew Ferrance’s memoir, Appalachia North; and the poetry collection, Haint, from Cleveland native (yes, we are all over) Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who sat on the panel for the third of my three sessions, focused on publishing and offering great advice on connecting with the local literary community. (These last two authors, I plan to talk about more here on the blog!)

For writers across genres, and for bloggers alike–there’s a conference made for you. This one was a good fit for me, and I’ll be back next year.

Do you conference? What are your top tips? Have you read any of these books? How was your weekend? Comment below–I always love to hear from you… ~Rebecca

Aloud: Off the Page, Into the World

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In my next life, I will be an opera singer. This is not the first time I’ve made this declaration and it won’t be the last. (Mind you, the next-life gods need to suit me up with a better voice and the ability to read music, at the very least.) It’s not that I believe in next lives, but such a dream–belting out “o mio babbino caro” a la Maria Callas–is more of a this-life mantra. The hot stage lights, the costumes, the adulation–none of this is what appeals. It’s the voice. Our first instrument. When I tilt to strains of a violin, it’s because it reminds me of singing or crying, even keening. Same for the clarinet played in a minor key, like a folk singer’s lament.

Still, my voice is generally reserved for the rote songs of Mass, a little shower-singing, and belting out Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance…” with one of my boys. Fairly private venues; certainly not performance-grade.

As a young adult, I went from one silent art form–ballet–to the next–creative writing. We college-age fiction writers kept fairly quiet–our work was there on the page–until our monthly reading series held at a local art gallery, called Movable Feast (after Hemingway’s memoir and the relocatable series, which featured brie-and-crackers and grocery store sushi, when my friend and I were in charge of said feast).

My friend did–and does–write poetry, an art form more suited to recitation. Mic-ed, there were those poets at our Movable Feast, whose words took flight on the strains of their voices, some breathy and soft, some staccato and sharp, some exotically-accented. Sometimes, the words all but disappeared in the song of those poets’ voices.

Tone. Mood. Interesting language and turns of phrase. Even a surprise rhyme scheme. Moments. These are the elements that shine in recitation and are perhaps more dense and readily-found in poetry than fiction.

How to recite fiction? It’s not an easy task: Plotlines and plot points. Character names and descriptions. Landscapes. These details are easily lost to the ear when recited and best read on the page, in the quiet.

I know now that my success and failure (I don’t remember what I read aloud in grad school, and I’ll bet no one else does, either) when it comes to readings is less about my actual voice than choice.

My actual voice is not breathy and light; I cannot master the soothing monotone of an NPR announcer. My accent might grate on some more gentile listeners. Still, to read our work aloud is an exercise in performance we writers should seize–and so I do.

It’s been a year or so of finding my reading voice. There was the audio feature I recorded of my short story “Recruit,” for Flock literary journal. Then, I read a piece of flash fiction at a literary festival near where I grew up, where I felt at home, where everyone’s voices sounded something like mine. Most recently, I read at Little Patuxent Review‘s issue launch event from my short story, “While Our Grown Men Played.”

I had five minutes. Five minutes–to a fiction writer who trades in thousands of words on the page, sometimes daily. Five minutes for time and place and character and mood and theme and… voice.

As it was when I was a dancer on the stage, the during part is a blur. But I remember the after-the-reading discussions with several fellow readers at that issue launch, including local author and poet, Alan King. Thinking on it further, I have a few takeaways. Here are five ways to deliver a good reading:

  1. Forget the frame of a story; keep it short and tight.
  2. Pick a pivotal scene.
  3. Sensory description lets the audience in.
  4. Humor helps, when appropriate.
  5. Use your own voice (accent be damned).

I’m coming a little late to spoken word, poetry meant to be read aloud– performed really, rather than simply recited. But I think it has a lot to offer, not only in and of itself, but as inspiration for writing–and reading aloud–works of fiction or anything else. Check out spoken word artist “little pi,” who I met at the LPR issue launch event. And many thanks to Miami University Press in Oxford, Ohio, for introducing me to Janice A. Lowe, poet and composer of musical theater and opera(!), whose collection Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal, I’m currently devouring. People, I dare you to “unhear” such compelling voices, even if you only get to read them to yourself on the page.

Do you attend poetry, spoken word, or fiction readings? Listen to podcasts? Is there a poet or author whose voice speaks volumes to you? Have you read your own stories or poems aloud?