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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The “us” in “writing life”–yeah, let’s go with that

A few years ago, while organizing my computer desktop, I changed a folder name. I know, I know, riveting inciting action, right? But stick with me.

I changed the name of that folder from “PR”–forgive me, I’m a marketing professional–to “Writing in Community.” There was little in that folder at that point, but I was starting to get out there, as in sitting on a panel and doing a reading at a literary conference, and figured I should be organized about it. Out there meant knowing there is a public side to writing and publishing that this introvert would have to get used to.

That folder grew when a publishing opportunity turned into an editing opportunity, and I started working for a literary magazine–and working with dozens of writers, so far. For some, I interviewed them about their new books; for others, I served as book reviewer; and for still others, I helped hone essays that got their stories, you know, out there.

There are lots of platitudes like: the best gift to yourself is to give of yourself; there is no “us” without “u,” I don’t know. So, insert your favorite one here. We bloggers know that connection with community is everything; it just took me a while to think of the writing life–one that’s often depicted as solitary and broody–in just the same way.

And that “Writing in Community” folder keeps growing: writing groups and beta readers live in that folder, as do notes on classes, conferences, and group retreats (again, someday!)–a whole lot of writing “us.” Recently, I was asked if I wanted to serve on the planning committee for my favorite literary festival, and of course I said yes.

So, here’s where the magic happens, where our folders could hang out together. Even better, we could hang out together–do all the writerly stuff, like in actual person! It’s two days of readings, craft talks, and panel discussions. In other words: writerly nirvana!

Here’s the pitch: Are you–or do you know–a terrific writer, reader, teacher, lit community organizer, or publisher? Please help me spread this call for proposals for Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival, with the theme of “Our Shared Story,” to be held in Youngstown, Ohio, October 7 – 9, 2021. Simply share the link with your literary-type friends (on social media, over email, on your blog) anywhere in the vicinity of Youngstown–which is halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

One last thing: read carefully, my gracious, frequent followers, and note the visiting writers at this year’s conference. (You see what I mean about good things coming to those writers who commune!?)

Lit Youngstown’s 5th Annual Fall Literary Festival
October 7-9, 2021
Youngstown, Ohio
Conference Theme: “Our Shared Story”
Visiting Writers: Ross Gay, Jan Beatty, Bonnie Proudfoot & Mike Geither