Thursday, May 12, 2011

Newburyport Literary Festival Report 2011

How amazing is this—our little city of 17,000 people just had its sixth annual Newburyport Literary Festival. The choice of this year's honoree, Newburyport native and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, was occasioned by the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. This was the first year that I was not personally involved in any activity (no exhibits, no workshops, no planning meetings). I attended the opening and closing ceremonies, Dinner with the Authors, and four sessions during the day.

Compared to prior years and the pressure of installing exhibits (walls covered with student work at the Firehouse, hanging poetry strips from trees), I would describe it as a relaxing time except that my mind was so stimulated, relaxing is probably not the appropriate word. It reminds me that the world we live in is so rich with information that sometimes we just have to close our eyes and draw a deep breath.

I felt I was being ricocheted through time. Just before going I had finished reading The Party's Over by John Gruen about the New York art scene (not just visual art but music, theater, and writing) in the fifties and was getting ready to start on the new biography of the artist Lee Krasner. Opening night was a moving tribute to William Lloyd Garrison. Ellen Fitzpatrick who I feel I know from the The News Hour on PBS moderated a discussion between Lois Brown of Mt. Holyoke and Kate Clifford-Larson of Simmons College. From their years of research into Garrison and his time, they painted a moving portrait of a courageous, resolute, and warm man. Suddenly I had left New York in the fifties and was back in the nineteenth century with a list of books to read if I wanted to visit there for longer.

On Saturday, the main day of the festival, I started the morning with a talk by John Hanson Mitchell who I know from his work as editor of the Mass Audubon's newsletter The Sanctuary and his book, Ceremonial Time. As he spoke about his most recent book, The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston, we journeyed from early geologic time to the Big Dig. I then went to a lively, funny, and inspiring talk and reading by Aine Greaney, author of Dance Lessons (present day and the 1950s in Ireland and the US). She spoke about the book, her writing process, and what it's like to be "lunatic editor" who obsesses over every particular of language but is guided mostly by the flow and music of the written word. Dance Lessons is in my book queue after I finish with Lee Krasner. Onto Rodman Philbrick, author of the YA novel Freak the Mighty, who spoke with self-deprecating humor and wit about his development as a writer from his teenage efforts and ambitions (He sent out short stories at an early age and when they weren't accepted, decided that what would really impress them was a novel) to his life as a prolific writer of mysteries and thrillers and books for young adults. He writes four books a year and still manages to spend a lot of afternoons fishing.

In the afternoon, I went to see Howard Frank Mosher whose topic was Transforming History Into Fiction: The Story of a Born Liar—A Slide Show Talk & Reading of Walking to Gatlinburg. I had never heard of the author but as I have been giving illustrated talks, I decided that seeing how someone else did it would be of interest. It was not what I expected but funny and an absolute delight. Mr. Mosher sported a red V-neck sweater and stood by an old slide projector on the stage of the Firehouse. The picture he projected was not that large, the photographs were not that easy to see (especially from my angle where he was often between the projector and the screen), but he was completely engaging as he started with a slide of the old vehicle that had taken him around the country on book tours and research trips—the "Loser Cruiser." What a storyteller!

The Festival closed with a further celebration of the causes of William Lloyd Garrison and included a polyphonic reading of poetry by members of the Pow Wow River Poets and a melopoeia (music and poetry and song) by poets Rhina Espaillat and Alfred Nicol, guitarist John Tavano, and soprano Ann Tucker and concluded with a reading of the Gettysburg Address by Newburyport elder statesman and man with an incredible voice—Josiah Welch.

And last of all, an invitation to next year's events which will honor poetry and music, but as always present a broad range of the literary arts.

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