What was First Lady Laura Bush thinking back in January, inviting a pack of poets to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. while her husband was plotting a war? Poets — and most other writers with a political bent — are an outspoken bunch. They have stuff to say. That’s why they write — and why they appear in public to read what they write.
When Mrs. Bush learned that her invitees planned to read — shockingly enough — anti-war poetry, she canceled the event (which was to have been titled “American Voice” and to have celebrated, among others, Langston Hughes — the poetic voice of the early civil rights movement).
As Hughes well knew, and as Mrs. Bush learned, in times of conflict, writers and poets gain added relevance and feel a greater need to speak out. They are the voices of movements and of dissent. And while their discordant views may not be welcome in the current White House, they will be lauded at Western Carolina University’s first annual Spring Literary Festival, to be held on the WCU campus in Cullowee April 1-3.
“Universities,” says WCU writing professor and festival organizer Dr. Newton Smith, “are supposed to be controversial. That’s what we’re here for — creating a forum for presenting conflicting ideas.” Which is exactly what the festival’s lineup of literary pooh-bahs should provide.
Headlining the event are Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin and Native American author, screenwriter (Smoke Signals) and four-time World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bout champ Sherman Alexie. Both have been active in Poets Against the War, the movement that grew out of Mrs. Bush’s canceled “American Voice,” with Kumin contributing her grisly poem “Heaven as Anus” to the movement’s Web site (www.poetsagainstthewar.org), and Alexie speaking at anti-war rallies in Seattle.
But the festival, in the works for nearly a year, is not intended as a rally, protest or anything other than a chance for students and other Western North Carolina residents to, as Smith puts it, “see and meet living, breathing, practicing writers [who are] making a living at writing.”
During the event, these living, breathing scribes will give public readings of their works, participate in panel discussions, and conduct workshops for aspiring writers. That some of these people may be outspoken — especially at this particular time — is only to be expected.
“Of course there’s going to be controversy,” exclaims Smith. “Sherman Alexie throws bombs! … verbal bombs,” he clarifies. “Alexie gets people upset.”
He also makes them think — and laugh. In 1999, The New Yorker named him to its list of “20 Writers for the 21st Century.” Appearing at the festival as part of WCU’s long-running annual Lectures, Concerts and Exhibitions Series, Alexie will present his oration Killing Indians: Myths, Lies and Exaggerations on April 2. And while the lecture may be scripted, Smith anticipates a few surprises.
“We have no idea what this guy is going to do,” he says with some relish. As a former WCU writer-in-residence, award-winning North Carolina poet and festival participant Kathryn Stripling Byer may be a better known quantity on campus, but she’ll have plenty of new work to share, including her latest book, Catching Light — as well as a few opinions.
“I think we have this false idea that poets are in ivory towers, that they just write about flowers and birds and romantic topics,” says Byer. “But poets have always been politically involved. As a writer, I have to believe that words can affect people.”
And as a poet who was strongly influenced and encouraged by another poet at the outset of her career, Byer also believes in bringing together seasoned and aspiring writers.
“Many, many years ago, I entered a selection of poems — and they’re in my first book, called Search Party — in something called the Anne Sexton Poetry Awards,” Byer recalls. “Maxine [Kumin] was the judge, and she picked them for first prize.
“It was,” she reveals, “a huge thing in my life, because I was struggling to get published and just struggling generally to keep believing that I could do this. I wrote [Kumin] to thank her and mentioned how hard it was to get published and blah, blah, blah — the usual young writer’s lament. She wrote me back and said, ‘You have to be stubborn to make it as a poet.’ And I really needed to hear that.”
Other writers participating in the festival include Jennifer Brice, author of the nonfiction book The Last Settlers and recipient of a Jacob Javits Fellowship in the Humanities; Thorpe Moeckel, author of two books of poetry and winner of the Gerald Cable First Book Award; poet/essayist Maureen Ryan Griffin, author of When the Leaves are in the Water; fiction writer Pamela Duncan, author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award finalist; and novelist/poet Dawn Karima Pettigrew, WCU’s writer-in-residence.
Offered such a diverse assemblage of rising and respected writers, festival attendees can expect a fluid spectrum of poetry and prose, some good advice — and definitely more than a single “American Voice.”