A short line between different cultures

Opening conversations: Above, the Flying Words Project American Sign Language Duo performs at Wordfest 2010. Below, Wordfest co-founder Laura Hope-Gill. Photos by John Fletcher / courtesy Asheville Wordfest

What is home? Is it a place you belong because of the color of your skin, or the beliefs you hold dear?

Home is where the poetry is at this year’s Asheville Wordfest, a five-year-old celebration of the power of emotive words delivered passionately in spoken format. The free, five-day festival will let listeners partake of the words of more than three dozen poets in the heart of downtown.

Festival director Laura Hope-Gill, who describes poetry as “citizens’ journalism,” believes strongly in poetry’s ability to bring people together. “Poetry is a short line between different cultures,” she says. “It can heal the cultural divides that still plague our city. It opens conversations that we need to have.”

And there to spark those conversations are some big names in poetry.

LeAnne Howe, an enrolled citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is an award-winning writer and poet who recently returned from a year of living in the Middle East. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke has spoken at a United Nations indigenous peoples forum. 

Patricia Smith, a finalist for National Book Award, is a four-time national individual champion of the Poetry National Slam. Arthur Sze has written eight books of poetry. Matthew Shenoda is an Egyptian American who has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

“When I first started thinking about Shenoda, it was before Tahrir Square,” Hope-Gill says. Tahrir Square was the site of massive protests in Egypt. The unrest of the Arab Spring movement and the people fighting for their homeland helped her select “home” as the theme for this year’s festival.

The festival started one day as Hope-Gill and some other area poets — Jim Nave, Glenis Redmond and Jeff Davis — were talking about how vibrant the local poetry scene was in the 1990s. Most of it happened at the Green Door, a small, experimental listening room on Carolina Lane that helped launch the national careers of singer/songwriters David LaMotte and David Wilcox.

Hope-Gill followed by gathering the poets and others at her home. What came out of the evening, fueled by what she calls “poet food” (wine, cheese and grapes), was a 15-page plan for creating a poetry festival. The festival, all decided, should include community voices and multicultural voices. It should blend technology with the ancient poetic craft. It should honor the roots of creativity already here, from Native American life to the happenings at Black Mountain College.

The performance poetry movement was just gathering steam in the United States. But other than the Green Door, there weren’t any other places to see it in Asheville. The N.C. Humanities Council liked the festival plan enough to provide some financial backing.

Many people understand the value that poetry has in helping people express their emotions and deal with their lives. Poetry allows the writer and the reader to check in with themselves, Hope-Gill said. Dylan Thomas described poetry as lowering a bucket into the waters of the unconscious and seeing what it pulls up, she said. That thought delights her and describes perfectly the fear and excitement of the process and what it yields.

“We’ll discover that we are all feeling worn out, a bit hopeful, a bit afraid. That kind of mirroring is very healing,” she says. “That’s why people pay $75 an hour to sit with a therapist, so that someone can reflect back and validate what they are feeling.”

The festival is sponsored by Mad Hatters’ Review and is being put on in memory of the online journal’s founder, publisher and editor, the late Carol Novack.

Only one festival event costs money. “Fixing to Tell About Jack” is a Saturday afternoon fundraiser/storytelling session at the Altamont Theatre to raise money for a driveway for Rosa Hicks, the wife of the late, legendary Beech Mountain storyteller Ray Hicks, and Ted Hicks, their wheelchair-bound son.

Again, the event is about home.

“I don’t have any answers about home,” Hope-Gill says. “I hope that by the time the festival is over, I’ll have only more questions.”

— Paul Clark can be reached at paulgclark@charter.net.

what: Asheville Wordfest
where: Vanuatu Kava Bar, 15 Eagle St.; Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St.; Malaprop’s Bookstore, 55 Haywood St.
when: May 2-6. Full schedule at http://www.ashevillewordfest.com

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