Asheville Wordfest explores the relationships between science, art and environment

LAY OF THE LAND: Joy Harjo, the author of 10 books of poetry and a memoir, appears at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium on April 12, as part of the university’s Visiting Writer Series and its American Indian and Indigenous Studies Series. She’ll also read at Wordfest on April 14. “We’re starting to notice some differences in how people write closer to the ocean versus more prairie landscapes and so on,” she says. Photo courtesy of Harjo

Asked to name the most memorable event she’s witnessed at Asheville Wordfest, event founder and local poet Laura Hope-Gill recalls conversing in Spanish, English and American Sign Language with a group of poets in the lobby of the Hotel Indigo. An Irish poet spoke through a translator with a performer of ASL poetry and then began translating his conversation into Spanish for visiting writers from Chile and Venezuela; Hope-Gill joined in with ASL and English. “It is possible to not exclude anybody,” she says. “Every year the festival packs with people who care about the world.”

This year’s festival, the 10th since Hope-Gill launched Asheville Wordfest in 2007, will, like previous years, offer a globe-spanning lineup of writers and speakers. But the 2018 theme — “Earth, People and Words” — promises a deep dive into the connections between poetry and place, and an exploration of the ways science and art work together to deepen people’s understanding. Events take place Thursday, April 12, to Sunday, April 15, at UNC Asheville, Malaprop’s and the Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus.

Hope-Gill says science and art “are in constant conversation, but we may not notice it.” She describes how her stepfather, a biologist, worked to recognize and protect endangered species but was also a craftsman who sculpted and painted images of wildlife.

“When we view scientists as cold, rational beings and artists as out of touch with reality, we are following a lie,” says Hope-Gill. “Both are both.”

These connections between science and art and the intersection between place and poetry wind through all of this year’s presentations. Todd LaVasseur, a visiting professor of environmental and sustainability studies at the College of Charleston, will speak on Writing Through Collapse: The Power of Place and Insanity of Hope. Naturalist, explorer and poet Elizabeth Bradford will present Socializing the Nature Poem.

Joy Harjo, a celebrated Mvskoke Creek poet, writer and recording artist, will present twice: once on Thursday, in an event hosted by UNCA, and again on Saturday at Lenoir-Rhyne. Harjo’s poetry has earned praise from critics and won several major awards, including the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She will offer a unique perspective on the theme of place and poetry.

An Oklahoma native, Harjo recently took a position at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The position allowed her to become more familiar with the area from which white settlers and the U.S. government forced her ancestors — the ethnic cleansing that culminated with the Trail of Tears.

“These are our homelands: A lot of the words here are Mvskoke Creek, even for Cherokee places,” Harjo says. “And what’s really sad and obvious is that there are so few natives here in Knoxville. There are some native students, mostly from Cherokee, N.C., but we’re practically nonexistent here. And then the land’s absolutely stunning. That’s historical trauma, and it always lives with people.”

Despite such upheavals, Harjo’s work aims, in part, to remind readers that native people “are human beings and that the roots of this country, and what it means to be part of this country, all goes back to indigenous people.”

More broadly, Harjo sees her work fitting into this year’s Wordfest theme in its insistence on the connection between poetry and our natural surroundings. In one of her classes, for example, she’s had her students build an anthology by dividing poets into geographical groups. “We’re starting to notice some differences in how people write closer to the ocean versus more prairie landscapes and so on,” she says.

Harjo sees a similar current in her own writing — a recognition, she says, “that everything’s alive, and there’s energetic relationships that go on in how we speak and how we act in relation to our environment and each other.”

The festival will also feature many local writers, including poets Elizabeth Meade, Mildred Barya, Rachel Lee Campbell, Melody Henry and Devin Jones.

This year’s Wordfest will also feature three writers from Scotland. Activist and ecologist Alastair McIntosh will launch Poacher’s Pilgrimage, his travelogue of a hike through the Outer Hebrides, at Malaprop’s on Friday night. On Saturday, McIntosh will speak again about how the interplay of colonialism, capitalism and slavery on the Isle of Lewis may have shaped the character of Mary Anne MacLeod, and, through her, the character of her son, President Donald Trump.

Gaelic scholar and historian Michael Newton will address how early religions and their remnants in fairy lore shaped the culture of the Scottish Highlands. And Norman Bissell, director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, will present the festival keynote. On Sunday, Bissell will also lead a closing event in which participants will compose haiku on a short hike along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

WHAT: Asheville Wordfest
WHERE: UNC Asheville, Malaprop’s, Lenoir-Rhyne Graduate Center
WHEN: Thursday, April 12-Sunday, April 15. Full schedule at


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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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