In 2008, Laura Hope-Gill designed Asheville Wordfest to be a festival that welcomes people from all communities and strives to represent as many cultural contexts as its budget allows. Just how expansive that reach would be for its 2015 installment, however, came into question when, in the midst of the planning process, Wordfest lost its major funding.
“Any programmer in any field knows you have to be ready for anything,” Hope-Gill says. “Every year something happens that makes me think Wordfest can’t happen. Every year it happens, though.”
Key to that continuation are two generous private donors and the Amy Mandel and Katina Rodis Foundation for the Tzedek Social Justice Residency, which is underwriting readings by Arkansas poets Nickole Brown and Jessica Jacobs. While they will be joined by fellow poets such as Haiti’s Lenelle Moise and Ecuador’s Santiago Vizcaino, the festival’s focus has shifted to local presenters and an Asheville-centric theme, “The City Narrative/The Narrative City.”
The 2015 Wordfest takes place Friday, May 1, and Saturday, May 2, at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus, where Hope-Gill serves as the director of the institution’s Thomas Wolfe Center for Narrative. A poet and essayist herself, she sees narrative as a connective force across communities and this year’s theme as an expansion of what she lives for and loves — community, creativity and Asheville itself. “I’ve moved here four times, and I know everybody here has a story about Asheville. Here is an opportunity to hear and tell them,” she says.
Each presentation session will move between two to three poets and a “city narrator.” Andrea Clarke will narrate her photographs of the East End neighborhood prior to urban renewal. Novelists/journalists Dale Neal of the Asheville Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress’ own Alli Marshall will narrate their distinct Ashevilles, as will community-builder Lana Phillips and retired civic planner Dave Nutter. “I invited this group because they each fascinate me as community members, each generating energy and motion from their own place in town,” Hope-Gill says.
Between readings, participants will form groups and write together about life in Asheville, separately focusing on themes such as home, food, love, health, illness and adventure. Students of the Thomas Wolfe Center, along with some of the presenters and community members, will facilitate these narrative sessions — a new offering this year — removing pressure and stress to form a purely creative space. “Asheville is such an interactive city. We really aren’t the sit-back-and-be-talked-at kind of place. We enjoy that for a minute, but then we want to respond,” Hope-Gill says.
In choosing the sessions’ topics, Hope-Gill wanted to provide the broadest, most archetypal facets of life so that people will have plenty of room for inspiration. She then shared the topics with board members of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and they sent her emails with passages from Of Time and the River, You Can’t Go Home Again, Look Homeward Angel and the author’s short stories. “Wolfe wrote about every aspect of life. He gives health narrative, food narrative, race narrative, family narrative, sickness narrative. That’s why he’s my guy,” Hope-Gill says.
As for the potential of these nearly century-old writings sparking reflections on modern living, Hope-Gill notes that the author’s observations of Asheville from a century ago — including the locals’ dislike of tourists, the surplus of hotels and alcoholism — line up remarkably well with today’s issues and conversations. “Every page is like an echo of the present resounding from the past,” she says. “It’s important to talk to one another and listen to each of our own versions of the city as it was and as it is now. Story and transformation are very old friends. As Asheville transforms, it needs its stories.”
WHAT: Asheville Wordfest, ashevillewordfest.com
WHERE: Asheville Campus of Lenoir-Rhyne University, 36 Montford Ave.
WHEN: Friday, May 1, at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 2, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Full pass sliding scale of $5-25