As the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. When it comes to Asheville’s writers, poets and storytellers, absence can also make the heart grow ever more inquisitive, if not a tad bit anxious. “People were asking me, ‘When is it happening again?’” says Laura Hope-Gill, founder and organizer of Asheville Wordfest.
The questions began last year, following the festival’s hiatus. It was the first time the event hadn’t taken place since Hope-Gill launched it in 2007. A number of factors played into the decision, including the declining health and death of Hope-Gill’s father.
But come Tuesday, April 18, Asheville Wordfest — a series of readings, workshops and open mic sessions — returns. The six-day series will feature more than 25 local wordsmiths sharing their works at venues throughout downtown Asheville. Participating locations include the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, The BLOCK off Biltmore, aSHEville Women’s Museum and Hotel Indigo.
Hope-Gill considers the last decade a learning process, one that she has continued to build upon in order to make Asheville Wordfest what it is today. She notes that at its outset, the grant-funded festival focused primarily on recognized and celebrated names, such as Galway Kinnell, Li-Young Lee and Valzhyna Mort. “It was shiny and great, but it wasn’t a community festival, really,” she says.
But when the recession hit and funding dropped, Hope-Gill turned to homegrown talent and support. “I drew on community voices and unearthed intercommunity bridges,” she says. “Build up, not bring in — that’s the way. After 10 years, Wordfest has this reputation for being a place of diversity. We don’t have to fly in our multicultural lineup. We have it right here. Let’s listen to our stories. Let’s hear each other. That’s a community festival.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that national talent is prohibited from participating. This year’s festival will host two visiting writers. Minnesota-based poet and Poetry Slam champion Danny Solis will be among those reading Friday, April 21, at The BLOCK off Biltmore. Quraysh Ali Lansana, the director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Creative Writing and Poetry, will lead a workshop on Saturday, April 22, and give a public reading that night.
But mostly the festival will emphasize and celebrate local and regional talent. Among those involved in this year’s fest is poet and Asheville resident Elizabeth Meade. A first-time participant, she’ll read a series of poems at the aSHEville Women’s Museum on Wednesday, April 19, in an event including Jessica Jacobs, Nickole Brown, Jadwiga McKay and Lori Horvitz.Meade, who has cerebral palsy, says some of her work explores her disability. But most of her poems center on “being alive in the here and now and being human and examining what that’s like.” Issues of love, self-acceptance and curiosity are prominent in her writing. The latter, she notes, is of particular interest and importance. Poetry, says Meade, encourages her “to pay attention to the various things in my life that make my life rich. … That’s one of my favorite things about writing poetry — to be able to capture, or to try to capture the extraordinary.”
Meade is hopeful those who wouldn’t normally attend a poetry reading will consider giving Asheville Wordfest a chance. “I think there’s a misconception about poetry … that it’s this kind of lofty or superintellectual thing,” she says. In Meade’s opinion, readings are about gaining new perspectives and broadening one’s experience: “As far as we know, we only have one lifetime in this one body, and this one human experience, and you never know what you might gain from listening to other people.”
Another first-time participant at this year’s Asheville Wordfest is Appalachian State University history professor and eight-time Story Slam winner Ray Christian. The U.S. Army veteran will lead a workshop — “How to Write and Tell a Winning Five Minute Slam Story” — on Saturday, April 22, at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville campus. Later that evening, he will share a tale at The BLOCK off Biltmore.
In addition to being a regular at the Asheville Moth, Christian has toured with The Moth MainStage. His stories focus on a number of personal topics, including growing up in “a Southern ghetto in Richmond, Va.,” as well as his military service and his life in academics. These stories have landed him on stages across the country, including New York City, Detroit and Chicago. In October, Christian won the National Story Slam at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn.
Even with these experiences and accolades, Christian says he’s impressed with the caliber of storytelling found in Asheville. “It is as good or better than what I’ve seen nationwide,” he says. “Asheville is on fire.” It’s this level of talent, Christian adds, that will be on display at Asheville Wordfest: “You get a chance to see a little bit of everything.” From poetry to prose, traditional to the more contemporary storytelling, guests, says Christian, will get “a taste of the whole range.”
Like Meade, Christian views Wordfest as an opportunity for people to connect. “Everybody has a story,” he says. “Hearing people’s stories is understanding people. Come on out and understand somebody. It’s probably more important now than it ever has been.”
WHAT: Asheville Wordfest
WHERE: At numerous downtown locations. See avlwordfest.com for details
WHEN: Tuesday-Sunday, April 18-23. Advance tickets are $25 single-evening pass/$150 full-weekend pass/$35 workshop/$85 all-workshop button (not needed if you have full-weekend pass)/$15 “Honestly All I Can Do” pass. See avl.mx/3ko for full schedule