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Word is back – and back online!

October 11, 2021
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BLUE HILL – A highlight of the state’s literary calendar is back – and back online – for another year.

As pandemic concerns continue into the fall, organizers for Blue Hill’s beloved Word literary festival have decided that the annual event will return to the online format introduced last year. The festival's free events and paid workshops will be available via Zoom; the dates for the event are October 21-24.

Preregistration is required for all events. Details and registration links are at www.wordfestival.org.

While it’s a shame that lexophiles and literary lovers will once more have to wait to engage with one another in person, the show must go on. The truth is that there just aren’t that many events in our region that are fully devoted to the written word. And so, while it might not be ideal that Word has moved once more into the virtual realm, the event still presents a wealth of opportunities for people near and far to engage with some of the incredible talents that are participating this year.

Featured speakers will include novelist Susan Choi and journalist Bob Keyes. The event will also feature four notable poets, as well as some of the region's most popular food writers. In addition, Word also will offer local school visits by children's author/illustrator Russ Cox and children’s/young-adult author Anica Mrose Rissi.

The festival usually begins with the Word.Art session; this year is no different. On Thursday, Oct. 21, Word.Art will kick off with a documentary commissioned from Blue Hill filmmaker Matt Shaw with support from the Anahata Foundation. The film will feature “Close Apart,” a series that links poetry by Beatrix Gates of Brooksville with etchings by intaglio printmaker Tim Seabrook and painter Leslie Cummins of Blue Hill. The film will debut via Zoom on Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.; that screening will be followed by a brief discussion with the artists. These festival-commissioned works are an annual highlight of Word, so be sure to check this one out.

At 7 p.m. that same night, the festival will present Portland journalist Bob Keyes, author of “The Isolation Artist: Scandal, Deception, and the Last Days of Robert Indiana,” in conversation with Paul Sacaridiz, executive director of Deer Isle's Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. A longtime arts writer for the Portland Press Herald, Keyes gained access to key players in the life of the tortured millionaire artist, whose death on Vinalhaven in 2018 left behind a web of fraud accusations. His account offers an inside look into the life of an artist as well as the often-unscrupulous world of high-end art. Robert Indiana’s story is a complex and fascinating one; anyone with interest in the art world will find plenty to engage them in this conversation.

Susan Choi, author of the National Book Award-winning novel “Trust Exercise,” joins the fray at 7 p.m. on Oct. 22. She’ll be in conversation with Laura Miller, books and culture columnist for Slate and a Word committee member (Note: You’ll find a thoughtful Q&A with Laura Miller about Word and the processes behind it later in this piece.). Choi is the author of five novels for adults and one children's book. “Trust Exercise” is about a group of talented acting students and their charismatic teacher at a performing arts high school. It’s a wonderful look at the complicated relationships that can arise between students and teachers, as well as between students – particularly when success is built around the subjective valuation and judgment of creative endeavors.

On the morning of Oct. 23, we shift into the world of children’s books. Author/illustrator Russ Cox will offer a children's program, titled “Drawing on Your Imagination,” via Zoom at 10 a.m. Cox most recently was the illustrator for Lynn Plourde's "The Boy Whose Face Froze Like That" and Michele Kean's "Rio and Silas In Love." It’s an opportunity for youngsters to engage with someone who played a part in bringing some of their beloved works to life.

That evening's program will feature readings and discussion by four outstanding poets.

Former Maine poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum of Deer Isle is the author of five poetry collections, most recently "How to Start Over," a collection of blackout poems. For those who don’t know, a blackout poem is essentially an extant piece of text that is then selectively redacted – blacked out – to create a new poetic work.

Arisa White, who teaches English and creative writing at Colby College, is author of the poetic memoir "Who's Your Daddy" and co-editor of the anthology "Home is Where You Queer Your Heart."

Maya Williams, the Portland poet laureate, is a religious queer Black Mixed Race suicide survivor, most recently a finalist in the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance chapbook contest.

Tim Seibles, former poet laureate of Virginia and a professor at Old Dominion University, is the author of five poetry collections. One of them,"Fast Animal," was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. Seibles also will offer a poetry workshop, "Personas Are Us: Who Do You Think You're Talking To?"

(Let’s take a beat here, because it’s important to take a step back and recognize the staggering amount of poetic talent we’re talking about here. These are writers who are renowned in their fields, people who are among the best in the country at what they do. They are tremendously gifted creators – and we get to engage with them. Just wanted to remind you of the wonderful opportunity that Word and festivals like it offer to us.)

And lest we forget, there are other craft workshops available as well; the truth is that there’s a workshop for you no matter what sort of writer you consider yourself to be.

There’s a fiction workshop from Anica Mrose Rissi, titled “Where to Begin … and How to Continue.” Rissi is a native of Deer Isle and has written more than a dozen books for children and teen audiences; her most recent is the just-published “Hide and Don’t Seek,” a middle-grade collection of scary stories.

If flash fiction is more your speed (see what I did there?), you’re going to want to check out Lori Thatcher’s "Flash and Micro-Fiction: The Art of Brevity." Thatcher’s six-word-memoir was featured on the website of the noted SMITH Magazine; she has also published short fiction in multiple journals and is currently writing a chained flash-fiction novel.

If you’re leaning the nonfiction route and hope to bring your own personal story to life, author (and former poet laureate of Belfast) Elizabeth Garber is offering a memoir workshop. She is the author of "Implosion: Memoir of an Architect's Daughter" and four books of poetry; her new memoir is “Not As Lost As I Thought: The True Story of a Girl at Sea.”

Word’s food-writing panel – “Table to Desk: The Art of Writing about Food” – is set for the afternoon of Oct. 24. Featured panelists will be Brooke Dojny of Sedgwick, most recently the author of Chowderland; Barbara Damrosch, gardening writer and author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook;” and novelist and memoirist Deborah Joy Corey, founder of the Castine-based Blue Angel food program. Alicia Anstead, arts and culture reporter and editor of the national magazine Inside Arts, will moderate.

All told, it is another rich and lively assemblage of events for this year’s Word. By bringing together so many literary luminaries and inviting people to participate from near and far, the hardworking folks behind the scenes have once again done right by the written word. Events like this are what truly enrich the cultural fabric of our region, and while the organizers rightly hope to get back to in-person celebration in the future, we should also try to take advantage of the opportunity of circumstance. Think about it – engaging and experiencing all of this from the relative comfort of your home. Chances like this are rare ones – don’t let this one pass you by.

(For more information about Word or to register for workshops and/or other events, visit the festival website at www.woerdfestival.org or call (207) 374-5632.)

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A Q&A with Laura Miller

One of the joys of writing about Word is discovering just how many different people are committed to bringing the festival to life. There is always – and I do mean always –someone new to discuss the vagaries and intricacies of bringing Word to life. And there are a lot of moving parts – particularly when the circumstances necessitate a pivot to the online realm once again.

This time around, Laura Miller was the one who stepped up to answer my questions. Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate, as well as one of the members of the Word steering committee; she’ll be in conversation with Susan Choi as part of Word’s Friday night programming.

The Maine Edge: At what point was the decision made to go virtual for another year?

Laura Miller: Fairly late, in mid-August, and we tried to figure out a way to have some of the festival still be in person for a while, but the case count in the area kept climbing and we finally decided the safest thing was to take it entirely online. Like a lot of people, we went into the summer thinking that the pandemic was winding down, and realizing that it hasn’t yet has been disappointing.

TME: What were some of the lessons learned from last year’s experience that carried over to this year’s festival?

LM: While Word will always be an occasion to gather, and bring visitors to Blue Hill during the shoulder season, we did learn that some of most loyal local followers very much appreciate having virtual literary events during the rest of the year, particularly in the winter, and they’re so easy for us to do. We’ve had two book club meetings and two workshops so far, and plan to do more.

TME: What has the reaction to the pivot been as far as audiences/participation been? How well-received was last year’s festival? How did the switch impact overall attendance at panels/workshops/conversations?

LM: Our attendance has been about the same. For every person who really wants that face-to-face experience, there’s someone else who doesn’t want to have to put on shoes and go out of the house for it! We also had attendees from far out of the area, the state and even the country. (One person signed in from Britain!) But we are concerned that the people who most appreciate the festival because it gives them a chance to socialize with other readers and writers are really going to miss the in-person element. I know all of us on the committee do. 

TME: Obviously, an in-person event is preferred, but have there been any unanticipated benefits to doing a virtual festival?

LM: It’s definitely cheaper and easier logistically, since we don’t need to arrange travel and lodging for the visiting writers and we don’t need to plan festival meals. But one of the most interesting benefits came from our two headline events last year: Jonathan Lethem interviewed by Kate Christensen, and two Maine authors—Kerri Arsenault and Monica Wood—talking about growing up in the state, in the same general area around Rumford, in fact. These conversations felt much more intimate and convivial to the audience because they were happening “up close” instead of onstage. At one point, Jonathan’s dog Maisie jumped on his lap, and while it seems a little thing, readers seem to enjoy being present for those unscripted domestic moments with their favorite writers.

TME: Can you talk to me a little about some of the logistical challenges that come from doing Word virtually? And maybe how they differ from the challenges presented by a physical event?

LM: We didn’t have any major technical glitches last year, thankfully, but we only have one or two committee members who are savvy enough to fix one if it comes up! With our in-person events, we can spread ourselves thinner. With an online festival we do have to pare down our schedule so there aren’t overlapping events, or at least very few. Plus, in one of our book club discussions last year (during the off-season), we got Zoom bombed! A teenager in wrap-around shades logged on and played a loud feedback sound, and fortunately we had someone who knew how to boot him off the meeting and could do it quickly.

TME: Walk me through the process of how you brought the various guests into the fold. How do you go about recruiting authors for Word? Who/what is something to which you're particularly looking forward?

LM: One of our committee members is Caroline Bicks, who is the Stephen E. King Chair in Literature at UMaine. She organizes a lecture series there, and that has become one of the ways we hope to bring more authors from out of the area. UMaine is a little too far for our local attendees to travel to, but for the visiting writers, it’s a nice way to add another appearance to a different audience onto the same trip. That’s why we invited Susan Choi, although I am also a longtime fan of her work. With other authors we’ve invited in the past and who plan to visit in the future, we look for a Maine connection. Jonathan Lethem and Joe Hill live or have lived in Maine, for example. For our poetry night, we’re bringing together the poet laureate of Maine, Stuart Kestenbaum, with the former poet laureate of Virginia, Tim Seibles. We also aim for a good amount of diversity in our speakers and people with fairly new books out.

TME: Do you find that you’re getting the same level of support from the community despite the virtual setting?

LM: The audience seems to appreciate it just as much, but we very much miss having local business and institutions involved. Blue Hill has a gorgeous, welcoming public library, and we love having events there. The Congregational church provided us with a cozy hang-out in their basement so that visiting writers and our audience could mingle there between events and get a cup of tea or coffee. The poetry crawl used to feature readings in multiple locations around town, so people could stretch their legs and get better acquainted with local businesses. We brought children’s authors into area schools to give students the opportunity to be inspired by their creativity. It’s very important to us to feel that Word is part of the town of Blue Hill, and very frustrating that it has to happen in the ether for the time being.

TME: What are some of your feelings regarding the value of this event specifically and literary events in general?

LM: Reading is a solitary activity, which is something many of us like about it, but when you really love a book or a poem, you want to talk with someone else about it. When you want to improve your own writing, you need other people to give you feedback and advice. For a lot of bookish people, it can be difficult to find community with other readers and writers. Maybe they’re the only person in the family or friend group who loves this thing. There’s something so powerful, then, to rub shoulders with other readers and writers, just to be around people for whom the written word is so important and vital. It’s inspiring for aspiring writers to encounter authors who have realized that dream so it seems like less of a dream. It’s exciting to get to ask the author of a book you love that burning question! And last but not least, readers are always looking for tips on what to read next, and there’s nothing like a good literary festival to fill up your TBR (To Be Read) list with fresh titles.

TME: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about Word?

LM: One thing I do want to point out that’s special about Word among literary festivals, even much larger ones, is that we aim to commission one original work each year. Originally, we envisioned this as performances of some kind, such as the collaboration between local musician Paul Sullivan and poet Richard Blanco we staged in 2019. We have a play about Mary Ellen Chase, a collaboration with the local historical society and a local theater group, that we’ve been hoping to produce for over a year, but it will have to wait until theaters are safe again. This year, realizing that we also won’t be able to do our annual art exhibit, we hit upon the idea of having filmmaker and bookseller Matt Shaw collaborate with poet Beatrix Gates and printmaker Tim Seabrook, and the Anahata Foundation very generously agreed to fund that. We will miss being able to invite our community to a screening, but it’s great to be able to make the film available online.

Last modified on Tuesday, 12 October 2021 12:32

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