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Word goes digital! Blue Hill-based literary festival returns in a new form

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BLUE HILL — In these trying times, many arts and cultural organizations are doing their best to find alternate paths forward.

Word, the annual Blue Hill literary arts festival, is no exception. This year, the festival is going online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. While festival organizers do say they will miss the chance to bring the various authors to Blue Hill in person, they’ve found that the switch to an online format has opened some new opportunities – opportunities that actually extend beyond the actual festival weekend.

The festival will be available on Zoom October 23-28. The plan is to stick to the annual tradition of three evenings of author conversations and poetry readings. However, this new format gives Word the chance to offer two-session workshops on weeknights in addition to the usual single-session weekend classes.

“This is a luxury the online format gives us and our authors, who will conduct workshops from home rather than traveling to Blue Hill,” Word organizer Sarah Pebworth said in a press release.

If this month's online sessions go well, she added, Word hopes to offer periodic Zoom readings and workshops over the winter, as well as a continuation of the Word Book Club that was introduced in June.

Workshop fees start at $25, and space is limited. Readings and evening conversations are free with attendance unlimited. Registration is required for all events and is available at www.wordfestival.org.

Word is funded by the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as other generous donors. Word’s fiscal sponsor is Blue Hill Community Development and its media partner is WERU-FM.

Here’s a look at some of what Word has to offer this year.

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Free programming

Novelist Jonathan Lethem, a festival supporter since he was its inaugural speaker in 2017, will kick off WordOnline at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 23. He’ll be in conversation with Portland novelist Kate Christensen. Lethem’s new novel, “The Arrest,” due out November 10, was inspired by many summers spent in East Blue Hill. A multiple award-winner, he is the author of 10 other novels and six short-story collections, as well as nonfiction books and essays. Christensen, winner of the 2008 Pen/Faulkner Award, is the author of seven novels and two memoirs about living (and cooking and eating) in Maine.

In addition, Lethem, who trained initially as an artist, has created a painting that will be raffled off to benefit Word. Lethem's artwork, created especially to support the festival, is an homage to a painting he bought at a yard sale that turned out to be by Paul Child, husband of Julia. Every $10 donation to Word wins the donor a ticket for the raffle, available on the Word website or when registering for an event.  

On Saturday evening, October 24 – also at 7 p.m. – Monica Wood and Kerri Arsenault will discuss their experiences writing memoirs about growing up in Mexico, Maine. Wood’s celebrated memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys,” won the May Sarton Award when it came out in 2012. Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” came out this September as one of LitHub’s “Most Anticipated Books of 2020” and was an IndieNext pick for the month.

(Note: Our review of “Mill Town” – as well as our interview with Kerri Arsenault – can be found on our website.)

In lieu of Word’s popular Poetry Crawl through Blue Hill businesses, four Maine poets will read via Zoom: Sudanese refugee and activist Ekhlas Ahmed, Portland Poet Laureate Linda Aldrich, Pushcart Prize-winner Colin Cheney and Deborah Cummins, the president of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance whose most recent collection, “Until They Catch Fire,” comes out in October. The readings will take place Sunday at 4 p.m.

In addition, this year will mark the inaugural Word.Hunt scavenger hunt in Blue Hill village. Word.Hunt players will be asked to solve a set of clues based on the work of local Maine artists and writers. Solving the clues requires locating specific words where they appear in various locations in Blue Hill’s town center.

The clues are currently available on the Word website; participants will have until the Sunday of the festival (October 25) to submit their answers. Anyone who submits a fully completed and correct answer sheet will be entered into a drawing for a Word tote bag and a Blue Hill Books gift certificate. One entry will be accepted per person.

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Workshops

Word will offer online workshops by John Cariani (playwriting), Gretchen Eberhart Cherington (memoir), Myronn Hardy (poetry) and Anica Mrose Rissi (young-adult/middle-grade fiction).

Anica Rissi's workshop, “From Spark to Flame: How to Grow Your Idea into a Compelling Middle Grade or Young Adult Novel,” is scheduled for Saturday, October 24, 10 a.m. to noon. The group will explore how to feed the spark of initial ideas and inspirations and grow them into layered, complex stories.

Rissi grew up in Deer Isle and spends part of the year there now. She is the author of more than a dozen books for kids and teens, including the Anna, Banana chapter books; “Love, Sophia on the Moon” and “Nobody Knows But You.” As a former book editor turned full-time writer, she has spoken with kids and adults across the country about all stages of the writing process.

Also on October 24, Myronn Hardy will offer “The Sonnet: A Contemporary Response” from 1 to 3 p.m. Starting with a time-honored traditional form, participants will experiment with their own innovations that speak to contemporary life real and imagined. 

Hardy, a faculty member at Bates College in Lewiston, is the author of four award-winning volumes of poetry as well as short stories that have garnered two Pushcart Prize nominations. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Annenberg Foundation, Djerassi, Cave Canem, Instituto Sacatar and Fundación Valparaiso.

The daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Richard Eberhart, Gretchen Eberhart Cherington will offer a two-part workshop on writing family-based memoir. The workshop's first session will be Sunday, October 25, 1-2:30 p.m., and the second will be Wednesday, October 28, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Appropriate for all levels, the workshop will cover key elements of contemporary personal or family memoir along with craft tips and techniques to guide or enhance participants’ own memoir writing.

Cherington’s memoir “Poetic License” focuses on life among her parents’ social circle of literary giants, exposing the difficult realities behind the myths. Her family spent summers on Cape Rosier.

Another two-part workshop, John Cariani's “How to Write a Play When You Don’t Want To (Or Feel Like You Can’t or Have No Idea How To Get Started)” will start Monday, October 26, and  conclude Tuesday, October 27, 7-8:30 p.m. on both nights.  Cariani has developed exercises to get writers “motivated, unblocked, unstuck, and inspired—exercises that will free you from your mind and help you connect to the ‘play’ part of the word ‘playwright.’”

An award-winning stage, film and television actor who grew up in Presque Isle, Cariani is the author of four popular plays. His debut play, “Almost Maine,” is one of the most frequently produced plays in the country. He recently adapted it into a children’s novel, published last spring.

Books by all speakers and workshop presenters are available for purchase in advance at Blue Hill Books (bluehillbooks.com).

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Q&A with Ellen Booream

We thought it might be interesting to hear from the festival’s organizers regarding the myriad changes that the current circumstances have made necessary. Ellen Booream was kind enough to take time to answer some of our questions via e-mail, sharing with us some thoughts about the process of pivoting to digital and what that means for a literary festival like Word, as well

At what point in the planning process did you decide that Word was going to happen virtually?

We were pretty sure last spring that we were going to have to go online, but we held on to hope until about mid-July. Then we started getting in touch with our workshop leaders to see who thought they could switch to a Zoom format.

What made you decide to push forward with the festival despite the current circumstances?

We want Word to be a regular October feature in people's lives, so it made no sense to completely skip a year. And we thought everyone would need a break from politics this close to the election!

What are some of the ways that the organizers had to adapt as far as planning is concerned?

Some of what we had planned simply wasn't going to work as well in a Zoom format. For example, we had planned to observe the Maine bicentennial with a locally written play based on the books of author Mary Ellen Chase, born in Blue Hill in 1887. This is a collaborative effort with New Surry Theatre and the Blue Hill Historical Society, funded by the Maine Bicentennial Commission. We reluctantly decided to postpone the production until October 2021.

We didn't want to give up on our tradition of sending Word authors into the schools, so we made arrangements for Zoom visits instead. John Cariani will talk with high school students, and children’s book author/illustrator Marty Kelley will visit Blue Hill Consolidated School and George Stevens Academy. Marty was originally scheduled to do a children's program on Saturday morning of the live festival, but we didn't think that would work via Zoom.

What are some of the obstacles that you had to overcome to pivot to a virtual event?

The challenges are pretty much technical, but fortunately we have teachers on our steering committee who by this time are well-versed in Zoom.

Any programming challenges you’d like to share? Any positive surprises or benefits that have come with the pivot?

We'd never considered offering online programming before this, but now we're thinking we may offer more of it even when COVID-19 is a bad memory. Last June, we experimented by offering an online book discussion of Susan Choi's “Trust Exercise,” which won the 2019 National Book Award. (We had been scheduled to collaborate with the University of Maine to bring Choi here as our Friday night speaker, but we and the university decided to postpone her trip until 2021.) The book discussion went very well, so we're thinking we'll do more of those, as well as offer an occasional Zoom workshop, especially in the depths of winter.

The advantage of going online, of course, is that listeners can join us who normally couldn't attend in person. But nothing beats a live appearance by a favorite author, and hobnobbing with authors over drinks or a meal is an important feature of Word that we'll be glad to get back to, even if we do add online events going forward.

What kind of impact do you think the switch will have on attendance? How would you gauge the level of interest you’ve seen thus far?

It's hard to predict. Workshop registration so far seems about normal for a week before the festival. We've never had to do advance registration for our free evening programs before—the reservations do seem to be flowing, but it's hard to tell if they'll reach our normal crowd size.

What has the support for the community been like for this year’s event?

We always have great support from the community and this year's no different. Blue Hill Books owner Samantha Haskell is on our steering committee, of course, so that's important. Blue Hill Public Library often partners with us on events, and this year they've invited us to come in and use their super-speedy internet for some events. Community radio station WERU-FM and our local weekly newspapers, The Weekly Packet and The Ellsworth American, have helped spread the word this year as they always do. As does The Maine Edge, of course!

Blue Hill Community Development is our fiscal sponsor, which gives us nonprofit status and enables us to apply for grants. We have funding from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation and the Maine Arts Commission, an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as donors from the community. We just got a lovely donation out of the blue from Seapoint Books in Brooklin, which will underwrite some of this year's programming.

One of Word's goals is to give Blue Hill's business district a burst of activity before winter sets in, which is why we always feature a "poetry crawl" through downtown retailers. We can't do that this year, but we're trying to keep the flag flying by sponsoring Word.Hunt, a literary scavenger hunt through town—the clues are on our website. The hunt will start the week before the festival, sending people looking for various book-related words on signs and plaques in the village area. Maybe they'll catch sight of something in a window they want to buy!

Tell me a little bit about your feelings with regard to the value of events such as this one – and the value of the written word in general.

Reading is fun and educational, but scientific studies have found that it is actually good for our physical brains—it fosters creative thinking, concentration and empathy, and has even been shown to reduce the effects of Alzheimer's Disease. Sitting quietly with a book (and no lighted screen!) relieves stress and expands our minds. But it's easy to be seduced by videos and social media. Festivals like Word – meeting authors, participating in discussions, practicing the craft of writing – foster a community of readers and writers and remind us why we love stories.

Last modified on Wednesday, 21 October 2020 10:53

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