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Word up! - Word. Literary Arts Festival hits Blue Hill for third year

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BLUE HILL – A celebration of the written word is set to mark its third year in Blue Hill.

The Word. Blue Hill Literary Arts Festival is taking place October 24-27 in venues around Blue Hill. There will be speakers and panels and workshops galore, all dedicated to the joy of words. There will also be a number of other events – poetry crawls and art installations and community dinners and more.

Every bit of it dedicated to a celebration of all things literary.

The event has seen a number of acclaimed authors and literary types come through over the past two years, but this year’s festival looks to be bigger than ever, with notables from all walks of writing life participating over the three days of Word.

Here’s a quick look at some of what we’re talking about:

There will be a number of conversations featuring literary types. Journalist Dave Cullen and local student organizer Abigail Jakub will be interviewed by Brook Ewing Minner. Novelists Joe Hill and Elizabeth Hand will chat, as will New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum and Blue Hill Books owner Samantha Haskell. In addition, there will be a panel on ethics in memoir courtesy of Maine Writers and Publishers Association, featuring Gibson Fay-Le Blanc, Elizabeth Garber, Linda Buckmaster and Jaed Coffin.

The New York Times children’s books editor Maria Russo will give a talk on “How to Raise a Reader”

As for workshops, well … wow. Music legend Noel Paul Stookey will offer one in songwriting and Richard Blanco – Obama inaugural poet - will offer one in poetry. Cynthia Thayer has a workshop on helping writers get unstuck, Elizabeth Minkel offers up something about writing fan fiction and Katherine Koch takes on memoir.

There are some all-ages workshops as well. Mia Bogyo will teach some bookmaking fundamentals, while Charlotte Agell (Catch an Idea) and Ellen Booraem (Lightning Round for Writers Young and Old) lead workshops that offer different forms of writing guidance.

The Poetry Crawl will feature former Maine Poet Laureate Betsy Sholl and fellow poets Sonja Johanson, Kifah Abdullah, Mark Statman, Marie Epply and Elizabeth Garber.

Plus, we have Word.Art, the annual show of word-related art at Winings Gallery. This year, the show features Mark Statman, Katherine Koch, Katy Helman, Kristy Cunnane and Buzz Masters.

All that, plus the festival will feature the debut of a new collaborative words-and-music performance piece courtesy of Paul Sullivan and the aforementioned Richard Blanco.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? That’s because it is; it’s an incredible amount of literary excitement to be packed into just three days, but there are a lot of people who work incredibly hard to make sure that it all comes to fruition.

One of those people is Sarah Pebworth, who is one of the festival’s founders and primary organizers. She took the time to speak to The Maine Edge about how Word. first came about, as well as what goes into maintaining and growing an event such as this. She also spoke to the importance of the written word and what it means to bring such a celebration to Blue Hill.

“I used to own the Blue Hill Inn in Blue Hill,” Pebworth said. “And as an innkeeper and business owner, the shoulder seasons were definitely a concern. Especially the fall, which is so beautiful along the coast; we wanted folks to be able to enjoy that. So what could we do in Blue Hill that would bring people?”

And an answer came, one informed by the long literary tradition in the area.

“And of course, Blue Hill has this great literary community. I mean our library is amazing, the Blue Hill Bookstore is amazing. Writers like Jonathan Lethem have summered here. Having E.B. White in the neighborhood for how long. So all of those things sort of came together; as a huge reader myself, it was obvious to think about bringing more readers in. I always liked to take writing workshops so I wondered if we could have writing workshops and one thing led to another and it all came together.” 

What came together was the first Word. festival in 2017. Of course, putting on any sort of event is difficult enough, but to figure out how to create one from the ground up on the fly is no easy feat. Luckily, Pebworth was able to enlist a collection of like-minded folks who were as passionate about words – and Word. – as she was.

“It has been maybe five to seven of us that have served as the core steering committee, as we call ourselves,” she said. “And in the beginning, it was just me asking around and talking to people who I thought were like-minded and might have a little bit of time - although of course it's the busiest people who most effective at getting things done.

“Ellen Boream is a young adult author and she is somebody who I had worked with back in the late ‘80s at a newspaper. And then Marie Epply is someone I knew from writing groups, she was an English teacher at local schools until she retired; she released a chapbook of poetry. Sam Haskell who recently purchased the Blue Hill Bookstore, she’s been on the committee since the beginning. We’ve partnered with a number of organizations in town as well.”

Having a trusted team of go-getters is obviously a boon to putting together an event like this. Still, the process of actually making things happen – organization and logistics and the like – can be tricky. However, you might be surprised at just how quickly Pebworth and the rest build the foundation of each incarnation of Word.

“Right now, we have to be so careful,” she said. “We do our best to have things hammered out in January or February, although there’s always someone who goes ‘What about so-and-so?’ and we all say in unison ‘Put it on the list for next year.’ Really, by January or February, our lineup is pretty well set. Of course, there are details to figure out and we might have a pie-in-the-sky wish that doesn’t come true, but then we go right to Plan B. It’s amazing, really; we just want to have everything set by then and we just wind up chasing down details.

“This year, for example, really we have what I would call an embarrassment of riches,” she continued. “We used to have a keynote on Friday night, but our Friday night is so good, our Saturday night is so good, our Sunday afternoon is so good … it’s like none of them are keynotes. We have a great lineup this year and it just keeps getting better. A big part of that, I attribute to Laura Miller who participated the first year and then joined the committee and has been really great at pulling in talent.”

(It was as this point that I, as someone who has tried to put together events much smaller in scope than this one, expressed disbelief and wonderment at the notion of being able to have even a rough assemblage of a schedule that far in advance.)

“We try to have the foundation in place,” Pebworth said. “The conversation in February might be along the lines of ‘I'm thinking about having this poet be part of the poetry crawl this year, my line-up looks like these five or six poets’ and then someone else will say ‘Ah, but so-and-so has a new book coming out and maybe we can pull that person in as part of book tour.’ And because that person is a poet, they would fit well with the poetry crawl.

“We have tried in the past to holdout and see who had been publishing their work,” she continued. “Because that can be a really exciting time to have somebody come and it helps them by promoting their work as well. But sometimes, we don't find out until later in the game or someone we had our hearts set on has been invited to be part of an exciting symposium in Europe and we lose that person … it just keeps evolving. But from an organizational point of view, it's really helpful to have the pieces in place by February.” 

Of course, like with anything, the more you do something, the better you get at doing it. Putting together a literary arts festival is no different.

“We’ve been at this for three years. We’ve certainly gotten better at some things … and more overwhelmed by others,” she finished with a laugh.

As time has passed, things have grown and changed with Word. Pebworth addressed some of the ways in which the festival has evolved and shifted since its inception.

“In terms of growth, we definitely have a fuller schedule this year, she said. “More workshops, more talks. MWPA is involved this year with a panel on memoir. And we’re having a collaboration between poet Richard Blanco and composer/musician/writer Paul Sullivan – we haven’t commissioned work in the past, so that’s really exciting. 

“Early on, other festival organizers talked about people needing opportunities to kind of digest what they had heard, what they had participated in and also create community. You know, to have those good conversations with people. So we did a festival supper the first weekend on Saturday night and that has continued to be a really important and fun piece of the festival. And our first year, the grand finale was this Sunday brunch, which again, was really well-received, a wonderful mingling of talent and the local people who were excited about the writing groups that they had taken. And now this year, it's not even a finale, but we can't let go of it because the brunch is too much fun. But this year, the event with Blanco and Sullivan is on Sunday afternoon because our schedule was just too full.”

When it was suggested that as far as problems go, having so much great stuff that you really have to pack it all in is a pretty good one to have, Pebworth wholeheartedly agreed.

“It’s a GREAT problem to have,” she said. “And people have been really responsive and excited.”

You might not expect it from someone so clearly passionate about the written word and what it means, but Pebworth is quite modest about her own connections to the literary realm.

“Of the committee, I am the least literate, the least well-read; it’s just an amazing group of people,” she said. “But I also like bookcraft and word jewelry; I love the crafty side of words and this year we’re we're having an all-ages bookmaking workshop that’s open to the public on Saturday afternoon, which I think is great because I also want to have there be time for people to mess around with paper. There’s a fundraising reception Friday night where people are going to be making stamps and stamping their own name tags. People practicing and thinking about books and literature in a really advanced way. And then there are also these poems that children have written that are on display. It’s really a wonderful combination.”

With something new, you can never really know what the public response is going to be. But thus far, Pebworth and company have been thrilled by how engaged people have been by Word.

“We’ve been pretty much blown away by the numbers of people who have come and by the comments,” she said. “People are just delighted by this. I think part of it is having the summer behind us and part of it is, you know – Richard Russo came. This time, Joe Hill will be in town. We don't have that many writing workshops here in Blue Hill, so to have something offered like with Richard Blanco – a master class with Richard Blanco – that’s an opportunity that we're bringing to the area that just isn’t here. And I think for people who live in Belfast, the people who live in Portland, people who live in Bangor, people near a university – they have more opportunity for things like that.

“Blue Hill does a lot of things on their own or the library sponsors a lot of events,” she continued. “But I think we bring programming that’s unique; people are quick to tell us how great it was to hear Jonathan Lethem on stage in conversation our first year. The Poetry Crawl is another one; a friend of mine said ‘I would never read poetry, but I was downtown in the middle of the Poetry Crawl and so I just kept going.’ And then the next year, he made sure it was on his calendar because he really enjoyed that taste of poetry and then being able to talk to people afterwards and then moving to the next location and hearing a few more poems. But that was really a nice way for him to get his poetry fix … which he would not ordinarily have had.” 

While there’s a lot that runs smoothly with regards to the festival, Pebworth concedes that there are still some issues that they would like to be better able to deal with. See, it turns out that there are A LOT of people out there who like words as well, including plenty of local writers who would love to find a way to share their own work in tandem with Word. Again – a good problem to have, but one for which Pebworth is still trying to determine the right solution.

“I would say that one of our biggest problems is space, because we do have a lot of people in the area who are interested in writing, people who may have published books or self-published books,” she said. “I think if we opened it up to more presenters, a lot of local people would be interested in sharing their work. But so far, we haven't had much time for that in the schedule. We've talked about that and how did that work better; I think this year we ended up with too much talent saying yes. In the past, we've done things - we had an open mike last year; before that we had storytelling that involved a number of local storytellers. So that would be one of the drawbacks, I would say, about the program we have this year.”

Other issues include making sure that the time of the incoming talent is being properly valued, both literally and figuratively.

“We’re really committed to valuing the talent,” said Pebworth. “Our stipends are not significant, but we’ve been delighted that people are willing to come and lead a workshop or participate in an event for what we can afford to pay them. But that's really important to us, to be able to pay everybody a stipend, to help with travel and then to take care of some of their meals while they're here or help them with lodging. 

“We were really fortunate this year to get a grant from the Maine Arts Commission,” she added. “It’s the second one we’ve received from them. That's specifically going towards the collaboration between Paul Sullivan and Richard Blanco and creating new work. And then the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation granted us money. One of our issues was that we were going into our first festival AND fundraising; we didn’t even really know what our budget was going to be. But of course, you have to line people up and move forward as if that money will be there. With the Stephen & Tabitha King Foundation grant, we can go into this year knowing that we’re funded and just fundraise for next year. And so when it comes to the end of the year, we’ll know what our budget is and go forward.”

My last question for Sarah Pebworth was a deceptively simple one. Basically, I just wanted to know what she felt was important – both creatively and in terms of community – about an event like Word.

“For me, it’s about storytelling and especially truth-telling, which is really the style that has developed with the festival,” she said. “It’s people in conversation. So on Friday night, Dave Cullen will be in conversation with Brook Minner, and then also part of the evening with Abigail Jakub, who’s a college student who lives here in town, a student activist.

“It’s about people telling their stories, sharing their stories and what’s important to them in their different ways on their different subjects,” she continued. “To me, that's the purpose of being alive, that’s the core of community and we're getting to know people in this very real way. And really, that’s the point.”

(Word., the Blue Hill Literary Arts Festival, is scheduled to take place in Blue Hill October 24-27. For a schedule of events and more information, visit their website at or visit their Facebook page. Please note that many of the workshops require pre-registration; you can sign up on the festival website.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 16:33


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