Thursday, October 25, 2007

With Just a Few Simple Words

Last night in downtown Charleston, South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth celebrated the launch of her new book of poetry, Despite Gravity. Despite the wet weather, many came to catch up with one another, drink coffee and listen to moving words and music at the East Bay Meeting House. I was one of them, and to be honest, I didn't know what I was in for.

I suppose I should preface by saying I've never been to a poetry reading event. I imagined it might be something akin to a book reading/talk from a novelist or non-fiction writer...something with which I'm very familiar. But it was not. To the sounds of a strumming guitar, Marjory read aloud her poems and some poems of others in honor of United Nations Day. Poems about Vietnamese refugees, brave men, tyrants.

To put it bluntly, what I strive for in an entire 300 page novel, Marjory Wentworth was able to do in about 300 words.

It's rare for me to cry while reading a novel. It does happen, but not very often and only after I've digested pages upon pages of character and circumstance. Not so with Marjory. While listening to a poem about a love encounter with a political prisoner, I felt the first stirrings of emotion. I stared at a place in the wall above the coffee counter and pushed the tears down. But when Marjory read prose, a "found" poem as she called it, about a mother in a strawberry field in Gaza watching her two small sons get blown to pieces, I simply lost it. Tears flowed uncontrollably. If I were watching the footage on TV I would have spared myself and changed the channel. But I could not change the channel. Marjory held her audience captive and relayed the utter humanity that is common to us all--no matter who we are--and the horrors and brutal realities of the world in which we live.

I would have struggled nine months to birth a novel that might have the same effect of just one of Marjory's poems last night. So today I realize the pure power and importance of poetry. It can reach across cultural lines. It can cross emotional barriers. And I admire the bravery and skill of those who write it. Marjory Wentworth didn't just stand behind a microphone and read some words to us last night. Her poems were arrows, penetrating hearts, and our toasty coffee shop nestled in downtown Charleston was transformed into one that might have been found in any nation on earth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Southern Festival of Books

Having been back from Nashville less than a week, the memories of the Southern Festival of the Book are still fresh in my mind. It's a wonderful feeling, being surrounded by book lovers. We shuffled from one room to the next, listening to authors discuss their innermost secrets, in the beautiful Legislative Plaza, Korean War Memorial and marble-laden Congressional rooms.

I ate much-too-expensive hotel food, watched cloggers dancing to bluegrass and met some fascinating authors to boot. What a thrill it was when, after speaking to a room-full about my books with Denise Hildreth, we sat down for a signing at the Colonnade and up walked J.L. (Jackie) Miles to say hello. Here is a woman whose writing I adore AND she blurbed my first novel, The Spirit of Sweetgrass. Not many people would blurb a new novelist, but Jackie did. I won't forget it. It was amazing to finally meet her in person.

Jackie then introduced me to author Karin Gillespie, and on the elevator to the seventh floor of my hotel, I'd invariably meet a poet or novelist or author of some sort.

"Oh, what do you write?" I would ask, he/she would ask.
"That's fascinating," he/she/I would say back.

It's fairly surreal to bump into so many talented people at once. I met other authors at various stages in their careers, River Jordan and Tim Callahan. And on the way home, I began reading Callahan's charming novel, The Cave, the Cabin, and the Tattoo Man. I think my laughter scared the poor guy next to me on the flight home when the main character who has a speech impediment, nine-year-old Timmy, tried to recite Bible verses in front of the church congregation.

Yes, it was expensive. Yes, the trip took me away from my family, and I suffered guilt over that. But I was able to meet readers and authors and publishers passionate about what they do. I was able to give away advanced copies of my next novel, Trouble the Water, and hopefully, to generate some good buzz. And I was able to feel a part of something, in the often isolating and lonesome business of writing books. There was a true sense of community in Nashville last weekend and that, in my book, is priceless.

And don't worry--my kids were fine. In fact, they fared better than their daddy did. God bless you, Brian. I couldn't do this without you.