Sink your teeth into the Decatur Book Festival

The colossal literary fest consumes the Decatur Square on Labor Day weekend

“Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun” goes my favorite couplet. The lines open “Digging,” in which Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney compares his father and grandfather working the land to his own efforts as a writer. The combination of image and rhyme snaps into place with a pleasing feeling of inevitability. And if Heaney’s pen is like a gun, it’s not so much a weapon as a starter pistol signaling the beginning of the poem and his own literary excavation.

If different forms of literature are racing to the tops of best-seller lists, you may think poets didn’t hear the opening shot. One of the best-kept secrets of the literary world, however, is that the least famous, most marginal kinds of writers often make the most entertaining and affecting speakers at readings and festivals.

For instance, this year’s Decatur Book Festival, held Sept. 4-6, features such marquee names as the ingenious thriller writer Lee Child, Southern memoirist Rick Bragg, singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, popular young adult author Kate DiCamillo and author/publisher Sir Harold Evans, who’ll give the event’s keynote address (Fri., Sept. 4, 8 p.m.). While visitors may enjoy going out to see an acclaimed author, they’ll probably get more out of hearing a poet or spoken word artist. Poets’ command of lyricism nearly always delights the ear, even if their muse doesn’t necessarily fill their bank accounts.   

The fourth annual Decatur Book Festival includes more than 70 poets, including Ed Hirsch, author of the best-selling How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry, Pulitzer Prize-winning Emory professor Natasha Trethewey, and National Book Award nominee and four-time National Poetry Slam winner Patricia Smith. Poets don’t always qualify as the festival circuit's biggest draws since they’re treated as buskers as often as headliners. But they’re leading a resurgence in the art form, one verse at a time.

When mainstream Americans think about poets — if they think about them at all — they probably imagine dewy-eyed artistes worthy of the 1980s Life in Hell cartoon “How To Be a Sensitive Poet” (“I sit in my cubbyhole, waiting, waiting…”).

“Poetry is still the niche of the niche,” acknowledges local poet Collin Kelley, who’s published three poetry collections and has just released his first novel, Conquering Venus. “If major presses publish poetry, it’s usually because of a contest. Poetry has fallen off the radar for the general public, but every now and then someone will draw national interest, like Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote the poem for Barack Obama’s inauguration. In the 1950s and 1960s, poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were rock stars, and readings were events. It’s not the same anymore. With the rise of TV and different ways of getting media, there’s been a change in reading habits.”

“Poetry will probably never reach the same mass appeal of movies or popular music, but there’s no reason why it can’t have the same size audience as classical music or ballet or theater,” counters Thomas Lux, author of 11 poetry collections since 1972. The Bourne professor of poetry at Georgia Tech, Lux takes a sunnier view of contemporary opportunities and a more skeptical view of the past.

“I think the golden age of poetry is now, particularly for younger poets, like the slam poets and spoken word poets. There’s a lot more multimedia poetry. The audience is much larger than it was early in my writing life, and there are many more publications and prizes. Poetry has moved out into the regular day-to-day world. It used to be that every activity with poetry had to do with universities. Now I’d say it's 50-50. That’s very healthy for an art form,” says Lux (who shares stage with Hirsch on Sun., Sept. 6, 1:15 p.m.).

If poets, like most literary writers, command less of the national culture than they did in the baby boom era, the past two decades have seen the rise of the thriving poetry slam scene; 1990 marked the first National Poetry Slam. Some writers make a distinction between the two kinds of poets, however.

“Poetry slams focus more on performance and personality, while literary ones are more about the text,” says Chelsea Rathburn, author of the award-winning collection The Shifting Line and chair of the festival’s poetry programming committee. “When the question comes up whether there’s some kind of rivalry, it’s kind of a silly thing. Sometimes you’ll hear someone look down their nose at ‘page poets,’ but it’s really not common.”

Kelley serves on the board of Poetry Atlanta, which promotes local poetry events. He estimates Atlanta offers some kind of poetry event every night of the year. The Decatur Book Festival features the more famous, out-of-town poets on its mainstage and local writers on Poetry Atlanta’s stage at Java Monkey, providing virtually nonstop opportunities to hear the craft Labor Day weekend.

“I think poets are a little more attuned to performance because we’re more interested in the musicality of language. I’ve been to readings by novelists who didn’t seem to have a sense of how the work sounds,” says Rathburn. “When I give a reading, I want to connect to every single person in the room, even the husbands dragged there by their wives. And sometimes it works — afterward, people come up to say, ‘I hate poetry, I don’t read poetry, but so-and-so dragged me here, and I had a great time.’”

Rathburn says she carefully chooses which poems to read and their order. She also makes a point not to have too many depressing poems in a row. She finds that every poet has poems they may not like as much as others in their body of work but are reliable crowd-pleasers. “I have one that I refer to as 'The Dominatrix Poem,' even though that’s not its title, because a dominatrix makes an appearance. She always gets the audience’s attention. I have another called 'The Taker' and a pivotal moment includes lyrics from ‘Dust in the Wind’ and refers to classic rock songs. Funny poems usually go over real well.”

Humor can be the secret weapon to attract a contemporary readership. One relatively well-known example is Billy Collins’ “Nostalgia,” which begins, “Remember the 1340s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult./You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade…” Collins, America’s poet laureate from 2001-2003, could be the role model of the contemporary poet as a witty literary celebrity.

Lux thoroughly appreciates poems with humor. “Why shouldn’t poetry be funny? Life is funny. I don’t like the kind of turd-in-a-punchbowl professor who says ‘Poetry can never be funny! It has to be serious!’ But funny poems usually don’t involve bathroom humor. The comedy is usually wry or satirical in some way. My poem ‘Henry Clay’s Mouth’ has an element of satire, but it’s also a serious poem. When people ask me about being funny in poetry, I ask them, ‘Are you funny in real life? Do you make people laugh, are you quick-witted, a smartass? Then humor will probably come easy for you.’ But some people just aren’t funny. You can’t force it in poetry, like a joke writer sits down to write a joke. The humor has to come organically.”

Political content also can make poems accessible, although it runs greater risks. Kelley thought carefully about the possibility of alienating his readers with his collection of Bush-era political poems, After the Poison. “I had that brief moment of ‘Maybe I shouldn't publish these,’ but there's no way I could censor myself. A couple of the poems are a bit ranty, but I tried to bring the same lyricism and imagery that I would to any poem. Some of them do feel dated now that the Bush era has ended, but there are others — about Ronald Reagan's response to the AIDS crisis, race relations, Hurricane Katrina and body politics — that will continue to resonate.”

Lux participates in Georgia Tech’s Poetry@Tech program, which features a strong outreach element. “We send poets to middle schools in Atlanta area, we send out several poets a year for readings, we have community workshops in the spring — and everything’s free. Also, we have quite an exceptionally strong reading series. By the end of the year we will have brought in nearly 100 poets over eight years — mostly American, but some from all over the world,” Lux says.

He feels that students and ordinary readers resist poetry because of a misguided but long-held approach to teaching it. He remembers when he was in school, “A poem was like a riddle, something you had to decipher. We’d beat our brains out to figure out the meaning of a poem, but we never talked about the music or the magic of a poem. It would be difficult because the poems would either be written in this archaic language, or be from difficult modern poets like T.S. Eliot. You don’t beat yourself up trying to figure out the meaning of Beethhoven’s fifth symphony — what’s the point? Thinking of poetry as the solution to a riddle is tedious and puts people off and has nothing to do with art."

Instead, Lux's classrooms take an approach that offers an easier gateway for students and adult readers alike. “I’ve always done something Billy Collins described as ‘teaching backwards.’ You start by having the students read the very contemporary poems, the stuff in the language of today, even hip-hop lyrics, then go backward to the classics. For several generations, our students’ introduction to poetry was through great poets, essential poets, who nevertheless didn’t speak in the language that we speak today.”

Poets seem to agree that the Web has been an overall boon to the art form and its communities. “I think the Internet has saved poetry from being a lost art," says Kelley. "There are millions of poets working in America, and so many incredible online literary magazines. Old guard literary magazines finally realized, ‘Oh, we better catch up to this Web thing.'" High-profile online examples include Slate.com’s poem of the week, which features the text and and an MP3 of the author's reading. Sites such as Verse Daily and Poetry Daily publish a poem every day, and boost the sales of the lucky writers. Plus, the brevity of many poems makes them easier to read on computer screens.  

Perhaps the literary trends will snowball until poets take over the national consciousness. Slim volumes of verse will replace iPods as ubiquitous teen accessories. All-star Monsters of Poetry tours will play stadiums across America. Tweed-wearing, notebook carrying poets will emerge onstage accompanied by lasers and fog machines, and their ecstatic fan base will call out, “Free verse!”

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