The Labor Day holiday marks an ending and a beginning— readying us for a changing of seasons that moves from summer frivolity to autumn responsibilities. But I agree with poet Jericho Brown when he says, “Labor Day is my favorite holiday.”
Last Sunday afternoon, he said those words at the AJC Decatur Book Festival (DBF) in his introduction of the poets Major Jackson and Kevin Young.
I’ve been attending the DBF since its inception in 2006 and always feel so lucky that the largest independent book festival in the country is right here — in my favorite city, just a few miles east of downtown Atlanta. It’s a celebration of the love of the written word, and all that it brings to us as individuals and as the diverse collective consciousness of humanity.
An extravaganza of literary minds and hearts, the DBF excites and inspires tens of thousands of readers and writers every year, bringing in an array of talented authors, editors and publishing industry aficionados. In past years, I have made many of the keynote speaker events that kick off the weekend, including U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Joyce Carol Oates, and civil rights pioneer Sen. John Lewis. This year, I wasn’t able to attend the keynote, but it featured a panel celebrating the work of the late Pat Conroy: Cassandra King Conroy, Rick Bragg, Melissa Conroy, Bronwen Dickey, and Ron Rash.
On Saturday, I parked a few blocks from the square, walked past a long metal fence full of trumpeting morning glories, and arrived in the lively square filled with children eating popsicles, the scents of kettle corn and chicken gyros, and booth upon booth of books, local Georgia products, authors, literary magazines and editors, and playful creative opportunities.
The sun greeted me with its early September heat, but there were plenty of spaces for shade and contemplation to organize my plan for the day.
After an introduction to the booths, I made my way to the Old Courthouse and attended the discussion and reading, “Mysticism in the Mountains,” with authors Cassandra King (moonrise) and Julia Franks (Over the Plain Houses), moderated by Georgia Lee. A conversation ensued about the meaning of the Southern Gothic category, whether or not it applied to their work, and the benefits and pitfalls of choosing real or fictional locales as settings. They followed with readings from their books, which dropped me right into the suspenseful Appalachian stories.
I exited the Old Courthouse toward the Community Bandstand and was greeted by the Serenbe Playhouse Cabaret, a young group of vocalists that were singing show tunes and delighting the crowd. I had only about fifteen minutes until the next event I wanted to attend, but they held me there with their joy and sing-a-long moments from the crowd. I walked to the left side to get a little closer, and then I heard the first few very familiar piano-laced bars coming from the speakers. The group started singing, “525, 600 minutes, 525,600 moments so dear…525, 600 minutes, how do you measure, measure a year?”
And the moment, however sugary it sounds, was beautiful. I thought of my love for the message of the song, my love for books and what they give the world, my work with the written word, and how every year I count the time until I can come together with literature lovers to celebrate and converse about the power of words. It’s a season of gifts, or may I dare say: a Season of Love?
Next up was a fascinating session with digital media and publishing guru Richard Nash interviewing Amy Hungerford, Professor of English and Dean of the Humanities Division at Yale University. Speaking of the creation and state of literature today, and its future, they embarked upon the world that writers live in, and how it relates to the work they create. Hungerford also relayed a fascinating story on how a distribution snafu upset McSweeney readers, and how, as Richard Nash put it, “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.”
The DBF is all about making choices. Sometimes, it can be really, really difficult. There are many paths, and this story is my particular journey through the festival.
I had three places I wanted to be in the next time slot but am thrilled that I was able to make it to the “Diversity in Literary Criticism” panel with Anjali Enjeti, Soniah Kamal, Kate Tuttle, Suzanne Van Atten, and Valerie Boyd.
Moderated by Anjali Enjeti, the discussion spoke on not only the general importance of diverse critics and book selections, but also the difference between tokenism and diversity, and the subtle biases that exist throughout the world of literary criticism — but still carry significant weight. I would have loved for the panelists to have had more than 45 minutes, but feel like I came away from the conversation with a better understanding of the complexities of the subject.
The last event of the first day took place at the First Baptist Decatur Sanctuary Stage: “Celebrating Georgia’s Pulitzer Prize Winners” with Natasha Trethewey, Mike Luckovich, Hank Klibanoff, and Alison Hastings standing in for her father, Doug Blackmon. He was unable to make it due to power outages from Hurricane Hermine.
The theme was Georgia Pulitzer winners highlighting long ago Pulitzer winners. The highlight of the session, for me personally, was when Trethewey read one of Conrad Aiken’s poems, “Obituary in Bitcheral,” which he wrote for himself just a few years before his death in 1973. I’ve heard Trethewey present her work several times and am always enthralled. The recitation of Aiken’s poem was very engaging, and evoked a sense of sorrow through the humor lacing the piece —not only for the traumatic events Aiken described but also the racial epithet in the reading. She did mention the inclusion before the recitation, saying it was “troubling for its quick dismissive stroke.” Trethewey eloquently spoke while posing some questions about the poem and the poet briefly during the discussion period.
On Sunday, I parked in the same spot and said hello again to the beautiful morning glories.
The first program I attended was “A Sense of Self, A Sense of Place,” with poet Jericho Brown hosting Kevin Young and Major Jackson. Brown’s smile and sense of humor warmed the room as he introduced his fellow authors. The beauty of the space equaled the reverence the crowd gave Young and Jackson as each read his work.
Their works were in turn narrative and evocative, musical and emphatic. At times, laced with themes of grief and loss, while other times displaying the joy and fervor of life’s ticking clock. One of my favorite of Jackson’s lines, “When we talk about limits, we disappear.” Another from Why I Write Poetry, “Because the proper way to beauty was her eyes last night, beneath my eyes.”
From Kevin Young, “There is no immunity against grief.” And from his “Ode to Greens,” “You are better the day after, when all is forgiven.”
Looking for another dimension to discover, I ventured through the Marriott lobby and back to the conference areas to the Atlanta Writer’s Club Science Fiction presentation with Allan Kemp and Kerry Allan Denney. The two disparate authors spoke about their work and addressed writers in the audience regarding individual processes, publishing, personal ideas on beta readers and reciprocation, and utilizing humor. Kemp said, “It’s a great way to humanize these worlds we create.”
I walked back up the hill with the stream of book lovers to make it back to the old courthouse venue for a much anticipated event. A writing mentor and friend, and author of the memoir Invisible Sisters, Jessica Handler was interviewing Ted Geltner, author of the book, Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews.
Handler guided Geltner through the lively discussion of the book, and his introduction and relationship to Crews. Geltner then surprised the audience with never-before-heard work from Crews, including a letter to a woman Crews had affection for, and a hilarious poem written from the point of view of a tomato when he was working in a canning factory. It was a fun and very engaging conversation, creating many fans of both presenters, and the indelible Crews.
The festival, as always, is the highlight of my literary escapades throughout the year. This year was no exception. Oh, how it feels to be amongst such hearts and minds and lovers of the written word. The energy is always amazing, and I come home with new books, a bevy of new experiences and conversations, and another festival to look forward to the next year. 525,600 minutes to measure — filled with the love of books and what they bring us, filled with old friends and new connections, and celebrating the fact that I have the opportunity to enjoy the festival, year after year. Join us, won’t you?
Laurel Dowswell is the Features Editor at Change Seven. Her short story “I Am theEggman” was nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. She was a copy editor for an independent feminist newspaper in Santa Fe, NM, after being raised and educated in Florida. She lives and writes in Georgia, just outside of Atlanta with her son. She is currently working on a novel filled with oil paintings, family drama, and the spectrum of sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @laurels_idea.