- Julia Shipley
- Shari Altman (left) and Rebecca Siegel
Care to hear a Pulitzer Prize winner read from his latest book or a MacArthur "genius" fellow recite her poems? Anyone with a hankering to listen to literary luminaries has numerous local opportunities.
Until recently, however, attracting fantastic talent to this sparsely populated state seemed easier than getting the word out about such events. In the spring of 2016, bibliophiles Shari Altman and Rebecca Siegel attended the reading of renowned novelist Zadie Smith at Dartmouth College. They knew about it because Altman stumbled on a mention of the local reading while googling the publication date of Smith's novel in the U.S.
"She is one of my favorite authors," Altman said, "and I had no clue she was going to be reading at Dartmouth!"
After the reading, Altman and Siegel, who live in Hartland and Thetford Center, respectively, lamented that they had almost missed the opportunity. The incident inspired them to create a new means of heralding just such happenings. In a recent interview, the duo recalled the conversation that launched their project:
"There ought to be some sort of calendar that lists all the literary events in New Hampshire and Vermont," Siegel said.
"Yeah," Altman concurred.
"Somebody should make one," Siegel said.
"We should make one," Altman countered.
So they did. In July 2016, the women launched an online book- and author-related events calendar called Literary North. Their site catalogs a plethora of literary offerings in, as Siegel put it, "this rectangle of northern New England." Visitors can also sign up for the Dipper, their monthly newsletter, which highlights readings, events, calls for submission and other news.
"It's a way of communicating: 'Have you heard about this?'" Altman said.
They're not the first aggregators to have attempted to maintain regional calendars and lists of literary offerings. From 2011 to 2015, Vermont writer Ronald Lewis periodically tallied up statewide poetry news and emailed the Vermont Poetry Newsletter to his contact list. In 2014, Rochester-based website developer Stacey Peters established a website called the Dooryard, which offered what she called "bookish news and events from every corner of our well-crannied state." That site went dormant last summer — coincidentally, the same month that Literary North made its debut.
Initially, Siegel and Altman set out to create a comprehensive calendar of every literary-arts-related activity across New England's northernmost states: Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Early on, they recognized that endeavor was impossible. So they became more selective, limiting their scope to New Hampshire and Vermont. Their benchmark for featuring an upcoming event, as Altman put it, is "Are we excited about it? Is this something we'd travel for?"
Siegel — who also maintains a personal website for her creative projects, GrongarBlog — and Altman couldn't actually attend all the events on their burgeoning calendar without being in two or more places at once. On many days, Literary North features two to five events, sometimes more.
Later this month, the site will add a new event of its own to the calendar. Literary North's mission includes championing the literary arts and partnering with the local literary community. In March, Siegel and Altman hosted their first event: the Mud Season Literary Salon in White River Junction. Cosponsored by Junction magazine, another online site specializing in cultural happenings on either side of the Connecticut River, the salon featured readings and music performed by area writers, along with gourmet toast and beverages.
On July 29, the women will ramp up their work as cultural catalysts by hosting a gathering they call Poetry & Pie.
"We wanted to go beyond the standard reading," said Altman.
"And not just offer entertainment," Siegel added, "but create an event that fosters community and connections, out of which more ideas and opportunities can arise."
Poetry & Pie will take place at Sweetland Farm in Norwich, which has hosted potluck dinners and yoga in its barn. Literary North's shindig will present readings by three writers: Dede Cummings — poet and founder of Brattleboro publisher Green Writers Press; Shaftsbury poet James Crews; and Cape Cod, Mass., poet Mary Kane. After the reading, other poets in attendance can share original work at an open mic.
And, of course, Altman and Siegel will serve an assortment of pies, from rhubarb hand pies to Shaker lemon.
Finally, farmer-poet Taylor Mardis Katz of Chelsea will be on-site with her typewriter to compose custom poems for attendees.
"There's a lot of places where you can go to hear a reading," Altman said. On the same afternoon as Poetry & Pie, she acknowledged, three nationally recognized poets — Jorie Graham, Paul Muldoon and Molly Peacock — will give readings at the Bookstock festival in Woodstock. "But we're up here [in Norwich], and we'll probably attract a different crowd.
"Besides," she added, smiling at Siegel, "we'll have pie."