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Word on the Streets



Published September 14, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Have you always wanted to declaim from a soapbox? This may be your chance. The organizers of the first annual Burlington Literary Festival are currently seeking poetic types to read from soapboxes -- real ones -- on Church Street. A total of 42, 15-minute slots will be assigned, and "People can read whatever they want," says organizer Kim Jordan. She expects to see the full range of possibilities -- "sets and costumes, call and response, original compositions, recitation."

It's all part of an attempt to liberate poetry from the yellowing pages. "Life is not meant to be just in books, but on the street," declares Jordan. "We'll have guerrilla poetry and poetic terrorism." Besides the soapbox readers, bands of "Roving Reciters" will roam the streets, and "Poetry Police" will correct the dangling modifiers of passersby. At the Firehouse Center for the Visual Arts, poets can contribute their own homemade books to a revamped cigarette machine that dispenses poems for a dollar a pop. Throughout the festival, Jordan hopes to hear metrical language cropping up in unexpected places: "We're encouraging people to do things like go into Penny Cluse on Sunday morning and recite a Gertrude Stein poem," she says.

Not that there won't be slightly more traditional readings and performances. On Friday, Galway Kinnell will read at City Hall Auditorium. Slam poet Geof Hewitt will be at Red Square. The "spoken word and jazz collective" Beboparaka, whose members include Jordan, UVM professor Major Jackson and trumpet player Alex Toth, will perform at Metronome. And belly-dancing instructor Christine Demarais will shimmy to accompany a reading of The Arabian Nights.

There's so much going on over the three-day, written-and-spoken-word festival that deciphering the schedule is a bit like following a multilevel postmodern narrative. "We're really trying to make this a something-for-everyone festival," says organizer and Burlington City Arts writing program director Susan Weiss. She rattles off panel discussions on "Publishing Trends" and "What Makes Writers Write," a flash-fiction workshop, a cooking demo with the folks from Moosewood Restaurant, and a Saturday night literary costume party at the Firehouse with a "spoken-word orchestra."

The list of participating authors runs from state poet Grace Paley to literary novelists Marc Estrin and Chris Bohjalian to mystery scribes Don Bredes and Sarah Stewart Taylor. On the funny side are cartoonists Alison Bechdel, Harry Bliss, dug nap and James Kochalka.

Not all the talent is local. Out-of-town literati include comic novelist Stephen McCauley and Russell Banks, author of Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. While both have seen their acclaimed novels turned into films, neither has interviewed Paul McCartney. That honor belongs to Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis, who will read on Saturday at Borders from In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work, a collection of meaty celebrity interviews from his 25-year career.

The last time DeCurtis came to Burlington was to write a story on Phish -- "which was like going to the North Pole as Santa Claus' guest," he explains in a telephone interview. DeCurtis, an occasional commentator on VH1, is serious about bridging the gap between literature and the other arts -- specifically, about viewing his field, rock criticism, as a form of literature. With a PhD in American lit, he's currently teaching a writing seminar at the University of Pennsylvania. "Most writing about pop music is really bad," says DeCurtis. He tries to impress on his students that "the more words you have in your arsenal, the more precise you can be. Once you feel like you can express yourself, it's a great gift -- and that ability to express is particularly important now."

Also important to students: Except for the costume party, a few workshops and the Sunday night comedy showcase featuring writers from The Onion, everything at the festival is free.

Besides its elements of avant-garde romp and literary stargazing, the festival has a pedagogical edge -- particularly on Sunday, which is stocked with fun and educational programs for young readers. Guest writers include Natalie Kinsey Warnock, a children's author whose 21st book, Nora's Ark, recently earned a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. Drawn from stories of the disastrous 1927 flood, the book may be of special interest to kids trying to process the news from New Orleans. Rather than reading, Kinsey Warnock says she'll "try to give people a sense of where all my books come from," using slides and stories drawn from seven generations of her dairy-farming family.

"My contention is that every family has these amazing stories," Kinsey Warnock says. As for the festival, she'd "love to see it take off and become an annual thing."

Local writers are excited. "This is what we've been waiting for as literary artists," says Jordan, noting that visual artists already have venues for public expression. Her voice falling ever so slightly into the cadences of spoken-word poetry, she continues, "It's an opportunity to come out from behind the covers, the notebooks and the podiums and meet people face to face and voice to voice."

A single book brings many people together each fall at Champlain College. As part of its annual "Community Book Program," the college selects a well-written text that students can relate to "and that may even change their lives." In a campus-wide effort, students read, discuss and even stage the literary work. This year it's The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. A native of Afghanistan whose family took refuge in the U.S. in 1980, Hosseini drew on his childhood memories for the best-selling novel, which follows its characters through violent times into the present. His September 23 reading is open to the public.

Don't want to wait for a battered copy of The Kite Runner to turn up at the local library? An indie bookstore in St. Albans has come up with a scheme that motivates bookworms to buy shiny new hardcovers. Better Planet Bookstore has teamed up with more than 20 community libraries for a new event called "Love Your Library." All through September, customers can ask to have 25 percent of the amount of their book purchases donated to their local library, knowing they're supporting a local business and a lending program at the same time. "It's a win-win-win situation," says store owner Fred Kosnitsky, who hopes to make this an annual promotion.

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