STIR: A Festival of Words
A poetry love-in, Burque style
Lisa Gill likes to say that the impetus behind the upcoming STIR festival came as a whim. Since she’s a poet, perhaps she is indeed recrafting language, fashioning it so that whim now means "the flowering fruit of a decade’s passion." Everyone should have whims like these.
The organizers of STIR sought to develop an entire weekend that celebrates “the profound connections between words and the world.” Within a society more and more intertwined with a visual and virtual world, this isn’t a connection that can be assumed or taken for granted, but one that has to be named and honored en masse. STIR: A Festival of Words begins Friday, Sept. 12, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 14, with events taking place throughout the UNM and Downtown areas. The festival offers workshops, panel discussions and performances that run the gamut of poetic styles.
Why Now? Why Here? Why Us?
In the late ’90s, Albuquerque gave rise to several literary festivals that lasted for a few years before dying out. Having been part of those festivals, Gill characterizes them as a bit more “seat of the pants” than STIR. Yet, it was the memory of the energy that these festivals created, coupled with her own nature as a “poetry fanatic” that urged her to get together all those writers she’s met over the past decade-plus for a big, bad poetry blowout. She called Susan McAllister, director of the Harwood Art Center, and told her about her idea. McAllister called some people. Then they called some people. “People were ready to participate,” Gill says. It grew from there.
Gill also credits the 2005 National Poetry Slam for galvanizing her and invigorating the community. Albuquerque’s hosting of the National Poetry Slam, and its subsequent storybook victory over 75 teams for the championship, established Burque and its poets as significant forces on the national slam scene. For a city that’s primarily known as a good place to fly hot air balloons, the National Poetry Slam was a tremendous boon for Albuquerque’s collective creative self-esteem.
While the STIR festival is, in part, inspired by the success of the slam community, it will showcase a wide variety of genres, from page poetry to performance. For Gill, a festival is about the people, and so she picked poets she wanted to hear, privileging “distinctive voices and individual styles” above an adherence to one form. STIR aims to celebrate it all, offering a women’s showcase, a poetry picnic and a discussion on metaphors as maps. And, yes—slams, too. But even those will be different than Albuquerque slam audiences are used to. Saturday night’s Hydra performance will feature no individual slam pieces—instead it will be comprised of poetic duets, trios and quartets performing together. Wholly collaborative, it is the kind of event that is usually only seen at the national slam and aims to tweak the expectations of a seasoned slam audience.
Loca for Local
STIR’s focus on local talent is intentional, even though there are several poets traveling here from as far away as Canada to participate. Albuquerque, Santa Fe and the rest of Northern New Mexico is home to what Hakim Bellamy, poet and one of the festival’s organizers, calls a “vortex of poetic energy.” STIR was designed with that wealth in mind. In addition to Santa Fe residents and Guggenheim fellows Dana Levin and Arthur Sze, the festival features some of New Mexico’s most beloved poets and performers.
What the festival is not, however, is one long book reading. Nor is it a salon, designed to gentrify the drooling masses. The coordinators of STIR are concerned with creating an event that is responsive to the community, not with imposing an aesthetic upon it. To that end, Bellamy organized Flowetry, an “organic collaboration of poets with other mediums” that will incorporate DJs, dance and multimedia.
Another goal of the festival is to promote talent that exists while developing and fomenting the burgeoning skills of others. Workshops on publishing, performing and composition will all be offered. Programs led by Danny Solis and Sal Treppiedi are geared toward younger aspiring artists and writers, and panel discussions will tackle such issues as teaching poetry in the community.
Though plans for future incarnations of STIR include bringing in well-known outside writers, Gill says this year’s festival represents “a powerful convergence” of the abundance of local talent, a pool that’s just in the early stages of being tapped.
More Than Words
Literary festivals can be tricky things. Some festival organizers assume the existing appetite of their audience and work to satiate that. Others are bent on converting the masses with flashy departures from source material, resulting in such ill-advised events as, say, a Jane Austen Wet Frock Contest in a Chili’s private dining room. STIR’s organizers are attempting to negotiate a middle path by offering performances and exhibits that merge the written word with other art forms, primarily music and visual art.
All of these fusions are ambitious. Book Lung, hosted by 516 Arts, is the most expansive in terms of the number of writers and artists involved (see the Book Lung sidebar). Other mergings include slam poet Regie Cabico’s one-man show at the UNM Arts Lab, preceded by poetry videos displayed against the walls of the mini-dome video screen.
The festival also intends to embrace the natural connection between poetry and music through readings by Arthur Sze, Carol Moldaw and Renee Gregorio alongside classical music during a special Church of Beethoven at The Filling Station, and a range of styles and verse with jazz at the Harwood.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the festival will be Joy Harjo’s appearance at the South Broadway Cultural Center with her band, Arrow Dynamics. Harjo is a professor at UNM and one of New Mexico’s best-known writers. She got involved in STIR because of what she calls Gill’s vision, insight and commitment to the community. Poetry’s origins are musical, Harjo says, so her performance with her band is simply a way of working backward to the root of things.
The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” His words have become a sort of motto, if not a mantra, for the American poet. America, we’re told, doesn’t care about poetry. In contrast, Kraków’s main square features a statue of its favorite non-papal hero, the poet Adam Mickiewicz, and Colombia recently hosted a poetry festival in a sports amphitheater. The U.S., meanwhile, seems to like its verse confined to rhymes on rap albums and the overplaying of The Doors.
“A country without poetry,” Harjo laments, “is a dead country.” Poets, then, can feel as if they are creating in the face of futility. Even one of STIR’s panel discussions is titled “Can Poetry Matter?”—a question purveyors of other art forms don’t seem to beg (Sundance, for instance, chose not to run with “Do Films Starring Parker Posey Matter?”). Poetry is fighting for relevance in the cacophony of entertainment and diversion options.
Little of this, though, is apparent when talking with any of the organizers of STIR. Harjo, for one, is heartened by what she calls the next generation of writers carrying forth the “soul talk.” Writing helps our living, says Gill, and poetry heightens our attention, affecting how we move through the world. To her, and the dozens of people involved in producing this festival, the question is less whether or not poetry matters, but how can its importance be underscored. “Poetry can be uncelebrated,” Gill muses, “so we’re going to celebrate it.”
Part of STIR’s programming includes Book Lung: Poetry’s Spin on Art, a collaboration between artists and writers. Poets were asked to respond to two existing shows at 516 Arts. The first, Cautionary Tales: A Visual Dystopia, is curated by Holly Roberts and explores humans’ role in the end of the world, an end which this show depicts as heralded by greed and neglect. The second, Finding a Pulse, attempts to voice a more healing take on the topic, one which curators Rhiannon Mercer and John Photos characterize as aware, but hopeful.
The poems that were created in response to these works were then assembled by two bookmakers, Becky Holtzman and Valerie Roybal, into book-art pieces that complete the cycle of visual to verbal and back.
STIR: A Festival of Words takes place in various venues around the city on Friday, Sept. 12, through Sunday, Sept. 14. For a complete list of events, visit harwoodartcenter.org. The Book Lung reading kicks off at 4 p.m. on Saturday at 516 Arts (516 Central SW). Cautionary Tales and Finding a Pulse run through Oct. 18.