That’s pretty exciting news. Actually, I don’t think I used enough exclamation points. !!!! That’s better. Yes, the writers are back in Decatur this weekend, at the Decatur Book Festival. What could be better than writers, people who create worlds that don’t exist where before there was…um, no world…well…there’s some kind of paradox there. And writers are people who sort of think about stuff, people who knows words and sometimes punctuation.
The festival is running over three days, and from what I saw, it seemed larger than last year. Without having statistics at hand, I could see that thousands of people must be attending. It’s spread out over the center of Decatur (on the east side of Atlanta), with streets shut down to set up booths and tents in the middle of the street. The festival is something like a combination of street festival and conference: tents, crowds, face painting, beer stands, artisanal kimchee. OK, the artisanal kimchee (that’s what it says on their sign) isn’t that common, along with multiple presentations listed at various times, presented in locations all over town, from the conference center at the Marriott, to a local music club, to stages set up outside on several lawns.
I got to Decatur just before 11:00 in the morning. The day was already hot as hell, and it stayed like that, though as I write this it’s now dark and thundering (which is enough, apparently, to cancel ATT internet service). I was scheduled to read poetry at Java Monkey cafe, where I often read on Sunday evenings. From going so often to the evening readings, the contrast I saw with the festival audience was striking—much older, much whiter, and far fewer, maybe 20 people as opposed to the 80 or so who show up on Sunday. Today no one moaned at the lines, no one called out “tell it!” and no one snapped their fingers.
The poems I picked out to read, and the order I put them in, turned out without my realizing it to be Pennsylvania poems and then Georgia poems. And I notice that a lot of my poems have a philosophical inclination. I also had love poems that basically say “Ahhh! What’s going on?” The philosophy poems say about the same thing, but without the exclamation point.
I enjoyed being able to read around six or seven poems, and I heard a few other poets read as well, though with some of the poems I couldn’t tell that the person wasn’t simply reading prose, bringing us back to a question created by the 20th century: is it a poem just because all the lines are short?
When I left Java Monkey I was supposed to meet people from my writing group, but our wires crossed. Anyway, food and beer were calling my name, and as I passed a booth, I heard my name called, and there was my friend Anna Schachner, editor of the Chattahoochee Review. Anna and I chatted for a bit, and we swore on stacks of Bibles with hands touching hearts that we really are going to get together this time. And I believe we will.
As I wandered about the festival, I had a feeling that I had had last year, which was a slight sense of uncertainty. What was I supposed to be doing at a book festival? With books, what I really want is to sit in a quiet place with a good book and read, or maybe browse a bookstore. At the festival, however, there were swarms of people in the streets, wandering in and out of booths. True, some of the booths were actually selling books. Some others were for institutions that the sort of people who read might be interested in (Emory University, the William Carlos Museum, the Dekalb Historical Society).
To partake of more of the festival, I decided to go to one of the events, at the Marriott hotel. I wasn’t all that clear on what I was going to, but it turned out to be a panel discussion involving two writers, from India and Pakistan. In the end, it’s always interesting to me to hear writers talk, especially serious writers like these. This was in a small auditorium, and the place was pretty packed, so a lot of people seem to like to hear serious writers talk. I’m glad to know that.
One thing that struck me in this session was when Soniah Kamal (author of An Isolated Incident) said that she had gone through five different literary agents in America trying to sell her book, and none could. Some publishers even said things like the book was “too literary”. I know about encountering that attitude. So eventually she published in India with an Indian agent. But Sonia and Ajay Vishwanathan, also on the panel, said that things are changing in the west as to what people will both publish and read.
When the moderator asked when south Asian writers will be regarded as just writers, without other labels, Sonia said that writers do not always fit categorization, as they want to cross boundaries and write about the human heart, not just a Pakistani heart or an American heart.
To write about the human heart. That’s why we’re here. That’s why there is a festival in Decatur this weekend. We’re celebrating the words that come from the human heart.