The OF Blog: 2012 Southern Festival of Books, Day One: Things "Serious Fiction" should do, Poetry, and Anti-Capital Punishment

Friday, October 12, 2012

2012 Southern Festival of Books, Day One: Things "Serious Fiction" should do, Poetry, and Anti-Capital Punishment

This year, I decided to attend all three days of the 2012 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, TN, one of the oldest American book/literary festivals.  The lineup this year contained several appealing authors (there are roughly 200 listed for the three days) covering a wide range of genres, from Southern literature, general non-fiction, religious fiction, poetry, cooking, and other literary genres.  Friday (and Sunday) was only a half-day of activity, beginning at 12 PM and with activities, panels, and signings lasting a bit past 5 PM.  Unlike most conventions/festivals, attendance here is free (although parking around the Capitol ranged from $10-20 for the day) and the sessions were spread out from the War Memorial building, Legislative Plaza, and the main branch of the Nashville Public Library.

The first session I attended was the 12 PM reading at the Nashville Public Library done by University of Florida MFA professor Padgett Powell, who was promoting his most recent book, You & Me.  Powell's session was marked with some rather entertaining self-deprecating humor with a near pitch-perfect deadpan delivery, as he read for about 40 minutes from various sections of You & Me before fielding questions from an active audience.  Some of the questions sparked some interesting answers from an audience that I estimate was around 50.  When asked about his experiences with editors, Powell noted that it has been his experience that out of 10 things that an editor might single out, around 8 of them will be spot-on criticisms, 1 will be something that could be quibbled about, and 1 the author has to learn to fight over for the story's best interest.   He also shared some anecdotes about how sometimes the marketing aspect of fiction can sway the editorial, such as the blurb to You & Me referencing Beckett's Waiting for Godot despite Powell noting that he had not read that work in decades and that it has really very little in common with it (having read the first third of it, I would agree with him, although I could see a very vague connection between the two Southern narrators bullshitting and the two characters in Beckett's work).

Another question was a loaded one that Powell deflected succinctly.  The questioner asked that with a growing emphasis in workshops for writers to avoid writing about women if they were men, whites writing about other cultures, or other such examples of cultural appropriation, what would Powell advise.  His response was simply that everything is fair game, provided one is careful with what s/he writes.  A follow-up question emerged regarding science fiction and how a writer of "serious fiction" could go about writing it.  Powell admitted he was not well-read in SF and that he is distrustful of works which were more flights of imagination, yet he said that as long as a work contained "depth of human emotion" that it would be a work of "serious fiction," regardless of whether or not there was science fictional element.  While doubtless some reading this might be imagining a sneer or snarl from him while answering, I would say it was rather acknowledging his own limitations and preferences as a reader while leaving open the possibility of works that are both "serious fiction" and SFnal in nature.

After purchasing copies of You & Me and Powell's earlier work, Edisto, I attended the 1:30-2:30 session at the Nashville Public Library where poet Mark Jarman read from his 2011 collection of new and reprinted poems, Bone Fires.  It was my first poetry reading and Jarman's poems, both the ones in the book and a brand-new one that he tested in front of the audience of about 30, contain a sense of searching for faith and identity that reminded me of my own struggles over the past 20 years.  In turns funny and sad, piercing and deflecting, these poems were very good when I read about 60 pages of them while waiting for the session, but Jarman's delivery made them resonate even more.  Looking forward to reading the rest of them in the near future.

After getting my copy of Bone Fires signed, I headed over to Legislative Plaza to listen to the 3-4 PM talk given by Richard Goode, Joseph Ingle, and three others (including former prosecutor Preston Shipp) who collaborated with Goode on his and Will Campbell's anthology And the Criminals with Him:  Essays in Honor of Will D. Campbell and All the Reconciled talking about prisoners on Tennessee's death row and, in the case of Ingle's contribution, Philip Workman, who was executed in Tennessee in 2007.   Ever since I read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song in 1999 and perhaps a bit before then, I have been a sometimes vocal opponent of capital punishment.  In the case of Workman, I participated in a 2001 letter-writing campaign by Amnesty International to ask for clemency (a stay was granted at the last minute for new evidence to be heard).

Because of the nature of the work I've done over the past eight years working with troubled teens who ended up in residential treatment centers, I very rarely talk about my experiences working with them.  Knowing that some were already convicted in advance because of their backgrounds, watching some of them later be charged (and in most cases, convicted) of first- and second-degree murder, armed robbery, and other acts of violence, it was a struggle at times to see humanity within them.  Yet working with them taught me to see their struggles, their confusion, their desire to be liked, even if those desires led to horrific acts.  The narratives presented by the five who spoke were poignant, as I found myself remembering several residents who tried to find faith within themselves even when it seemed that others had consigned them to the role of "monster."  Ingle's discussion of his book about working as an advocate for Workman, The Inferno, took Dante's poem as a metaphorical spot, referencing not just Ingle's own crisis pre-Workman (he had worked as a Death Row counselor for several years before needing a break in the early 1980s) as that Dantean "black wood," but also the levels of suffering that Workman went through from the botched robbery that led to a policeman's death (forensic evidence withheld during the original trial seemed to indicate that it was a fellow officer's bullet that killed the other officer) to the appeals, the last-minute stays, and his eventual execution.  It was a moving reading (Ingle asked for pardon that he could not read one planned section, due to his fear that he would not be able to keep his emotions in check) and after the session, I bought both books listed above, in order to remember those we so often dehumanize as "monsters" who deserve to die or at least to rot in jail.

Tomorrow will be a longer day, as I am trying to decide if I will attend the 11 AM session with Dan Chaon or if I'll wait to arrive for the 12:30 session with Mark Helprin.  There will be sessions involving Ben Marcus, Tupelo Hassmann, and Junot Díaz that I will try to attend, although I may miss one or more of the 2-4 PM sessions (the Díaz starts at 4).   I'm curious to see if the audience will be younger tomorrow and Sunday, as over half of the audience at the first two sessions seemed to be at least 50 years or older, while the anti-death penalty session was a mixture of college age to elderly audience members.

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