Wordfest brings a world of poets to Asheville
by Rob Neufeld
See full Wordfest schedule.
If you go to particular spots, you can find exceptionally authentic voices. This week, some of those spots are at Wordfest, a six-day poetry festival in Asheville.
Brian Turner comes to Wordfest from California, but also from Iraq, where he’d served for seven years with the U.S. Army; and from an Oregon childhood and the University of Oregon, where he’d gotten an MFA in Writing.
Turner is a poet-soldier who is up close with the realities, speech, and composition of modern war. His poem, “The Hurt Locker,” included in his award-winning first volume of poems, “Here, Bullet,” provided the title for the 2009 Oscar-winning movie about a bomb squad in Iraq.
His new volume, “Phantom Noise,” is as haunting as his first is shocking. It was a finalist for the hugely prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize.
Turner reads along with Landon Godfrey, Paul Guest, and UNCA professor Holly Iglesias, Friday night at the YMI Cultural Center. A Saturday morning panel discussion about “resilience,” the festival’s theme this year, features Turner, spine injury survivor Paul Guest, and documentary filmmaker Katja Esson.
Your head is ringing
“This rifled symphonic” is what Turner calls sounds in the title poem of his new book, “Phantom Noise.” Back home, the poet hears war’s haunt.
This ringing of midnight oil this
brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone this ringing
hum this ringing hum this
The authenticity of Turner’s words comes from a tuning into life at the front. He has come to consider himself an artist-as-witness.
Whereas “Here, Bullet” came from warfare, “Phantom Noise” opens up in a different front—the home front, afterward.
One poem—“At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”—tells how mundane things reveal the presence of a not-forgotten reality. “Sheets of plywood drop with the airy breath/ of mortars.”
“Phantom Noise” is psychological—an amputee reaches out to save the poet who’s saving him—and healing.
The final poem, “Aubade: Layover in Amsterdam,” connects a lovemaking experience there with one he had had with a lover just before leaving. He wants his lover “to whisper in my ear,/ even in a language I’ve never heard before,/ just to hear another human voice, just to breathe in the dark.”
Troupe breathes jazz
A career-ending knee injury while playing on the U.S. Army basketball team gave him the time to rediscover the love of reading his mother had instilled in him. He started writing a book, and a friend connected him with an author he knew—Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre suggested Troupe walk around Paris, writing poems.
From France, Troupe trooped to Venice Beach, California, and found the writers of the Watts Revolt. He also discovered his voice, which revived the St. Louis upbringing from which he’d broken free years earlier.
It had been in St. Louis, as a fifteen-year-old that he’d gotten to know his East St. Louis mentor, jazzman Miles Davis. “He’s the one,” Troupe said in an interview with the Academy of American Poets, “that set me on the path to writing and using my imagination.”
Among Troupe’s fourteen books of poetry and prose are the collaboration, “Miles: The Autobiography,” an American Book Award winner; “Snake-Back Solos: Selected Poems, 1969-1977,” another American Book Award winner; and “Miles and Me,” currently being made into a movie, with Laurence Fishburne playing Troupe.
Jazz is Troupe’s authentic voice as in “The Day Duke Raised: May 24, 1974,” his elegy for Duke Ellington. “Spun high up/above those clouds,” Troupe mythologizes, “duke wheeled/ his chariot of piano keys” and “spoke to the silence/ of a griot-shaman-man/ who knew the wisdom of God.
Troupe, a world champion performance poet, grooves with poet-rockers Keith Flynn & The Holy Men at the Hilton Asheville, Biltmore Park, Wednesday night.
Community of cultures
To conclude this column with Jamaican poet-playwright-musician Kwame Dawes is to suggest an order in Wordfest’s galaxy of stars. Many other leading poets, including American Indian literary great Linda Hogan, represent the cutting edge, which in Wordfest involves an opening to world cultures not formally recognized by Western literature.
Dawes, whose accomplishments include the biography, “Bob Marley: Musical Genius”; fifteen books of poetry; two novels; the musical, “One Love”; and the Emmy Award-winning project, “HOPE: Living and Loving with AIDS in Jamaica,” goes to his Jamaican-American roots for authenticity.
In his multi-media performance, “Wisteria,” for which Kevin Simmonds was the musical composer, Dawes uses South Carolina women’s views of the Jim Crow era to create a song of history. About one testifier, he writes:
You intone your history,
breathing in the muggy
scent of wayward love.
Your anger is always
a whisper, enigmatic,
just a steady heat.
I don’t like ‘em
never did, never could...
In his poem, “Coffee Break,” published in his book, “Hope’s Hospice,” drawn from the voices of AIDS sufferers in Jamaica, Dawes attends to moments of simple pleasure.“The cool air off the hills/ made me think of coffee,” he writes about his time with a dying man. “So I went for coffee. And it takes a few minutes/ to make the coffee/ …and when I came out/ to ask him, he was gone,/ just like that, in the time/ it took me to think,/ cow’s milk or condensed milk.”
Dawes reads along with Justin Bigos, Rose McLarney, Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, and Linda Hogan at the YMI Cultural Center Saturday night.
Wordfest is “an exercise for community building” says festival organizer Laura Hope-Gill. Hope-Gill, author of “The Soul Tree” and marking director for the local publishing house, Grateful Steps, convenes a multi-cultural, word-filled world in Asheville.
Tuesday, May 3: “The Day Carl Sandburg Died,” a film by Paul Bonesteel, at the Fine Arts Theater, Biltmore Ave., Asheville, 7 pm. A reception follows at YMI Drugstore, Market and Valley Streets.
Wed., May 4
Quincy Troupe and Keith Flynn and the Holy Men perform at Hilton Asheville, Biltmore Park, 7 p.m. A reception precedes it at The Roux at the hotel.
Thurs., May 5
Academy Award-nominated film-maker Katja Esson presents her film-in-progress, “The Poetry of Resilience,” at Fine Arts Theater, 7 p.m. A reception follows at YMI Drugstore at Market and Valley Streets.
Fri., May 6
Three groups of poets read at Grateful Steps Publishing House and Bookshop, 159 Lexington Station, Asheville, 4 p.m.; YMI Cultural Center, 7 p.m.; and at Altamont Theater, 18 Church St., Asheville, 9 p.m.
Sat., May 7
Thirteen different events, including children’s events, a panel discussion, readings, film showings, award ceremonies, and Hobey Ford’s “Imaginature,” take place. Visit ashevilleWordfest.org for a full schedule.
Sun., May 8
The Mother of All Slams provides an evening of spoken poetry at The Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway, Asheville. Admission is $5.
In connection with Wordfest, Andrea Clark’s collection of photographs, “Twilight of a Neighborhood,” will be on exhibit at Grateful Steps throughout Wordfest and afterward.