Informal Observations of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival
Today after saying goodbye to my Athens friends, Bill and Roger, who came over to attend the festival with me, I went back to bed. I was just plain tuckered out. The festival was up and down a couple of hills and it seemed that the next session I wanted to attend was always on the other side of the incline. It was much milder temp wise than it could have been but it was humid. Atlanta has been more humid this year than in its recorded history.
The festival began for me on Friday night with dinner at The Iberian Pig with my novelist friend Manil Suri. Manil had eaten at the Pig when he was last in Atlanta and wanted to go back in search of a dish that combined pork belly and octopus. Both were still on the menu but separately this time. We had a long, lovely dinner and caught up on our lives for the four years since last we met. He had come to DBF to promote his new novel “The City of Devi” which is just out in paperback. It is the third book of a trilogy of novels he has written that explore life in India and the Hindu trinity of Vishnu, Shiva and (not Brahma but) Devi.
The last novel is futuristic and follows the intersecting lives of three people caught in an invisible love triangle. He told me had a power point presentation for the next day’s event and to be prepared for special effects. Over desert at Leon’s Full Service he told me about his new novel project which will be about math. Manil is a math professor in Maryland and the new novel will bring together his literary talent and his love for numbers.
Bill and Roger arrived the next morning and we set off to Decatur to hear Richard Blanco read poetry at the Presbyterian church. Blanco was the poet at Obama’s last inauguration who was notable because he is both Latino and gay. I was not particularly impressed by his reading at the inauguration but in person he was much more charming (and handsome) and he held his large audience in the palm of his hand. We would all have gladly stayed for more. Next was Manil’s presentation at the Marriott. We had both worried about the potential size of his audience but he had a large one and his presentation was lots of fun. His special effects and graphic presentation brought life to the story and characters of his novel. We went to lunch with friends at Hola! afterwards where the food and conversation continued the good energy of the morning.
I followed my friend Cal to hear Wayne Koestenbaum discuss his new book “My 1980’s and Other Essays” at Eddie’s Attic. Wayne is the lovechild of John Waters and Woody Allen (or maybe PeeWee Herman), smart, funny, cute, peculiar. His forty-five minutes of fame were a delightful mix of droll humor and piercing insight.
Back down the hill to the Marriott for my friends’ Eve Hoffman and Sal Brownfield’s presentation of their book of art and essay, “A Celebration of Healing.” Sal is a painter and Eve, a poet (and they are a couple in life as well as in art). Sal began a project of painting breast cancer survivors which culminated in twenty-one large canvasses that are more like stained glass windows. They are luminous and what they illuminate is courage, damage and the will to live on. Eve’s poetic essays give us the stories behind the paintings. Two of Sal’s paintings framed them as they talked and read. These images and stories were intended to move us to deeper empathy and they did.
I dried my eyes and walked back up the hill and across the courtyard, down the hill and up the hill again to the Decatur High School where my friend Megan Volpert was launching her new anthology “This Assignment Is So Gay,” a book of poems by lgbtiq poets on the art of teaching. State Representative Karla Drenner, Georgia’s first out gay legislator, introduced Megan, saying the book had made her cry. Megan had assembled an interesting panel of her contributors to read their own and other poems. Sister Theresa Davis was there, her rambunctious self an exclamation point! Poets new to me, Pablo Miguel Martinez and Jee Leong Koh, added their names to my list of poets to pay attention to. I bought Koh’s “Seven Studies For A Self Portrait” after the signing and look forward to slowly taking it in.
Sunday morning began with a breakfast interview with Alysia Abbott. Alysia’s memoir about her dad, Steve Abbott, has been garnering rave reviews since its publication this past Spring. Alysia was born in Atlanta. Her father Steve and her mother Barbara Binder were graduate students at Emory. Her dad was coming to terms with being gay when her mother was killed in a car accident. He moved with the then 2 year old Alysia to San Francisco to pursue a life as a poet. She describes their life together in her book “Fairyland” which takes us through the glory days of gay San Francisco to the days of doom that came with AIDS which ultimately claimed her dad. I met Alysia at her hotel and asked her what she wanted for breakfast and she said grits. We walked to Thumbs Up! where I knew grits were to be found and we put our name on the waiting list. The hostess asked for a name and I said Abbott. She then said it was okay if it really wasn’t our name and we replied simultaneously, “It is.” We are not closely related. Her Abbotts are from Nebraska and are Catholic. My Abbotts are from Alabama and are Protestant. But after an a good Southern breakfast and an hour and a half of talking about how our lives were connected I felt related. She was anxious about her presentation. She hadn’t been to Atlanta since 2000 and knew there would be people in her audience who knew her dad in some ways better than she. That might have been a problem had she been less genuine but it wasn’t. The problem that would be had yet to arise.
I left Alysia at her hotel and scampered up the hill to hear my friend Robert Scherer and Jim Elledge talk about “outsider art.” Each had a book and a different slant on the subject. Robert had been “apprenticed” to the folk artist/eccentric extraordinaire, Howard Finster, when he was a young man and spoke of Finster’s influence on his life and art. His new book is, however, a book of fine art drawings all done in human blood. Robert told us how he had inadvertently cut himself one day and how his impulse as an artist was to use the blood he bled to draw. This has led him to create an extraordinary series of drawings documented in his book. Jim Elledge, who like Robert, teaches at Kennesaw State University, has written a book about the maligned and misperceived folk artist Henry Darger. Elledge dedicated years of research to uncover the abuse Darger suffered as a child inmate of the state as the source of his imagery.
Alysia was up next back at the Marriott and I was tasked with her introduction. She arrived just in the nick of time but there were technical difficulties with her thumb drive and the computer system in the room. I don’t know the name of the young man who was providing tech support but in less than two minutes he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and the show went on as planned. With the help of photos of her dad, old news clippings, images of postcards he sent her and excerpts from the book, Alysia told the story of her father’s love, her role in his life and art and death and though there were no surprises for those of us who read the book or knew the story, her sincerity was palpable and her story resonated with all the love and loss her audience shared with her. Stories can change us, can break our hearts and in doing so deepen our human being. Alysia, like her radical parents, is truly an agent of change. Up the hill to the Old Courthouse for more poetry. Sadly the room was stuffy, noise from outside was intrusive, the acoustics were bad . . . I felt sorry for the poets who might have connected better in a more intimate space. I was also on the verge of being overwhelmed with words. Bill and Roger and I went to Colbeh, the Persian restaurant on the square to revive ourselves. We were simply unable to hear anything else.
Good food did the trick and we wandered among the booths in the light rain lying to ourselves about going to asession on bonobos and atheism. Because it was overcast all the booths were in shadows. I looked into one and saw Congressman John Lewis who was there signing a graphic novel, “March, Part One” with his co-authors. I regretted not going to his keynote on Friday night. Lewis is one of my heroes. I whispered to Roger, “John Lewis is signing his book.” The line was short, we each bought a book and had it signed. We each shook John Lewis’ hand and left with tears in our eyes.
We walked down the hill to the Marriott and agreed we were too tired to wait for bonobos and atheism and went back home. Pals Cal and Dan who had wandered the festival with us joined us for an informal supper and debriefing. Had we been less tired we might have come up with a working definition of how and why poetry succeeds but we didn’t. I confess, tired as I was, I had a hard time falling asleep. For every author I heard, there were three more I wanted to hear. All the same I fell asleep a lucky man having wandered the festival with my friends, toasted the trinity with Manil Suri, eaten grits with Alysia Abbott and shook hands with John Lewis. And now with a sigh of relief I can post this to friends far and wide who delight, as I do in the riches of the written word.