In case you haven't noticed, it's springtime out there. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and Mother Nature is busting out all over in a leafy riot. Once the morning chill burns off, the days are picture perfect enough to make you forget the smoldering ruin of your 401k for awhile and just enjoy life.
For book geeks like me, spring in Little Rock has gained a whole new appeal in the last few years. That's because it's time again for the Arkansas Literary Festival — the weekend when, almost as if by magic, a horde of great authors descends on Arkansas, ready to read from their books and talk to the assembled masses about everything from Greek history to Ernest Hemingway to South Carolina barbecue. For one too-fleeting moment every year, the cultural panache of our fair city gets cranked up from “Shreveport” to “Madison, Wis.” It's a beautiful thing.
As I said, it's almost like magic. That's not to say that it IS magic. From the small glimpse I get into the behind-the-curtain world of the Arkansas Literary Festival every year via my stewardship of the Arkansas Times' Pub or Perish bar reading (It's at Sticky Fingerz downtown this year: 6:30 p.m., Saturday, April 18. Ya'll come out. Dorothy Allison is reading!), I know that it takes a Herculean effort to make it all happen: hotel rooms, connecting flights, booking fees, e-mails, phone calls, snail-mails, running cable, toting lecterns, making sure all the refreshments are where they need to be when they need to be, and a thousand other things I‘m glad I'm not in any way responsible for.
It's pretty much a little miracle that it all comes together. Kevin Brockmeier is an award-winning fiction writer from Little Rock, and has been on the bill at the Lit Fest since the beginning. “What's most impressive about the Arkansas Literary Festival,” Brockmeier said, “is the simple fact that it has persisted for six years and that the caliber of writers who participate in it has not flagged. Every April, after the festival is over, I think to myself, ‘Well, that was quite extraordinary, wasn't it?' and then I go home and wait to hear that the whole enterprise has collapsed into a heap of ash. But it doesn't. It keeps going, which is something I couldn't have imagined when I was growing up here.”
Given the success of the Literary Festival so far, the biggest news this year is that it's under new management. The Arkansas Literacy Councils rode herd over the Festival for the first five years of its life, building on each year's success and expanding the lineup a bit more every go-round. Starting this year, though, the Festival is in the hands of the Central Arkansas Library System. CALS director Bobby Roberts said it's a great match.
“It's a good event for the library,” he said. “We're in the reading business, so anything we can do to promote that is good. … We're a free public library, and as much as we can, we do things for free. That fits in nice: to keep the Literary Festival free.”
Brad Mooy, the new director of the Lit Fest, said that he also likes that nearly all the events at the festival are free. “I love saying that, coming from a whole different world,” he said. “It's all free! We have an author party and a cooking workshop, and those are the only two activities in the lineup that have a cost to the public.”
While Roberts said he was initially skeptical that the festival would survive beyond its first year, he has been impressed with how much it has added to Little Rock's cultural landscape. He said that CALS taking over will mostly be a matter of standing on the shoulders of what was built during the Literacy Council years.
“I just hope we can do what they were doing and more of it,” Roberts said. “I guess the advantage we would have is that we have a bigger budget and a bigger ability to throw more resources at it on the front end, and we'll get more out of it on the back end. It's just a matter of organization.”
Marc Smirnoff has been part of the brains behind the Literary Festival since the beginning. The editor of the Oxford American magazine, Smirnoff is on the festival's talent committee, which decides on the authors who will appear. Like most everyone who works the Lit Fest, he has high expectations, and even higher goals. He says it's up to the public, however, to make sure the festival stays strong.
“I won't be satisfied till every worthy author session is packed to the rafters with an engaged and intelligent and enthusiastic audience,” he said. “When the talent is first-rate, which it has often been and which it will be this year, I think we in the community need to energetically support it. … If we in Central Arkansas are as culturally engaged as we think we are, we need to show muscle at events like this. It's not enough for individuals or corporations to give lip-service to the idea of culture in Central Arkansas and then not be there.”
While the festival will remain a three or four-day event under CALS' watch, Roberts hopes to see it become the centerpiece of a larger, year round schedule of events. “I think we'll look at doing more things through the year,” Roberts said. “They may be small things. I think David Sedaris coming [Oct. 11] would be the best example of that … We want to keep the focus on the major, springtime event, but there's no reason we can't do other things throughout the year that relate to the festival. It would kind of keep it in front of people so that they know about it.”
For now, though, it's all about getting through this first, big weekend. “Our refrain for so long has been that [the festival] is not broken,” Brad Mooy said. “We need to take everything that's good that has come before and grow it.”
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