Most everyone in this state has heard the old saying: Thank God for Mississippi, or Arkansas would be 50th in everything. One area where Arkansas does fall short of our over-the-river sister, though, is in the realm of literary heritage. For the book lover, it chafes a bit to think that — but for a few hundred miles here or there — Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright would have been children of Arkansas soil.
Once again this year, however, organizers of the second annual Arkansas Literary Festival are making sure there will be at least one weekend when Arkansans can let the cruelties of the literary gods slide. Officially beginning Friday, April 15 (though some preliminary events are scheduled for Thursday), the ALF will fill the River Market with all things lit — three days of readings, panel discussions, presentations, and chances for the lowly bookworm to chew over an international smorgasbord of writers and thinkers.
Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American magazine and one of the founders of the festival, said the ALF has definitely matured in its second year, drawing such luminaries as neo-conservative thinker and author William F. Buckley, Jr.; New Yorker magazine’s chief war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jon Lee Anderson; and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg.
“Any time you do anything for the first time it’s all about experiencing hard knocks,” Smirnoff said. “We certainly learned a lot of lessons from the first year both as far as what worked and what didn’t.”
One of those lessons was learning not to overestimate just how much shoe leather festival-goers are willing to expend. That meant moving the tents that form the festival’s core up from Riverfront Park to a position he called “right smack dab in the middle of things,” near the main library on Rock Street. With a few rare exceptions, all readings connected to the festival will be within a block or two of this central hub.
Festival chairman Warwick Sabin (an associate editor and columnist for the Arkansas Times) said that the only complaints he received about last year’s festival concerned the wisdom of having festival tents near the river.
“This year the outdoor part of the festival will be in a more compact space,” Sabin said. “That should create a more festive atmosphere, too, because people will be able to see all of the action from President Clinton Avenue.”
Like Smirnoff, Sabin said that festival organizers aimed to have a more diverse line-up of authors for 2005.
“We feel that we have succeeded,” Sabin said. “That is reflected in the participation of several African-American authors, a blind author, a bilingual author, and authors covering several genres.”
“We’re really trying to reach into the community this year,” Smirnoff added. “Last year, quite frankly, we didn’t have as many African-Americans in attendance as we would have liked.” He said the festival organizers made a “purposeful effort” to reach out to the black community this year, scheduling such authors as the African fiction writer Makuchi and the rapper/theologian Mykel Mitchell.
In the end, Smirnoff said, the festival’s second year has been about trying to find a nice combination of genres, attitudes, perspectives and writing styles. He hopes fans of the written word will come out in support of that.
“To me, the attendance is sort of a reflection on Arkansas,” he said. “We know we’re more sophisticated and artistic and literary and creative than people give us credit for. Well, here’s a chance to prove that.”
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