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Arkansas Literary Festival promises big lit-o-tainment

While the Little Rock literary impulse has never been particularly strong (in recent years, the our regional Muse has reportedly been monopolized by exhibit planners at the Clinton Library, who are trying to figure out a PG description for the Monica Lewinsky affair), help is on the way. When the first annual Arkansas Literary Festival opens April 23, a few lit-conscious local visionaries hope to give books a boost, and the city a whole new star in its crown. Organized in cooperation with the Arkansas Literary Council, the three-day festival has already booked big name talent like Garrison Keillor, Oprah Book Club vet Kaye Gibbons, and Little Rock native and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark. As you read this, organizers promise they are working on securing other writers whose names are writ just as large. The prime mover for the festival so far has been once and future Oxford American magazine editor Marc Smirnoff. Back when the OA was headquartered in Oxford, Miss., Smirnoff said he had thought of approaching city fathers with a "southern culture" festival. Between running his magazine, seeing it fold, and moving to Little Rock, however, he never saw that idea past the cocktail napkin stage. Soon after he moved to Little Rock with his magazine in 2003, though, Smirnoff was approached with the idea of heading up the city's first literary festival. He accepted, with a few caveats. "I told them that if I'm going to do this, you have to agree that we're going to go after big names and exciting people and we don't just do something that's self-serving," Smirnoff said. "It would have been easy to just fill this roster up with Arkansas writers, and there are plenty of worthy Arkansas writers. But we shouldn't take the easy route, we should push ourselves and we should mix it up." Since the OA ceased publication in July 2003, Smirnoff has put his considerable energy and Rolodex behind that goal. "It probably would have been a little easier if the magazine had still been in operation, because I d would have had myself and my staff helping out on calling people," Smirnoff said. "In some ways it is actually harder without the magazine." What Smirnoff has been able to accomplish as a one-man band has been impressive. With his help, the festival has so far been able to round up over 50 writers from all genres. The number and quality of those writers is particularly impressive given the competition. Smirnoff and company picked the weekend of April 23 so as not to coincide with the Los Angeles. Times Book Festival, one of the largest and best-attended literary festivals in the nation. After they had committed to that date, however, the Times Festival switched, landing squarely on top of Little Rock's fledgling enterprise. It was a change that seriously whittled down the number writers open to Smirnoff's advances. "We would have had just an over-the-top lineup if it had been a different weekend," Smirnoff said. Arkansas Literary Festival Chairman Warwick Sabin, however, is more of a glass-half-full kind of guy. While some writers did turn down the Little Rock gig, Sabin pointed out, others jilted L.A. for a date in Little Rock. "That's a big deal. That's huge," Sabin said. "The second thing is the other group of people who said I would be there if it wasn't for the L.A. Times Book Festival. If you think about what that means for coming years - if we just fix that scheduling issue, we'll be fine." Sabin, the director of special projects for the Clinton Presidential Library, Sabin is a civic dynamo, and one of the most passionate people you'll ever talk to when the subject is the future of downtown Little Rock. As chair of the Arkansas Literary Festival, Sabin hopes to help create an event that will benefit the city for years to come. "There's two theories about these things," he said. "Either you start small and build it up, which is what Riverfest did - they started small and every year they sort of expanded. The theory for this one was let's just make it as good as we can." Sabin said that Arkansas is full of people who are "fervent" in their love of art, film or literature, but who might get rare chances to discuss those topics. Sabin believes the literary festival will be a chance for those people to gather. "Basically I've been telling people when they ask about [the festival] that it's Riverfest with books," he said. "It's going to be outdoors, it's going to be food, it's going to have activities for kids, but it's all going to be built around the single theme of literary endeavor." Like Sabin, Smirnoff believes a literary festival will find fertile ground here. In Little Rock, Smirnoff said he sees a willingness for "cultural experimentation" that's similar to that found in current arts mecca, Austin, Tex. That openness is something he thinks will bode well for the city's artistic future. "I think that's probably a little bit rarer than people realize," Smirnoff said. "I find that it's been very easy to talk to people about this project because of the interest in cultural experimentation. We've talked to so many people who have expressed immediate and genuine enthusiasm."
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