Writers warm up with festivals in early fall

“Despite a strong midday sun, the road was all green shadow thanks to trees thick and tall as a god’s fingers. My old block trees were like zoo elephants — one or two specimens stunted by a cement habitat. But this chaos of greenery had my heart calling dibs.”

Quiara Alegría Hudes begins her new memoir, My Broken Language, the summer her family moves from the city to a rented house on a horse farm where her mother can lay out a garden with twine and compass and a walking stick, planting herbs by sun and shadow.

She already holds the Pulitzer prize as a playwright for Water by the Spoonful, telling the story of a wounded Iraq War veteran, and she is the screenwriter of the film In the Heights and coauthor with Lin-Manuel Miranda of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical — and she will be here this month. On Sept. 25, she will join a gathering of writers at the Albany Book Festival and sit down to talk with WAMC Northeast Public Radio’s Sarah LaDuke, their producer of The Book Show.

September is an active time for books, and for writers. Colleges and bookstores gather energy. As the nights turn crisp, even in unsettled days people are finding ways to get outside or curling up with a story at home.

Writers about town

While some events are going virtual this fall for safety, some are finding ways to resume in person while the warm weather holds. Contemporary voices come together virtually, September 20 to 26, for the Tell It Slant poetry festival with the Emily Dickinson Museum, with internationally acclaimed contemporary poets Tracy K. Smith and Tiana Clark.

Cave Canem fellow Rage Hezekiah, author of the collection Stray Harbor and assistant director of academic and international student services at Bennington College, will lead a workshop on bringing wholeness to the page and share a conversation: A Stranger in My Own Home: Black Experiences Within the American Literary Canon. Nicole M. Young (Black Writers Read) and Enzo Silon Surin (Faraday Publishing Company), invite gifted and Black poets “to consider their own experiences reading the canon and writing poems to expand it.” Hezekiah and Young and Lisa Pegram will join Melanie Henderson, Krysten Hill, and Brionne Janae for this reading and discussion.

Rage Hezekiah, author of the collection Stray Harbor and assistant director of academic and international student services at Bennington College, will read her work. Press photo courtesy of Bennington College
Rage Hezekiah

Rage Hezekiah, author of the collection Stray Harbor and assistant director of academic and international student services at Bennington College, will read her work. Press photo courtesy of Bennington College

Across the region, awardwinning poets will share their words aloud — Hezekiah will read her work at the Robert Frost House later this fall, and Meg Day, author of Last Psalm at Sea Level, comes at MCLA on October 20, both of them reckoning with pain, strength and desire, and a joyfully unleashed power of consent and affirmation.

Bennington College will bring back Poetry at Bennington and Literature Evenings readings too, virtually, opening with the nationally awardwinning poets Brenda Shaughnessy on September 29, author of Interior with Sudden Joy, Human Dark with Sugar, The Octopus Museum and more, and Justin Phillip Reed, who won the National Book Award for his collection Indecency, on October 6.

Writing festivals are reconvening in different ways. Earlier this summer on WAMC, Matt Tannenbaum, longtime owner of the Bookstore in Lenox, recommended author and Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Ayad  Akhtar and his new novel, Homeland Elegies … and this month readers will have a chance to hear or meet him.

He will speak virtually in early October as the Spencertown Academy moves their annual Festival of Books later into the fall and online from October 7 to 19.

Amitava Kumar will speak at the Albany Book Festival. Press photo courtesy of the NY Writers Institute
Photo by Imrul Islam

Amitava Kumar will speak at the Albany Book Festival. Press photo courtesy of the NY Writers Institute

And on September 25, Akhtar will be here in conversation with Amavita Kumar, author of A Time Outside This Time, at the fourth annual Albany Book Festival, presented by the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany.

They will hold events on campus all day, affirmed UAlbany journalism professor Mike Huber, with a wide-ranging lineup of writers in fiction and nonfiction, as writers share their work and sit down in conversation, and all of their events are free and open to everyone.

Bestselling writers Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah and Dana Spiotta will talk together about their fiction, and Farah Jasmine Griffin will reflect on her book, Read until You Understand, coming out September 14. She writes that the title comes from a line her father, who died when she was nine, wrote in a note to her, and she has made it central to a book “about love of the majestic power of words and love of the magnificence of Black life” …

In the same vein, in her memoir, Hudes remembers warm afternoons with her mother, sharing and feeling a strength in words — speaking Spanish outdoors away from her father, speaking prayers out loud and rituals from many faiths.

“Mom opened her marble notebook and let my fingertips graze the pages. The grooves etched by her cursive were deep willful things. As usual, she had a little boom box an a few tapes. Yoruba drumming, Andean pan flutes, music played low …”

A close look into the past

On September 19, Matt Tannenbaum, longtime owner of the Bookstore in Lenox, will come to The Mount to speak with North Adams writer Molly Rideout about The Farewell, her summerlong exhibition writing and art.

Rideout has created a narrative around a local historical figure, Augustus Martin, a photographer from Lenoxdale. Between 1872 and 1961, he lived in an offshoot of Lenox on the Housatonic River. While Lenox evolved around the vast summer homes of wealthy New York families in the Gilded Age, the Dale was a small hub of glass factories, ironworks and mills, and the families who worked in them: French, Italian, Irish.

Some locals still know where to find the old slag heaps from the glass factories and turn up lumps of glass melted and cooled into blue-green cobbles, Tannenbaum said — the Lenox Library has one too large to hold in two hands.

The library also has a collection of Martin’s images from glass plates, and at the Mount they are on display along with Rideout’s words, evidence of life and thought in this small, rural town a hundred years ago.

A schoolteacher stands in an empty classroom in a shirtwaist that shows how tightly cinched she must wear her corset. Two boys in wear wool coats in the snow. Fragments of wood stand piled up, almost sculptural, on a lake shore where the trees have been cut down. A man holding a flat-bladed shovel stands by a chute below a heavy round iron door, as though he is stoking a blast furnace with coal.

Rideout blends historical research and her own ideas as a woman, as a writer, looking at faces in a photograph, Tannenbaum said.

“I’m jealous of this project,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write about Wharton.”
sitting at his desk, watching the street through the window, he would imagine Teddy Wharton picking up his wife’s discarded pages and walking into the Heritage House across the way to read them out loud.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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