The 2011 Alabama Book Festival

Despite the harrowing winds that followed Friday night’s severe storms, the Alabama Book Festival seemed to go pretty well yesterday. The festival, which is held on each year on the third Saturday in April in Montgomery’s Old Alabama Town, included readings by recognizable writers like fiction writer Mark Childress and poet Randall Horton, as well as a whole slew of other local and regional favorites. Amos Kennedy was getting there too when I stopped to speak for a minute, he was busy setting up his rig for his posters to hang on.

I took my kids, who are 5 and 2, in the morning to see Eric Litwin, singer of silly-folksy kids’ songs and author of the Pete the Cat books. Litwin, a middle-aged guy with a tuft of curly hair atop his head, took simple songs and a keen ability to mix jokes for the kids and jokes for the adults and built them into an audience participation show that was truly fun for the whole family. Usually, I despise that cliched phrase, but rarely is anything fun for both kids and their parents, but this guy managed it.

For the second year, the festival has reserved some time for young writers, with readings given by a variety of winners of the Letters about Literature competition, the Alabama Writers Forum’s High School Literary Arts Awards (HSLAA), and Poetry Out Loud. Four of my students read some of their poems, along with students from the Alabama School of Fine Arts. My kids and I ate Boomer T’s barbecue while we listened . . . or really while I listened and they played in the grass.

Right after lunchtime, after my wife had come to take our kids off my hands, I went to hear Marc Smirnoff, editor of the Oxford American, talk about his edited collection of music writing. This year has been declared the Year of Alabama Music, and OA‘s most recent music issue was devoted to Alabama musicians, so Smirnoff’s presence at the festival seems like a no-brainer. With a little help of being moderated by writer and singer-songwriter Karren Pell, he kind of stammered through a variety of discussions about Southern culture, Southern music, and music journalism. Smirnoff was clearly a very intelligent guy with a lot of knowledge about the subjects, but it seemed to me that his mind was moving faster than his mouth could, in kind of a where-do-I-start diatribe. He told one intriguing story about how Louis Armstrong played cornet on Jimmy Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No.9,” which was a testament to how interlinked everything can be in the South.

Right after that, Sonia Sanchez’s reading was one I had really been waiting for. I had never realized how tiny Sanchez is, but she made up for it in stature. She meshed storytelling and poetry and conversation so well that the half-hour flew by. What struck about her talk was that she approached “things” in kind of the same way that Mark Doty does in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, as she talked about particular items that she had owned — a watch and a shawl — which had special significance to her because of links to her father’s life, but what was more important was realizing that losing them did not cause her to lose the memories that are attached to them; she told the audience, what to understand about a “thing” is knowing when it’s time to give it up.

After Sonia Sanchez’s reading, I chatted with a few people and then headed out. I had to chaperone our school’s prom, too, so some rest was in order . . .

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