Festival to honor poet, short story writer


July 14, 1991|By Eric Adams

Because of an editing error, a caption in the Arts and Entertainment section in yesterday's Sun incorrectly quoted writer George Minot as saying he writes "to entertain and to make money." In fact, as reported in the story, Mr. Minot attributed that quote to Shakespeare.

Every year they pepper the Artscape schedule and every year they celebrate their art the same way they create it -- in isolation and obscurity.

While the crowds and the media focus on the annual festival's impressive menu of music, dance, food and art, the writers hold forth in the nearby Moot Court Room at the University of Baltimore and brace for their audience -- which can range from 75 people to no one at all -- to apply E. B. White's standard.


"Poetry generally runs as an unrecognized medium," admits James Taylor, chairman of the Artscape literary panel and CEO of Dolphin-Moon Press in Baltimore. "It's really tough for poetry readings to compete against a big band. Writers will admit this; ++ it's basically a losing battle."

Still, they'll wage it again this year when Artscape, which runs Thursday night through Sunday in the Mount Royal-Belvedere area, features such entertainers as Emmylou Harris, the Ink Spots, Hiroshima and a long list of local entertainers. For most writers, representing more than a dozen literary groups such as the Ebeneezer Cooke Poetry Society, Black Classic Press and the Baltimore Writers Alliance, the festival is a chance to draw the elusive audience. And for a chosen two, it is quite literally their crowning moment.

Mr. Taylor explains that Valerie Jean and George Minot, honored as the best Artscape poet and short story writer, respectively, from among more than 125 nominees, will not only read from their works but will have their manuscripts published in small books to be sold in the Artscape literary arts tent.

This type of award, given instead of cash, is unique and helpful to the writers, he says. "It's the only award of its kind. You're not going to find another bureaucracy that will actually print the manuscripts as a first book. . . ."

"Ninety-nine percent of writing is communication, but writing is a solitary activity. The way to get it out there is to print it or read it or do both."

Ms. Jean says writing helps her understand her life: "For me, it's clarity. I write to clarify things for myself."

Her 21-poem manuscript, "Woman Writing a Letter," was nominated by New Breezes, a non-profit forum for minority writers, artists and performers. The works relate the College Park library employee's impressions of her world, with subjects ranging from love and loneliness to cooking and her relationship with her 16-year-old-daughter.

In "Why I Stopped Cooking," she writes: "Cooking is too complicated. Sorting/ the right ingredients in their proper/ proportions requires too much attention/ to details. My momma taught me early/ how to feed a family, make it last./ But learning to cook came later. . . ."

The poems impressed New York writer Barbara Guest, the poetry judge for Artscape. "It wasn't metaphysical or romantic, it was about life," she said. "I particularly enjoyed the voice of the poet; I thought the quality was very high."

Ms. Jean has been writing her whole life, but in high school she often tried to hide her work: "I used to write this incredibly esoteric stuff. Nobody understood it and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be." Since then, she has learned that in order to be understood, the poems have to be more accessible.

But what makes a poem good? What would spark wonder in a listener like E. B. White?

According to Rosemary Klein, teacher, poet and editor of the Maryland Poetry Review, a good poem needs energy and vitality, and it has to say something.

"A lot of poems are flat, like a glass of soda left out overnight," she says; the good ones should be like a spade -- they should turn over something in your mind and turn you from your ordinary way of thinking.

Though a certain amount of work is expected from the reader, even more is required from the writer. "If you use your skills as a thinker and an artist, you will work to make your words fit what you see, what you think, or what you feel," says Ms. Klein, who also serves on the literary panel for Artscape and is an associate professor of English at Dundalk Community College. "Poems are so condensed, a lot of people have trouble pulling in the reins, controlling it."

For Ms. Jean, and most other writers, the work of "pulling in the reins" can conflict with earning a living. As a single mother, she finds herself with less and less time for writing, but still manages to write every night, even if it's just a word or a sentence. When she is able to focus at length on a poem, she'll work on it for a week or a month until it's finished; then she'll wait three months and come back to it. That distance, she explains, allows her to really be critical of the work.

And this work gives Ms. Jean a sense of purpose.

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