As poet James Taylor describes literary life in Baltimore, he introduces a parade of gritty, idiosyncratic, determined writers, some bold with success, others trailing noble failures -- all of them provocative characters in an unpredictable tale.
Co-founder and CEO of Dolphin-Moon Press, Taylor knows the work of many of the writers who have developed and sharpened their voices on the material of Baltimore for the past 20 years. And as chairman of Artscape's literary arts panel, he has helped them gain greater exposure at the largest annual celebration of regional writing and publishing.
Over the next three days, small presses, literary magazines and writers will display their wares in tents at the side of the Lyric Opera House, at Mount Royal Avenue and Oliver Street. The tents will be open from 6 to 10 p.m. tomorrow and noon to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Vendors will offer tantalizing fare that is often hard to find: Works published by Dolphin-Moon Press, Tropos, Damascus Works, Paycock Press, Chesnut Hill Press, Black Classic Press and Icarus Press and literary magazines such as the Maryland Poetry Review, Passager, Late Knocking and Antietam Review. Organizations such as the Baltimore Writers' Alliance and The Ebenezer Cooke Poetry Society will also be present.
The festival also provides a chance to hear poets who read at spots like the BAUhouse on Charles Street and The Brewery in Canton instead of the Garrett Room of the Johns Hopkins University. Taylor talks about the readings as if they were something of a literary variety show.
"There are people who get up and sing their stuff. There are people who get up and have signers on one side for the hearing-impaired. There are people who get up with musical accompaniment. For some groups, it's like poetry church. Then there are the people who get up and rant and rave and scream and holler. There's all kinds of wacky stuff.
"It seems like Baltimore is always pictured as this blue-collar, two-degrees-off-center burg where anything can happen. And I think that typifies the writing that comes out of Baltimore."
"I always thought you had to be rich and famous to do a lot of readings -- but not in Baltimore," says local writer George Minot whose short story "The Kiss" won a 1991 Artscape literary arts award. He and Artscape's other prize-winning writer, poet Valerie Jean, will read from their work on Saturday.
For their prizes, the writers have received 250 copies of their winning manuscripts printed in small books. They will sell them at the literary arts tent.
"Artscape is a time you can meet your audience," Minot says. "I enjoy being at the tent for three days and nights and shaking hands and meeting people who buy short story collections. Actually meeting the readers completes the experience of writing."
Other small presses praise the festival for giving them rare public access.
"It has given a regular venue for presenting quality poetry readings," says Alma Roberts, founder and head of New Breezes Inc., an organization that presents the work of minority writers, visual and performing artists. This year, New Breezes sponsored poet Valerie Jean.
Kendra Kopelke, co-founder and editor of "Passager: A Journal of Remembrance and Discovery," says she is eager to introduce newcomers to the fifth edition of her new national quarterly. A tTC magazine with fiction, poetry and essays, it has a special interest in promoting the work of new older writers.
Damascus Works will present its third anthology at Artscape. Editor Joe Jaffa says the potential of the festival marketplace inspired him to start publishing.
Taylor says Dolphin-Moon Press sells more books over one weekend at Artscape than in a whole year at selected bookstores. He bristles whenever he hears a complaint that the festival is more of a "Foodscape" than a promotion of the arts.
"I say, 'Hey. No offense, guys, but so what if the people are here for the wienies? If you can't compete with a hot dog, you're in bad shape, pal.'
"What America is about is going out and knocking people over the head to get them to pay attention to you. At the literary level, Artscape gives anybody with a couple of bucks and some books the chance to get out there and do it with people who normally wouldn't give you a second thought or a second glance."
With that in mind, however, Taylor is generous with his sales tips, underscoring the fact that most of the people who drop by the literary arts tents will know very little about small press publishing.
A 1974 graduate of the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University, Taylor runs Dolphin-Moon Press out of his Hamilton home, teaches part-time at Dundalk Community College and has managed to publish three books of his own.
He's also a state bureaucrat. He supervises the auditing of unemployment insurance offices in Maryland, making sure that they comply with state and federal standards.
"It's not really a spanking exercise, it's more like 'Let's all be in line together,'" Taylor explains.