A couple of writers in readings together

Literature: Poet Elizabeth Spires and novelist Madison Smartt Bell will present recent works Oct. 18 at HCC.

October 10, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Novelist Madison Smartt Bell and poet Elizabeth Spires have performed plenty of readings over the more than 20 years they have been publishing their writing. The Baltimore authors, who are married, have even shared the bill a few times.

And, with their diverse interests and evolving styles, they keep finding new things to offer audiences.

When they appear Oct. 18 at Howard Community College to open the 29th year of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), Bell will play guitar and sing to accompany readings from his most recent novel, published this year. Spires will read from a new collection of her poetry.

"Probably, what I am most temperamentally disposed to do is write," said Spires. But, she said, there are benefits to live readings.

"Sometimes you feel ... you are making some sort of connection," she said - unlike when a poem is published in a magazine and the writer wonders if people are reading it.

When audience members talk with her after a reading, "different people will react to different poems," she said. "Probably the poems [people like] speak to something in their life."

Spires has written four books for children and has won numerous awards, including a Whiting Award and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has written five poetry collections. The most recent, Now the Green Blade Rises, was published last month.

She compiled the poems for her latest book over seven years. The first section deals with her mother's illness and death, the second focuses on relationships - including between generations, romantic and platonic - and the third contains poems that are more solitary.

Each book of poems "reflects where I am in my life," Spires said. "Different decades have different notable events and milestones." At the same time, she said, she tells her students that "poems will have connections to each other."

"You have a continuum of experience, and poems are coming out of that," she said.

Bell's latest book also has a strong connection to his experiences, particularly his aspirations as a guitarist.

"I'd been playing out in bars around here, and I got interested in writing about that kind of life," he said.

His novel, Anything Goes, follows a young man's experiences on the road with a bar band. The book has pushed Bell down a new path as a musician, which is something he never expected to pursue beyond weekend jam sessions in Fells Point.

Bell worked with a friend, poet Wyn Cooper, to write several songs to use in the book. Then they decided to get some musicians together and make a demo, which included Bell singing two songs. Another friend gave the demo to a producer who offered Bell a contract to record an album this winter.

"I really don't consider myself to be a singer," said Bell. But he has enjoyed adding some tunes to his public readings.

He thinks it is interesting for the audience and, he added, "it's more interesting for me. I've been doing readings for 20 years."

Bell plans to pursue the musical opportunity and see where it leads, but first he is going to finish the third book in his historical fiction trilogy about Haiti, scheduled for release in 2004.

The jump from revolutionaries in Haiti to musicians in smoky Southern bars has been called a departure by critics (to whom Bell says he pays little attention). It also says so on the book jacket..

"All of my books are departures," said Bell, who has written 12 other works of fiction and has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner and National Book Awards. "I try to make all of my books as different as possible."

Bell and Spires enjoy the chance to appear together, but they are not collaborators when it comes to writing. "He does his and I do mine," Spires said.

Except for the opera they wrote together.

When Bell was asked to write a short opera (the words, not the music) about Haitian revolt leader Toussiant L'Overture, he suggested Spires' expertise in poetry might be called for.

The opera, which will be staged in Boston, "is the only time that we ever collaborated," Spires said.

The couple teach English and writing at Goucher College occasionally as a team, and lead the school's Kratz Center for Creative Writing. They have a daughter and live in Baltimore.

Bell and Spires have been part of HoCoPoLitSo events before. Both are wonderfully versatile, said Ellen Kennedy, president of HoCoPoLitSo. "They are a very interesting pair."

Spires and Bell will appear at 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Guests should use the Smith Theatre entrance. Tickets, which will be available at the door, are $10; $5 for senior citizens and students. Information or to purchase tickets by phone: 410-730-7524, or www.HoCoPoLitSo.org.

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