Monday, October 22, 2012

20th Festival of Reading - St Petersburg, FL

University of South Florida, St. Petersburg campus

In a time of wistful recovery from a Great Recession and of kindles and tablets, the organizers of any festival of books deserve lavish praise. Last Saturday’s festival, the 20th Festival of Reading was held on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, an urban satellite of USF headquartered across the Bay in Tampa. It’s a pretty campus bisected by city streets you’d say, if you mean to be politically correct. This is a college in the heart of downtown, with a frail fence hiding it from the Albert Whitted Airport immediately to the east. The tails of small planes back up to the fence almost on the campus and in your face. The events were scattered across more than five buildings.

As might be expected of a one day event with multiple readers, there were simultaneous and overlapping presentations, which meant that there were talks you had to miss, or interrupt by entering midway. Perhaps, it is time the event be spread over two days and moved to the spacious and much larger main campus in Tampa; a facility that is far better equipped for such an event. I had a chance to sample three events: a talk by the poet Peter Meinke, part of a reading by Melanie Hubbard and part of a talk by the journalist-turned-author, Michael Grunwald promoting his second book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. Grunwald’s talk in the University Student Center was well attended.

In response to a question, Grunwald stated that he was an independent. You would not know this from the highfalutin sub-phrase of the title, “Obama Era.” Not MLK era, or Gandhi era, or Mandela era. Prophetic, perhaps, but it is as trite as the Nobel Committee’s Peace Award—for what contribution to peace, at the time? The speaker came across as a democrat using the mantle of “independent” to project impartial journalism. There is no such thing as impartial journalism. His book on a President seeking reelection is released in the middle of a presidential election campaign. Perhaps, this says all. There is more than an echo of an utterance of the poet, Peter Meinke earlier in the afternoon: “emotional truth.” A poet dabbling with this would probably come out with the “emotional facts” of journalism.

Meinke is a formalist. He makes a valid case for formalism, if you are a formalist, or a 19th century, or early 20th century poet: How can you write poetry if you don’t know about poetic metrics, or of the names and definitions of various poetic forms etc. This is like saying; how can you make babies if you don’t know about the uterus, or the fallopian tube, or about sperms, or about the composition and functions and names of the various organs of the human body. Formalists, or new formalists, or new new formalists and neo-formalists may well be the literary equivalents of colonialists, neocolonialists and new new colonialists. At least Meinke is honest. And that earns respect.

There is nothing quite like a book festival to stir up readers and writers and listeners.

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