Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Among the Books: National Book Fest 2011

Every fall, the Library of Congress, along with the President and First Lady, hosts the National Book Festival on the Mall. This festival makes me so happy, happy to be a DC resident, happy to be a "book person," happy to be an American, happy to be alive. Just happy. At any time that I get upset and cranky because no one reads anymore, or no one appreciates the written word, or the neighborhood kids are playing on my law, I think of the National Book Festival, when thousands of people converge on the National Mall to celebrate books and reading and the writers that give voice to our dreams, desires, fears, and imaginations. Families attend together, bringing their tiny bookworms to story time or a concert in the children's tent, their tweens holding a skateboard under one arm, a book under the other. Parents stand in line to get their favorite books signed by the author and take a few quick snapshots. People attend with friends too, but mine were all indisposed, so I went alone this year.

This year I came for Garrison Keillor, host of Prairie Home Companion, which is as much a part of Americana as baseball and bluegrass. Though the theme of this year's festival was "Reading Out Loud," Keillor showed his chops as a performer by reciting lengthy poems, some his own, some written by others. Most of the time, he watched the sign-language interpreter, often stopping to say things like, "Show me beer-drinking" again. He then proceeded to recite poems such as "To Pee, to Piss, to Take a Leak," a decidedly un-highbrow poem in a long tradition of bawdy verse. (Ever read Chaucer?) The audience roared with laughter, not just at Keillor's eloquent prepubescent boy humor, but also at the performance of the interpreter as she signed "men aim up at the stars." When the applause finally died down, Keillor launched into a poem about sperm.

Most of the writers at the National Book Festival are just that--writers. Many of them don't do so well with crowds, or with reading their work aloud. Poets seem to have an easier time at this because they're sensitive to the cadence and aurality of language. Keillor, however, is all performer. He spoke, told stories, recited poems, and even sang songs. All that was missing was The Guy's All Star Shoe Band.

Michael Dirda, book critic for the Washington Post, introduced Keillor, and I may have been just as excited to see him as I was to see many of the award-winning authors.

Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet (1994), Yusef Komunyakaa is certainly one of those poets who recognize that poetry doesn't have to be a solitary experience, reading aloud poems about his experiences growing up in the south, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War.

PS. Just as a little side note, if you're interested in what I was doing while I was out of the District, you can check out my other blog, On Meandering.

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