Preview: Voices of the Middle West Literary Festival
The event includes a book fair, panels with authors and publishers, an open mic, and a keynote by poet and 2015 National Book Award finalist Ross Gay. On Friday, March 11, there’ll be a kick-off reading at Literati Bookstore, featuring Ross Gay along with Fred Arroyo, Peter Geye, Emily Schultz, and Amber Sparks.
The festival was founded by Robert James Russell and Jeff Pfaller, having worked together on the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. To make Voices of the Middle West happen, they work together with co-organizer and co-curator Laura Thomas at the Residential College.
As an editor at Joyland Magazine, I've participated in the book fair, and this year, you can also find me at the festival chatting up the UMS Artists in Residence program. I gave Rob a call to chat about the festival.
Q: I want to get your founder/curator view of things. Can you tell me how the festival first came together?
A: Yes, so, Jeff Pfaller and I were always looking to do more with Midwestern Gothic. We always wanted to do more, and legitimately, we love the writing community. So we tossed around ideas for a long time, and we came up with Voices.
It’s a totally free event, and we’re doing it purely as a way to get the community together. Personally, I don’t really view writing as a solitary thing. I mean, the actual writing itself is a very small part of the writing process. I think most writers really are social. They want to be together, talk about books and talk about writing.
I go to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference every year, and I really like it, but it’s really expensive, and I recognize that not everyone can do that. We wanted to make Voices accessible to those who can’t go to bigger, expensive conferences and festivals.
At the time we already had a working relationship with U-M’s Residential College, where I also teach, and we kind of approached them and said, hey, we have this idea for this, would you be interested? It turned out they were looking to do something like the festival already, and it worked out well.
The RC’s Laura Thomas, our co-organizer and co-curator, she’s fantastic. You know, there a lot of moving parts to this, and let’s just say that with Laura’s help, it’s been easier to put together than it should be.
Q: I like that. How big has the festival been?
A: So, last year our foot traffic was about 2,500 throughout the day. We’re hoping for at least a 10% increase in that.
Q: How has the festival changed year to year for you?
A: I would say coverage, and you know, awareness that we exist now. Quite frankly, we have put on two pretty awesome festivals. Our first year keynote was Curtis Sittenfeld. She is great. Last year we had Stuart Dybek. And this year we have the poet Ross Gay.
This year we have some people driving up from Missouri, people who are driving over from Minnesota, to experience the festival. That's the biggest honor I could ever have.
Q: What would you recommend to a newbie to the festival?
A: I would say, spend the whole day, because we have panels all day with really fantastic, captivating, exciting authors.
But I would also recommend spending a lot of time in the book fair, which I think is unique in that we do get a good crowd, but you can also actually have one-on-one time with the authors and the publishers, and they actually want this to happen. I think at bigger festivals like AWP, it’s very hard to do that.
Q: So, this is maybe like a pick your favorite child question?
A: Yes. I guess my final answer is: Pick a couple panels that you're really excited about, and then spend the rest of the time at the book fair.
Q: And is there anything you are particularly looking forward to yourself this year?
A: Ross Gay's keynote I think is going to be incredible. He was just shortlisted for a National Book Award for poetry last year. I had the pleasure of being on faculty alongside him at a writing retreat last year, and I had read some of his work before, but I had never seen him read in person. When I saw him read, I said, "We have to get this guy". Because he is the most dynamic, the most electric reader I have ever seen. That is not hyperbole, he is fantastic.
People will be utterly transfixed. We are having a kick-off reading Friday night at Literati, and he is going to be reading there. Saturday’s keynote will really be about the craft of writing. I would say both of those things you can’t miss.
Q: Awesome. Anything else you want to make sure is in this preview?
A: That it’s free. [laughs] My own official motto this year has been: If you are remotely in the area and you are a writer or a reader, you should come to this.
Anna Prushinskaya is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.