Telluride Literary Arts Fest 2017: Overview

Get ‘Litʼ in Telluride at the 4th Telluride Literary Arts Festival. The weekend features eclectic events for lovers of books, reading, and poetry, Friday, May 19 – Sunday, May 21. Tickets, $15, to Saturday night’s Literary Burlesque are on sale as of Monday, May 8, at Telluride’s Ah Haa School or Between the Covers Bookstore. You snooze, you lose. Other than Burlesque, all Lit Fest events are free, but pre-registration is required for featured author Lydia Peelle’s Saturday workshop at the Telluride Library. (Scroll down for further details.)

Writers, readers, and poets will gather in Telluride the weekend of May 19-21 for the 4th annual Telluride Literary Arts Festival, aka Lit Fest.

A unique spin on burlesque created by writers and poets, celebrated featured author Lydia Peelle and her recently released novel “The Midnight Cool,” plus other fun happenings, roll up into a memorable collection of narratives and words in our Valley.

“A drama about the speciousness of the American dream and the costs of self-invention…The novel resists trite resolution. We may write our own stories, it suggests, but we can’t predict our endings,” raved The New Yorker about “The Midnight Cool.”

“LitFest is an opportunity to get together and celebrate the joy of reading and writing and affirm a good ole-fashioned past-time,” says Daiva Chesonis, Between the Covers Bookstore co-owner and one of the original conspirators behind the event.

Over the past few years, Lit Fest has brought in writers Pam Houston, Craig Childs, and Peter Heller to town. Aspiring poets and poetry lovers have enjoyed readings and workshops by renown performers and laureates such as Judyth Hill, Joe Hutchinson, and David Rothman, plus the winners of the Fischer Prize such as this year’s Anna Scotti.

Paraphrasing American writer George Saunders, Chesonis agrees there is “a common architecture between the writer and the reader.” A gathering like Lit Fest is simply the drafting table that allows inspired attendees to dig in deeper, think expansively, create more.

Tellurideʼs Lit Fest is cobbled together by a coalition of regional writers and literature-loving organizations and businesses, with the mutual goal of supporting—and sustaining—the literary arts.

Organizing entities include the Ah Haa School for the Arts, Between the Covers Bookstore, Telluride Instituteʼs Talking Gourds Poetry Program, Telluride Arts, the Wilkinson Public Library, and new this year, the R-1/Telluride School District.

Falling the weekend before Mountainfilm, the event is a collective nod not only to the craft of books, but also to the Westʼs ongoing literary history. In Telluride, a prime example of that history is “Tomboy Bride: A Womanʼs Personal Account of Life in Mining Camps of the West” by Harriet Fish Backus. For almost two decades, that work has been the top annual bestseller at Between the Covers, offering an accurate glimpse into the regionʼs past through Bachus’ own words.

With an award-winning library, a thriving poetry scene that includes several resident poets laureate, an arts school that hosts writing workshops, and a nationally recognized bookbinding academy, plus an indie bookshop that has been serving the literary needs of the area since 1974, it becomes obvious that Telluride is a town that sincerely embraces the literary arts.

For 2017, Lit Festʼs featured author is, again, Lydia Peelle. Her previous book, “Reasons For and Advantages of Breathing,” was a New York Times Book Review Critics’ Choice book and received an honorable mention for the PEN/ Hemingway Award.

Lit Fest featured author Lydia Peelle. Her debut novel, “The MIdnight Cool ” is, well, very very cool, a book about the moral dilemmas that have shaped our history.

Peelle is also the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Prize, and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honor. To top it off, there was also the Anahid Award for Armenian-American writers.

Peelle lives in Nashville, Tennessee – that is when not on a tour bus with her two children and husband Ketch, lead singer for the Old Crow Medicine Show. Sponsored by the Wilkinson Public Library, Peelle will duck out from the bandʼs tour to steal away to Telluride for Lit Fest.

Peellle’s introduction to Telluride has an academic component. She is an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, along with founding Festival faculty and locally based writers Amy Irvine and Craig Childs. She herself earned an MFA from the University of Virginia in addition to fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Ucross, Yaddo, and Ragdale.

Of Peelle, Childs says “she is brilliant and complex.”

Lit Fest kicks off Friday, May 19 — the weekendʼs official “opening of the book”— with a last chance viewing of the American Bookbinding Academyʼs Open•Set Exhibition of handmade books in the Daniel Tucker Gallery at the Ah Haa School for the Arts.

Intended to be a recognition of the beauty of the craft of bookbinding and a commitment to the public towards a better understanding of this art form, the exhibition showcases 50 books, recognizing excellence in craftsmanship and design concept interpretation. Catch it by 5 p.m. before the exhibit continues its travel across the United States.

Friday is also Lit Festʼs Kids Day. At 2:15 p.m., at the Wilkinson Public Library, in collaboration with Telluride schools, Telluride Theatre will perform “A Trilogy Theatre Performance of Mo Willems’ Books.” Based on bestselling childrenʼs books by Willems like “Donʼt Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the plays will be performed for K-4th grades at the library.

Open to the public, the trilogy is free to attend. If you saw “The Lorax,” the production is another great page-to-stage project that should knock your socks off.

Friday eveningʼs programming begins with the awarding of the 20th Fischer Poetry Prize at Telluride Arts world headquarters, across from the library, at 5:30 p.m.

Started in 1997, the Fischer Prize, originally the Mark Fischer Prize, was created by the Telluride Writers Guild and sustained by Telluride Arts, to honor the memory of  Mark – and then his wife Elaine Fischer –two Colorado creatives and champions of the arts. Mark was a brilliant lawyer-poet who died young; Elaine, his artist-widow, went on to become Mayor of Telluride and a San Miguel County Commissioner for four terms (2000-2016). Elaine passed away last Memorial Day weekend.

Most recently, the award was re-energized and expanded by Art Goodtimes and the Telluride Instituteʼs Talking Gourds Poetry Program. What started as a $100 prize for local poets moved to a statewide focus, then expanded to target the regional Southwest, followed by a Western U.S, scan. The Fischer Prize has now widened its scope even further, making the awards available to poets throughout the entire country.

Over 350 poems were submitted in 2016. The prize now comes with a cash award of $1,000 (plus a $500 travel stipend to cover the journey of the winner to Telluride to read their award-winning poem), plus five finalist awards of $200 each.

In the quirky polyglot spirit of Mark, prizes are awarded to entries that best exhibit the qualities of originality, novelty, complex meaning, linguistic skill, and wit: the wilder the better.

The final judge for 2017 was Chris Ransick, Denverʼs Poet Laureate emeritus.The deadline for 2018 is April 21, 2017. For more info and updates, visit the Talking Gourds website.

Following a post-awards dinner break, poetry ramps up again at the Liberty Bar at 8 p.m. with a Talking Gourds Spotlight Poetry Performance by former Western Slope Poet Laureate Aaron Abeyta, winner of the Colorado Book Award for his poetry collection “Colcha” and recipient of a Colorado Council on the Arts fellowship for poetry.

Aaron Abetya

Abeyta is currently a professor of English at Adams State College and mayor of Antonito, Colorado, remaining close to his family and culture, both of which greatly influence his work.

Outgoing Western Slope Poet Laureate Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer will announce the new Laureate, who will present a few poems before Abeyta’s reading. An open mic will follow.

During the day on Saturday, May 20, Peelle, will teach a writing workshop, “The Story in Everyday Objects,” at the library, 1-3 p.m. The library-sponsored event is free, but pre-registration is required.

In the workshop, participants will explore how deep contemplation of everyday objects we might otherwise take for granted can be powerful triggers for expanding the imagination and developing character in both fiction and non-fiction work. Participants will practice writing exercises that stretch both the imagination and descriptive prose muscles. Bring writing materials and a small object that holds meaning for you.

Saturday night features the 4th Annual Literary Burlesque performance by the morphing troupe of nine women and one guy who will drop layers, both literal and literary, at the Ah Haa School.

This yearʼs show —”Geography of Resistance: Body Politic, Body Erotic”— is a collective “No!” to the rising forces in the world that seek to strip from bodies of women and bodies of land the legal protections that ensure we run wild and free, as madams of our own ecology. But the theme is also a “Yes!” and a nod to Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope,” a phrase that public lands advocates invoke in the ongoing effort to protect our last, best wild places.

Meaning performers will caress contours. Tease topographies. The troupe will erode and expose. And playfully peel away the projections that seek to reduce us to mere resources for the taking.

Coincidentally, the troupe will be performing on May 20, designated in 2016 by Colorado lawmakers as Colorado’s Public Lands Day.

Amy Irvine by Susie Grant

“At its heart, burlesque has always been a response to socio-political tyranny. And so this year’s performance is, in large part,  just that: Our collective response to pussy-grabs and land-grabs alike,” says Amy Irvine, founding director, Literary Burlesque.

In his review of the 2016 show “Oh Sister, Where Art Thou?,” Art Goodtimes noted: “Itʼs so very good. I was teased, tantalized, thumped, and thoroughly rattled. Hysterical with laughter. Close to tears. On the edge of a canyon and deep in the incredible world of the feminine.”

Performers will include Kierstin Bridger, Daiva Chesonis, Craig Childs, Erika Moss Gordon, Amy Irvine, Elle Metrick, Lydia Peelle, Corinne Platt, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and Samantha Tisdel Wright. Doors open at 7 p.m. with a cash bar opening reception that will feature—wait for it—miniature mules as special guests, a nod to some of the characters in Peelleʼs new novel. 

Lit Fest wraps Sunday, May 21, with the Featured Author Brunch and Lydia Peelle, 11 a.m., Wilkinson Public Library.

To gear up for Peelleʼs visit, the library has designated her novel “The Midnight Cool” as its 2017 Spring Read. Librarians have a nice stack of the books for checking out, while Between the Covers Bookstore has copies in stock as well.

Whether you borrow or buy, get your hands on this great historical fiction off-season read.

“Peelle’s sad, swirling tale teems with grabby historical minutiae…Thankfully, the narrative’s multifarious hard-luck stories are also leavened with cunning flashes of humor,” The New York Times Book Review.

Set in 1916 Tennessee, “The Midnight Cool” is a rich tale of two flawed, yet endearing grifters who pursue women, wealth, and a surprisingly valuable commodity for the troops in Europe: mules. Longtime horse traders and partners, they have turned their talents to trading mules. But in the summer of 1916, these seasoned drifters skilled in the art of the underhanded deal have just been swindled themselves. They’re saddled with the one thing they may not be able to unload: a gorgeous, murderous black mare named “The Midnight Cool.”

Keep an eye out for the Telluride Literary Arts Festival banner across Main Street in the days leading up to May 19, a reminder not only to partake in the events, but also to set aside some time for the written word and to thank those who write for our enjoyment and escape.

Lit Fest is a great way to welcome the summer season of festivals and community gatherings … with words.

Until then, get caught reading!

For the complete 2017 LitFest schedule and presenter bios, go here.

Otherwise, stay tuned to local and regional media outlets … and Get Lit in Telluride!

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Susan Viebrock

Susan Viebrock

Susan is Telluride Inside… and Out’s founder and editor-in-chief, the visionary on the team, in charge of content, concept and development. For 19+ years, Susan has covered Telluride’s cultural economy, which includes non-profits and special events. Much of her writing features high-profile individuals in the arts, entertainment, business, and politics. She is a former Citibank executive specializing in strategic planning and new business development, and a certified Viniyoga instructor.

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