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Literature and home

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the 12th annual Juniper Literary Festival at UMass Amherst. A homecoming of sorts, since I received an MFA from UMass Amherst and, why not own up to it, a BA from Amherst College, and lived in the area (“the Valley,” named with the solipsism of any region—meaning the Pioneer Valley, which runs a good length of western Massachusetts) for some time between, so that all told about ten years of my life have been spent there (here, where I still sit this morning).

The place feels like home, is what I mean. This seems like an easy enough feeling to describe, at least in the abstract; of course in one’s life the question of how to understand or act on that feeling is much more difficult. But this weekend I was also reminded and struck by the fact that the Valley’s literary life is also a home, that the place offers a literary home. As quick illustration, the New York Times has called the Pioneer Valley “arguably the most author-saturated, book-cherishing, literature-celebrating place in the nation.” It’s often possible to attend two or three readings a week here, and the wealth of magazines, classes, gatherings, small presses, “flying objects” —extraordinary. Living here a person such as myself might even have occasionally grumbled about how many readings there were. How foolish that seems to me now that I live somewhere where literary and cultural events are much harder to come by, definitely the exception rather than the rule. What is it to live amid such wealth? I should know but found myself wondering anew this weekend.

The Juniper Festival has had myriad themes through the years, but as of last year and I believe for the foreseeable future it is dedicated to celebrating “New Writers/New Writing.” This means that each year six poets and six prose/fiction writers who are at early stages of their writing careers—usually one or two books, sometimes more—are invited to read, to discuss contemporary literature and publishing, and, because the Juniper Festival is wonderfully small, to meet one another and those in the audience. (No 10,000-person AWP this, and thank goodness.) This year’s festival featured the writers (and editors and translators and publishers) Anna Moschavakis, Amelia Gray, Blake Butler, Macgregor Card, Robert Fernandez, Julia Cohen, Corwin Ericson, Christopher DeWeese, Julia Holmes, Anna Joy Springer, Vincent Standley, and Paul Legault.

Some of their work I knew, some was new to me, but what I think I mean about “home” is that in meeting it in this place, it was as though it was ready to be a home. This sounds solipsistic, but I don’t think it is, quite. Rather it was as though one was already welcomed into this work, diverse as it was, since one was connected to it, by landscape, by the wonderful writers and organizers who curate the festival each year, by the small presses, local and more farflung, that gather in the book fair—by the lingering spirit of Emily Dickinson (to whom Paul Legault paid extended tribute), who knows? What I mean is something about community nurturing not only itself but the wider soil, something about degrees of connection, something that Malcolm Gladwell has probably written something about… One wants one’s home to be not just familiar, but expanding, surprising—its doors open. The keynote address of this year’s festival was a reading by James Tate, celebrating the publication of Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990–2010. I first heard James Tate read at a UMass event five years ago, knowing nothing whatsoever about him or the program there, and he read one of the same poems, “An Eland, in Retirement.” Wonderful to hear it again, and anew. I suppose all I’m trying to say—about home, community, etc.— is the same old song, about the familiar becoming new and the new familiar. Not a new thought, it’s true (quite familiar)—but how nice to experience it.