In the film Wings of Desire, the angel Damiel hears the thoughts of the storyteller Homer as he implores the muse, “Name me, the men, women, and children, who will look for me, me their storyteller, their spokesman, for they need me more than anything in the world.”
Here in Utah, we have our storytellers, our poets whom we need, and we have the hearths around which the people gather to hear the stories of our experience. We still gather to hear the storyteller, to hear the voice, the music of the language come from the living mouth. The literary scene in Utah is vibrant and is becoming more vibrant all the time.
The University of Utah has been home to some of the finest writers in America. Current faculty at the university includes Utah Poet Laureate Katharine Coles, named to the post by Gov. John Huntsman Jr. two years ago. Author of four collections of poetry and two novels, Coles helped found the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature, which brings together scientists, philosophers, and writers to discuss topics that affect us all from diverse disciplines.
Teaching along with Coles are poets Jacqueline Osherow, Paisley Rekdal, and Karen Brennan. Brennan and Rekdal are also acclaimed for their prose. They are joined by a phenomenal group of fiction writers, Melanie Rae Thon, Francois Camoin, and Lance Olsen, new to Utah this year.
The U. and Salt Lake City Arts Council present a Guest Writer Series at the Art Barn/Finch Lane Gallery (1325 E. 100 South). These readings have featured such luminaries as Robert Creeley, Mark Strand, Russell Banks, and Jean Valentine. The University’s MFA and Ph.D. programs in creative writing bring a new generation of fine writers with new, exciting voices to our literary scene. The school also produces nationally reputed literary magazines, Western Humanities Review and Quarterly West.
Westminster College also plays an important role in Utah’s literary community. Poet and professor Natasha Saje runs the Anne Newman-Sutton Weeks reading series. For 19 years, this series has hosted a who’s who of poets from around the world, from John Ashbury and Derek Walcott to Tomas Salzmun and Galway Kinnell. Westminster produces its own excellent literary magazine, Ellipsis.
The end of June brings the Writers@Work (WritersAtWork.org) writing conference to Westminster College. For a week, writers from across the country gather on this beautiful campus to study their craft with the best in the field. Students at the conference are treated to extensive workshops in the morning and provocative panel discussions in the afternoon. In the evenings, the conference offers readings by the faculty free to the public. This conference has helped to begin careers of writers such as Pam Houston, Mark Spragg and Rick Bass.
On Saturday, Oct, 25, the Utah Humanities Council (UtahHumanities.org) puts up the big tent in the Salt Lake City Main Library (210 E. 400 South) as it brings to town the Great Salt Lake Book Festival, featuring readings by authors like Isabel Allende to Jane Hamilton and William Kittredge as well as panel discussions. Booksellers and publishers from across the West proffer their wares throughout the building.
Since 1989, the City Art reading series (SLCityArt.org) has provided a venue for local and national writers to read their work. While hosting national figures such as Gregory Orr and Henry Taylor, City Art also brings audiences to the works of Utah writers like Michael Sowder and Chris Cokinos from Utah State University or poets like Jean Howard and the maverick surrealist Alex Caldiero. They have also featured the fabulous BYU poets Kimberly Johnson and Lance Larsen. Readings generally are held at the Main Library on the first three Wednesdays of the month during the academic year. Following most readings, City Art hosts an open reading so audience members can bring their own words to the podium.
Local bookstores are also vital to the Utah literary scene. The King’s English (1511 S. 1500 East) holds literary events including last year a reading by Mark Strand and one by novelist Jim Harrison. The TKE staff supports Utah writers, promoting their works and keeping them in stock.
Sam Weller’s Zion Bookstore (254 S. Main) is a staple for readers of Utah. The hours tick by on the parking meter as one gets deliciously absorbed in the used stacks in the basement of the store. Sam Weller’s also hosts and sponsors readings including recently a reading by first daughter Jenna Bush but also authors of a more literary lineage like Robert Fulghum, Joanna Straughn and Craig Childs.
Ken Sanders’ Rare Books (268 S. 200 East) tempts the reader to get lost in its towering stacks of used and rare treasures but also sponsors readings from such literary explorers as Melissa Bond, Gino Sky and Beat pioneer Anne Waldman. Owner Ken Sanders joins Alex Caldiero on KCPW 88.3 FM to illuminate the radio audience about poetry on their show Poetry is Wanted Here.
Salt Lake City has a strong slam poetry scene. The Cup of Joe coffee shop (353 W. 200 South) hosts a weekly slam on Saturday evenings. Slam poets like Brian Frandsen, Repo and Jim Keller perform their edgy, provocative entertaining poems for raucous audiences who really get to participate in slam by hooting and hollering after and during the poems, urging poets to “push.”
We need our storytellers, and here in Utah, we have many, marvelous and powerful storytellers. We have only to look, gather around the hearth, and listen; gather around the hearth and be filled.
Joel Long is a poet and English teacher at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School. His book Winged Insects was published in 1999 by White Pine Press.