Eighteen years old. It's a time of coming of age, and the Utah Humanities Book Festival in that span of time has come into its own. "It started out as a weekend of events on the Westminster campus," festival director Michael McLane says, "and has gone through several iterations, and exponential geographical growth, to become the statewide, month long series of programming that it is now."
Along with the festival itself (this will be McLane's fourth at the helm), he's had his own learning curve. "I think a willingness to explore parts of the literary landscape I was unfamiliar with (such as young adult lit, comics, mystery, fantasy and other genres, etc.) and try to engage those fans and cater to some of those tastes was a critical learning experience," he writes in an email. Child- and young adult-oriented events now include an entire day devoted to their favorite reads at the Viridian in West Jordan.
It's not just a celebration of books, but also an opportunity to meet and interact with authors directly, in person. McLane says, "The three things I'm most excited about are William Vollmann's visit to Salt Lake City (he's long been a literary hero of mine) [Oct. 2], poet Carl Phillips' visit to Salt Lake City and Cedar City on Oct. 12 and 13, and Sarah Alisabeth Fox's tour of the state (Salt Lake City, Logan, Provo, Enterprise, Washington and Cedar City) toward the end of October to discuss her new book, Downwind: A People's History of the Nuclear West." Also on the political side, activist and former vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke will appear in Cedar City, and environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams will deliver the keynote in Orem on Oct. 8.
Vollmann, who was awarded the National Book Award in 2015, writes novels, essays, short stories and works of journalism, and his latest novel, The Dying Grass, is about the Nez Perce War of 1877. He often writes about history, especially violence and wars, and he finds a parallel between the justification of wars such as that of the Nez Perce, which took the land from a peaceable people, and recent conflicts such as the second gulf war. "There are a finite number of excuses for violence," Vollmann maintains, "You hear the same justifications over and over again, and you can break them down." With all his pessimism, he still says, "I'm a strong believer in the ideals of America."
One of the most dramatic events of the festival will be at the Salt Lake City Main Library with poet Alex Caldiero's reading of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"—which marks its 60th anniversary this year—on Oct. 9. "If you didn't catch [Caldiero's reading on the 50th anniversary], don't miss the 60th," McLane says. "Alex knows how to put on a show."
Of the epic poem, Caldiero says, "I think it's the poem of our time in America. It was the poem that tuned me into what was happening in our culture. In four parts, it evolves into a visionary experience, from insanity to this transcendental, holy place, where everything is sacred. I don't perform it so much as transmitting, channeling, listening to the voice of the poet and joining my own voice to it, speaking together. It becomes a living message."
Compared to the number of, say, week-long or two-day festivals in this state, the UHBF is an impressive undertaking, and it takes the "Utah" part of its title very seriously. "Utah Humanities has a statewide mandate, so the biggest change has been broadening the festival into a statewide event. This year, we have events taking place in 16 communities from Logan to St. George, and that number usually sits between 15 and 20 year to year.
"It's a pretty vast undertaking that is really only made possible by a large network of partners, including schools, libraries, bookstores, museums, and community groups, in each of these locations. The Utah Humanities Book Festival staff is essentially one person, so this project doesn't work without those partners."
With the sessions on Downwind and events tied in with cosplay or fan fiction groups, the event is becoming more in tune with current issues. McLane notes, "It's not Comic Con, but these provide more engaging, intimate environments for fans to talk about these subjects, and we even have teens designing and leading some of those panels and events this year." He also stresses "how critical the independent booksellers are to this event, particularly along the Wasatch Front. Their roles in terms of helping to get authors here, promoting the events, and of course, selling the books, cannot be overstated."
In spite of the limited resources at the festival's disposal, the event attempts to make a wider variety of books and authors available to Utahns, and maybe even open the literary world's eyes to Utah. "Utah used to be fly-over country for a lot of the publishing world," he says. "That is no longer the case. I like to think the festival had some role to play in that." CW
Utah Humanities Book Festival
Correction: An incorrect location was given for the performance of "Howl" in the original version of this story. It has been changed above. The correct location is Salt Lake City Main Library.