Gathering Up the Wanderers
Waiting for the Austin International Poetry Festival's vision to catch up with its size and diversity
By Abe Louise Young, Fri., April 16, 2004
Drive carefully this weekend. Two hundred poets will be wandering from cafe to bookstore to bar, stumbling in a state of linguistic intoxication and invoking the Muses and ancestors. The Austin International Poetry Festival is headquartered at Ruta Maya off South Congress, and it is one of the strangest and most compelling literary events around.
The AIPF is the country's largest nonjuried poetry festival. Its offerings are an unpredictable mélange, bringing together poetry's many disparate strands in a kind of big family reunion. Nonjuried means that no one is judging, so anyone can perform. If you had the guff to send in your name and $10, you're on the roster.
Here, you'll find milk-crate prophets, lawyers and dentists who self-publish in iambic pentameter, up-and-coming rappers, and adventurous English professors. They will share stages with performance poets like Segun Akinlolu of Nigeria, Mahogany Browne of NYC, and frontliners from Zimbabwe, Cuba, England, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. People don't come to perform at AIPF because they're getting paid they come because they need to be heard, and that's the kind of naked feeling of which poetry is born.
Some of the performers will be truly inspiring. Others will be newly aspiring, and heavily perspiring. The risk of hearing some embarrassing poetry my-soul-compared-to-a-thunderstorm style is worth the chance to throw the artistic doors wide open, as AIPF does. This weekend is about celebrating a random worldwide community, of which each individual poet is only a small link, and audience members are treated as friends. Most events are free at venues around town.
In the genre of performance poetry, particular attention is paid to poets who use the gifts of rhythm and drama to tackle social justice. The image on the cover of the conference anthology Di-Verse-City is a dreadlocked child with mouth wide open in song, white doves of peace encircling his head. Many of the frontliners call for liberation in verse that's part rap, part manifesto, part theatre. Mahogany Browne, for example, is a member of MTV's crew, the Punany Poets, and her mission is to teach safe-sex methods to the hip-hop generation. Others headliners work in a more bookish, but no less interesting vein: Jayne Fenton Keane is an Australian poet whose text Ophelia's Codpiece provides "a feminist and poststucturalist take on Shakespeare's tragic heroine." Joanna Catherine Scott comes from North Carolina and is the author of Indochina's Refugees: Oral Histories From Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and the award-winning poetry collection Breakfast at the Shangri-La. The festival's 14 headliners will be reading all together on Saturday night at Waterloo Ice House from 9pm to midnight, hosted by Austin's own Valerie Bridgeman-Davis.
Segun Akinlolu, also known as Beautiful Nubia, is a performer not to be missed. A young Nigerian musician, folklorist, and poet, he backs himself with acoustic guitar and African percussion instruments. Akinlolu took first prize at the Bristol International Poetry Slam in England last year. He is also giving a free workshop on oral literature in modern societies, which envisions performance poetry as the best tool to reach a public that has lost interest in the printed word. Akinlolu draws on accessible, personal scholarship and images of a time in Africa when "whole villages would gather in a marketplace to listen to the wandering hereditary poets."
A vision of inclusion is what makes AIPF unique and keeps it thriving into its 11th year. Yet, in some ways, the festival works against itself by asking participants in the many bookstore readings to self-select into categories like Lyric Poets, Urban Poets, and Queer Poets. It would be wilder and more interesting and require a battery of quick-tongued, fancy-dancing emcees if the festival really highlighted its unusual array instead. If the lyric poets (quiet, imagistic, literary) are interleaved with the urban poets (loud, kinetic, and assertive), the two will come away with more knowledge of the other's craft, have a fistfight that settles longstanding family issues, or elope. AIPF would do well to make their vision more vigorous and let each reading be a lottery, a cross-section of the poetic impulse in our world today.
How many chances do we get to listen to the wandering poets of the 21st century? It's a transnational, global art form. And if you forgot to sign up, you can still perform the poems hidden in your bedside table at Mojo's All-Night Open Mic, on Friday from midnight to dawn.
Abe Louise Young will read during the AIPF with other Fellows from the Michener Center for Writers on Saturday, April 17, at the Austin History Center.
The Austin International Poetry Festival launches on Thursday, April 15, and continues through Sunday, April 18. For more information, see the Litera listings. For the complete AIPF workshop and reading schedule, go to www.aipf.org.