Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2022: Wordfest Stage headliners include Monarch The Poet, and George McEwan, known as Utah’s Biggest Liar

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Monarch The Poet: June 24, Wordfest (Literary Arts) Stage, 7 p.m.

For Monarch The Poet, some of his best role models include the best known names on the poetry scene, including Nikki Giovanni and Jericho Brown, whose writing style resonated with the stream of consciousness and raw melodic flow he has crafted in his work. Closer to his direct creative circles have been individuals such as Vogue Robinson, whom Monarch, in an interview with The Utah Review, calls his “poetry god mom.” He also cites his parents who encouraged him, a Black transgender man, to break out of the traditional path and use his voice to tell his story, an experience that he now uses to help youth in the LGBTQ community to find their own voice.

He also cites Elle Hope, who also will be appearing at the Utah Arts Festival. Hope directs the Spotlight Poetry team which will be competing this weekend with five other regional teams in an invitational on the Wordfest Stage. About Hope, Monarch says, “Elle is phenomenal for how she handles all the team’s tour bookings and still finds time to write beautifully. I love being a part of that team.” Hope will precede Monarch’s performance on June 24 at 6:30 p.m. and the team invitational will take place at 8 p.m., just shortly after Monarch completes his performance. The Spotlight Poetry team also will perform June 25 at 7 p.m. on the Wordfest Stage.

Like his colleagues who have navigated the slam poetry circuit and competitions with seemingly effortless rhythm and style, Monarch prepares by having an arsenal of poems prepared on various topics, knowing that curveballs, responding on the fly. and acknowledging that the order or sequence is likely to be randomized otherwise could risk throwing him off his game. “If you are suddenly thrown off your game. then you can’t find your rhythm. At least by hoping for the best case scenario, I can be ready to ride the roller coaster of the competition,” he explains.

Monarch The Poet

Some topics come easily, such as experiences about being a Black man, a trans man, queer man but others become that much more challenging such as the complexities and complications of love and romance and the pain of sexual assault or suicide, which bring much more energy but are not as mentally liberating. Reliving trauma rarely comes easily in a public slam invitational.

One certainty is that activism and writing go hand in hand for Monarch. “If you are not writing about what is happening then you are not writing about anything,” he says. When it comes to topics such as social injustice, prisons, corrupt police, neglected neighborhoods whose residents are beyond frustrated, Black queer representation, and the vulnerabilities for trans individuals when they are seen as excessively sexualized objects instead of as human beings who deserve dignity and respect, then poetry becomes activism, and vice versa.

The gist of his activism is clear cut. To young members in the queer community, he says, “Don’t be afraid of who you are because there will be those who will try to tear you down and say something is wrong with you.” He continues that even while there always will be those who are hateful and do not understand, one should never hide in fear and find those who are like oneself because those are the voices one needs to hear. As for organizations, which commit to access and inclusion, Monarch says that they should always stand on their promises of listening to and bringing those who have been underrepresented. “The ideal marker is for those organizing an event to ask is this event safe for a Black queer fans person in a wheelchair,” je explains. Indeed, activism and art go hand in hand when both lead to sincere results and constructive action. 

As for QTBIPOC media and entertainment that resonates with Monarch, he cites Lil Nas X as the perfect yet rare example of the queer Black person who with the force of power gained with his fame is doing what he wants to do and is having fun. Another is the queer rapper Chika (Jane Chika Oranika), who Monarch says stands out for her lyricism and her phenomenal poetry and language. “Every time I listen to her, it makes me want to pull out my dictionary and thesaurus to expand my own vocabulary,” he adds. He also cites the young adult novel Felix Ever After, written by Karen Callender and published two years ago. Monarch says he enjoys the positive affirmation of the narrator and main character, a Black trans teen who is falling in love for the first time.

Monarch’s writing process is a variation of reverse engineering at times. He rarely starts at the beginning and often a line will pop up in his head and it usually will be one that will end up in the middle or the end of the poem. So, he starts building around it, and the process often will take a few months of back and forth. Currently, he is working on a chapbook of poems about love, reflecting the love he currently has for someone. Monarch admits that writing anti-love poems has been much easier for him than his current project. But, as for his aforementioned arsenal, he has 20 journals and sketchbooks that he has on hand to record whenever a line or a concept comes to mind. Using his phone is a last resort if he does not have a book or pen on hand. Journals and sketchbooks, of course, make for great archival materials to help trace a writer’s even chaotic creative process. He hopes they could eventually become a part of a gallery exhibition to chronicle how the writer’s creative journey unfolds. 

George McEwan

George McEwan, Utah’s Biggest Liar: June 25, Wordfest Stage, 6 p.m. 

As Carolyn Brown discussed in her excellent 1989 book about the folkloric history behind the American tall tale, the golden age was in the middle 1800s. In the Far West, tall tales were printed in newspapers, almanacs and gift books and were reprinted and circulated throughout the country. She writes, “They described eccentrics, old-timers, jokers, and hunters who told of huge and clever bears, giant mosquitoes, extraordinary marksmen, and vast deserts and boiling springs of the Far West.” The tall tale was more than just entertainment, as it “is a comic fiction disguised as fact, deliberately exaggerated to the limits of credibility and beyond in order to reveal emotional truths, to awaken his audience, to exorcise fears, to define and bind a social group.”

George McEwan, with the curious title of Utah’s Biggest Liar, would fall into the category that Brown describes, “the most artistically successful tall tale writers were those who most creatively transformed folklore’s subtler functions and meanings into tall literature.”

McEwan, who has won the golden shovel six times at Utah’s Biggest Liar in the Just Believe Story Contest of the Timpanogos Storytelling Institute, will perform at the Utah Arts Festival on June 25 at 6 p.m. on the Wordfest Stage. 

In an interview with The Utah Review, McEwan says the key to success in a tall tale contest is to begin the story with a “grain of truth that is believable.” For example, a story starts innocently enough about a backyard barbeque, add gasoline and a poor understanding of physics, and the tale ends up with the poor soul on the moon. The point, McEwan says, is that the story’s impact as a tall tale is automatically lost if it starts with the person on the moon.

In 2017, when McEwan won the contest, his story started with flying a plane from Salt Lake City to Idaho, a credible premise, and then he hits a thermal, also credible, but notice the sly turn toward the absurd when he talks about eating his lunch while a flock of eagles appear and spin his plane with such force that his milk is churned into butter. 

McEwan’s career involved lots of international travel and meeting all sorts of people from different cultures, which gave him plenty of material to play around with in crafting an effective tall tale. The key he says is to start with “something subtle that is plausible enough to say maybe it did happen or maybe didn’t.” Thus, the trick is to keep it plausible as long as possible before the outlandish climax. And, it happens quickly. The Timpanogos contest gives competitors a maximum of six minutes to lay out the tall tale. A McEwan classic is about exposure to chemical radiation and the person sneezes, pushing out an atomic booger that creates a one-foot-tall mushroom cloud. 

Rote memorization is critical to making the tall tale rhythm work, as any lapse, hesitation, pause, or a breath taken in the wrong spot could jeopardize the full and best impact of the tall tale. A good way to think about it, McEwan says, is to use the Agatha Christie mystery storytelling approach to decide how to get to the big reveal. 

McEwan admires the classics from the tall-tale canon, such as the stories told by Mark Twain as well as Scottish and Irish ballads where completely farcical stories are told in three or four minutes. Word play is just as essential, which is why McEwan enjoys the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello. Stories that start with a true premise are effective. Take the rigorously authenticated Guinness World Records as an example. The world’s heaviest breed of chicken was a rooster in California, “named Weirdo, [which] reportedly weighed 10 kg (22 lb) in January 1973 and was so aggressive that he killed two cats and maimed a dog which ventured too close.” With a set up like that, McEwan relishes the word play opportunity: “poultry in motion.” 

Indeed, the popular fad of dad jokes, as much as many of them are groan-inducing, there also are many examples that serve the repertoire of the successful tall tale spinner. Another favorite for McEwan is Gary Larson, the cartoonist for the classic Far Side strip, which is timeless in its appeal and relevance. The starting point for an effective tall tale could be a trip to the grocery store, or the attempt to make the biggest churro, or as Brown explained, running from a bear.

When McEwan ran successfully for a seat on the Centerville, Utah City Council, his campaign embraced the call to vote for Utah’s Biggest Liar. He prevailed, despite some who were upset about his use of the title. The witty ironies practically wrote themselves. As for the half dozen golden shovels he has accumulated, they have become useful in his role as a local elected official. He brings one whenever ground is being broken for a project in Centerville.  

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