Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2023: Now in its 29th year, Literary Arts marks comprehensive depth in integrated programming with WordFest performers, poetry slam competitions, Community Writing Center workshops

EDITOR’S NOTE: In addition to this centerpiece feature about the Literary Arts program at the Utah Arts Festival, see features about this year’s poetry slam competitions at this link, and features about Utah Poet Laureate Lisa Bickmore and Heather Lang-Cassera who was Clark County, Nevada poet laureate from 2019-2021 at this link. Also follow The Utah Review preview coverage for forthcoming features about several Emerging Artists, including those who also will be performing on the WordFest Stage. 

Wordfest (Literary Arts), in its 29th year, continues to grow, at the Utah Arts Festival, with the stewardship of Ashley Vargas as program venue coordinator. In addition to the youth, individual and team slams and a full slate of literary performers representing every imaginable genre, the Wasatch IronPen Literary Marathon returns for the 16th time, as coordinated by the Salt Lake Community College Community Writing Center (CWC). 

This writing competition is open to adult and youth categories in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Participants will receive their visual prompts at the CWC offices (Library Square, Suite 8), located on the festival grounds, at 6 p.m. on June 23. They will have 24 hours to complete their submissions. Winners will read their work on the final day of the festival at the Wordfest Stage. See the CWC link for more information about the competition and prizes.  

Friday June 24, 2022 : Utah Arts Fest Jeff Swinger/SwingmanPhoto

This year’s slam competition brings performers from Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California, including the winning Utah high school team. 

The CWC, located on the Library Plaza, has revamped and expanded its workshop program, notably for it integrates with the other Literary Arts programming and the WordFest Stage programming. This is a major year for how the two largest components of Literary Arts programming have been synergized as integrated thematic pillars.

They include workshops about writing about Utah’s wilderness within the contexts of environmental conservation and interdependence, travel and nature writing for teen authors, basic and intermediate sessions in creating graphic novels and novellas and the basics of writing and creating a tarot deck. Others explore writing about different sensory experiences including proprioception and balance and understanding echolocation and electroception. Another session explores writing for multimedia and screenplays. 

There also will be two workshops conducted in Spanish, focusing on Latino and Hispanic American experiences. Led by Artes de México en Utah, the workshops will include free verse poetry forms and another on the senses and cultural demonstrations.

Other workshops focus on songwriting, its structure and lyrical impacts and summer romance storytelling, including how to approach narratives about unrequited love, tragic love, fan fiction, slash fiction and any other imaginable romance setting.

There are two state poet laureates as well as a county poet laureate emeritus who are making festival appearances this year: Lisa Bickmore (Utah), Kealoha (Hawaii) and Heather Lang-Cassera (Clark County, Nevada). Bickmore and Lang-Cassera are featured elsewhere in this preview package.

Kealoha will share poetry during a performance at the CWC on June 24, at 3 p.m. Kealoha, Hawaiʻi first Poet Laureate of Hawaiʻi, is internationally known. 

He has been a master artist for the National Endowment for the Arts, was named an American Academy of Poets Laureate Fellow, and delivered the keynote address for a commencement ceremony in 2022 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He graduated with honors from MIT with a degree in nuclear engineering (and a minor in writing). He ventured into poetry after spending years as a surf instructor.


Among his works is The Story of Everything, a science-based theater production that has toured in various cities throughout the U.S. and premiered as a feature film at the 2022 Maui Film Festival and the 2022 Hawaiʻi International Film Festival. An award-winning slam poet, Kealoha has served as Hawaiʻi’s SlamMaster since 2003, and has been on the Artists in the Schools roster since 2005. In the genre of storytelling, he has gained national recognition  at high profile events such as the National Storytelling Network Conference, the Bay Area Storytelling Festival, and the Honolulu Storytelling Festival. 

Kealoha has been involved in numerous media projects. He is the poetic vocalist for Henry Kapono’s Grammy-nominated Wild Hawaiian Experience and has been recorded on albums including Hapa’s Maui, Henry Kapono’s Henry, the Mana Maoli compilation (featuring Jack Johnson and John Cruz), and a full-length spoken word CD entitled Kealoha. His poetry has been printed by various publishers including the New York Times, the National Academy of Engineering, Auckland University Press, and Bamboo Ridge. He was featured in the film Get a Job, starring Willie K and Eric Gilliom, and starred in the movie Hawaiʻi Slam: Poetry in Paradise.

Among the poetry teams returning from previous years attending Plumas Colectiva (June 25, 5:20 p.m.), who also will coordinate a BIPOC open mic on the festival’s first day (June 23, 1:30 p.m., WordFest Stage); Ghost Poetry Show from Phoenix (June 24, 2:40 p.m., WordFest Stage), Spoken Views Poetry Collective (June 24, 6:20 p.m., WordFest Stage) from Reno, and Johnny Osi (June 24, 3:30 p.m., WordFest Stage) from Denver. Newcomers include Loud Mouth Poetry Jam (June 24, 4:30 p.m., WordFest Stage) from California’s Central Valley and the locally based Butterfly Effect (June 25, 7:10 p.m., WordFest Stage) teams. Poetry Out Loud (June 24, 12:30 p.m., WordFest Stage) made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, will feature high school slam poets and spoken word performers. 

Festival goers will have their own opportunities to add their creative expressions to the events. This includes the CWC’s Have Your Say!: Gigantic Magnetic Poetry Walls and other activities at the CWC including pocket zines, comic book panels, story scavenger hunts, flash fiction, the Letter Box vending machine, community song-building wall, ten-minute flash workshops on creating characters/world building/haiku writing/making photo essays, writing-prompt wheel, paper cranes (with the CWC goal of making 1,000 paper cranes during the festival. CWC staff also will have the Book Bike at Arts Fest. 

For more information and tickets, download the Utah Arts Festival app for free, available to Android and iOS users. There also are links to the UAF’s standard website. 

from: The Lake’s Got Something to Say (Willy Palomo, Plumas Colectiva)

Blue pink and white. The lake at sunset 

is the color of a trans flag. Here we are: two 

salty bitches, refusing to apologize 

for our stank. Don’t mind the flies, honey. 

They don’t harm nobody. Like you, 

our microbes have learned how to survive 

where almost no one else can.

from: Our stories are our bodies poetry chapbook (Sarah May, Plumas Colectiva)

Your naked bed turned towards the sun

cracks form on the surface and run deep

our exposed bellies tied together

fractured webs etching maps on our skin

Praying for water

for shelter amongst the sagebrush and dry grass

praying for rest

Your desert is a forgotten place

where we come together to remember the sacred

Facing the west as the sun disappears

our cracks all we are left with

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