Backstage at The Utah Arts Festival 2016: A closer look at some of the nationally known Literary Arts performers, poets, songwriters

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This year’s Literary Arts venue at the 40th annual Utah Arts Festival brings numerous literary figures from the country in a series of performances slated for The Big Mouth Stage. The Utah Review had the gracious honor of interviewing several who will be appearing as part of the largest program offering ever at the festival’s Literary arts venue.

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

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In his work, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (June 26, 4:30 p.m.) has crafted effectively, as he describes it, “a very short bridge” between music journalism and poetry. His formative experiences as a journalist and as a poet have been shaped by numerous influences including the great rock critic Lester Bangs, novelist Alice Walker and poets Terrance Hayes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Khadijah Queen and Eve Ewing.

Abdurraqib’s output is growing steadily at a prolific pace. Just a few weeks ago, Powder Keg magazine published three of his poems, inspired by reflections on pop songs from the 1980s and 1990s. One is titled Cutting Crew—(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight. Three more poems were published a few days ago at Public Pool, an online publication for poets.

Abdurraqib also is a columnist for MTV News, where he writes poetically-inspired prose that probes deeper sociocultural contexts in music, sports, current events and just about everything else. The day after the shootings at Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub, he wrote a column about Surviving On Small Joys amid a violent culture that even manages to grip its hands on the language of enduring and surviving. He wrote in the diction, cadence and rhythm that many journalists and columnists aspire to but few manage to achieve consistently:

Joy, in these moments, is the sweetest meal that we keep chasing the perfect recipe for, among a world trying to gather all of the ingredients for itself. I need it to rest on my tongue especially when I am angry, especially when I am afraid, especially when nothing makes sense other than the fact that joy has been, and will always be, the thing that first pulls me from underneath the covers when nothing else will. It is the only part of me that I have to keep accessible at all times, because I never know what will come.

Three weeks ago, he wrote a tribute to Muhammad Ali and his influence on hip hop that exemplifies a critic who casts precisely the breadth and depth of context that made Bangs’ writing about music so lasting in its penetrating valuation. Abdurraqib wrote of Ali: “Ali was the first great MC, the mouth from which all other mouths came, the voice that rattled the mountains and shook out 100 children.” He then gives numerous examples of that legacy, mentioning Chuck D, Nas, Ice Cube, Chance, MF Doom, Lil Wayne and others. Indeed, today’s editorial journalism in the broader sense would benefit from the type of poetic voice Abdurraqib brings to his work.

Next month, Button Poetry/Exploding Pinecone Press will release his book-length collection of new work The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. Articulating themes of nostalgia and memory, the poems in his latest work chronicle the impact of gentrification on the neighborhood landscapes and the violence that results from it. Abdurraqib, who lived in Columbus, Ohio, says that “he wanted to let people enter this place geographically even if they have never been there before.” The book came about as a result of feedback he received after finishing second place in a chapbook contest. The editors asked him to stretch the original 12 pages of work into a full-length collection.

Matt Hart

Matt Hart photo

Hart (June 25, 6:30 p.m.) approaches his work from the initial spark of an ordinary experience or observation. “It can be as simple as describing items on my desk, a glass of water on the counter, or something overhead in other people’s conversations,” he explains. “Anything that comes up is good fodder for a poem: a conversation, event or feeling. I often am most interested in the error, mistake, accident or something that wasn’t originally intended.”

Recently, he has been working on what he calls “fake translations” of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poems, starting off by running them through the Google Translate platform. As anyone who has ever used the function, the translations are more than occasionally jumbled or awkward in phrasing or word choice. However, Hart says that he works with the draft translations within the fields of homophones, antonyms and word association, helped along courtesy of autocorrect and autofill functions. “I am not worried about fidelity to the original and, in fact, it becomes a new work,” he adds.

Hart, a punk band musician-cum-poet, had started a small literary magazine with his college roommate Eric Appleby during their days at Ball State University, titled Nausea Is the Square Root of Muncie. The publication also followed to Hart’s days as a graduate student in philosophy at Ohio University in Athens. The publication, which was released every year or so, was a curious amalgam of poetry, recipes and old industrial machinery and safety manuals. Always a self-sustaining publication which continues to this day, the magazine is now known as Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, based out of Cincinnati, where he works and teaches and lives with his wife and daughter.

“When we were hashing out a new name for the journal, I kept thinking about heavy awkward machinery and Eric [Appleby] said that ‘forklift’ was okay but we should make it a place: Forklift, Ohio. We wanted to be more than a literary magazine. There is not a whole lot of difference between the language between poetry, recipes and technical manuals, it’s about variations on language that do a certain kind of work but also amount to more than the sum of its parts.”

Forklift’s longevity is widely respected, as the journal has featured numerous poets with established careers and reputations as well as up-and-coming writers. In addition to 32 issues published since its inception, Forklift has generated numerous chapbooks and a book-length compilation.

Hart’s latest book will be the publication of his long poem Radiant Action along with a compendium of other poems called Radiant Companion. The title arises from a line in the 1952 children’s classic by E. B. White — Charlotte’s Web. The title fits appropriately for Hart, who also recently has returned to performing with a band. In Radiant Action, he articulates everything from ordinary gestures, ordinary experience, music of all sorts from religious songs to pop and rock classics, the noise of heavy machinery and other events as related to art. His work is as generously articulated for the audience as he is in his interview explaining the formative experiences of how he cultivated his passion for poetry. It’s immediately accessible for the audience, regardless of how extensive one’s prior interaction with poetry may have been.

Hence, that will be the impetus of his presentation at a festival workshop Writing The Unfathomable: Writing On The Poetic Sublime. Hart is especially drawn to the 1948 essay by Barnett Newman The Sublime Is Now, which explained the unique aspects of Abstract Expressionism and of the development of a distinct American identity in the visual arts. As Newman wrote, ‘Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”

‘Good Ghost’ Bill Moran

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A spoken word poet from Austin Texas who has won numerous slam championships, will perform selections (June 24, 7:30 p.m.) from his summer ‘Heir Loom’ tour, which has taken him to numerous spots throughout Australia and will continue in Texas and Louisiana after the festival. He has released two albums: I wanna go away and Holler. He has been busy traveling but agreed to do an email interview with The Utah Review.

TUR: I’d like to hear about your process as a writer. How do you approach the challenge of creating new work? How do you work with multiple sources of inspiration?

BM: My writing process is, to put it bluntly, pretty haphazard. I don’t exactly sit down, open my head and a bowl, and scrape poems out onto a keyboard. Instead, it’s like a dream or a drunk bird or some hilarious/horrifying thing that just hits me over the head and lo and behold: out comes all of the abstract weirdness. To clarif, I’ve tried to say “Ok, now I’m going to write the poem about this” and then I sit down and dump some words on the page and move them around like cold food on my plate and I inevitably hate it. These kind of pieces typically don’t do and kind of work, or hold much water beyond “This is how things are and this is why it sucks.” Rather, if texts are supposed to be something like “thinking machines”, my better poems usually come from some bold-faced, tooth-baring question or anxiety that’s following me around. And once I let it ferment in my head for long enough, it typically comes out onto the page (or phone screen or computer) all dolled-up in surreal, bodily imagery constellated around themes of eating, expelling, adornment, the house, animals, violence, noir-esque light vs. darkness, etcetera. The half-abstract imagery and voice I deploy are simply these cute little insufficient languages I have to use to think out loud, to think my way through some dark, question-shaped hallways. They’re blankets I throw over the ghosts in my house.

Put another way, I don’t really do words. They just show up in my house like a wild, reeking-of-garbage-yet-kinda-endearing animal, and all I do is sweet talk them into sitting nice on a page. Where inspiration is concerned: punk and hardcore and metal music, horror and noir and sci-fi flicks, lit theory, and a lot else is all fair game. Whatever gets the gears turning, ya know. Whatever lures the animal out of the house of my head.

TUR: I’d like to discuss your development as a writer, poet, storyteller and improvisational performer. You clearly feel comfortable in many formats and perhaps in tackling several creative projects at once.

BM: To continue onwards from the last answer– with the idea of language as a broken tool, and art as a machine with which which to think through hard questions – much of my work acknowledges the fact that what I want to say is usually beyond the reach of my vocabulary. So I’ve always been interested in the need to scrape together new languages or mediums in which to frame the question – be it performative, musical, visual and so on. I’ve included live music and a bit of costuming in my shows as of late. I’m hoping to not only ‘talk about’ the subject matter of my poems, but to rather conjure and fashion something of the poems on stage in real time, outside of my own voice and body. I think this instinct to conjure has also been fuel for my music projects too, beyond the simple fact that I’ve always dreamed of producing music and touring in a band, and have halfway-found a roundabout way to make it happen.

TUR: I’d like to hear more about how your album I wanna go away developed as well as projects in progress.

BM: Like I mentioned in my last answer, the ‘poetry’ bones I’ve been slowly sculpting have proven to be an insufficient skeleton, and I like how my artistic output looks as it bleeds out of its boundaries – not only in terms of voice but also form and medium. I’m abstracting more and more elements of my work, and ‘i wanna go away’ (along with my previous album, ‘Holler’) is an extension of that. I wanted to think, out loud in art, about what’s left over when words fail to protect, sustain or give significance to a self that wants desperately to exist securely in a very scary world. What was left, for me, was a wordless howl – something I’ve tried to marry with spoken word and imitate in music.

TUR: You’ll also be reading and performing on the Big Mouth Stage during the festival. What works or excerpts will you perform?

BM: I’m in the middle of my summer ‘Heir Loom’ tour at the moment, and I’ll bring with me the same show I’ve been performing for the past month throughout Australia, and will take with me to Texas and Louisiana after UAF. And when I say ‘show’, I mean that I’m really trying to put on exactly that. Without giving too much away, think: electronic keyboard, Mardi Gras beads, and one scared man trying to make a nervous howl sound halfway like high art.

TUR: Feedback, especially from peers and colleagues in the writing community, is so critical to the writing process yet it also can be an uncomfortably humbling experience for writers. What advice would you give to aspiring writers about how to approach the often sensitive aspects of making and receiving meaningful feedback on writing?

BM: When I said I think of texts as ‘thinking machines’, the implication is that the questions we pose in art are best thought-through with others. So the best advice I can give is to keep in mind: it’s a process. But not all feedback greases the wheels. In fact, a lot of it can slow the machine down or set it back – whether its coming from others or your own inner-critic. Let input from others describe, not prescribe, your work. Critique other people’s critiques. Sometimes, when your poem really wants to drive in a nail, some workshops have a few really awesome hammers to offer. And then some workshops have nothing but spoons or pillows or microwaves or old accordions. Recognize the hammers. Say ‘thanks’ for the other stuff and set it aside.

Above all, however, keep what matters to you in the spotlight: stay surprised by your work, find the heart and bones of your writing (and especially the weird organs that you haven’t figured out yet but find entertaining) and make them bigger and stronger, and understand that your writing is more often than not a snotty teenager and won’t respect you or your ‘artistic vision’ and will end up looking totally different when its done, so be patient. If you can do that, then your poem will do the work its supposed to do. It’ll get there.

Julian Moon

Photo: Jonathan Weiner.
Photo: Jonathan Weiner.

Julian Moon (June 25, 4 p.m.), a singer and songwriter who recently released a debut album Good Girl with Warner Brother’s Records, described by herself, as being like a “young Suzanne Vega or Jewel, these story songs will make you laugh, cry and everything in-between.” Like Moran, she has been busy performing but agreed to do an email interview with The Utah Review.

TUR: I’d like to hear about your process as a songwriter and storyteller. How do you approach the challenge of creating new work? How do you work with multiple sources of inspiration?

JM: When I first started writing it was all kind of nebulous — like grabbing random words and melodies out of the air and trying to figure out how to make sense of it. Once I went to college and got to study under professional screenwriters and songwriters I was taught how to logically start a concept from A to B. Now I love writing when I have a title or idea already thought up and start from the chorus out. I’ve learned the traditional rules of how to tell a good story so I always try to keep those in mind when I’m writing a song or even a script.

TUR: I’d like to hear more about your album: how you developed the concept and material for your album Good Girl as well as projects in progress.

JM: My album Good Girl was pretty much six years in the making. It was a long and very confusing process for many years until I got signed by Warner Brothers’ Records. Once they connected me with Greg Wells and him and I got into the studio everything just flowed. It was the first time I really felt like an artist and the vision of Good Girl came about. I realized the whole time leading up to recording many people around me had this concept of who I was/what I should be because I’m a scrawny, quiet voiced, blonde, white girl and I was continually frustrated because I didn’t feel like anyone saw me for who I really was. Good Girl ended up being a self declaration of self-awareness and using the misperceptions people had of me in a positive way rather then letting those misperceptions change who I was.

I’ve recently been let go from Warner and am trying to just focus on songwriting. I feel like a very different person than who I was when Good Girl was released and I think I’m trying to rediscover who I am and what stories I’ve got to tell. I have a few songs that I’d love to release out into the universe within the year, so I’m hoping to make an EP in the near-ish future.

TUR: You also will be performing on the Big Mouth Stage during the festival. What works or excerpts will you perform?

JM: Yes! I’m so excited! I’m planning on playing quite a few tunes off Good Girl as well as testing out some new material. It’s always an interesting process to test out new songs!

TUR: Feedback, especially from peers and colleagues in the writing and songwriting communities, is so critical to the writing process yet it also can be an uncomfortably humbling experience for writers. What advice would you give to aspiring writers/songwriters about how to approach the often sensitive aspects of making and receiving meaningful feedback on writing?

JM: I think when you’re first starting out, you should really be open to feedback from people you respect — the respect part is important. It’s hard but allowing people who you admire/look up to, to break apart your material when you’re first learning how to write is crucial, it hurts but it really helps later on in life. Eventually, after five years or so I think it’s ok to get a little more protective of your stuff. I truly believe in learning the rules so later on you can justify when you break them. But you’ve really got to learn the rules first, let them get ingrained in your body, and then when you know them by heart have fun a play around.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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