Writers’ Fest Through New Eyes

This year’s D.A. Writers’ Fest will be my first– a mistake I can blame only on myself.

I was a 14-year-old freshman the first time I heard of Writers’ Fest, and decidedly didn’t have enough foresight to attend. I said I’d go the next year, but by the time the next year had come around and my excitement had grown, I learned that Writers’ Fest was an every-other-year event which I’d only get two opportunities to attend as a high school student, one of which I’d just missed.

So now, after a long wait, I’m prepared and beyond excited to attend my very first (but not last) Writers’ Fest this coming March. I’m especially excited about this year’s line-up of writers, which boasts a variety of writers from poets to playwrights with diverse and unique styles and experiences. Among the ranks of this lineup of acclaimed writers are two in particular that I’m thrilled and eager to learn from: poets Terrance Hayes and Franny Choi.

I was introduced to Terrance Hayes earlier this year during an author study project focused on identifying craft choices that make up an author’s unique style. Two of these craft choices that had an impact on me were his innovation of poetic structure, and his focus on the emotional impact of the language itself.

In a reigning age of free verse, Hayes makes a mark in his use of poetic format. For example, in his most recent collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Hayes explores historical, current, and future violence against black men through fresh takes on the sonnet form. Hayes’ use and innovation of structure is an inspiration to both the seasoned and aspiring poet, a reminder of why we grew to love poetic form in the first place, as well as the place it has in contemporary poetry.

And his “language first, meaning second” approach to poetry– a pursuit of using language to replicate feeling as purely as possible, creating poems where the language affects you before you try to rationalize. The results of this endeavor are poems like “Hip Logic,” evocative beyond measure, cinematic and visual in nature. It comes as no surprise that Hayes was a painter before he was a poet.

Like Hayes, I first encountered Franny Choi in the classroom, but under very different circumstances. It was my sophomore year, my first year in the D.A. Creative Writing program, and my first real brush with poetry. I’d written poetry in the past, but always under a deadline, always for a grade. I never considered myself a poet, and harbored a harsh and unfounded disdain for contemporary poetry. But here my teacher was, with a stack of poetry books, anthologies, and magazines, asking that I read and try to connect.

This is the process that led me to an armchair in the back of the classroom, holding a back issue of Poetry Magazine, searching for a poem to read. The poem I found was Choi’s “Perihelion: A History of Touch.” It wasn’t the poem I was looking for, a poem that was short and easy to understand, but instead one that was winding and took some patience– and yet it was the poem that moved me forward in my poetry. It was an inviting mix of the familiar and unfamiliar; reminiscent of the magical realism I loved, but still something I hadn’t been so sure about until that point: a poem.

Given that Choi has had such an impact on my story as a writer and as a poet, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from her and her writing this Writers’ Fest, and likewise, to learn from Hayes and his craft, as well as the other writers in the lineup.

The existence of Writers’ Fest really is a feat– for a public school to pull off a festival of this magnitude and prestige is a testament to the strength of the ever-growing arts community in Jacksonville. I can’t wait to see what these amazing writers and this amazing community has to offer, and I’m hoping my attendance at this year’s Writers’ Fest and all of the Writers’ Fests of the future will make up for the ones that I’ve missed. 

Blake Molenaar, Junior Art Editor