Matt Mullins reading, photo courtesy of Layne Ransom
I was most excited for the second day of the Slash Pine Poetry Festival. My nerves were operating at a low hum, as I didn’t have to read, and had logged a day’s worth of experience in Alabama, so I could operate the whole day with just my wonder gaze on. The belly full of fried catfish, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread didn’t hurt, either. Cornbread everywhere you go—how hospitable, how comfy.
The first reading I attended was at the Green Bar. The area of the bar was somewhat narrow, but stretched far into a dark space that ended at a raised stage. Green Bar’s scene was reminiscent of the local Be Here Now readings—cramped, dusky—and while BHN readings tend to have a fair attendance, the Green Bar’s reading was brimming with people. By the time us Ball State visitors arrived, it was standing room only, save for a few seats sparsely dotted throughout, and only visible seconds before someone else smoothed into them.
Michael Martone and Abe Smith, two University of Alabama writers and teachers in attendance, had quickly become iconic in my mind. I remembered Martone’s Blue Guide to Indiana only somewhat from Professor Sean Lovelace’s fiction class, and I’d only discovered Smith’s work the night before. Still, they each had a quality about them that made me glad to inhabit their vicinities. Almost as if the genuine and original quality their writing held was also something they exuded—something you could inhale and catch.
I hoped there would be some happenstance, some alignment of supernatural elements that would result in Martone and Smith reading at the festival, but it must not have been in the cards. I didn’t leave Alabama feeling literarily deprived, though. There were too many good writers, and if anyone left with that feeling, they didn’t pay attention well enough. Some highlights from the Green Bar readers were Brandi Wells and Oliver de la Paz. Wells read from her Worst Times series. Something about her, and her writing, seemed genuinely tough. And in a room full of writers—a group generally thought to bruise easy and over think making a fist instead of blocking a right hook—Wells’ writing aesthetic was refreshing. Oliver de la Paz was one of those readers that maintains a gentle cadence and looks to be talking in a somewhat hushed tone, but you realize you can hear him clear as day because he’s mind-controlling the entire room. You realize he’s doing something with a combination of mood, sound, and vocabulary that hooks into everyone in the audience. Just after he read, I found myself bobbing my head up and down, saying, “Mhmm, good stuff, good stuff.”
The next reading was at the Bama Theatre. It was a weird environment: a production of The Wizard of Oz letting out scattered munchkins, Wicked Witch of the West guards, and flying monkeys, while throughout the reading gussied-up kids passed by the wall-sized windows on their way to the prom. Ellie Isenhart, who graduated from Ball State’s M.A. Creative Writing program in 2010 and is now part of the University of Alabama’s M.F.A. Creative Writing program, read from a letters series with a bite. Christopher DeWeese put me back in my too-baggy clothes and heavily gelled hair with his collection of poems inspired by 90’s alternative music (nobody talks about the song “Lightning Crashes” anymore, and I’ve been waiting for this a long time—thanks, DeWeese). When Matt Mullins started on the mic, I felt pretty proud to be affiliated. Just as Lovelace had one of the best crowd responses at his reading, Mullins got to the audience. In his reading style, you can tell he has a good grasp of rhythm and sound; that he revels in that locus where the oral and written aspects of literature hold equal importance.
The Slash Pine Poetry Festival was a lit dog race, a lit endurance trial. But I imagine most of the readers have sat through long, dry, odyssean readings themselves, though. They seemed to make effort to keep things lively. It’s a great thing to be surrounded by people that share your passions and are excited by the same things you are. You’re great hosts/hostesses, U of A people. Thank you kindly for an awesome experience.