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Appalachian Foothills Festival of Literary Arts celebrates regional voices

Will Premiere Portsmouth documentary Peerless City on Saturday

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

I’m not in any way the new kid on the poetry and writing scene. I’ve been writing professionally for more than 20 years, and hosting open mics and poetry slams just as long. Writing was always my outlet, and preferred means of expressing myself. But it wasn’t until my friend Jacob Rakovan told me one of my pieces was good, and cajoled me onto the stage, that I felt like my voice had value. It was heady and empowering and scary. Really, really scary. But it felt good.

Then I left Portsmouth, and people told me, “No, your hillbilly voice really isn’t valued.”

It wasn’t that my words weren’t valued, it was just the way I said them. The turns of phrase and terms I grew up using, needed to be changed – tweaked if you will – and if I was going to read them myself I was going to need to en-un-ci-ate, which is really a polite way of telling someone to drop their accent.

So, I did. I stayed a part of it, and as I traveled around I noticed there were universal themes we could all identify with, all with unique local flavor. Except Appalachian. Not because we weren’t there, but because that voice wasn’t valued. Not unless it masked itself. People loved my poems about being poor, as long as I stuck to cutting open toothpaste tubes and stayed away from soup beans.

I was once heckled off the stage with hillbilly jokes in San Antonio after doing a piece about my grandparents and my heritage. (Something I’ve since forgiven, but just can’t forget.)

But one of the beautiful things about our people is their ingenuity, and self-reliance. Their insistence that their voices be heard when they have something to say. And their willingness to help others find theirs.

Jake Rakovan – who has since earned broad acclaim with his poetry collection, The Devil’s Radio, and been recognized as an NEA fellow for his unique Appalachian voice – did this for me.

Amanda Page, organizer of the Appalachian Foothills Festival of Literary Arts, is doing it for the next wave of Appalachian writers and poets.

The Appalachian Foothills Festival is scheduled for this weekend, in Portsmouth, Ohio, with events taking place on the campus of Shawnee State University and other locations around town.

Friday events include a screening of the film Moundsville at 3 p.m. followed by a Q&A with the directors, and keynote address with Ohio poet laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour at 7 p.m., both in SSU’s Flohr Lecture Hall.

“We are over the moon that Kari Gunter-Seymour agreed to keynote our inaugural festival,” Page said. “She is a champion for Appalachian poetry, and the current Poet Laureate of Ohio. Her participation is greatly appreciated, and sets a celebratory tone that the Appalachian Foothills Festival of Literary Arts hopes to continue for years to come.”

Gunter-Seymour will be signing books after her event. But those who aren’t ready to call it a night yet can head over to Patties & Pints for an open mic event hosted by Amanda Rena Lewis, starting at nine. Bring a piece to read, or just relax with a drink and enjoy the show.

Saturday starts with the Where I’m From Poetry Workshop, at Noon at Portsmouth Public Library, led by Amanda Page. That’s followed by the Poetry Write-Off at Southern Ohio Museum at 3 p.m. and the premiere of Page’s film, Peerless City, at 7 p.m. at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts (VRCFA).

“We’re showing a feature length version with more footage than what will later run on PBS,” Page said. “I’m excited for the community to experience the wide range of voices we have in the film, telling different sides of a community story.”
She also took time to praise the makers of Moundsville for inspiring her, and encouraged folks to attend that screening on Friday.

“I could not imagine showing Peerless City without giving folks the opportunity to watch the film that inspired it,” she said. “I loved Moundsville the moment I saw it. It’s the story of a place similar to Portsmouth, told by the people who live there, who feel the pain of lost industry and lost population. Peerless City stayed the same course, talking with a variety of characters who know both the heyday and the hard days.”

All events and workshops for the event are free and open to the public. Registration for some events may be required. Tickets for Peerless City may be picked up at the box office of the VRCFA.

The winner of the poetry write-off will be announced after the film.

Click here for a full schedule of events.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com



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