The High Plains BookFest and the High Plains Book Awards presented by the Writer’s Voice and the Billings Public Library are a great reminder of the importance of community in the literary arts. Writers spend so much of their time alone, plucking away at typewriter keys or scratching the pages of a journal, accompanied by a cold cup of coffee and a snoring cat. Not many people understand what it is we’re doing, or why. Often, neither do we. Writing is wandering a dark cave with a dim flashlight. Something fantastic is painted on the walls but we can only make out a bit at a time. We must, from time to time, head back to the surface and compare notes with other explorers with their own dim flashlights. Not only to expand the understanding of the picture, but to recharge our batteries so we can head back down with a brighter light. So an opportunity to gather writers and readers together, to celebrate the books that move us, change us and challenge us, to hear our words spoken aloud and echoing off other souls, is vital to the continuance of our craft.
I checked into my room at the Dude Rancher, with its cattle brands carpet and matching headboard, then bolted over to the Visible Vault to read a couple poems and be a judge for a really terrific poetry slam. I used to do a lot of slam poetry back in the Midwest and it’s been awhile since I attended an event with this much talent. It reminded me of the energy back at the Kraftbrau in Kalamazoo. There the wild poems flowed as freely as the beer, and I met some of the finest writers I know.
The next night, after visiting a couple classes on campus, I met up with other poets at the weekly jazz jam at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co. Garage and dogdamn! I had no idea such a great jazz scene existed in Montana. Really hot players, good cold beer. I was invited up to perform a piece with the band. I did a new poem, “Arundo Donax” from a work-in-progess suite that contrasts the positive beauty and power of John Coltrane with the ugly death-wish of the Coal Train.
My actual reading for the festival was a perfect example of the community of writers and its value. I was honored to share the lectern with Tami Haaland (Montana’s poet laureate), Cara Chamberlin author of the really fine book The Divine Botany), Dave Caserio (one of the best performance poets I’ve seen) and Nathan Petterson (who won the slam two nights previously). Hearing their words definitely revealed more of that cave painting and served to recharge the batteries.
So now, with those recharged batteries, I’m ready to head back down into the cave. There’s another poem down there, waiting to be brought to light.