While walking on the Clipper City Rail Trail in Newburyport last year, a 12-year-old boy found a book. It wasn’t lost. The book, a collection of poems by Alfred Nicol, had been placed there by a Newburyport Literary Festival volunteer.
“Congratulations!” read the plate pasted inside the front cover. “You’ve caught a Book on the Loose.”
Intrigued, the boy asked his parents to attend the author’s appearance at the festival, and he’s since become keenly interested in poetry. This story, says Skye Wentworth, is one example of the “wonderful little experiences” that the Books on the Loose program and the Literary Festival have brought to the Newburyport area.
Wentworth, a local resident and book publicist who has been helping organize the festival since its inception 13 years ago, was looking for a unique way to promote it when she came across an article about BookCrossing , which sends books “into the wild” and tracks their travels from owner to owner.
Books on the Loose has been offered for the last three years. “The first year, we went out one whole day and distributed the books,” Wentworth recalls. “It was a lot of work. And then it was over.” She’s been refining the process since, rolling out a few books at a time, beginning a month or so before the festival, which this year is April 27-28. She also created a Facebook group where members can watch for clues and post the news when they find a book.
Any way to engage a community in a celebration of reading and writing is all right by Erica Funkhouser, an accomplished poet who lives in Essex and teaches at MIT.
“There is no algorithm about what life is, what a human being is,” says Funkhouser, who has lines of her poetry sandblasted into the Davis Square MBTA station in Somerville, part of a 1980s-era public art project. “Literature is where we go to find out how complicated we are, and embrace the complexity of that.”
Funkhouser will appear alongside fellow poet Evan Dalton Smith in a discussion of the role of poetry in modern life, one of more than 40 readings, panel discussions, and presentations that will take place on Saturday at the festival. It kicks off Friday night with an opening ceremony featuring novelist Ann Hood at the Firehouse Center for the Arts. This year’s noted participants include Tom Perrotta, Stephen McCauley, Stephen Greenblatt, and festival mainstay Andre Dubus III.
Ipswich resident Hannah Harlow, a writer who also works in the publishing industry, arranged a panel called Flash Fiction and the Art of Vulnerability. Her moving work of “flash fiction” – defined as 1,000 words or less – called “The Farmers’ Market” was chosen for Best Small Fictions 2017, an anthology of the best short hybrid fiction published in a calendar year.
The work has grown more political, Harlow says.
“We’ve been feeling a responsibility to challenge ourselves,” she says. “We’re forcing ourselves to be more vulnerable.”
In fact, she thinks, all fiction is political, “Whether you want it to be or not. We all want to write something that matters, and the rise of movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have forced us out of our comfort zones.”
Funkhouser, making her third appearance at the festival, says she appreciates the variety of subjects and interests at events such as this. “In a day or two, you can hear work in 15 different genres, from a science writer talking about DNA to a science fiction writer talking about aliens. Every single kind of work is there.”
She likes the intimacy of festivals like Newburyport, which takes place in various venues, all within walking distance, from City Hall and the public library to several churches and the Jabberwocky Bookshop.
“It’s a part of the reading experience to meet a writer and ask questions,” she says. “‘How long it did it take you to write this book?’ ‘Why is there a dog in that story?’ It keeps writers writing, and readers reading.”
The 13th annual Newburyport Literary Festival takes place in various venues Friday and Saturday, April 27-28. Free opening ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, April 27, at the Firehouse Center for the Arts, 1 Market Square, followed by Dinner With the Authors ($50) at the Masonic Center, 31 Green St. All events Saturday are free. For a complete schedule, visit newburyportliteraryfestival.org.