Voices That Need to Be Heard

CBR_Logo2“It’s getting down to crunch time.”

So says Jeff Pfaller, cofounder of Midwestern Gothic, a journal “dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.” Pfaller is talking about the 2015 Voices of the Middle West literary festival, a one-day event cohosted by MG and University of Michigan’s Residential College.

Middle_West_Logo_hiresThis is the second year of the festival, which this year will be held March 21 in Ann Arbor. The festival originated in a brainstorming session with some of the journal’s interns. Pfaller and the MG staff instantly loved the idea. “It sounded phenomenal and right up our alley,” he says. “It just made a lot of sense as a natural extension of our mission.”

With its mission to generate conversation about Midwestern voices and shine a spotlight on the region, the lit fest has proved a terrific avenue to do just that. The festival will bring together authors and readers, writers and publishers, and students and faculty from the University of Michigan. Among the day’s events are various panels about publishing and writing, storytelling sessions, an open mic event, and a keynote address from award-winning author Stuart Dybek, a writer and poet whose latest works include Ecstatic Cahoots, Paper Lantern: Love Stories, and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. Dybek, who is Writer in Residence at Northwestern University, will be joined during the day by a variety of literary folk, including Peter Ho Davies, Laura Kasischke, and Marcus Wicker.

Portrait Stuart Dybek

Author Stuart Dybek, 2015 Voices of the Middle West keynoter

In addition to featuring a number of Midwestern authors, Voices of the Middle West will highlight the work of a variety of local and regional publishers. Attendees can browse the pop-up bookfair, which will include exhibitors from such journals as BathHouse Journal, Fortnight, and Michigan Quarterly Review as well as publishers Curbside Splendor, Dzanc Books, and Switchgrass Books, among others.

Also featured during the festival will be 826Michigan, a nonprofit writing center with which MG partnered to publish Tell Me How It Was, an anthology of stories written by middle school students. It’s a project that is near and dear to MG’s heart, Pfaller says, not least of which because it provides a venue for young writers to be heard.

“Someone in middle school gets to say they’re a published author,” Pfaller notes. “These are thirteen-year-old kids. We got some stories about sports heroes and everyday things, and we also got students who were commenting on bigger events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. They were nuanced, funny, and heartbreaking stories. We were really happy with what came out of the project.”

The anthology will be launched during an afternoon session, and it is just one of the projects that will be highlighted during the day. In fact, Voices of the Middle West is designed to expose readers to the work that is coming out of the region, whether literary journal, indie press, micro press, or university press, whether print or digital. Pfaller and the MG crew believe that the time is right for just such exposure.

“There’s been a renaissance in Midwestern literature in the past several years,” Pfaller says. “Several presses and publications are focusing on it. More authors and writers are happy to identify that they’re from the Midwest.”

It’s a theme that seems to resonate with authors, writers, publishers, and readers alike. Last year’s festival attracted about a thousand attendees, and attendance is expected to double this year. That’s due not only to more publicity and some great word-of-mouth marketing but also to the fact that this year’s bookfair is double the size of last year’s and because the festival has attracted panelists from across the country.

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Attendees browse and mingle at the pop-up bookfair

The event also attracts attendees from far and wide. Although most attendees are locals—fans of Ann Arbor’s thriving literary scene—Voices of the Middle West attracts folks from across Michigan, from Wisconsin, and from the Chicago area.

Voices of the Middle West is a “celebration of the Midwest voice,” and it seems to be tapping into an audience hungry for writing with local flavor that appeals to readers of all tastes. In bringing together a stellar collection of writers, poets, and publishers—and readers, of course—the festival is helping to build the literary community in the region. It’s one that Pfaller says is ready for some attention.

“It’s a thriving, vibrant community with so many presses in the area,” he says. “It’s a great community. The audience is already ripe for it. Hopefully this will show that the Midwest has a lot to offer.”

—Kelli Christiansen

Voices of the Middle West runs from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 21 at University of Michigan, East Quadrangle, 701 E. University Ave., Ann Arbor. For information, visit http://midwestgothic.com/voices/

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