The Appalachian Foothills Literary Arts Festival Celebrates Regional Voices

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

I am by no means the new kid on the scene of poetry and writing. I’ve been writing professionally for over 20 years and hosting open mics and poetry slams for just as long. Writing has always been my outlet and my favorite means of expression. But it wasn’t until my friend Jacob Rakovan told me one of my tracks was good and took me on stage that I felt my voice had value. It was exhilarating, challenging and scary. Really, really scary. But he felt good.

Then I left Portsmouth, and people were like, ‘No, your hillbilly voice really isn’t worth it.

It wasn’t that my words were worthless, it was just the way I said them. The turns of phrase and terms I grew up with had to be changed – changed if you will – and if I was going to read them myself I was going to have to en-un-ci-ate, which is really a polite way to tell someone to drop their accent.

So, I did. I was part of it and, while traveling, noticed that there were universal themes that we could all relate to, all with a unique local flavor. Except Appalachia. Not because we weren’t there, but because that voice wasn’t valued. Not unless he’s masking himself. People loved my poems about poverty, as long as I stuck to cutting open toothpaste tubes and staying away from soup beans.

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

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

Jake Rakovan – who has since won wide acclaim with his collection of poetry, Devil’s Radioand was recognized as a member of the NEA for his unique Appalachian voice – did that 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 slated for this weekend in Portsmouth, Ohio, with events taking place on the Shawnee State University campus 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 a keynote with Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour at 7 p.m., both in SSU’s Flohr Conference Room.

“We are thrilled that Kari Gunter-Seymour has agreed to present our inaugural festival,” Page said. “She is a champion of Appalachian poetry and the current Poet Laureate of Ohio. His participation is greatly appreciated and sets a festive tone that the Appalachian Foothills Literary Arts Festival hopes to continue in the years to come.

Gunter-Seymour will be signing books after her event. But those not quite ready to call it a night can head 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 poetry workshop where I come from, at noon at the Portsmouth Public Library, led by Amanda Page. Next is the Poetry Write-Off at the Southern Ohio Museum at 3 p.m. and the premiere of Page’s film, City without equalat 7 p.m. at the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts (VRCFA).

“We’re showing a feature version with more footage than what will air later on PBS,” Page said. “I’m excited for the community to experience the wide range of voices we have in the film, telling different facets of a community story.”
She also took the time to congratulate the creators of Moundsville for inspiring her and encouraging people to attend this screening on Friday.

“I couldn’t imagine showing Peerless City without giving people the opportunity to watch the movie that inspired it,” she said. “I loved Moundsville the moment I saw him. It is the story of a place like Portsmouth, told by the people who live there, who feel the pain of the loss of industry and people. City without equal stayed the same course, speaking with a variety of characters experiencing both the climax and the tough days.

All event events and workshops are free and open to the public. Registration for some events may be required. Tickets for City without equal to be collected at the VRCFA ticket office.

The winner of the struck-out poetry will be announced after the film.

Click here for a full calendar of events.

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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