CREATIVE PEAKS: Richly Hued Voices

By on March 15, 2016

Library hosts intimate two-day event with trio of award-winning authors.

Left to right: Award winning authors John Keene, Tonya Foster and Tyehimba Jess engage in real talk this week at Teton County Library. (Photo: tclib)

Left to right: Award winning authors John Keene, Tonya Foster and Tyehimba Jess engage in real talk this week at Teton County Library. (Photo: tclib)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Throughout American history, white supremacy controlled what was published, choosing whose voices were heard and deciding for the masses what constituted literature and art. This led to stereotyped and racist portrayals of characters of colors, which still persists, explained Leah Shlachter, adult program services coordinator at Teton County Library. But as the demographics of the United States are changing, so is the literary world as it is expanding beyond white writers, allowing people of color to tell their own stories.

Teton County Library will explore the changing color of American literature with a panelist of renowned writers: Tonya Foster, John Keene and Tyehimba Jess. The scribes will talk about their own work and experiences in a field that is still not level when it comes to power and representation, as well as ethics of art when it comes to race. They’ll explore topics like using Michael Brown’s coroner’s report as art, disguising racial identity of writers and broadcasting text, like that from “Gone with the Wind,” without context.

The writers read from their works on Thursday and talk about controversies in American literature. They will take audience questions on Friday.

By the year 2020, the United States’ population will be more than 50 percent non-white. Jackson’s own population is growing increasingly diverse, too, Shlachter noted.

“What does this mean for writers and artists?” she pondered. “What does this mean for the consumers of books, art, and culture?  We’d like to bring this thought-provoking national conversation to a Jackson forum.”

Last spring Shlachter asked Claudia Rankine, a visiting Writers at the Library poet, what sort of author events she enjoyed participating in. She told Shlachter she liked forums where the speakers chose their fellow panelists. It creates an authentic conversation instead of a staged presentation, she explained.

The suggestion stuck with Shlachter as she started thinking about future programing. When she met Jess at a writing conference in June, they brainstormed ideas, and following Rankine’s advice, Shlachter also asked him to choose other writers for the panels. He suggested Keene and Foster. All three are award-winning writers.

Jess, a Detroit native, is known for bridging the gap between slam-style poetry and academic poetry. He won the 2004 National Poetry Series with his first book “leadbelly,” which was inspired through an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life.

The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the best poetry books of 2005.

Foster wrote “A Swarm of Bees in High Court,” described by Harryette Mullen as an “attempt to create biography of a place.” The book explores 21st century Harlem. Mullen described it as “infused with a weary and wary blues; Foster’s innovative variations on haiku are terse verses, tautly turned and tuned into cycles and rhythms of urban insomniacs.” Foster also co-edited “Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art.” Her writing and research focuses on place, and the intersection between visuals and the written word. Her upcoming works include a cross-genre, multimedia piece about New Orleans, as well as a project called “Monkey Talk,” described as an inter-genre piece about race, paranoia, surveillance and need.

Keene wrote the novel “Annotations,” a story about a black man’s coming of age from birth through college. He also wrote the art-poetry collection “Seismosis” with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a short fiction collection, “Counternarratives,” which made the best of fiction lists in 2015 for New York Magazine, Vanity Fair and other publications.

The esteemed panel will talk about race and artists’ ethics in the 21st century.

The library aims to offer people access to literature and information, but it’s also meant to be a place to connect people to each other, Shlachter said. “This topic simultaneously does both: It addresses the complex and pervasive social, political, economic issue of race and racisms through the context of literature and art,” she explained. “We hope to create a safe place to discuss racism.”

The goal is to incite a discussion that generates an expanded awareness of contemporary ethical and artistic issues both for artists producing work, and readers and viewers consuming it, Shlachter added. The library also hopes the panel exposes people in Jackson to new ideas in modern American writing and introduces them to fresh literary voices. PJH

Authors Tonya M. Foster, Tyehimba Jess and John Keene read from their books from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday and discuss “Trippin’ Over the Racial Divide: Contemporary Controversies in American Literature,” from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Friday. Both free events are at the Teton County Public Library.

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