Last weekend during the Arkansas Literary Festival, The Observer served as emcee for the Arkansas Times' "Pub or Perish" readings event once again, our 10th year. Yours Truly was looking back at some photos from that first year recently, and felt again — for the umpteenth moment in our life — like a time traveler who blinked and woke up here.
This year was a particularly good edition of Pub or Perish, and if you missed it, you missed out. There's just something beautiful about a roomful of people sitting in rapt attention as a writer reads his or her work, especially after the week we'd all had. As The Observer told the audience at Stickyz in the River Market on Saturday night: We're a worrier, and when it comes to Pub or Perish over the past 10 years, we've worried a lot. We've worried that it will rain, or that one of our readers will get lost on the way to the venue. We've worried that someone will trip over the microphone cord on the way to the lectern, or that our space will be invaded by noisy idiots who are too stupid or drunk to shut up and let the words wash over them. This year, we had a new worry: that at the tail end of a seven-day span full of bombs and death and shootouts and cop killings and manhunts and finally a capture, nobody would have room in their hearts to give a damn about poetry.
A relief then — a deep exhale — when they did. They came. Over a hundred. They even sang. Urged on by the Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker, we muddled our way through the first verse of the old spiritual "Amazing Grace," a moment lovely enough that it nearly brought The Observer to tears, especially given the week we'd all had.
Below is another thing we told the crowd on Saturday night to close the evening, after all the readings and singing were done. We'd written a version of it earlier in the week, a digest and prettification of some of the things The Observer said to our creative writing classes on Tuesday and Wednesday night while trying to convince them that, even in the aftermath of terrible things, art matters:
"Here is what writing — what reading and books and loving writers — can give you, if you want it: In order to write well or read well, you must force yourself to see people not as puppets tied hand and foot to the wheel of fortune, or sinners trapped in mortal husks and waiting patiently for death and Paradise, but as thinking human beings making choices, which lead to consequences and other choices, which lead to consequences and other choices, and so on, unto the moment of their death. Thereby, you must force yourself to see everyone, from yourself to your Dutch uncle to the worst villain you can name, as someone with the capacity to choose. Someone rounded. Someone with desires. Someone with dreams. Someone who has people who love them and wish the best for them, who hope they do well and don't die in pain and despair. The men who put a pressure cooker full of nails, ball bearings and explosives in a trashcan in Boston, set a timer and then walked away couldn't see those things. They made their own choice: to see anyone who disagrees with their ideas about the world as flat and worthless, so that people became nothing more to them than paper targets. Being a writer or reader can insulate you from that kind of simplistic thinking. It can help you see that even if you don't agree with someone's choices, they came to those choices the same way you came to yours: which is, of course, with the tools they have, and the best way they know how."
A warm thank you to all who came out for the readings and speechifying at the Arkansas Literary Festival, and especially those who came to Pub or Perish. Just by being there, you were making one of the most powerful statements a person can say — which is, of course: rage, rage against the dying of the light.