In Baltimore, tough-mindedness and a literary legacy


Last weekend at Baltimore's annual festival of the arts, Music, sculpture, crafts, and performances dominated last weekend's annual festival of the arts in Baltimore. But literature ended up telling a story.

On the literary side of Artscape, Friday evening was a presentation of awards and readings. A few in the audience were Certifiable Characters, graying ponytails behind balding heads, washed-out tie-dyed T-shirts, awesome abdominal spreads. But most were notably uneccentric, students and people intently involved in local writing and reading worlds.

Alicia Rabins, a freshman at Barnard from Towson, won the annual poetry award, and read from her work, followed by the winner of the short fiction competition, Anne Marie Drew, an associate professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. (The winning one-act play, "Premonition," by Stanley Krohmer, was performed, twice, during the weekend, in another location.)

To my eye, Ms. Rabins seemed not a day over 14, but she read with galvanizing self-confidence and verve. Much of her poetry, involving, among other things, early, declarative sexual experiences, might be assumed to perplex, shock, even distress her parents. They were nonetheless proudly present. The work was generally overreaching, breathless, rough-edged. But, my God, I thought, why not! She is getting it on paper, showing up in public, taking risks, undaunted in demonstrating that she has a great deal to discover. If all art begins by challenging orthodox assumptions, my heart insisted, approaching 20, this spritelike creature is well on her way.

Eerie coolness

Ms. Drew followed with a portion of a short story about the death of a child from the vantage of the mother. The work was polished, sure-footed, informed, impressive. Her presentation was mature, almost eerily cool, modulated, crisp.

As the reading progressed, I noticed the woman sitting beside me, a stranger. She was young but far from a child, and seemed confident, gracefully self-contained. As the story approached its inevitable climax, her attention gained an almost visible intensity. And then, as the reading drew to its end, I saw tears rise in her eyes. A silence seized the room and held it tight for a fierce instant. Almost suddenly, my neighbor became aware that her face was wet with weeping. Very privately, she dug in her bag for a handkerchief.

I felt a strong urge to hug her, and did not.

And so it went all weekend, through readings, panels, chats. Not just tears, but with flares and surges of imagination and enthusiasm and something like valor. Disparate though the people and their work and arguments were, for me they wove an engaging, encouraging tapestry.

Saturday evening, Patrice Gaines, after reading a passage from her courageous memoir, "Laughing in the Dark," said: "Writing has saved my life." It was a rough life, early on, with heroin addiction, jail, a serial affection for abusive men, a child long before she was ready for parenthood.

Today, in her late 40s, she has convincingly, impressively grown beyond all that, with no false illusions. Many of the questions from the audience came from aspiring writers. They seemed to )) be pleading less for guidance than for recognition, for acceptance of their work, for access.

Ms. Gaines' response: "I wrote a hell of a lot of poetry when I was young and all of it was bad poetry. But then everybody was writing a lot of poetry, and all of that was bad, too. So it didn't matter how bad mine was. Doing it, trying to explore and express your own truths and pains and searches, even very badly, is important." She held the silence until it was about to break. "Do it," she demanded. The whining ceased.

On Sunday, my Sun colleague Rafael Alvarez led a session on short fiction writing. At the end, many, too many, of the questions were about agents, editors, contracts, getting published. Rafael was remorseless: "If you want to write, work. Work! Work - every day. Let the roof go on leaking. Let it blow away, but write." And, he insisted, the reward is in the work - not the economic payoff.

Fearful symmetry

Finally, on Sunday evening, Jonathan Yardley, the illustrious book critic and columnist for the Washington Post and author of four books, framed the tapestry, in fearful symmetry.

He read an artful, spare but love-filled essay celebrating the importance of books, told in the terms of his mother's devotion and legacy. Then, taking questions, he brought the three days' efforts to a climax with an assertive, even chilling, dismissal of "writers schools," to which he attributed much of the deteriorating diseases of the contemporary American novel.

Why? His contention was that such courses, classes and seminars on the process of writing draw and drive would-be writers to egocentric self-examination and self-indulgence. "There are limits to what a writer can find in his or her own world, in himself or herself," Yardley insisted. Great and exciting literature, he argued, must come from worlds beyond writers' private concerns. Not everyone agreed, but no one was indifferent.

Baltimore is one of America's great literary cities, attics full of legends. It is populated by writers, past and present, of force and distinction. The tough-mindedness, the creativity and the courage that was alive and well last weekend insisted the legacy will not die.

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