Eastern Illinois University held its 10th Lions in Winter Literary Festival on January 28, 2023. Three invited authors and a showcase of EIU students read their work before an appreciative audience that grew as the day progressed. The three invited authors — Taylor Byas (poetry), Kathe Koja (fiction), and Brian Boone (nonfiction/memoir) — each gave an hour of readings followed by an hour of “craft talk.” The best possible mix of workshop and interview, each Craft Talk allowed festival goers to get a closer look at the artist’s process, to talk about creativity and the work of writing, and to imagine how they might apply fresh ideas or methods to their own work.
Taylor Byas opened the festival with a reading of her poetry, which included several of her “Sculpture Study” poems as well as selections from her chapbook Bloodwarm (Variant Literature, July 2021), her collection I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times: Poems (Soft Skull Press, forthcoming August 2023) and recent unpublished material. Starting the literary day with poetry feels vital and sincere, like the shock of jumping into a cold lake or devouring ripe mangoes in July. Byas’ work takes the intensity and immediacy of poetry to another level because she’s a formalist, and happily identifies herself as such. The images and wordplay, creative as they are on their own, stand in their best light because she has placed them within the structure of poetic form — never sing-song or flippant, but repetitive in all the right places.
The discipline that form imposes on poets, which formed the theme of Byas’ Craft Talk that followed the reading, provokes them to a greater intimacy with the images and ideas that they wrestle with. Her favorite poetic form is the pantoum: a form that relies on repeating different lines in a fixed order interspersed with new (i.e., unrepeated) lines. Within the form she loves to play with punctuation, and she encouraged her audience to begin to play with it too; we re-punctuated Hanif Abdurraqib’s “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” to illustrate how easily punctuation can change what a poem expresses, which images slow down time in the mind of the reader, and which repeated lines can take on entirely new meaning with just one extra comma. Expressive punctuation permeates Bloodwarm, and it shows how Byas’ poetry is truly meant to be heard as well as read. In her “Poem in Which I Have the Last Word” she has worked sound and voicemail into the poem, evoking the pre-recorded messages with punctuation.
Kathe Koja continued the festival’s unofficial theme of vivid images with her reading from her novel Dark Factory (Meerkat Press, 2022), the first of several independently published projects that work in “immersive” fiction. “We live immersively,” she said to the room while introducing the novel. “We are in this room in all senses.” Immersive fictions dissolves and expands boundaries — of genres, of expectations, of people — by default, and it is this required interactivity that draws Koja to it as a genre. In addition to the initial text, which looks like any of us might imagine a book to look, printed on paper with pages to turn in a specified order, there is also a collection of other materials interleaved with them. A QR code. A website (https://darkfactory.club/). A playlist. A fan art gallery. All prove that Koja is happy to chase any opportunity for interaction with a reader wherever it might lead. She describes her process as “that cartoon of a guy packing a suitcase, and he jumps up and down on it to try to cram everything inside.”
Dark Factory of Dark Factory is a dance club, part of a scene that Koja described with the eye and ear of someone who used to live in it. She describes it as, “Three floors of DJs, drinks, and state of the art customizable reality, anything and everything you see and hear and feel.” The main characters chase their visions of true reality, visions that change as both the reader and the characters become immersed in Dark Factory — in their own roles: club floor manager, DIY artist, journalist. The immersion is, predictably, sensory. Koja opened the reading by describing the dance floor that “reeks of citrus” after the cleaning crew has been through, and the hope that the smell will clear before doors open that evening. By the time the night is in full swing, the citrus reek has disappeared, replaced with the headier smells of perfume and sweat, the dimmed lights, and the disembodied fluorescence of glow sticks.
After such dynamic readings and Craft Talks, it felt fitting to bring in the work of EIU students—a long-standing tradition of the Lions in Winter Festival. A mix of graduate and undergraduate students at varied stages of artistic development, presenting in varied forms. Those with longer-form pieces read from paper. Some of the poets made a few half-jokes about reading from the Notes app on their phones. (Byas had remarked in her Q&A that morning that, for poets, the Notes app on their phones is a place where a lot of work gets done.) The student work was a pleasant surprise, sincere and un-self-conscious, while at the same time not self-centered. Every student was in their piece(s), of course, but they were not the limits of their pieces. Beyond all the specifics of their individual styles, they each clearly understood the value of connection with their audience.
Brian Broome concluded the afternoon workshops, his reading and Craft Talk bookending the showcase of student work. He began the reading from his memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods (Houghton Mifflin, 2021) by saying, “I used to dance in my underwear in a cage suspended from the ceiling. So I’m not afraid of any of you.” (To a general laugh.) His memoir and the Craft Talk that followed are both a testament to the personal resources that a writer invests in anything that they create. “That’s what you do as a memoirist,” he explained to the assembly. “You tell people, who didn’t ask, things they probably don’t want to know.” Punch Me Up to the Gods chronicles moments in Broome’s life as a queer black man, from childhood into adulthood. The moments run the gamut from the traumatic to the hilarious. At one point he describes a former girlfriend, with whom he is still friends and whose permission he asked to tell the story, saying, “You’re staring at my ***** like it’s made out of math.” (Riotous daughter followed, as he clearly intended.) Broome’s Craft Talk was, in many ways, the same. A fact of writing a memoir, he says, is getting a lot of unsolicited feedback from people who, after reading your work, think that they know you. At the same time, he believes that everyone should write a memoir. “Please write your life in your own heart’s language,” he asked, in closing. “You never know who your accounting will save.”
By the time the campus bells marked 5 p.m. and the assembled writers dispersed, it was already clear that another successful festival was on the books.
Recommended Reading from Lions in Winter:
- Bloodwarm by Taylor Byas
- I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times: Poems (forthcoming) by Taylor Byas
- “September Elgies” by Randall Mann
- “Rotation” by Natasha Trethewey
- “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” by Hanif Abdurraqib
- Dark Factory by Kathe Koja
- Dark Park (forthcoming) Kathe Koja
- The Creative Act: a Way of Being by Rick Rubin
- Come Along with Me by Shirley Jackson
- Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban
- Punch Me Up to the Gods Brian Broome
- Anything by James Baldwin
- Antiman, a hybrid memoir by Rajiv Mohabir