Thursday, September 16, 2010

History of book festivals in Wyoming, part two

Smoke is in the morning air. Residue from the fire that destroyed the Hitching Post Inn, a Cheyenne landmark.

The Hitch was the site for the first Wyoming Bookfest on Oct. 26-27, 2001. We remember that fall for the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the anthrax attacks on Congress. Then came the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces. Smoke was in the air that year, too.

Meanwhile, in Cheyenne, a handful of writers and booklovers were organizing what we hoped would become an annual tradition.

If I remember correctly (and I don’t always) the idea started with a meeting of local writers Chip Carlson and Larry Brown with Gene Bryan, who then was in charge of events at the Best Western Hitching Post Inn Resort and Conference Center, a.k.a. “The Hitch.” That’s pretty much what everyone called it, then and now.

The three co-conspirators thought a bookfest was just the thing for Cheyenne. Unlike its surrounding states, Wyoming had yet to have a statewide book festival. It would benefit writers, booksellers and The Hitch.

Linn Rounds, then head of the Wyoming Center for the Book, was pulled into the committee. So was I. Kathy Murphy, secretary to Wyoming Dept. of Commerce Chief John Keck, volunteered to keep track of all the proceedings. She did a great job, Kathy, alas, died a few years later. In the end, we had a great collection of people, including Kathleen Gillgannon of the YMCA Writer’s Voice, and reps from the Laramie County Public Library and the Wyoming Humanities Council.

Warning for anyone planning a book festival – it’s a lot of work. Forty-two poets, writers, editors, storytellers, musicians and at least one wood sculptor participated in the Oct. 26-27 event. That doesn’t include booksellers and presses featured at the book fair. Committee members were running around like crazy people, getting people to the correct rooms and finding more chairs when needed.

It got off to a heady start with a Friday evening reading by four poets laureate: Robert Roripaugh of Wyoming, Mary Crow of Colorado, David Lee from Utah and Bill Kloefkorn of Nebraska. The crowd was SRO, and it was a real thrill to have four great poets reading their work at one event. Just think of how many square miles are represented by these people from four big almost-square states.

David Lee was fresh from his appearance at the first National Book Festival on the National Mall in D.C. That event was organized by the Library of Congress and First Lady Laura Bush.

We also had a guest speaker that evening in U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi. Sen. Enzi and his staff no longer had offices in D.C. due to the anthrax attacks. So he brought a batch of staffers with him to Cheyenne. He spoke about the recent happenings in the capital, but then launched into one of his favorite subjects – books. He’s a big reader – I’ve watched him buy bags full of books from Wyoming writers. For the life of me, I can’t understand how he can be a booklover and also tolerate some of the Know Nothing views of his Republican Party.

Sen. Enzi also was in town for a very somber event. This was the funeral of one of the first G.I.’s killed in Afghanistan. U.S. Army Spec. Jonn Edmunds of Cheyenne was on a helicopter bringing troops to the war zone when it crashed Oct. 19 in Pakistan. All aboard were killed.

Thousands attended the Saturday funeral. We had hoped for thousands that day at the bookfest, but fell a bit short. It wasn’t for lack of trying. We had fantastic sessions on writing cookbooks, westerns, mysteries and poetry. We had some of the best anthology editors in Wyoming talking about “Editing Western Anthologies.” Local writer C.J. Box, who’s now published more than a dozen mysteries and won the prestigious Edgar Award, talked about “Whodunits on the High Plains.” I was on a panel with writers Teresa Funke and Jeffe Kennedy talking about “Starting (and Maintaining) Your Writing Critique Group.” My group is still intact, as is Teresa’s. Jeffe’s group in Laramie is defunct – and she now lives in Santa Fe.

On the Children’s Stage in the now-destroyed Saddleback Lounge, my son and his pals at East High staged an open mike. It also saw performances by Aussie storyteller Paul Taylor and the Cheyenne Youth Symphony.

We were exhausted by the end of the day. In the ensuing weeks, we went over all the evaluations. Most negative comments were about lack of attendance and lack of book sales. Lots of people had lots of ideas about how to make it better. More publicity. More big-name authors. Bigger book fair. Get more people to do the work. Involve more local organizations and business.

Here’s on comment I liked: “A number of authors travel a great distance to attend —at last give them a sandwich for lunch.”

You want mayo or mustard with that?

Here’s a great comment from C.J. Box: “The bookfest shouldn’t be all things to all people… While musical performances and wood art may bring in some folks, the bookfest should be about books and authors.”

A few months after the bookfest, the committee met for a brainstorming session. We stormed our brains out. We all wanted to have another bookfest, but there wasn’t enough interest to form a solid committee to write grants, enlist sponsors and plan the myriad bookfest details.

It was five years before there was another book festival. This one was a true statewide book event, the Equality State Book Festival in Casper. It was six years before there was another bookfest in Cheyenne, and that was the Wyoming Book Festival in downtown Cheyenne. It’s a project of the Wyoming Center for the Book at the Wyoming State Library.

Planning for the first ESBF began in late 2004. It involved a very motivated and dependable planning committee. A big budget too – more than $100,000. Lots of sponsoring organizations in Casper and throughout Wyoming.

The third ESBF will be held Sept. 24-25 at Casper College and environs. I’m on the committee but the real work is done by the Casper people, especially the co-chairs Laurie Lye and Holly Wendt.

Here’s to you, bookfest organizers. Lots of work and little glory. But people come out to see their favorite authors and buy books. Every year, bookfest authors go to local schools to get kids excited about reading. Bookstores sell books. Authors read from their books. There’s a late-night slam for poets. Workshops for striving writers and poets.

We’ve all learned some lessons since that first bookfest when the smoke from 9/11 was still in the air.

The Hitch was not officially an historic site, just the place of many memories for many people. It fell on hard times, then sold to new owners and then closed by the health department. Nine years ago it was the place where some concerned citizens constructed the foundation for bookfests to come. Part of the state's creative economy, you might say.

Now it’s smoke and ruins.

See you in Casper as we keep building bookfest traditions.

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