Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In Memoriam: Kurt Brown, poet

It was sad to read about the death in California of Kurt Brown, poet, editor and tireless poetry promoter. Kurt founded Colorado's Aspen Writers Conference in 1976 and, on a shoestring budget, brought writers to Aspen by putting them up at the homes of locals and talking restaurants into free meals. The Aspen conference is now called Summer Words and is one of the best in the nation.

As a writer and arts administrator, I worked with Kurt on a number of projects to support writers. Ideas are easy, as we like to say, but Kurt had ideas and he followed through on them -- a rare trait. We first met at a national literary conference in 1991 at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Kurt was supposed to be my roommate. He had other plans, but we did have a chance to be part of a larger conversation about supporting creative writing on the national, regional, state and local levels.

Robert Sheldon was there. Robert was the Leon Russell look-alike who directed the literary programs at the Western State Arts Federation (WESTAF) in Santa Fe (now in Denver). NEA Director Joe David Bellamy was on hand, as was G. Barnes, the hard-traveling lit guy at the Utah Arts Council whose motto was "we don't care how you do it in New York." During a break in the meetings, I ran into Michelle Sullivan of Jackson's now-defunct Snake River Institute and then-Utah writer Chris Merrill on a trail above Sundance. I met Carolyn Forche for the first time. She was the author of one of my favorite poems, the one about the Salvadoran Death Squad colonel who liked to tease young idealistic poets from America.

I'm dropping names. They were creative people gathered together on an August weekend to talk about ways to support literary programs in the WESTAF region. We knew that the West was a distinct region with wide open spaces and lots of creativity. Kurt Brown wasn't a mountain guy by birth but knew how to parlay its values of grit and passion into something really good.

I first read about Kurt's passing on the Conundrum Press blog. Kurt helped mentor the founders of Conundrum as he did with so many presses. He was one of a group of hard-working visionaries who invigorated the West's writing scene. He helped spur the rise of many summer conferences and writers' residencies. Wyoming is home to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, founded a good decade after the Aspen event. Our state is also home to three artists/writers residencies in Jentel, Ucross and Brush Creek, all launched in the past 20 years. Wyoming Writers, Inc., our statewide writers organization, celebrates 40 years of summer conference in June 2014 in Sheridan. This makes it another event with roots in the very creative 1970s here in the Rockies.

A new program was born at that 1991 Sundance gathering: "Tumblewords: Writers Rolling Around the West." A stylized tumbleweed was our logo. G. Barnes and Diane Peavey of Idaho and me in Wyoming formed the core of the Tumblewords program. Later, the torch was passed to Mark Preiss in Utah and Cort Conley took over in Idaho and Guy Lebeda in Wyoming during a two-year stint I had at the NEA in D.C. Corby Sklinner, the man who organizes everything in Billings, came on board for Montana. Colorado and New Mexico joined in.

In 1995, Bill Fox at WESTAF put together an anthology, Tumblewords: Writers Reading the West, published by University of Nevada Press. It included a fantastic group of writers: David Lee, Dianne Nelson, B.J. Buckley, Ken Brewer, C.J. Rawlins, Bill Studebaker, Holly Skinner, Katie Coles, Rick Kempa and many others.

State arts agencies worked with libraries, arts councils and schools to bring writers and poets to communities across a half-million square miles of the Rocky Mountain West.

And Kurt helped show us the way.

Thank you, Kurt. R.I.P.

Updated 6/30/13

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