From retro telephone booths that share local and iconic poems often read by the creator, to an international poetry slam festival and to a book festival that brought a blockbuster series fiction author and a firebrand environmental figure — the Flagstaff literary scene was chock full of highlights.
The year 2016 proved a stellar one for the authors, poets, literary events and bookish community. Conversations with different members of the reading and writing scene noted that this year saw the installation of the Telepoem Booth, the arrival of the second year of the Northern Arizona Book Festival and the pairing of that with the Individual World Poetry Slam — as well as new events that included the So Lit Poetry Festival, Pinestories and Juniper House Readings.
In particular, the slam coinciding with the expanded book festival helped elevate the literary cache in town as part of what a number of people in the literary community deemed a banner year.
“The simultaneous occurrence of the Northern Arizona Book Festival and Individual World Poetry Slam was a huge benefit to the literary arts scene in Flagstaff; bringing legitimacy and attention to our mountain town from all over the world,” noted Ian Keirsey, who has founded and emceed two literary series in town.
In the early part of the year, three new elements arrived on the literary scene. In March, the Telepoem Booth — an interactive retro telephone booth that allowed users to dial up one of dozens of poems local and beyond and hear them read — became one bright addition.
The booth, created by Elizabeth Hellstern, Owen Williams Fritts and David Smith, went live outside of Macy’s Coffee House on South Beaver Street in March. It quickly turned into an iconic work of local public art, one that sometimes drew lines of people waiting to hear a poem, often read by the creator.
However, the summer brought an act of vandalism when someone defecated in the Telepoem Booth and defaced it. It led the relocation of the Telepoem Booth to the more secure interior of Old Town Shops in July.
Also in March, a group of dedicated writers launched the So Lit Poetry Festival, and it folded into the inauguration of a new reading series called Pinestories at Firecreek Coffee Co. This “story-slam,” a mix of storytelling and poetry slam, is emceed by Wil Williams and has been a big hit throughout the year.
“The Pinestories story slam filled a much needed niche our community and its meteoric rise was by no accident,” noted John Quinonez, who organized the Individual World Poetry Slam. “I have never seen an environment and event so quickly foster such a strong and committed family of contributors and audience members.”
He added, “Wil Williams is an incomparable force of good will and hard work with an attention to detail that makes such a rare experience both profound and still accessible.”
Later in the year brought Juniper House Readings at Root Public House, the new restaurant on South San Francisco Street. Its focus is to invite authors and poets to read work they’ve never shared in public before, and involves both an open mic and closing with a special guest artist.
“I’m excited about the Juniper House readings, especially because the focus is on local writers creating new work and sharing it with a small group,” said Stacy Murison, who helped organize this year’s Northern Arizona Book Festival. “The act of writing is often solitary — I love that this series compels writers to write on a deadline and share on a deadline.”
These additions also joined an upgraded, nearly weeklong and multi-venued Northern Arizona Book Festival. It brought international bestselling author of the “Outlander Series,” Diana Gabaldon, as well as Doug Peacock, the real-life inspiration for George Hayduke, the environmental firebrand antihero of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
One of the book festival’s organizers, James Jay, considered the Peacock appearance a big highlight for the literary year.
“Peacock is one of the most important voices in preserving wilderness, and that voice is more important now than ever,” Jay noted. “He’s a brilliant writer as well, funny, approachable — and his reading in Flagstaff reflected his openness and wit.”
Pages and people
While much of the literary scene in Flagstaff has become events-driven, it also involves authors and poets crafting and publishing work. On this front, several interviewed about the book realm noted highlights among the work and notoriety of some of Flagstaff’s working scribes.
Murison pointed to a number of released titles this year that demonstrated the strength of the local author collective. She and others highlighted Northern Arizona University creative writing professor Erin Stalcup’s “And Yet It Moves” on their list of favorites.
Murison also named NAU English professor Nicole Walker’s “Micrograms” and NAU Lawrence Lenhart’s “The Well Stocked and Gilded Cage,” as well as Eric “Dieterle’s “Where the Wind Dreams of Staying.”
Quinonez carried a strong liking for Eric Dovigi’s first Chapbook, “The Hunter,” and considered it an example of local literature as a high art form.
“It is an impeccable work of poetry, hand printed and designed by the author himself,” Quinonez said of “The Hunter.” “I think the work speaks for itself, but beyond that I can’t think of anything more representative of the Flagstaff creative scene as a handmade product of pure passion and talent put together by someone committed to being an active performer, audience member and educator — all with equal gusto.”
For 2017 and beyond, Murison and Keirsey both want to see more people attend the literary events and understand what they have to offer for the community.
“Almost every literary event in Flagstaff is free and open to the public — so, I’d love to see more people enjoying our local and regional authors at Pinestories, Narrow Chimney and other regular events around town,” Murison said.
Jesse Sensibar, who is the director of the Northern Arizona Book Festival and has emceed the Narrow Chimney Reading Series held at Uptown Pubhouse, said the series itself will get a notable production boost in the near future as an in-the-works highlight. But he said he would like to see more of the literary luminaries stay longer in Flagstaff.
“I think the biggest challenge for the local lit scene is keeping good people, both young writers and organizers of events, in Flagstaff,” Sensibar shared. “This means that we are constantly re-inventing the wheel here in town. This might not be the worst thing — at least the wheel continues to get re-invented, but I’d like to see more of these folks be able to stay.”