April 05, 2020

A writer’s haven Literary Festival debut in Camden celebrates Maine’s rich world of letters

More than 90 years ago, a young Edna St. Vincent Millay stood on the porch of a grand home in Camden and spoke these lines: “All I could see from where I stood/Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked the other way/And saw three islands in a bay.” The girl went on to recite all of “Renascence,” the landmark poem that would open the path to her literary stardom.

Millay, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was born in Rockland and raised in Camden, might be surprised at the number of writers living, working or spending some portion of their professional life in her old neighborhood these days.

She might also be surprised to find that reading groups are everywhere – in libraries, homes, meeting halls and coffee shops.

To celebrate the rich world of letters and the community of readers throughout the state, the midcoast branch of the American Association of University Women is presenting the first Maine Author Series and Literary Festival Nov. 3-5 at the Camden Opera House. The association is also celebrating its own 80th anniversary with the festival’s launching.

The weekend event features lectures, readings and panel discussions about Maine’s place on the national literary map. For the last 30 years, the AAUW has held an author series as a scholarship project with all proceeds – $100,000 over the years – going to college education for women. The festival, which is also a scholarship project, is an expansion of that series. Tickets cost between $50 and $100 depending on the number of sessions attended. Discounts are available for students and teachers.

Although literary conferences have occurred on college campuses throughout the state, this is the first festival, say organizers, for both readers and writers in Maine outside an academic setting. This is organized by community members for community members in Camden and beyond.

“People who are excited about the written word will want to be there for the entire event,” said Maryanne Shanahan, chair of the festival and AAUW member. “Almost all the authors will be there for the entire time because they are excited as well. It will be as if these authors are sitting in your living room, and we want everyone in attendance to feel like they can reach out and talk to them”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo, who will give the keynote speech opening night, will practically be in his living room since he calls Camden home. Indeed, he confirmed his excitement about having so many of his literary colleagues and friends in the same spot for an entire weekend, and looked forward to sharing the Maine scene with the larger community. He also confirmed the state’s attraction for writers.

“It’s a good climate for writers,” said Russo, who is finishing a novel and working on several screenplays. “For me, that means things are quiet. It’s less harried, especially this time of year when the summer visitors leave. There is time and the opportunity to think. You don’t get that everywhere.”

Russo will be the first writer to deliver the E.B. and Katharine White Memorial Lecture, which organizers plan to make a fixture of the festival’s opening night each year. In addition to Russo’s talk, Martha White will read from the new collection of her grandfather’s work “Letters of E.B. White, Revised Edition,” which she updated and revised. The book is due out in November.

Other presenters at the festival include Cathie Pelletier, Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, Monica Wood and Maine’s poet laureate, Betsy Sholl. Organizers chose 21 professionals from a pool of more than 100 writers who have some association with Maine.

Among the state’s many authors, picking presenters was no easy task, said Shanahan. The planning committee did not ask several of the state’s best-known residents – Stephen King and David McCullough, for instance – because they had participated in the earlier reading series.

“The good news is that there are so many wonderful folks, we can’t wait to continue this on an annual basis,” said Shanahan, who is a Camden innkeeper.

Although there was no criterion for writers to live in Maine, most of the presenters do. Others are coming from farther afield. New Yorker Robert Benton is a director who has worked on film adaptations of novels, such as Russo’s “Nobody’s Fool,” and Brenda Wineapple is the author of the biography “Hawthorne: A Life.” Wineapple spent time researching her book in Maine, has given readings in the state and, in recent years, has rented a house on the coast.

“The festival is wonderfully exciting,” said Wineapple, who lives in New York City. “I’ve come to see Maine as a very special place in New England. It offers the same thing it offered Hawthorne 150 years earlier. It was a refuge for him from Salem, which was very much an urban area or as much of an urban area as it could be in 1812 or 1813. He loved Maine – the outdoors, the freedom. He loved that he was away from a social structure he found very confining. He talks about Maine in terms of freedom. It became a touchstone for him for the rest of his life, an ideal of how life should be.”

Wineapple will speak on a biography panel discussion, which will be moderated by Charlotte Albright, a freelance journalist and professor at Southern Maine Community College. During more than a dozen years reporting on public radio, Albright, who has a doctoral degree in literature, interviewed many Maine authors.

The festival, she said, is “long overdue.”

“When I first started covering the so-called ‘Maine writer,’ I felt there was an overemphasis on the word ‘Maine,'” said Albright, who is based in Portland. “We were awfully self-referential in those days.”

The writers in the state now, she said, “don’t want to be ‘Maine’ writers. They just want to write in Maine.”

Poet, anthologist and teacher Wesley McNair agreed. He moved to the Farmington area nearly 20 years ago both to take a university position and to leave the “megalopolis” behind.

“I felt here I could be in contact with those unassimilated parts of myself,” said McNair who will participate on a panel about contemporary voices in Maine. “I thought writing here could put me in contact with my truer self, the intuitive wildness inside. Among writers, Maine does have that appeal. Since writers are more or less loners – they have to serve the muse – it’s easier here for writers to burrow inside themselves.”

The festival is an inside view of the writer’s life, said novelist and Aroostook County native Cathie Pelletier. But it’s not only about book writers. In recent years, Pelletier has also been interested in screenplays and will be talking on a panel with Russo devoted to that subject.

“If I were in Maine and were an aspiring screenwriter, I would want to go to this to listen to Robert Benton and Richard Russo talk about making movies,” said Pelletier, who lives in Quebec. “Our panel is an inside view, a look behind the scenes. You don’t have a lot of festivals going on like that in Maine. It’s an opportunity for the aspiring writer. And all of these conferences are attractive to readers because they get to visit with a favorite author but also get that information that isn’t available on the jacket of a book. But it’s also for the reader, the screenwriter and the film lover.”

The excitement of the weekend, with all its discussions, receptions, art shows, lectures and readings, may turn out to be what Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose statue is in downtown Camden, once called burning the candle at both ends.

For information about the Maine Author Series and Literary Festival Nov. 3-5 in Camden, call 837-2827 or visit www.maineliteraryfestival.com.

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