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John Wilson

Festival of Faith & Writing 2010

A report from Calvin College.

Addressing a large audience at Calvin College last Friday night, Richard Rodriguez observed that he has often been invited to speak at religious colleges and universities, but that such institutions have never asked him to talk about the connection between his writing and his Catholic faith—and indeed have often explicitly told him that he should not talk about religion. Hence he welcomed the opportunity to do so at Calvin. And we listeners were the beneficiaries.

The occasion was the 2010 edition of the Festival of Faith & Writing. This splendid event—which debuted in 1990 (under a different name), returned in 1994, and has been taking place every other year since then—has no peer. Roughly 2,000 people converged on the Calvin campus from Thursday April 15 through Saturday April 18, gathering to hear writers from all over the map: writers from different places, who write in different genres, who don't belong to the same clubs. Some were Festival regulars, like the poet Scott Cairns (whose reading late Saturday afternoon in the college chapel was one of the highlights for Wendy and me); some were first-timers, like the poet Kevin Young (whom I had a chance to meet briefly, just to tell him how much I enjoy his work). Wally Lamb (not my cup of tea, but that allowed us to linger over dinner Thursday night), Richard Rodriguez, Mary Karr (whose talk Saturday night fleshed out the very fine conversation Jon Sweeney had with her in the March/April issue of Books & Culture), Eugene Peterson, Sara Miles, Stephen Carter, Rhoda Janzen, Kate DiCamillo, the great photographer Steve McCurry … and many more.

Imagine going to a restaurant with an extraordinarily tempting menu. Appetizers: they all look tasty. Entrées: maybe we could share? Desserts: oh! And should you go with safe choices or try something entirely new? Every session at the Festival offers choices between competing goods. And then there is the opportunity to talk with old friends and new acquaintances (suddenly we're no longer in coffee break-time: a whole session has passed while we sat drinking coffee and talking.)

I took part in two panels on "Invisible Books," one devoted to nonfiction—my fellow panelists were Lisa Cockrel of Baker Books and Lil Copan of Paraclete Press—and the other given to fiction & poetry—with Brett Foster of Wheaton College and Donna Freitas of Boston University. Talking about favorite books with congenial souls isn't hard work.

To single out a few sessions from this feast is rather arbitrary, but here are some I was able to catch (I might just as usefully list the many I wish I had been able to attend). First thing Friday morning, I went to the seminary chapel to hear the poet Christian Wiman (also the editor of Poetry magazine), whose theme was "Hive of Nerves: On Modern Anxiety and Its Ancient Remedy." He spoke of moments when time appears to be suspended, in "that paradox of attentive oblivion out of which any sustained faith grows." A bit later that day, Wendy and I both went to hear Paul Willis on "John Muir, Disciple of Christ?" That was a rich session with good discussion. And in the afternoon, in the college chapel, Luci Shaw read from her new book of poems, Harvesting Fog, which I had brought along for this trip. (I'll be doing a podcast on this book and some other volumes of poetry soon.)

On Saturday morning, I went to hear Stephen Carter, who talked about a work in progress on the continuing importance of the traditional book and its relevance to the health of our democracy. (The fate of the book was a recurring theme at this year's Festival.) Later I heard a reading by Fanny Howe, whom I have read for many years but had never seen in person before. (By the way, Tiffany Kriner, of Wheaton College's English Department, has a piece on Fanny Howe forthcoming in B&C.)

Regrets? Only two: failing to connect with Otto Selles (B&C contributor who teaches French at Calvin—I got the time of our meeting mixed up) and missing Lisa Cockrel and Caitlin Mackenzie's post-Festival party on Saturday night. Ah, well. Wendy and I are already looking forward to Festival 2012, and hoping that our daughter Katy's schedule might permit her to join us next time around.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

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