Just imagine the wild scene at the South Carolina Book Festival this weekend. Book hunters sporting Times New Roman camo jackets. The streets of Columbia clogged with Subarus. Sappy watercolors of cats everywhere you look.
I kid. The truth is, if the Wildlife Expo here in Charleston confirms many Southern stereotypes, the Book Fest reaffirms our state's strong position in the venerable Southern tradition of letters.
James Island poet Richard Garcia is a featured author this year. His first visit to the Book Festival a few years back was an eye-opener.
"I came out here from California, and I didn't know what to expect," he says. He's trying to be diplomatic, but his tone says he was expecting Podunk, USA. "I was really wondering about the cultural differences between here and Los Angeles. But I go to a reading, and there were some terrific poets who really knocked my socks off."
Columbia poet Terrance Hayes is the man who most impressed Garcia, and it was Hayes who selected Susan Meyers as the inaugural winner of the South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, earning publication by USC Press.
Her full-length book Keep and Give Away came out just after last year's Book Festival, where she was a volunteer (albeit a published and highly-esteemed poet). This year, instead of running bids at the antiquarian book auction, she'll be on a panel and signing copies of her book.
The President of the South Carolina Poetry Society, Meyers is a soft-spoken workhorse who, in a time when free verse is ubiquitous, actually dares to dabble in form.
Well, more than dabble. Keep features a couple of villanelles, a sonnet, and a ghazal, which, as fans of Urdu and Sufi poets well know, has a matla, a maqta, and three shers in between. (They're types of couplets.) The poet's name is often hidden in the last line.
Meyers likes the pressure of deadlines, and currently has a pact with her friend Carol Peters. Every day each has to post a poem on her Zoetrope.com online office (sort of a MySpace for writers).
"It doesn't mean I'm writing a good poem every day, just a poem every day," Meyers says. "We don't put too much pressure on each other, and we don't critique them."
Of all her work, "A Hat of Goldfinches" is the poem Meyers says she's gotten the most comments on.
"What jubilation,/ all that twittering and hopping about./ Little feet massaging your scalp, little beaks/ perchicoreeing to everyone you pass."
(For the record, perchicoree is the consensus word to describe the sound a goldfinch makes, but a Google search for "perchicoreeing" brings up only Meyers.)
In search of some structure, Meyers, who has taught writing at many levels, will at times give herself an assignment.
"There's one that I used the other day," she says, "I drew up a list of words -- nouns, verbs, and adjectives -- and required myself to pull from those lists in the poem. And then I listed some patterns of syntax ... and used those in a particular order."
The poem still lacked "logic," she says, so she went back and put a person in it.
"I just decided to pick somebody who mattered to me, so I picked my sister. If I had a statement, 'The moon is rising tonight,' then I added a person to every statement, 'The moon is rising for my sister tonight,' and so on."
Meyers, who lives in Givhans, near Summerville, also gives herself deadlines by attending poetry workshops at Richard Garcia's James Island home.
Garcia has taught poetry from kindergarten to college, in hospitals and prisons. He still flies back to Los Angeles regularly to teach in the low-residency MFA program at Antioch College. February has been his busiest month ever, he says, traveling to give readings and workshops. At the Book Festival he'll be signing copies of his third book, The Persistence of Objects.
"I encourage all my poetry students to fill their poems full of objects," he says, "concrete language, images, that's what makes poems substantial."
With a style a bit like the 'get the reader in the door' approach of former poet laureate Billy Collins, Garcia's work is approachable and down to earth. Although it doesn't appear in Persistence, the opening lines of his poem "Why I Left the Church" show that well-used inanimate objects can pack a cultural and spiritual wallop:
"Maybe it was/ because the only time/ I hit a baseball/ it smashed the neon cross/ on the church across/ the street."
The S.C. Book Festival runs Friday through Sunday in Columbia, with readings, signings, rare book appraisals, workshops, panel discussions, and other events. The big guns this year are Nikki Giovanni and Dorothea Benton Frank. Other guest authors from Charleston include Beth Webb Hart, Marjory Wentworth, Jack Bass, and Charlie Geer. For more information see www.scbookfestival.org.