A few months ago, I received the great news that my short story Becoming the Story was accepted by the 2023 JaxbyJax Literary Arts Festival (JaxbyJax) in Jacksonville, Florida. I have lived in Jacksonville for many years, and have submitted work before, in the hopes of being included. But this is the first time I have been asked to read my work. This definitely feels like a milestone.
The festival took place this past weekend, and since this experience is so new to me, I thought I would write a bit about it.
In an earlier post, A Writerly Weekend, I described going to Orlando for the Florida Writers Association Convention, just as a first-time attendee. JaxbyJax has a very different feel from the FWA Con, and I enjoyed both in different ways.
JaxbyJax, which takes place annually, is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year. The black t-shirts donated by Delegal and Poindexter, P.A., had a great big pink “X” glowing behind the white JaxbyJax logo. The event was started ten years ago by Tim Gilmore and Jo Carlisle, and this year, Co-Directors Erica Saffer, Darlyn Finch-Kuhn, and Brad Kuhn did a phenomenal job of organizing and running it. The three-day event took place at Florida State College of Jacksonville, Kent Campus December 1-3, 2023.
The first night of the event, Nat Glover, former Sheriff of Jacksonville/Duval County came to speak about his book: Striving for Justice: A Black Sheriff in the Deep South.
Nat Glover’s reading was very powerful. It spoke of his experiences, from being assaulted by a crowd of axe handle wielding white rioters on Axe Handle Saturday, to being elected the first Black Sheriff in the entire South, since Reconstruction. In a town with a conflicted racial past, to put it mildly, this was an impressive feat. He also ran for mayor later in his career and encountered blatant racial prejudice and vicious treatment for doing so. Late in his career he served as head of Edward Waters University our local historically black college (HBC).
The passages he chose to read included an homage to the good parenting of his mother. This story held a reminder of the fears and mistrust of police, which black parents in a Southern towns had in his youth, and which have filtered through to current generations. I sat next to local author Julie Delegal who has read in previous iterations of JaxbyJax, and who has authored a fictional book about a painfully regrettable police encounter with a teenaged black man in her book Seen. She just kept nodding in agreement the whole time he was speaking.
Nat Glover even included a passage about a mistake he had made, which he was not proud of. Throughout, Glover emphasized the importance of communication and dialog between the races, so we can understand each other better. His reading was followed by questions and answers about the book and about his life, conducted by Co-Director Erica Saffer.
I look forward to reading the book.
After Nat Glover’s presentation we were treated to a few snacks and then the multi-media film The Brown Wonder, in which creative Willie Evans Jr sliced and diced snippets of music from the artists James Brown and Stevie Wonder and layered them, with animation and his own lyrics and music, to create a very moving film.
I feel like I would have to watch it again and again to fully comprehend all the messages hidden in its layers. But I cannot get some images out of my mind. The angel wings and the unignorable reference to George Floyd’s final words. The woman on the street selling something and telling the bodiless narrator head, how it is. The midcentury afros, surrounding a seated Stevie Wonder at the piano, full of scrawled messages, which barely register before they disappear. I enjoyed the music and was moved by the message, but still feel, that perhaps by virtue of my race and limited understanding, I missed more than I care to admit. A good book is one that bears repeating. The same can be said for a film. And this one does.
Afterwards, two fellow creatives Arsun F!st and Still Water interviewed Willie Evans Jr, and we got to peer into his creative process a little.
The second day of the festival began at 11 am. There were other things going on elsewhere, in the Main Auditorium and in the large space where the authors went to lay out their books and zines for sale and to chat and try to grab lunch. But I mostly was glued to my seat in the Art Gallery Auditorium. Except for the possible exception of myself, I found this room had an excellent lineup.
The first session from 11-12:30 was full of poetry. Tricia Booker emceed and asked insightful questions.
Michelle Lizet Flores left me tasting Miami mangos and longing for Cuban waterfalls, which I have never seen.
Sharon Scholl delighted me with musical poetry that called to mind the choral tradition of churches, and the monastic chants of centuries gone by, and had me revisiting my long years of piano, with a poem that discussed Hanon, a set of practice books.
Laura Dill had a poetic presentation that combined image and environmental insights with moving words, to create ekphrastic ecstasy (couldn’t resist the alliteration, sorry!)
Then came skeletal Ma Bones with her sarcastic, occasionally rhyming, clever, and snide poetry. Her stage presence was undeniable and her reminder of Death’s masked presence incontrovertible.
Jen Belt then broke the poetic chain with a very funny story about her sister, delivered like a dry martini.
Anna Jacobson then read poetry that carried me off into the break, like a beloved song.
I skipped lunch, as I had my own reading shortly after one o’clock and was way too nervous to eat. I took the time to visit the authors, tabling, instead. Although it was more of a mad dash through the room, than a proper visit.
Women Writing for a Change were selling their latest anthology next to the previous years’ editions.
Johnny Masiulewicz had a table covered in neat piles of zines, including Moss Gossamer: Poetry of NE Florida, which has my poem August in it.
Tim Gilmore had on offer an extensive set of books he has written over the years. I recently read his book Channeling Anna Fletcher, which really conveyed the séance- and spiritualism-filled world of certain local women, near the turn of the twentieth century. Proving the point, once again, that no matter how hard men have tried to keep them down, women have always exerted power in one way or another.
After this break I returned to the Art Gallery Auditorium to listen to my own block of readers.
The first reader was Michael Ray Fitzgerald who has written a book on Jacksonville’s rock legends called Guitar Greats of Jacksonville. The chapter he read was about Michel Wayne Campbell, famous for his association with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, but it turns out he worked for many other bands besides, and of course he spent time in Jacksonville.
I was next with my story, which, very superficially, gives a nod to some of the rockers in Jax
Obviously, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to review myself. But members of my family sidled in right before the session started and they did not accuse me afterwards, of any huge faux pas. I prepared, by making sure I had a clean copy of my story in large type, one-sided. It definitely helped, not having to squint at the page. They had a nice clear plastic lectern to stand at, so I did not have to hold the pages, although I still found myself doing so, for part of the time. I tried not to notice the tremble in my legs, and hoped, it would not spread to my voice.
My story Becoming the Story is about an old hippy journalist, reflecting on how things had changed over the years, who ends up realizing, that some things never change. Hope you will see it in print, one day.
The rest of the day was much more relaxing.
The next few readers included Melissa Aiuppy, who read about a few back-to-back incidents in her youth requiring courage, and about her rising to the occasion at last.
James Green entertained us with his comic book reading about a strange ex-con named Snake Man, presenting each cell of the comic on a single slide, and encouraging us, to collectively verbalize his creative sound effects.
Melissa Gopp-Warner rounded out the group, with a published article about her mother once trying to ban a well-loved children’s poetry book. This, of course, ties into the hot button issue of book bans, in our own age.
At three, I meandered over to the Main Auditorium to thoroughly enjoy the work of twelve student writers from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, Florida State College of Jacksonville, and University of North Florida. Andres Rojas, local poet and lawyer and past student of FSCJ Kent Campus, had set up a fund for students’ work to be recognized, donated by a bequest from a former professor, Dr James Robert Cobb at FSCJ. After the readings, these Cobb Awards were given.
All the student readings were so good. As Darlyn Finch-Kuhn said afterwards, the literary future of our state is secure. I was especially moved by the poem “You Don’t Look Jewish,” by Hailey Rose Jacobsen.
At five pm in the Main Auditorium there was yet another set of readings. This included Jenn Chase reading about musical gigs and the people you meet, from her memoir about Jacksonville, I Can Smell You from Here. This title is a bit funny to me, because in the old days, before I moved here, and only came to visit, you could still smell the old paper mill in the air. Even now, close to downtown, you can sometimes smell coffee from the Maxwell House factory.
Next came Bob Kealing, who has written a book Good Day Sunshine State: How the Beatles Rocked Florida, on the three weeks in 1964 that the Beatle spent in Florida, a good part of it in Jacksonville, and one momentous night, performing on the stage of the Gator Bowl. His reading made me think, momentarily, that perhaps the cure to racism is in the hormones of screaming girls.
Tricia Booker, a memoir author and grieving dog-mom, then read a very touching piece, about her dog when he was still very much alive. It was all tires and swings and handymen and the outdoors and doing things your way. Loved it.
Finally, Director Emeritus (I got this title from the JaxbyJax site) Dr. Tim Gilmore took the stage and read to us about a less than savory character from Jacksonville’s past. His newest book is called The Culture Wars of Warren Folks. The banned book theme came up again –it was an even earlier iteration of this fabulously bad idea. This time, it was Mickey Spillane’s books getting wrenched from library shelves. After that segment, Gilmore shared his interviews with the Folks children, which bared another, more human, side of the man.
It was time for the headliner: our own mayor, Donna Deegan, former news anchor and multiple time breast cancer survivor, as well as charity founder and author, read from her book Through Rose Colored Glasses. Her mesmerizing description of her run, along our beautiful coastal neighborhoods and along the beach, had us all wanting to pound the pavement with her. The beauty and tranquility made it that much harder, to hear about that conversation with the doctor, that no one wants to have.
Afterwards, Mayor Deegan was interviewed by Brad Kuhn and discussed both her book and her current role, as leader of our fair city. She graciously signed books and took selfies with people, before we all left in the rain.
Right before she was slotted to speak that evening, all our phones in the auditorium had blared, that a tornado was in town. While Mayor Deegan did seem to have an enormous reservoir of energy, her message was positive and uplifting. Less a windstorm, than a refreshing breeze.
The last day of JaxbyJax was devoted to workshops put on by some of our local writers. I attended two between 12 and 3. The first was with Wyne Karnath, a science fiction writer. He delivered a talk on Emerging Technologies for Writers. This was a remarkably interesting dive into the information it is helpful to know, if you are a writer, trying to extrapolate from the current science, some fiction that could plausibly happen, at some point in the future. I took so many notes of the names of sci-fi or speculative authors I am not familiar with, and books I need to read. We talked about AI (Karnath is an optimist) and the issues of space and time travel, and how we no longer believe, that the most likely vehicle to get us to the future is a phone booth.
Next, I slid into Anna Jacobson’s ongoing talk on Storytelling. I went to this because I realize, that I often get lost in a mess of detail in my writing, and can’t see the path forward–the story– for the life of me! But the focus of this seminar was on the “telling” part as well, as in standing up in front of people and performing your story. Something I could most certainly use help with!
Jacobson shared a method of squeezing your impromptu story out of any random topic: try to brainstorm all the associations you can think of, that relate to it. This is especially useful in improv, apparently. It also helps to focus on a central image that carries the emotion of your story. For a story concerning a scary time in my son’s life (and mine) the cap of wires, which the nurses pasted on my infant son’s head during his first EEG, was the image. I got a lot out of this seminar and Jacobson was very encouraging, about trying out storytelling and improv experiences before an audience. Our local venue Bab’s Lab is a great incubator for storytellers, as well as a stage on which to perform and better your craft.
Well, after that long weekend, I just went home and vegged. My mind is still so full, I had to spend today, spilling it on the page for you.
I have tried to be faithful to my experience, but that is not a guarantee that my memory is correct. Please feel free to correct me on any mistakes. Also–and I blame the space-time continuum for this– I was unable to attend all the wonderful presentations, which were given simultaneously, to the ones I attended. Perhaps someone else could fill in the blanks for me. I do regret having missed so many terrific readings.
I hope you enjoyed your experience at JaxbyJax, if you went. And if you didn’t, I hope you’ll consider coming next year.