One great big lovefest – that’s how I have described the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival since the first 2006 festival, September 16-17. The festival was the brainchild of the late Charles Price and his wife Ruth. I was honored when Charles asked me to teach a poetry workshop for the festival.
Like many “firsts” that first literary festival was magic. There was an energy, an excitement that was palpable. Readers and writers filled the streets of Burnsville, packed into shops and a church around the town square, poured into the Town Center to listen to authors read and talk about their work and teach workshops.
“Isn’t this wonderful!” the director of the North Carolina Arts Council exclaimed to anyone and everyone she met as she ventured along the streets, moving from one venue to the next. For Burnsville, a town without a bookstore in 2006, a literary festival was extraordinary.
I had met Charles a year or so before when I introduced him at a reading he gave at Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café in Asheville. The reading was part of the Great Smokies Writing Program’s Writers at Home Series, and the program director, Tommy Hayes, usually served as host and introduced the readers. But Tommy had a conflict that day and I was teaching a poetry class for the program that semester, so Tommy asked me to do the introductions.
Charles was one of those people whose love of life and literature is infectious. That Sunday afternoon at Malaprop’s was pure delight. His reading was powerful and although I usually do not read historical novels, he had me hooked at the first paragraph.
That Sunday afternoon at Malaprop’s, Charles and I discovered we shared similar backgrounds and experiences. Charles was a native of Western NC, the son of a Methodist minister. I grew up in the foothills, in a family with deep roots in the Methodist Church. We had both worked as journalists for NC newspapers. Charles had worked in DC as an urban planner for 20 years and I had lived and worked in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.
But the most important thing we shared was a great love for western North Carolina, especially Burnsville and Yancey County. I had immediately felt at home when I first moved to Yancey County in 1992. Charles and Ruth had settled in Cattail Creek, and immediately become part of the community. Although I was living in Asheville at the time, I told Charles that Ed and I were planning to move back to Yancey County just as soon as we could figure out how to make that happen.
Burnsville, the county seat of Yancey County in Western North Carolina, has a population of about 1,600 today. Named for Captain Otway Burns, a naval hero in the war of 1812, the town is the county seat of Yancey County, know for a proliferation of artists and creativity. The town’s proximity to the Penland School of Crafts was a big draw for fiber artists, book artists, potters, and other crafts. Glass artists, wood workers, and metal artists have also been drawn to the area.
It often seemed to me that the only thing missing in Yancey County was a celebration and acknowledgement of the literary arts. Charles and Ruth changed that.
In his introduction to the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival Anthology (2015), Charles writes about how the idea for a literary festival in Burnsville began in 2005 at a gathering in nearby Little Switzerland called A Meeting of Literary Minds. From the beginning, Charles and Ruth along with friends such as playwright and poet Britt Kaufmann wanted the Burnsville festival to be more intimate, more inclusive than traditional book fairs and literary festivals where authors sit for hours at tables waiting for someone to ask them to sign a book or get whisked away the minute a workshop or reading ends.
“When we named the festival we consciously selected the word literary, not to be pretentious but to reflect our intention to honor literature of a high quality,” Charles wrote in the introduction. “Rather than centering our festival on publicity for publishers, we wanted the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival to focus on relaxed dialogue among Southeastern readers, writers, and aspiring writers of all backgrounds.”
That first festival met and exceeded those expectations. When Charles asked me to participate in the first festival and teach a poetry workshop, I could not say yes fast enough. There was nothing better to me than to bring my love of poetry to a literary festival in Burnsville and share that with anyone who wanted to join me in exploring poetry.
There was a generosity of spirit, a desire to share our love of the written word with each other that brought us all together. I’ve returned as a featured author and as a participant over the years and the excitement remains, although the festival has gone through numerous changes and losses.
In 2015, my good friend, Susan Laughter Meyers, a poet from South Carolina but NC native, was a featured author. She invited me to be her guest at the festival and for two days I enjoyed the company of Susan and three other South Carolina poet friends.
The following year, the festival established The Charlie Award, named for Charles Price and presented to a writer for both the quality of work and the commitment to building community. The first recipient was the outstanding novelist John Ehle, also a participant in the first festival.
The 2017 festival found me back in the company of dear South Carolina poet friends, but without Susan, who had died that summer. As so often happens, we were both mourning our loss and celebrating her life. After listening to Shelby Stephenson, NC Poet Laureate, play guitar and sing “Amazing Grace” at the festival, I was ready to skip the festival banquet and stay outside at the Snapdragon pub with my friend, Carol, order a hamburger and spend a quiet evening. But Ed insisted that I go to the banquet. Even though I did not have time to go change out of the jeans and sweater I had been wearing all day, I reluctantly went and joined other friends. After all, I was not a featured author that year and I figured no one would be paying attention to me. I was wrong. The organizers completely surprised me by presenting me the Charlie Award. Although Charles was already having health problems, he and Ruth were at the banquet.
In 2018 I had the honor of presenting the Charlie Award to Tommy Hayes, also a featured author for the first festival. The 2019 festival was the first without Charles, who died earlier that year. For those of us who knew him, his absence was deeply felt. The pandemic canceled the festival in 2020 and 2021. Although Zoom has provided many new and exciting opportunities for writers and readers during the pandemic, the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival remains an event that must be experienced in person. Although I was not able to attend many sessions this year, the highlight of the festival for me was sitting outside Cast Iron Kitchen eating dinner and indulging in peach cobbler with a group of friends that began as four of us, increased to five and then six. As Burnsville has grown and new restaurants have opened, the festival no longer hosts a banquet. All the better to enjoy the many delights of this eclectic town that overflows with writers and readers at least once a year.
In celebration of the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and friendship, here’s a poem from the anthology by Susan Laughter Meyers:
back from the woods inside me
back from the woods inside me
nothing I can say to myself so full
the not saying
when I opened the nesting box
what looked slight
plain yet right filled the moment
spilling over into what once was
and what might be
their warm bodies feathered out
their eyes on me quick
with fright the luck of finding two
small birds one turned east
and the other west as if placed
that way to remind me where
I’d come from where I was going
—Susan Laughter Meyers
Carolina Mountains Literary Festival Anthology
Press 53, 2015
You describe it perfectly! I obviously missed it this year, and I know it is my loss. But I did not miss the night you were honored, and I am so glad. Each time I have been at the festival, it has been everything you described.
Thank you, Mary. This year’s festival was just as magical. Missed seeing you there.
Such a wonderful poem by Susan. Thanks!
Yes, Susan just keeps on enriching our lives through her poetry (and memories).