So many big things happened at Eaux Claires festival this year, big enough that you can find news of them elsewhere on your own. I wish to say a word about the little things. And when I say “little,” I am speaking to ratio, not to importance.
Whatever you might read or hear or see out there on the big stage or the big news, there are little moments when Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon and Michael Brown step outside their world-tour world and say, Let’s try this little thing. And then they give us the freedom to implement it as best we can. You saw the results of that commitment throughout the festival grounds. In my case, I was allowed to bring in six writers of various background, genre, and experience (Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Kao Kalia Yang, Joe Horton, Frank Bures, Alissa Nutting, and Dean Bakopoulos) to provide miniature readings to miniature audiences in a miniature space. A little thing among the big things. And it worked. It worked because the writers were willing to operate in flux and unpredictability without pretension. It worked because the writers are fine writers. It worked because the audience said, Yes, we’ll try this, and proved it by lining up all day both days.
Sincerity in the midst of an endeavor this size is tricky. We are a society increasingly built on skepticism. There is also the simple fact that a festival must hit certain bottom line marks or it cannot continue. There will be missteps large and small. But I hope what I’m conveying here is that what you saw in those tiny moments–be it with the writers or any of the other artists infusing the grounds with a life of its own–was a sincere attempt to pay art its due, to respect the audience, and to sow a few seeds of wonder for wonder’s own sake.
I had a little moment of my own, and it happened on the big stage, in the photo you see above. I run my yapper in public a lot but never in front of a crowd the size of the Eaux Claires crowd at headliner time. The response of an audience that size is an actual physical force.
I can tell you it can make a person nervous.
But I felt so calm the other night. And it was because way back when I was a farm kid fresh out of nursing school, local artists took time to share little moments with me. One little moment at a time, they introduced me to a whole new world. And so even with however many thousands roaring as I approached the microphone, I remembered the microphone at The Cabin where I first read with local poets, and in the midst of that thunderous tidal wave I knew I was just doing what those poets took time to teach me to do. And yes, even when I hit the possibly overwrought lines I was smiling inside, thinking of my dear indispensable poet/editor mentor Frank Smoot, looking at one of my early poems, shaking his head, and saying, “Mike? This line right here? You’re peggin’ the ol’ wank-o-meter…”
So much help along the way. And so much help came through those gates, people willing to immerse themselves in all that was offered, big and small, and make it a wonder for wonder’s own sake.
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