As published in the Spring 2013 Ojai Valley News Visitors Guide
WordFest Turns 4 and Waxes Poetic
In its fourth year, Ojai WordFest is once again reinventing itself. The four-day literary festival, a celebration of words, ideas and stories, runs from Thursday, April 10th through Monday, April 13th, and this year plans to shine a lyrical light on poetry.
“We’re refining our festival. We learn something every year, and we’ve learned what the community wants,” says festival founder Sequoia Hamilton, who created the festival to establish Ojai as a literary destination for new and veteran writers of all ages and genres.
With grants from the local Rotary Club, the City of Ojai and private donors, Hamilton has finally gained some financial freedom with this event.
“This is the first year we have a budget,” says Hamilton, who had in previous years operated on a shoestring. “We’re putting that generosity back into the community by putting the festival into the schools.”
Since April is National Poetry Month (Hamilton says it’s the largest literary celebration on the planet), Hamilton saw that as the driving inspiration for the festival’s schedule, and looked to the schools to serve as venues for some of the events, with their students as participants.
“We’re putting a poet into each school,” says Hamilton, who has invited teaching poets to partner with a local school where they will speak to classes about their experiences with the genre and lead short writing exercises for the students.
Among the poet mentors is local poet and Ojai native Akka B. On Friday, April 11th, she will present at Oak Grove School where her 14-year-old daughter is a student.
Akka says she is enthusiastic about being a part of the festival and connecting teens through the written word.
“I’m passionate about that process – of kids feeling comfortable to access their words,” Akka says. “When they are given the opportunity…it’s so immediately empowering. There’s nothing like seeing a kid come alive.”
Akka says she vividly remembers what it was like to be a teen struggling to communicate those new thoughts and feelings that are a difficult part of coming of age.
“As a kid I was so afraid to speak,” she says. “We all recognize the struggle…that child is still in us.”
Later that evening, Akka will meet up with the other poet mentors to put on a
poetry showcase featuring youth and teens reading their work.
Serving as the unofficial bookends for the festival, local novelists Doc and Zoe Murdock will kick things off on Thursday, April 10th at 5:30 p.m. by showcasing their regularly-scheduled weekly creative writing workshop at the Ojai Library.
“We’ve been teaching this workshop every Thursday for the last 10 years,” says Doc, a retired writing professor and competitive runner who has published five novels.
Though they maintain a steady core group of 12 to 20 members each week, in total they have had about 450 fledgling and professional writers from college students to retirees come through the workshop. Some have been there since day one.
Doc and Zoe first met at the University of Utah’s creative writing program and made their way to Ojai in 2004 when they retired to pursue writing full time. They decided to hold the free weekly workshops because they missed the student interaction.
The workshop typically includes instruction on specific writing techniques followed by readings and critiques. The focus is squarely on fiction, and the critiques, given by the students as well as the Murdocks, are honest but never sugar-coated.
“They (the participants) learn very quickly that everyone has their best interests at heart,” Zoe says. Her novel, Torn by God: A Family’s Struggle with Polygamy, has clung to the top of the Amazon charts in its category since it was first published four years ago.
On the final night of the festival, Monday, April 13th, Hamilton will honor the Murdocks with a “Literary Legends” award for their contributions to Ojai’s vibrant writing community. The evening will start off at 7:00 p.m. with readings of Ars Poetica, which are poems about poetry, and will feature a presentation by Ventura County’s first ever Poet Laureate, Mary Kay Rummel, a writing professor whose award-winning poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. The evening’s events will be held at the Ojai Arts Center, in celebration of its 75th year in continuous operation.
Since its inception, the festival has attracted attendees with a passion for words from all over the world. Other events over the festival’s four days include a happy hour with books, a day-long spa writing retreat, various writing workshops and a late-night spoken word slam at Bart’s Books. For more, visit www.ojaiwordfest.com.