Award for Excellence in the Public Humanities

Laura Hope Gill, Director of Ashevill Wordfest. Photo by Renee Treece Photography

The North Carolina Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has chosen Asheville Wordfest of Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) to receive the first Award for Excellence in the Public Humanities. Wordfest founder and executive director Laura Hope-Gill accepts the honor on October 8, 2010, in Greensboro, at the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, a celebration free and open to the public. 

Asheville Wordfest, which began in the spring of 2008, is an annual free three-day poetry festival that demonstrates how poetry can be “topical, relevant, and integral,” even transformative.

Hope-Gill explains, “A group of Asheville poets dreamed up Wordfest as a way of offering poetry as a tool for building community – both local and global. The challenge was how to frame a poetry festival in a way that doesn’t give people frightful flashbacks to high school lessons in iambic pentameter. The solution was to re-frame all poetry as a form of journalism, a way that people communicate about what is happening.”

“The stunning success of Asheville Wordfest is a great example of how community media can help voices rarely heard in commercial media find a sustaining audience," said MAIN founder and executive director Wally Bowen. "We are honored to share this vision of poetry as a form of citizen journalism,” he said.

The festival stimulates “inter-cultural discussion” by bringing award-winning and emerging poets together across geographical, cultural, aesthetic, physical, and racial boundaries. “My overall goal is to see a truly diverse audience develop over time,” Hope-Gill says. “I know it is possible to grow this and to overcome what has become a gentrification of poetry.”

To Hope-Gill, the very power of poetry is reflected in the fact that “it has connected people within a group and also across centuries, through history. It isn’t just a ‘fine art’ that beautifies existence with pretty things. It has a very exact purpose: to bring people together.”

Asheville Wordfest has become one of the most important poetry festivals in the United States. National Book Award finalist Patricia Smith comments that Hope-Gill’s dedication to diversity is “almost austere.” Affrilachia founder Frank X. Walker calls Wordfest “the next shining star” of the poetry world.

In its planning stages three years ago, Hope-Gill hoped for fifty festival guests. In 2010, over 1,200 people attended festival events in Asheville, and over 1,800 throughout fourteen countries worldwide tuned in via the Internet. Wordfest has indeed created a community that is local, global, and virtual – and the festival just keeps growing.

Hope-Gill employs live webcast and online video archive to expand reach of Wordfest. “Live webcast makes events accessible. People confined to homes, prisons and hospitals watch Wordfest and express their appreciation. Administering an event using public funds is a profound honor and responsibility. I have to make every single cent matter. Webcast and video archive helps me do this: individuals, schools and communities can attend Wordfest whenever they want. That’s money well spent.”

Festival events include readings by internationally renowned poets, open mics, potlucks and poetry sharings, “hike and writes,” youth poetry readings, workshops, scavenger hunts, pairings of musicians and poets, and more.

Live and archival video of Asheville Wordfest, including readings by the American Sign Language duo Flying Words, North Carolina Poets Laureate Cathy Smith Bowers and Kathryn Stripling Byer, poets Keith Flynn, Quincy Troupe, Valzhyna Mort, Li-Young Lee, Gary Copeland Lilley, Holly Iglesias, Glenis Redmond, Linda Hogan, Galway Kinnell, Raul Zurita, Mark Doty, Simon Ortiz, and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, and many others, may be viewed at www.ashevillewordfest.org.

The Award for Excellence in the Public Humanities honors outstanding, imaginative, and significant work that reflects, affirms, and promotes the mission and vision of the North Carolina Humanities Council. The award celebrates substantial involvement by a project sponsor or individual in inspiring and developing activities in the public humanities that invite active collaboration by a wide range of community partners.