Thursday, October 11, 2012


Patrice Melnick

Yesterday, my blog highlighted a food festival held in New Iberia, Louisiana called The World Championship Gumbo Cook-Off, an event that emphasizes one of the favorite pastimes of denizens of Cajun country – eating. Shortly after publishing the blog, I communicated with Patrice Melnick, executive director of Festival of Words and co-owner of Casa Azul Gifts in Grand Coteau, Louisiana to talk about another Louisiana festival that focuses on a subject dear to my heart: poetry. The range from Cajun cuisine to soul nourishment reflects the richness of south Louisiana, even in remote rural areas like the small town of Grand Coteau, population 1,040, where the Festival of Words takes place.
The Festival of Words emphasizes that Poetry is For Everyone and features events that showcase this idea. It’s a literary festival that includes top level authors teaching hands-on creative writing workshops in schools and Drive by Poetry events which  feature youth performing in the streets, in cafes and gift shops.  The Festival features beginning writers reading along with professional authors and sponsors creative writing workshops in public schools and antique shops. The program has grown from 100 poetry/story lovers to a festival that attracts 750 people across south Louisiana and the south at large.
Festival of Words was launched by its present executive director, Patrice Melnick, who has been corresponding with me from the time I made a donation in support of this year’s annual festival, slated for Nov. 5-11, with activities at Grand Coteau and in St. Martin and St. Landry parishes. Louisiana Poet Laureate, Julie Kane, will read, as well as North Carolina author Randall Kenan (a familiar face at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference), spoken word artist Bonny McDonald (with whom I performed at a reading, along with Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana Poet Laureate, in New Iberia, a few years ago), and other noted writers. Of course, Patrice will also be performing.
I asked Patrice to fill me in on her background and education and to talk about the launching of this literary arts festival that began five years ago. She was up late last night answering my questions about an event that touts it “will do anything to convince people that poetry is for them.” Here are Patrice’s late night thoughts:
Moore: Where were you born and educated?
Melnick: I was born in Dallas, Texas. I earned my B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. I received an MFA in Creative Writing (nonfiction) from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Moore: What attracted you to teaching at Xavier University at a time when it was an all-black college?
Melnick: Xavier is still a predominantly black college. At the time, I was looking for work and applied at several colleges in New Orleans, including Xavier. They offered me a job, so I took it. I liked Xavier’s efforts to educate students, many of whom were first generation college students. The attitude of the university is that those who are bright, but may have had poor preparation, still deserved access to higher education. While many of the students were well-qualified, those who lacked basics or study skills still had the opportunity to acquire them in special courses.
That Xavier was a black Catholic college was not an issue. I am at ease, generally, with people of different cultures, and patient with myself through any adjustment period needed. Also, I have always read literature and music of other cultures—black American, Latin American, middle eastern, African or Native American. I love to explore and learn from different perspectives.
Moore: What prompted you to initiate the Festival of Words program?
Melnick: When I opened a gift shop in Grand Coteau called Casa Azul in 2005, I could only afford enough merchandise to fill half of the building, so the empty back area was sectioned off. I also had trouble attracting customers so I started an open mic series in the back of the shop. As a writer, open mic was something I knew how to do. At the first open mic, maybe five people showed up, and most did not know what to do. I brought copies of poems and distributed them for people to take turns reading at the podium. Over time the open mic gained popularity, and the audience averaged 25 to 30 people. In 2008 I was encouraged by the community liaison of the Acadiana Center for the Arts to apply for a grant. We did, and received funding. This allowed us to pay artists, and invite a wider range of performers. As attention to the literary arts grew, a group of us decided to start a literary arts festival.
In 2010, we founded our own nonprofit organization, the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective.
We started the Festival of Words because there was a lack of literary arts in the area. We decided to emphasize outreach because otherwise our audience would have been very small! Most in the area had never attended a literary reading, and we were determined to get people involved from youth to senior citizens. I believe in the power of creative expression and the power of the written and spoken word. It is heartening to see someone read an original poem in front of an audience for the first time. You can see his face change as he realizes the power of his own words. As more youth become interested in writing, they will become more effective readers, writers and creative thinkers. This leads to higher achievement in academics, and more young people are likely to enter college.
Moore: Did you receive a grant as a jump start?
Melnick: This year, we received a grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, a Decentralized Arts Funding (DAF) grant and a grant from South Arts. We are grateful for all of these grants, but the DAF grant, which we depended upon in the past, equaled about 30% of the amount we had received in previous years.
Moore: Who are your students in the program – percentage of old and young folks?
Melnick: The Festival of Words emphasizes outreach to people who may have had little exposure to the arts.  At this annual festival, about 70% of those involved are youth, and 30% are adults. Ten percent of the adults are senior citizens.
Drive-by poets reading on location
We reach the youth in several ways. Featured authors teach creative writing workshops in the public school classrooms of St. Landry Parish. Many are meeting an author for the first time in their lives! Also, our “Drive-by Poetry,” director, Bruce Coen, teaches youth to perform poems by featured authors. Then they perform “drive-by poetry,” in grocery stores, fast-food restaurants, and other mundane locations. This is all coordinated with businesses in advance. The event brings poetry into everyday lives. Students look forward to it every year.
Moore: Who have been some of the featured authors and sponsors in the program?
Melnick: We have specific criteria for our authors: 1) they must be accomplished authors or performers 2) writings must be accessible to the general public 3) must be effective educators 4) must be interested in community and audience development. 5) must be nice—it makes it easier to attract residents.
We know that we will draw people who love literature. But that is not enough. In our desire to be inclusive, we attempt to engage people of all ages, folks who may have thought they did not like poetry. We think we can convince them otherwise.  

Darrell Bourque, former LA
Poet Laureate
One major participant has been Darrell Bourque, previously Poet Laureate of Louisiana. He has been connected to our events since we were just a small open mic series in the back of Casa Azul Gifts. He obviously cares deeply about poetry and people, and now he serves as president of our board of directors. He has used his notoriety to draw attention to the Festival of Words and our mission to inspire creative expression and higher levels of literacy. Another major participant has been spoken word poet Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore who is director of Forward Arts, a Baton Rouge arts education organization that teaches creative writing and performance. “Xero,” has advised us on our programming and has brought the Baton Rouge youth slam team to Casa Azul Gifts to perform several times. He and others in the Baton Rouge slam poetry community have donated many hours to perform and teach in Grand Coteau and the surrounding area. Other favorite visitors have included Tim Seibles, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte and Kendra Hamilton. All were accomplished, yet with kind, generous personalities.
Moore: Where is your favorite space to hold the event?
Melnick: I likescheduling events at St. Charles Chapel, which used to be called Christ the King Church. The Chapel served as the black church in town, before desegregation, and the creole community revolved around this institution. At Christ the King church parishioners held fairs, had baptisms, weddings and other events. I knew residents had a lot of affection for this building and that it would be a comfortable place for them to attend an event. We always have a resident introduce the building before the program begins. This year, a tour of the chapel will be available on November 10 .
My 2nd favorite location is the back area of Casa Azul because that is where it all began. The space is intimate and eclectic.
Moore: Do you ever appear in a program? And what comprises a typical performance?
Melnick: For the first time this year, I will be one of the featured authors. I have a new book out called Po-boy Contraband, a memoir.
Our programming includes poetry, fiction and nonfiction. We also include some music, especially on the community stage where we hold an all-day open mic on November 10. The festival includes art work created by area youth, which serves as a backdrop at the literary readings.
Oral history is also part of our programming. Each month we invite a Grand Coteau resident to share stories of growing up in the area. The presentation is filmed and preserved in the Cajun and Creole Archives at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. During this year’s annual festival, there will be a tour of the old St. Peter Claver High school and St. Charles Chapel. There will also be a story-sharing session in St. Charles Chapel, which will be recorded and archived.
The Festival of Words wants to elevate the written and spoken word which includes stories. Oral history is a natural fit for this literary arts program.
Moore: Is this your full-time job or do you have another occupation?
Melnick: The Festival of Words in not my full-time job. I also run Casa Azul Gifts and I am a writer.
Moore: How do you think the Festival affects literacy? Are there any measurable results from programs offered?
Melnick: Most of the progress we see is anecdotal—but notable. When we began the program, there were no writing groups or other open mics in the area. Since then, three participating schools have started their own poetry clubs and open mics. Three adult writing groups have also started in the community. In the last three years, more businesses and festivals are including the literary arts. The Festival of Words now has a poetry performance component. Teachers, art administrators, and individuals from as far as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge ask for advice on how to build a literary arts community.
Moore: Will you being doing fundraisers every year for the program or do you anticipate state funding at some later date?
Melnick: I anticipate we will be doing fundraisers every year for the foreseeable future. If state and national funding for the arts becomes more available, we might do less fundraising, however it is very important to have the support of the community in which we work. These donations indicate community approval of our programming.
Moore: In the book, Running and Being by George Sheehan, he emphasizes that enlightened people include poets, philosophers, and athletes.  What do you think of that statement?
Melnick: I don’t know how to comment on this statement—I think I would need a better sense of the context. But I feel that enlightenment can come from reflection, creative expression, and an interest in humanity. One could argue that all of these types of people may have this in common.
To pledge support link to Festival of Words, and click “Manage Your Pledge.” Patrice says they’re only a few hundred dollars short of the goal for this annual event. Pony up for poetry!
Photograph of Patrice Melnick by Philip Gould, noted Louisiana photographer; other photos supplied by Patrice Melnick


Margaret Simon said...

I am looking forward to attending the Festival of Words this year. I have Patrice's book, very well written and interesting.

Clare L. Martin said...

Wonderful post and interview, Diane! I have been a member of the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective since the beginning, and each year the effort grows stronger and reaches deeper into the communities served. Thanks for highlighting this worthy endeavor.

Best, Clare

Clare L. Martin said...

Wonderful post and interview. I have been a member of the Festival of Words Cultural Arts Collective since the beginning and every year the effort grows stronger and reaches deeper into the communities served. Patrice is a powerhouse writer and a passionate, amazing human being. Her endeavors better life for all of us.