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June 25, 2001

Festival of Faith & Writing

The Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College is a year out (it will be held April 18-20, 2002) but this is when the work gets done. This is when invitations go out, committees form and schedules get stitched in place.

Evidence of that is the recent signings of poet Stephen Dunn to the 2002 line-up. Dunn is an acclaimed author of 11 collections of poetry, including Different Hours which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.

He continues the completion of a roster for 2002 that promises to continue the legacy of past Festivals. The 2000 Festival brought such luminaries as Maya Angelou and Chaim Potok to Calvin's campus, while conferences back to 1990 have entertained major writers such as John Updike, Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Madeleine L'Engle, Larry Woiwode, Will Campbell and many more.

Now, the sixth bi-ennial Festival approaches. But organizers say they're not trying to one-up previous editions.

"We're not trying to top a previous year," says Festival director Dale Brown (above). "Each Festival just seems to build naturally from the one before. We try a new thing here or there, we bring in new speakers, feature different subjects and the like, but we have a high percentage of return registrants and a steady network of writers, editors, and others who return to staff our various workshops and panels. When we began this thing in 1990, we couldn't have imagined this, but we did hope to endure. And that's happened."

The 2002 lineup promises to be spectacular in its own way.

"We're pleased at the mix of faith traditions, literary genres, and diverse voices in the 2002 group," says Rebecca Warren, Festival administrator. "Many people come to the Festival eager to add new names to their reading lists, and I'm sure that this year's event will not disappoint."

Oscar Hijuelos will be one of three evening speakers (those talks will be held at Sunshine Church in Grand Rapids). A New York City native, the son of Cuban American working class parents, Hijuelos is the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. He also has written Mr. Ives' Christmas, a powerful study of spiritual strength in the face of horror.

Another featured evening speaker is African-American novelist Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and the recent award-winning A Lesson Before Dying. Born on a Louisiana plantation in 1933, Gaines has spent much of his writing life in rural Louisiana where his work, said one reviewer, grows organically, at its own rhythm.

Kaye Gibbons, who writes out of the rural South and has two books on Oprah's Book Club list, will also be an evening speaker. Her first novel, Ellen Foster, received immediate acclaim back in 1987, and since then she has won a series of awards. Her most recent book is On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.

Another featured speaker will be Kathleen Norris, whose book Dakota: A Spiritual Autobiography was a New York Times notable book of the year. Her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith is a poet's journey through language to faith, while The Cloister Walk takes readers through one year in a Benedictine monastery.

Jan Karon, author of the best-selling Mitford series, will also be a plenary speaker at this year's event. With each new book about the convivial village of Mitford, Karon adds to her already substantial fan base. Her works have been recognized as American Booksellers Book of the Year Honor Books.

Stephen Dunn, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, will be another featured speaker. He is the author of eleven collections of poetry, including Different Hours (Pulitzer Prize, 2001) and Loosestrife (National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, 1996). He is also distinguished professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

And the list goes on. The many writers who are involved with panels, readings, conversations with conferees are the backbone of every Festival. For 2002 there are again long-time Festival regulars and some new faces: Eleanor Taylor Bland, Jill PelŠez Baumgaertner, Michael Chitwood, Hugh Cook, Terence Faherty, Roy Herron, Jim Heynen, John Leax, Roger Lundin, Peggy Payne, Luci Shaw, Virginia Stem Owens, Dan Taylor, Paul Willis, Vinita Hampton Wright.

The Festival is not just for authors, however. Calvin will also expand its film track in 2002 and add a drama by playwright Arlene Hutton. Musician Michael Card will talk about the writing of lyrics in a session. As in past years, writers will have a chance to meet with editors for manuscript reviews. And academics will enjoy a special "Inklings" track.

Brown says it's important to note that Calvin calls this event a "festival."

He says: "That's a key word for us. We have academics, writers, students, publishers-lots and lots of people under a very big tent. We intentionally say 'let's celebrate words from all kinds of directions.' Let's get everybody that has anything to do with this writing business under one tent."

Criteria for selecting Festival participants are pretty simple. "We're interested," Brown says, "in writers that show respect for and understanding of a faith tradition. Some of the writers may, in fact, have left that tradition, but they're still reacting to it, they're aware of it, and they're respectful of it."

Brown adds that the Festival seeks writers who do what good writers always do, "take us to places we've not been before." He says, "We're committed to writers who create a crucial conversation, a three-day period of reflection about words, a look at the vocation of words and the vocation of faith. We think such a conversation is increasingly critical in a culture submerging itself in a cacophony of images and a declining ability to find words for those deepest things."

Calvin again expects to be able to accept round 1,750 people for the three-day event. Both the 1998 and 2000 conferences were sold out. The evening sessions and a few of the plenary sessions will be ticketed events open to the community, with seating for over 2,000. The three evening keynote lectures will be held at Sunshine Community Church.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)