Once it’s their turn, each writer approaches the podium. Although these authors operate within different genres of literature, they all share a confident, thoughtful demeanor as they bend open the spines of their new books. Palpable emotion fills the room. On this particular night, it’s the welcoming space of Buffalo Street Books where the kick-off event for the New Voices Festival is taking place.
The bookstore feels more like a stage, shown through the crowd’s laughter at Tommy Pico’s poetic punchlines, quiet contemplation as Javier Zamora describes his journey crossing the US border at nine years old, or the string quartet you can almost hear playing in the background as Aja Gabel recites an excerpt from her music-centered novel “The Ensemble.”
Every spring since 2013, the writing and English departments at Ithaca College have hosted the New Voices Festival, a celebration of selected writers and their recently published work. You might not recognize the names of these artists visiting the Ithaca area, but that’s on purpose. Ithaca College makes a point of inviting writers that have only recently launched their careers. Eleanor Henderson, a professor in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College, is co-founder and co-director of the New Voices Festival, along with Professor Chris Holmes in the Department of English.
“Chris and I wanted to bring writers in emerging stages of careers,” Henderson said. “We wanted writers to be able to engage with each other, to have honest and detailed conversations about how they forge their paths into their writing careers.”
This year, Henderson and the other organizers brought in seven writers: essayist Sarah Viren, fiction writer Rumaan Alam, poet Javier Zamora, image-text author Emma Kemp, novelist Aja Gabel, poet Tommy Pico and playwright Clare Barron. The festival typically spans three days, and took place from April 17-19.
Although some of the events in the festival revolve around writers reading their work, many events stray from this traditional structure of literary conferences. One of these events, called, “Is it a Love Story?” combine Ithaca College students from the Department of Theater Arts and the School of Music to perform live adaptations of the writers’ works. The actors read while the musicians play, and the result is a mixed medium of different arts coming together.
Speaking about the music students performing the Dvořák American Quartet song mentioned in her book, Gabel said, “It was exactly how I heard it in my mind while I was writing that scene. I never thought I’d be able to hear that in real life. To see what was in my brain be performed on stage was thrilling.”
On the last night of the festival, the Cherry Art Space hosted a staged reading of Clare Barron’s play “Dance Nation,” which was recently named a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Professor Claire Gleitman in the Ithaca College Department of English is the director of the visiting playwright portion of the festival.
“It’s cast with [a] combination of students, faculty, and local professional actors,” Gleitman said about “Dance Nation.” “We have a short rehearsal process, which is both exciting and terrifying when the playwright is in the audience.” Gleitman also mentioned how it’s important to have a playwright represented at a writing festival: “It’s important to remember there are so many incredibly interesting voices out there writing plays. Playwriting adds something interesting to this discussion about what it means to create work and give it away.”
Even though organizers of the New Voices Festival make sure to invite the entire Ithaca community by hosting the kick-off and closing events downtown, it’s no surprise that students get the most out of festivals like this. Even after the readings and panels, writers visit the classrooms at Ithaca College to talk to students about their craft and careers. Henderson said that it was important that the event be a student-run festival, but one that also invited the community.
The festival’s student director, Margaret McKinnis, said, “I appreciate getting to see the panels and facilitating conversations that are relevant to our classes but also extend beyond it, by bringing in questions from class that manifest in real writers’ work. Overall, I think the festival presents this idea of being a literary citizen and being a citizen in general. It reminds us all that these questions are important enough for us to stop and think.”
“What’s so exciting about this festival is that you’re getting authors at the beginning of their careers, but have done so much work to get here,” Gabel said. “There’s a long road to get here, but then the work is also celebrated.”