Kierstin Bridger

Poet Kierstin Bridger in character at Literary Burlesque, 2016. (Courtesy photo)


Mountainfilm reels ‘em in with earnest, high-minded discussion and turbo-charged tales of adventure. 

Bluegrass, 45 years strong, draws in audiences with superpickers and rootsy charm. 

What does the Telluride Literary Arts Festival have that those fests don’t?

Only the most sizzling show in town, a Burlesque performance staged by a group of this region’s most imaginative female writers and provocateurs.  

“It’s so very good,” the poet Art Goodtimes has said of Literary Burlesque. “I was teased, tantalized, thumped and thoroughly rattled. Hysterical with laughter. Close to tears. On the edge of a canyon and deep in the incredible world of the feminine.”

The ladies’ Burlesque performance may be the fest’s most famous highlight. And this year’s iteration, entitled “Uncorseted: It’s Not What It Seams” — tagline: “Eight whip-smart women strip away what it means to fight for LIBERTY in all their cheeky glory” — is as suggestive as ever. Even so, there is much more to this weekend-long mind-meld than one, singular sensational performance. What’s more, save Burlesque, “every one of these events is free,” said Daiva Chesonis, co-owner of Between the Covers Bookstore and LitFest’s progenitor. “Walk out your door and come to one of these venues! It’s good stuff.”

Chesonis recalled the initial meeting for LitFest, with several other like-minded bibliophiles. The huddle took place in the bookstore’s café five years ago. 

“It was kind of my idea,” she said. “I’m a total nerd: I used to watch book festivals on CSPAN. One day I thought, ‘Wait a minute. We’re the fest capital of the Rockies. How can we not have a literary fest?’ This town reads, and kids here read; it’s a great thing to be able to say about Telluride.”

The question was when to stage such an event. Summer in Telluride is jampacked back-to-back with fests, and a celebration of literature was likely to get overlooked in the twang and thrum of so much musical competition. 

“We thought, let’s do it the weekend before Mountainfilm,” Chesonis said. “Let’s warm people up and get them thinking. It’s a thinking fest, not a drinking fest — it’s sitting around and listening to amazing people speak their minds. And it’s gaining traction — a newlywed couple was in the bookstore last summer, and saw the t-shirt (‘Get Lit in Telluride’). I told them about Literary Burlesque. They called at 10: 01 a.m. on May 1, the moment tickets go on sale. They’re coming over from Denver to see it. That’s the kind of enthusiasm this is engendering.” 

Now in its fifth year, the festival is run by “a few loose entities without a board,” Chesonis said. Its pedigree, however, is impeccable: In addition to BTC, sponsors include the Telluride Institute and Talking Gourds, the Ah Haa School, the Telluride Arts District, the Wilkinson Public Library, and the Palm Theatre. 

“I think we can attribute the growth of the festival to the incredible efforts of Daiva and Art Goodtimes, who’ve been relentless in their pursuit of great programming,” poet Rosemerry Trommer said. “This year is no different. It’s also a great example of collaboration amongst local groups; we’re pooling our resources.”

“The thing that really anchors the weekend is Literary Burlesque, and that’s really kind of exciting,” Chesonis said. 

Yet LitFest is much more. At bottom (no cheekiness implied), “All we’re really doing is what we always do: We’re focusing on the craft and the joy of reading and writing.” Said Trommer, “I think we see people turning toward the written word because we are craving what it offers — a way to wrestle with the world, to engage in meaning, to find our voice in the big conversation.” 

Below is a guide to what’s on:

Opening night festivities

The celebration of all things literary commences Friday with a “Spotlight Poetry” event, featuring Diné poet Esther Belin and poet John Nizalowski. He teaches at Colorado Mesa University; she’s a graduate of three universities (including U.C. Berkeley) and the winner of the American Book Award, conferred by the Before Columbus Foundation. Belin grew up in Southern California “and her work reflects the experience of a Native American living in urban Los Angeles,” according to the Colorado Poetry Foundation. In just the first few lines of “Blues-ing on the Brown Vibe,” you feel the heat of the street, pick up on the location, and perceive dislocation — all at once. 

And Coyote struts down East 14th

feeling good

looking good

feeling the brown

melting into the brown that loiters

rapping with the brown in front of the

Native American Health Center

talking that talk

of relocation from tribal nation

of recent immigration to the place

some call the United States

home to many dislocated funky brown

ironic immigration

more accurate tribal nation to tribal nation…

An open mic will follow the readings by Belin and Nizalowski (bring your own poems to share, if you like, or those of a scribe who inspires you). The get-together takes place at the Ah Haa School for the Arts, the traditional gathering place for LitFest, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Drink in more smart talk at the Liberty Bar, where a “Poets Night Out” will be held following the readings (around 9 p.m.).

Saturday, May 19

Start the morning with a “Poets Walk” up Bear Creek. Talking Gourds co-founder Art Goodtimes hosts; meet at the High Alpine Bar, weather permitting, at BTC at 9:30 a.m. A talk in the Wilkinson Public Library’s periodicals room follows at 10:30 a.m. with Western State Colorado University Dr. David J. Rothman, whose work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Hudson Review, and Poetry. He’ll be holding forth on “Belle Turnbull and the Poets of Early Colorado.” From noon to 4 p.m., it’s officially Kids Day — Lit Fest-style — at the Wilkinson, where budding bibliophiles will make books they can write their own stories in, or use as a journal. 

Fischer and Cantor awards

If you care at all about local poetry — and if you are reading this far, you likely do — set aside some time Saturday afternoon. That’s when the conferring of this region’s own literary awards — the Fischer Prize, named for Mark and Elaine Fischer, and, for the first time this year, the Cantor Prize, for Best Colorado Poem — will take place at Telluride Arts, across the street from the library, from 2-4 p.m. Like the fest itself, the awards have been picking up steam, and with the help of some generous local donors, the Fischer Prize winner now tops $1,000 (plus a travel stipend). “The award has a national reputation and is getting remarkable quality writers,” Trommer said.

This year, the prizes were judged by New Mexico poet Joan Logghe, who gave the $1,000 Fischer Prize to Michelle Bitting and the Cantor Prize to Jane Hilberry. 

“I judged these poems anonymously, and yet I totally obsessed and lost sleep and went through a lot of soul-searching. I know what this means to poets,” Logghe said. “I ended up choosing Michelle’s poem (for the Fischer Prize). I applied William Butler Yeats’ criteria: A poem should come out of necessity. I felt this poem was necessary.” Its subject is a woman whose daughter wants to be a boy. “It’s a poem that wouldn’t have been written 10 years ago,” Logghe said. Bitting, Hilberry and Tony Alcantara, a finalist for the Fischer Prize, will all be at Telluride Arts to read in-person; other finalists will offer readings via video.

‘The Poetry of the Postcard’

Another highlight of the fest is likely to be this hands-on, brain-engaged, do-it-yourself tutorial instructed by Peter Anderson, who recently retired from teaching creative writing at Adams State College and whose collected essays just won the 2018 award for a book of nonfiction from the Colorado Authors League. He’ll instruct this free class on postcard-writing, “A Certain Slant of Light,” in homage to a book of “postcard poems” by “late Beat” author Ted Berrigan, a buddy of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, on Sunday morning, from 10-11:30 a.m. in the San Miguel County Meeting Room (second floor, Miramonte Building). 

Why poetry on a postcard? “The writing space on a postcard is a small box. It has space limitations. It has a humble form,” Anderson replied. “It also asks us to be brief … I think I read somewhere that the average postcard contains around 32 words, so as postcard writers we want every word to count.” 

No special writing background is necessary to take this course. “If you’re a poet or a prose poet, or a prose writer, or just someone who likes postcards,” Anderson said, “It’s all good.” 

Following Anderson’s workshop, there will be a free Gourds Poetry Circle, a chance to share poems and stories (“Bring a pillow!”). The get-together takes place at Ah Haa at noon. 

Featured author Craig Childs

Award-winning author Craig Childs is a local legend. He lives just up the road in Norwood and, though he’s currently on a busy book tour that has kept him hopping across the West and Southwest, selling out tomes as he goes, he will return for one night only to read from his new book, “Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America,” at 7 p.m. Sunday evening. It will be a sublime wrap-up to the fest in Telluride’s own citadel to the written word and public outreach — the Wilkinson. 

Child’s latest work “examines the dynamics of people moving into an uninhabited hemisphere in the late Pleistocene,” a fearsome landscape populated by megafauna, including mastodons, giant sloths and saber-tooth cats. Publishers Weekly has dubbed Childs’ travelogue “captivating”; Kirkus Reviews has deemed it “engaging and indispensable.” A fan on calls it flat-out terrific: “I had forgotten how well Craig Childs writes. I really don’t care about Ice Age America but this is like sitting in an Alaska bar, listening to grizzled adventurers tell tales.” 

On his website, Childs says he has “worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician and a beer bottler,” but now is “primarily a writer.” He is also occasionally the master of ceremonies at Literary Burlesque. Alas, that won’t be the case this Saturday night — he’ll still be on his book tour. Nevertheless, Chesonis said, “He’ll be cheering us on.” 

Literary Burlesque 

Every year, Burlesque is different, and it is bigger (and likely badder) than ever before. The centerpiece attraction of the weekend, Burlesque always takes place on Saturday night. This year it will be held in the Palm’s black box theater, which means an extra 40 or so tickets will be available (it invariably sells out at Ah Haa). “The closest venue for booze and food is the Hotel Telluride, and they’re totally embracing it,” Cheonis said. “They’ll open their lobby before the show with World War I cocktails,” because the theme of this year’s show is the suffragette. The idea came from poet Kierstin Bridger, who wrote about the time period between 1914-18 at the suggestion of Colorado Poet Laureate Joseph Hutchison. 

“My point of inquiry was, ‘Where did the suffragettes go?’” Bridger recalled. “I soon learned they didn’t disappear at all. They were proving themselves within the context of war. The whole world changed during those years: fashion — hence our title, ‘Uncorseted’ — global politics, warfare, national borders, voting rights, the way we saw ourselves as women, how we performed battlefield medicine, our methods of transportation … everything.” 

In the process of researching this era, “We stumbled on a plethora of remarkable women,” Bridger said. She challenged the writers in the show — Erika Moss Gordon, Samantha Tisdel Wright, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Corinne Platt, Ellen Metrick, Daiva Chesonis and (new this year) local “slam” poetry sensation Elissa Dickson — to write about these historical characters. 

“I’m so impressed with the talent and tenacity of the performers,” Bridger said. “It was a big ask: Go research a time period unfamiliar to you, be inspired, and then cram these women’s immensely incredible lives into one or two moments that are relatable and electric. But they did it.” 

Also this year, “local artists collaborated with us to create stunning, one-of-a-kind corsets which will elevate our performances. Brilliant souls, all of them!” 

Artists Jill Rikkers and Lisa Issenberg, for example, have teamed up with Corinne Platt to create “a full metal jacket” corset, Chesonis said (“It’s really going to be something to see”). Other participating corset-designers include MonkE Hazen, Kellie Day, Luci Reeve, Buff Hooper, Meaghan McCormick and Ann Dettmer. 

Suzan Beraza, the new festival director of Mountainfilm, will be “a special guest” at this year’s show. 

“You might think it sounds a little bit like a history lesson,” Bridger said. “But au contraire, this is just as cheeky, provocative and delicious as Literary Burlesque has always been. It’s campy, it’s heart wrenching,” and as stimulating as it is likely  to be for the audience, the best part, as far as the performers are concerned, may have been the artistic frisson that started it in the first place — the spark that gets every creative “lit.” 

“It’s exciting to collaborate with some of our regions’ best and brightest writers,” Bridger said. “When we get together to work through material, it feels alive and fresh and invigorating.”

Tickets for Literary Burlesque cost $20 and are available at Between the Covers. The show begins at 7 p.m. Saturday evening in the Palm’s Bob Saunders (black box) Theatre. It is suitable for ages 21 and up.