Elyssa Dickson

“Burl Gurl” Elyssa Dickson rehearses backstage at the 2018 Telluride Literary Burlesque. She’ll return to the stage again Saturday night. The popular annual show is part of the Telluride Literary Arts Festival, happening at various venues around town this weekend. (Photo by Samantha Tisdel Wright)

Telluride sleepily emerges from its offseason doldrums and tiptoes into festival season this weekend with the arrival of the sixth annual Telluride Literary Arts Festival — a gathering of readers and writers who come together each year to wallow in words and revel in the sheer pleasure that books bring to our lives.

Slated for Friday through Sunday, the casual and intimate weekend features poetry performances and awards, a live podcast, an author talk with award-winning writer Pam Houston, and, of course, the infamous Telluride Literary Burlesque.

The Telluride Literary Arts Festival, aka LitFest, was born out of a conversation among friends around the topic of how to help sustain Telluride’s Between the Covers Bookstore.

“We met in the cafe downstairs and came up with this little plan to introduce a new baby festival into the Telluride schedule,” bookstore co-owner and San Miguel County Poet Laureate Daiva Chesonis recalled. “A cozy, intimate gathering of book lovers, poets and writers, to warm up the town before festival season officially gets underway.”

A loose-knit coalition of entities came together to launch the baby festival, including Between the Covers Bookstore, Ah Haa Center for the Arts, the Telluride Institute’s Talking Gourds poetry group, Wilkinson Library and Telluride Arts.

The festival’s structure and offerings have varied a lot from year to year. Some years there are panels or workshops. Some years there are not. But always, LitFest centers around a theme that celebrates reading and writing in all its forms.

A POETIC JOURNEY THROUGH THE SENSES

And then there are the costumes.

Body paint and pasties. Bandaids and bandages. Corsets. Head-to-toe latex catsuits, straight jackets, and a whole menagerie of birds and animals, including one unforgettable blue-footed booby.

Over the years, there have been a lot of spectacular costumes at LitFest’s always-sold-out centerpiece event, the Telluride Literary Burlesque.

But beyond visual spectacle, the Literary Burlesque is about capturing the zeitgeist and transforming the audience through the intimate, awesome power of the written and spoken word. Cast members often perform intensely vulnerable and revealing poetry — a removing of layers through words, costumes and projected imagery — asking what it means to be female, while simultaneously busting cultural and societal projections.

“It is truthful and funny and political,” said Kierstin Bridger, one of the event’s co-founders and original cast members. “It’s a sexy way to be a feminist. And hanging out with cool, creative women is icing on the cake. We set the bar high for each other.”

The 2019 Literary Burlesque, titled “Coming to our Senses,” takes place on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Palm’s Black Box Theatre. The show promises to take the audience on a poetic journey through the senses, and not just the usual five or six. (Think sense of danger. Sense of humor. Sense of balance. Sense of community. Sense of self.)

Under the artistic direction of Chesonis and Ellen Metrick, an ever-morphing troupe of regional women poets and writers known as the “Burl Gurls” will share the stage this year with the Telluride Dance Collective and sound therapist and musician Steven Veillette.

‘THE MOLTEN CORE OF SELF’

Norwood-based author and original “Burl Gurl” Amy Irvine birthed the idea for the Literary Burlesque after seeing the Telluride Theater’s wildly popular burlesque show seven or so years ago.

“And I thought, ‘That’s what we do as poets and writers,’” Irvine recalled. “And suddenly there is this vision in my head of pairing theatrics with poetry and prose, specifically the layers we show to the outer world, the layers we hide and the very naked essence of who we are when it’s all stripped away, when you’ve written down to the molten core of self.”

Looking for collaborators, Irvine pitched an idea for a “poetry brothel” to Bridger, a Telluride- and Ridgway-based poet who at the time was working on her first collection of poetry, “Demimonde,” about the dimly lit world of women who “worked the line” in the 19th century American West.

Bridger was concerned that the word “brothel” carried too deep of a weight — “bricks on women’s backs,” she said. “But ‘burlesque,’ that word sounded like a lot of fun. It’s political, and sexy and intriguing, especially if paired with the word ‘literary.’”

With Bridger on board as a co-conspirator, Irvine put out a “call to arms” to a few select women poets and writers from across the region. Every one of them said “yes” and the Telluride Literary Burlesque was born. The first show premiered at the Ah Haa Center for the Arts as part of the 1st Annual Telluride Literary Festival.

“We were really afraid, and sort of relieved, really, that it looked like maybe no one would come,” Irvine recalled. “When I peeked out of the dressing room, I could see that the Daniel Tucker Gallery at Ah Haa was standing room only.”

One by one, the cast of women poets and writers bravely came on stage to perform their pieces, which were in turns funny, shocking, sexy, honest and vulnerable.

“It was so much fun and so scary,” Bridger recalled. “I remember my legs just shaking.”

From the audience’s perspective, the Literary Burlesque can be a spellbinding, intense, emotional and at times uncomfortable experience.

As Art Goodtimes recalled in a review of the 2016 Literary Burlesque, “O Sister, Where Art Thou?”

“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.”

With an evening full of poetry, dance, and the vibrational frequencies of the Veillette’s collection of gongs (enhanced by Saturday’s full moon), the 2019 Literary Burlesque promises to be equally potent. Tickets are $20 and are available at Between the Covers Bookstore. Call 970-728-4504 to reserve yours. This show always sells out, so don’t delay.

LOADED LITERARY LINEUP

The Literary Burlesque is just one tempting tidbit in a whole smorgasbord of literary events coming up at this weekend’s LitFest.

Rafael Jesús González, the Poet Laureate of Berkeley, California, and Luis Lopez, Professor Emeritus from Colorado Mesa University, perform during Spotlight Poetry at Liberty Bar on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday at 2:30 p.m., the Telluride Institute’s Talking Gourds poetry program awards its national Mark Fischer Poetry Prize and the Cantor Award (honoring a Colorado poet), and celebrates Lopez’s two-year appointment as the fifth Western Slope Poet Laureate.

From its humble beginnings as a regional poetry contest, the Mark Fischer Poetry Prize has grown into a national powerhouse with substantial cash prizes, open to poets across the United States. There were almost 500 entries this year in this year’s contest.

Other signature events on Saturday include a Kids LitFest Day at the library, a Poets Walk up Bear Creek, a live recording of Emerging Form Podcast with poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and science writer Christie Aschwanden, and a reading by current San Miguel County Poet Laureate Daiva Chesonis of Ettore Rella’s “Onorina Rudelat/Immigrant Woman.”

Born in Telluride in 1903, Rella was a poet and a playwright who championed verse in his plays. Of Italian and Albanian descent, he left Telluride to study in Rome, finally settling in New York, where he wrote several Off-Broadway plays in the 1940s and ’50s. He won grants from the National Foundation of the Arts, the Theatre Guild and the Rockefeller Foundation, and taught at Bennington College. He died in 1988 at the age of 81. Rella’s grand nieces will be in attendance at the reading.

Chesonis discovered Rella’s writings earlier this year, after being inducted as San Miguel County Poet Laureate and making it her mission to elevate the work of historic poets from the area.

The ritual Gourd Circle — a sharing of poems and experiences from the weekend — takes place on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. at the Ah Haa School of the Arts.

Pam Houston, LitFest’s very first featured author back in 2014, rounds out the weekend on Sunday evening at the Wilkinson Library at 7 p.m. with a reading from her brand-new critically acclaimed memoir, “Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country” (W. W. Norton, 2019).

Houston’s first book, a collection of funny, sexy short stories titled “Cowboys are my Weakness,” catapulted her to instant literary fame in 1992. She used her book advance to put a down payment on the historic 120-acre high-country ranch near Creede that has been her home for the past quarter-century when she is not teaching or touring.

The ranch provided inspiration for this raw and tender collection of essays, in which Houston writes about what it means to care for a piece of land and the creatures on it, discovering along the way how the natural world has mothered and healed her after a childhood of horrific parental abuse and neglect.

“Deep Creek” was published in January and has already been heaped with praise.

“There is so much beauty, wisdom and truth in this book, I felt the pages almost humming in my hands,” said author Cheryl Strayed. “I was riveted and enlightened, inspired and consoled. This is a book for all of us, right now.”

Houston will be parachuting into Telluride for one night only, in the midst of a very hectic book tour that has so far taken in 84 cities across the U.S. Although this will be a quick visit, she plans to return to Telluride again in July for an event celebrating the special 50th anniversary edition of  “Tomboy Bride,” the beloved memoir of Telluride pioneer Harriet Backus, for which Houston has written a new foreword.

That will be another great excuse for a gathering of wordies. For a full schedule of this weekend’s events, visit telluridelitfest.weebly.com.