April 21, 2010 in City

Who will go to bat for books?

By The Spokesman-Review
 

More online

Read more about Get Lit!

If only Eastern Washington University had an alumnus in the NFL who loved books.

Then maybe the coolest literary event around would have a rock-solid budget, and the grass at the football field in Cheney could remain green.

Instead, EWU will be installing a bright red turf at Woodward Field. And Get Lit!, the literary festival that is both Hoopfest and Bloomsday for those of us who like a good read, is scrounging for pennies under the couch cushions.

This is simply the way of the world. Money flows sports-ward, book nerds have bake sales, and there’s little point in bemoaning it. And right now, millions are being cut from university budgets, and students are being hit with fat tuition increases. And that comes after a decade or two in which a lot of higher ed administrators have flouted their business-world bona fides to please politicians and business leaders – not gone into the hole to support the arts.

In other words, Get Lit!’s precarious funding is business as usual. I’m not crying wolf here – EWU says it’s committed – and yet if you love the event, now would be a good time to pay close attention to its future. Write a letter or a check. Let someone in the nice offices in Cheney know you like it. Go to tonight’s festival-closing event, a jazz poetry performance at the Fox Theater. Call your multimillionaire friends in the NFL and suggest they make a donation.

Because EWU’s commitment doesn’t come with much money attached. And the university wants that to become no money attached – Provost John Mason said the festival needs to become self-sufficient as soon as possible. But he also emphasizes that he envisions no end in sight for the event.

“We value Get Lit! a great deal,” he said. “We’ll make sure we do everything we can to see it continue.”

That’s good to hear, because events like Get Lit! are fundamental for making Spokane a great town. Is it preposterous to call Spokane a great town? I can hear the mockery now, but if we’re not trying to be great then what, exactly, are we up to?

Great towns are not made by Bloomsdays and Hoopfests alone. We need more communal glue – from Get Lit! to the Greek Dinner to the farmers market to First Night to Pig Out. (Speaking of: Would it be too much to ask for a little barbecue at the readings?)

In more than a decade, Get Lit! has brought an amazing variety of writers to town – Pulitzer Prize winners and National Book Award winners and every-other-prize winners, along with many other great poets and essayists and fictioneers.

It has stocked my personal memory vault with a lot of flashy coins. There was Jane Smiley blushing at her racy prose last year; Richard Russo laughing with the audience at Jess Walter’s story Saturday night; Marilynne Robinson cracking up at her own story in 2006; Kurt Vonnegut, late in life, cranky and hilarious in 2004; Tobias Wolff reading one of my favorite short stories, “Say Yes,” two years ago; and all that is to say nothing of hearing my friends, professors and fellow students in the EWU creative writing program read their own work.

I want to live in a town where I can expect that kind of experience every spring. Same as a basketball tournament or a “fun” run.

Mason says he does, too. He can’t make guarantees if the budget goes to hell – hasn’t the budget made it to hell yet? – and he makes the fair point that educating students is the top priority.

“Get Lit! is fine for now, and I’m expecting it’s going to be fine for the future,” he said.

Right now, one full-time position is budgeted through 2011 – that of program coordinator Danielle Ringwald. Beyond that cost, the festival about broke even this year, and Ringwald said that’s the goal for next year as well. Mason says if he has to, he’ll cover budget shortfalls of $20,000 or so through his office’s reserve fund.

What happens in 2012 depends on a lot of things, but if nothing changes – and of course a lot of things may change – EWU would need to scrounge up 50 grand, give or take, to pay an organizer and graduate assistant, or figure out another way to do it.

That is a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the university’s overall budget. I realize money is scarce. But the good will and good karma that flow from Get Lit! to the university ought to be worth a buck or two.

Short of that, though, the festival needs a sugar daddy, like Michael Roos. Roos is the Eagle alum and Tennessee Titans offensive lineman who donated a half-mil to EWU for the purchase of the aforementioned ruby rug. It will take another few hundred thousand to cover the cost of the new field, and EWU is about 80 percent there. The money is rolling in.

Meanwhile, it’s bake sales and tip jars – business as usual – for the book nerds.

Editor’s note: Tonight’s Jazz Poetry Performance with Patricia Smith, the final event of this year’s Get Lit! festival, will be at the Fox Theater at 7 p.m. The original story listed the wrong venue.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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