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New voices add volume to area's literary life

At last weekend's second annual Times Festival of Reading on the campus of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg more than 17,000 readers showed up, according to grounds security at the college. People filled the auditoriums and classrooms to hear talks by more than a dozen national authors, panels by romance and mystery writers and a tribute to Jack Kerouac. The eager readers roamed the tent-dotted grounds to browse at bookstore booths, listen to music or meet one of the "Famous Dead Authors."

Comic novelist Tom Robbins, who was very much alive, drew a crowd of more than 1,000; the author of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas signed books after his talk for 2{ hours. Humorists Art Buchwald (Leaving Home), P. J. O'Rourke (All the Trouble in the World: The Lighter Side of Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty) and Roy Blount Jr. (Roy Blount's Anthology of Southern Humor) were not far behind in popularity, proving perhaps that we all could use a good laugh. Political analyst Haynes Johnson (Divided We Fall) and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Homefront in World War II) also attracted large crowds.

At the Free Books tent, volunteers gave away more than 4,000 children's books.

The success of the second Times Festival of Reading, I hope, dispels once and for all outsiders' notions that people in Florida don't read, and I hope it served in some way to convince ourselves that there is a literary community in the Tampa Bay area.

Tampa Bay, in fact, may well be on its way to becoming a literary hub.

On Wednesday evening more than 30 local writers, 40 high school and junior high school students and some of the best University of Tampa student writers will perform in various venues on the campus of the University of Tampa. On Nov. 10 three more Tampa Bay authors will read at Inkwood Books: poets Dionisio Martinez and Peter Meinke and novelist Sandra Thompson. Both these events are part of Writers Harvest: The National Reading, a project launched by Share Our Strength (SOS) to benefit local hunger relief groups. More than 800 authors will be participating in similar events across the country, but the Tampa event is the largest. (See Book Talk below for details).

On Nov. 16 author Jamaica Kincaid, a staff writer for The New Yorker, will speak at the University of Tampa Falk Theatre at 7:30 p.m. The event is free.

All of these events are in part sponsored by a unique addition to the literary scene in this area: the Writer's Voice. Located at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA, the Writer's Voice is further proof of this area's literary attraction. There are only nine such centers in the whole country. The Tampa site, at 110 E Oak Ave., recently won out among 130 YMCA candidates.

The first Writer's Voice was founded in 1981 at the West Side YMCA in New York City as an alternative literary arts center. The center was so successful that in 1990, the YMCA decided to expand the concept across the country. In addition to New York City and Tampa, there are centers in YMCAs in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Greater Bridgeport/Fairfield, Conn.; Chicago; Lexington, Ky.; St. Louis, Mo.; Billings, Mont.; and Silver Bay, N.Y.

The goal of the centers is to bring people, especially young people with limited access to the literary arts, into contact with books and authors. All the centers are locally managed but receive some national funding and staff training.

The centers also are stops on a National Readings Tour sponsored by the National Writer's Voice Project. The tour sends prominent writers to the communities to speak at prisons, shelters and schools. The writers who have gone on tour include novelists E. L. Doctorow and Terry McMillan, poets Allen Ginsberg and Philip Levine, journalist and sports writer George Plimpton and playwrights Ntozake Shange and Wendy Wasserstein. Doctorow also served as the inaugural chair of the project. The current chair is poet Adrienne Rich.

The national group also sends poets and fiction writers to the centers to teach low-cost, master-level workshops. Past workshop leaders have included novelists Russell Banks and Allan Gurganus and poet Carolyn Forche.

Like the other centers, the Tampa-based Writer's Voice plans to offer reading series, writing workshops and other community-based programs, bringing together people of all races and backgrounds into the literary community. Some of these activities will take place at the YMCA itself. Others, like the upcoming events at the University of Tampa and Inkwood Books, will be in different venues.

"The symbol of the YMCA is a triangle with the words BODY, MIND and SPIRIT at each point," says Kyle Pennington, director of the Tampa-based Writer's Voice, "but up until now the organization has not emphasized the mind and the spirit as much as the body. The Writer's Voice is an attempt to remedy that."

The Times Festival of Reading plans an encore next fall at Eckerd College and will be supporting other literary activities throughout the year in the area.

Meanwhile another book festival, sponsored by the Tampa Tribune and the Friends of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library, is being planned for this spring in Tampa. The Riverside Writers and Readers Festival is scheduled for March 18-19 at the Performing Arts Center with ancillary events at the Tampa Museum of Art, the Tampa Theatre and the Spanish Lyric Theater.

With all these literary activities, Tampa Bay is obviously gaining a novel reputation.

Margo Hammond is book editor for the Times.