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How Eaux Claires' narrator Michael Perry curates spoken word for a music festival crowd

Michael Perry is a New York Times best selling author for books such as "Population 485," "The Jesus Cow" and his most recent, "Montaigne in Barn Boots." He's also a pig farmer, a resident of Eau Claire, WI and the official narrator for the Eaux Claires Music Festival in the same city.

This year at the festival, the presence of spoken word has increased noticeably. Each day has begun with speeches and readings from authors from around the country. Spoken word readings have been accompanied by music from members of The National, Julian Baker and more.

As the narrator, Michael Perry curated it all. Today I sat down with him under a shady tree on the festival grounds, where he spoke about the increased presence of authors, poets and the spoken word collection at Eaux Claires IV.
"I’m basically trying to bring to fruition what Justin and Aaron

are trying to create. And my little area of assignment was words.

I got up and did an Eaux Claires poem the first year. And people have been so kind about that. For me, it was a humbling experience, but gigantically. I mean, how can something be humbling and huge at once? But, it was. The minute it was over people were like, 'You have to do that again.'  And, you know what? Sometimes I’m glad I’m the fifty-year-old guy, 'cause my first reaction was, 'No, that moment is never going to happen again for any of us, me included, and I will only diminish it if I recreate it.'

Now, I’ll go on the mic and do something here and there. Tonight, I’ll probably do something very short. But, what I don’t want to get fixated on is doing another Eaux Claires poem.

So when they gave me the opportunity in year three to expand it, and actually start bringing in writers and poets, they gave me no constraints and no direction. They just said, 'Bring some folks in.' I wanted to bring in some people whose work I just loved, and other people, like Hanif Abdurraqib. Here’s a guy I was unfamiliar with. When I read him two things hit me. One: he’s just a stunning writer. And the second thing is, it’s beautiful, but a guy like me reads it and gets a little uncomfortable. And I just thought, 'Man, this is perfect.' He has a performative background too that is perfect for this festival.

I am plum happy at the demolition derby, but I also can’t believe the joy I feel when I’m sitting in the woods and a poet reads with a musician that they only met 30 seconds ago

The moment before we started this interview, I just dropped him off. We have this little installation where we have this tiny house. The poet, the writer, the novelist sits in there, the audience comes in, five to six people at a time. They do a five minute reading, and then they switch over to a new audience. And we have lines and lines every day. But Hanif, at the end, so many people heard that he was in there, that this big crowd there and there was no way they were going to get in before his shift was over. So, he just stepped out on the steps over there and read out over everybody. No amplification. He just did his thing. And that’s what you’re hoping for.

And Leesa Cross-Smith, a novelist and poet who is here this year—there is someone who I didn’t know anything about her work, but a friend of a friend of a an acquaintance of a literary person said you should check this out. Brought her in, and here she is this morning for the opening speeches, reading a passage from the Bible, and then suddenly she’s out in the trees with a bass player, reading a passage from her novel that’s very fluid and very music based. Those are the little moments.

I think, partially, this comes back to me coming from a farming background and a non-arts background. There is always that false and unfortunate distance where people—and I come from those people—think art’s not for me, I don’t understand art. Well if you can take a novelist, and put her in the woods, put her next to a bass guitar, then the point is, maybe it’s not figuring it out, it’s about experiencing it.

I am plum happy at the demolition derby, but I also can’t believe the joy I feel when I’m sitting in the woods and a poet reads with a musician that they only met 30 seconds ago. It’s those moments I’m grateful for. They’ve given me great freedom in how we’ve been bringing them in and presenting them."