It may be tougher to get a fix on the literary community in Salt Lake City than any other group of artists. The symphony and ballet have guilds and clearinghouses for publicity; actors and painters have theaters and galleries.
But local writers and readers usually go it alone.And often the right hand doesn't know where to find the left. More than once, readings by major literary figures have been scheduled at the same time on the same night, resulting in mediocre attendance at both. And many events are so under-publicized, people only find out about them months afterward.
How many writers and readers know, for instance, that naturalist poet Wendell Berry has made several appearances in the state?
The Utah Arts Council has tried to serve as a nerve center as much as possible. G. Barnes and Katharine Coles - the literary coordinators - keep event calendars and phone numbers nearby. They're at 533-5895. And Patrick de Frietas at the Waking Owl Bookstore keeps tabs on Salt Lake readings, books with regional appeal and other newsy (that's not "nosey") items patrons pass along. Call the "new" Owl at 582-7323.
There are several reasons the writing community is too tough to pin down, of course. Part of it is temperament. Writing and reading tend to be solitary tasks. Too, literary-minded types tend to be fiercely individualistic. The League of Utah Writers - part-time writers with a populist bent to their work - seldom have much to do with the high-powered professional prose writers at the universities, for instance. And university writers seldom reach out to the community for support.
Still, there are trends. Who's hot and who's not?
Westminster College is hot. Scott Cairns has put together an upcoming reading series there that Harvard would be proud of. And the school's literary magazine - Ellipsis - actually contains real literature.
Local bookstores are not hot right now. The Cosmic Aeroplane - Salt Lake City's anti-institution institution - is up for sale. De Frietas was forced to close the Waking Owl Branch on Ninth and Ninth, and other stores have had a troubled year. Part of that is due to big chain stores such as B. Dalton and Walden Books offering hardbacks at discount prices; part is lack of interest on the part of local readers.
On the plus side, four writers conferences each summer help budding writers and readers get to know the territory. The Writers at Work Conference in Park City, headed up by Steve Wunderli, is the Rolls, but there are high-performance economy models throughout the state: Moutainwest Writers in Logan, the Color Country Conference in Cedar City and Desert Writers in Moab.
As for individuals, singling out premier writers becomes a question of taste. The three poets - almost by consensus - are Mark Strand and Larry Levis at the University of Utah and Leslie Norris at Brigham Young University. Ken Brewer at Utah State University, David Lee at Southern Utah State College, Jan Minich and Nancy Takacs at the College of Eastern Utah and Levi Peterson at Weber State College also come to mind.
Community writers such as Clarence Socwell, Kathryn Kay, Alice Morrey Bailey and Elinor Hyde have served as the foundation of writing in Utah for decades.
In the end, keeping abreast of literature in Utah means more than subscribing to a newsletter - or even a newspaper. The diversity of themes, people and approaches makes the local literary scene supple and strong. But that also makes it more fluid than mercury. About all you can do is find a "tapped-in" grape on the grapevine and ask.