Drink in the words all weekend with the Celebration of Southern Lit
History may be written by the victors—but literature is the province of the South.
The next four days in Chattanooga bear out that unconventional wisdom, as dozens of renowned Southern writers and their legion of readers descend on the Tivoli, Bessie Smith Cultural Center, the new UTC Library, Hunter Museum, and other venues for the Celebration of Southern Literature.
The Celebration, a jewel in our city’s cultural crown sponsored biennially by the Southern Lit Alliance, marries the powerful legacy of Southern storytelling in traditional literary genres with an incisive look at Southern identity in the 21st century. Our stories are wed to our identities. As tradition dictates, a marriage brings something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue to the altar.
Speaking of old conceptions of Southern identity, award-winning historian James Cobb sees the potential for racial empathy to emerge in spite of old images. The enduring tropes of the Old South—lanterns on the levee, magnolias and moonlight, mint juleps on the veranda—are outdated “impediments to getting more Southerners, black and white, to explore their individual ‘southernness’ as it was shaped by their personal experiences, not just the pleasant ones but the painful ones as well,” Cobb says.
Widely published on Southern culture and society, Cobb receives the Woodward/Franklin Award for Historical Writing, which honors two founding members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers: one white, C. Vann Woodward, and one black, John Hope Franklin. On Saturday, Cobb will tell the story of “how the two collaborated to make Franklin the first black scholar to speak at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association…historians who not only wrote history, but made it as well.”
Cobb elaborates: “As to the relevance of Old South/Lost Cause icons, while they are understandably offensive to many African Americans, they are also reminders of what the people who sang ‘we shall overcome’ truly had to overcome.”
Novelist Clyde Edgerton sees the Southerner growing up as “both nurtured and wounded by the South,” quoting photographer Paul Kwelicki. Edgerton and six other writers conduct a panel discussion titled “Southern Identity,” sure to be a provocative topic, Friday afternoon at the Tivoli. “Conceptions of Southern identity start in the families and communities of writers when they are young, and these conceptions run the gamut, of course, from pure shame to pure glory-honor with stopping points at all stages in between,” Edgerton says. “Some of the prominent Southern politicians today are answering to those racist white men, often named ‘Skeeter,’ whose existence guarantees slow or backward movement toward racial reconciliation.”
A rising star in the literary firmament, Lookout Mountain’s own Jamie Quatro says, “There’s a visceral presence to history here; we live in palimpsest, the record of struggle and defeat literally inches beneath our feet.”
Quatro, novelist Clyde Edgerton, and Roger Hodge, editor of the Oxford American literary magazine, will further discuss “Southern Identity” on Saturday night as part of a “Moonshine Serenade Soirée” featuring Edgerton and his band, The Rank Strangers (which he is careful to note includes two professional musicians to cover for himself).
“The title of the panel should probably be ‘Southern Identities’ because ‘The South’ isn’t a singular entity, but a multiplicity of regions and dialects and cultures and aesthetic ideals,” says Quatro.
Yes, the Moonshine event features real white lightning in numerous varieties, distilled by Chattanooga Whiskey, and catering by Events with Taste. (The evening could get animated.) It’s one of several get-togethers that Susan Robinson, the Southern Lit Alliance executive director, points to proudly as “wonderful after-hours events to make this uniquely Chattanooga event more accessible to all Chattanoogans.”
Indeed, this 2015 CSL reboots the program: The main ticket price for all the workshops and panels is cut in half to $50. Free and low-cost individual tickets are available for the Opening Reception on Thursday night at UTC’s new library, also the new home of the Fellowship; a Eudora Welty photography exhibit tour with a box lunch at the Hunter Museum on Friday; a cocktail event open to the public at The Flying Squirrel on Friday night; and the Heritage Dinner featuring John T. Edge at Easy Bistro & Bar, coinciding with the Moonshine Soirée at Bessie Smith Center, on Saturday night.
Putting the new in the New South are five attending inductees into the Fellowship of Southern Literature, including Tayari Jones of Atlanta, author of an award-winning debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, set at the time of the Atlanta child murders in the 1980s. Also inducted will be George Singleton, Kate Daniels, Brooks Haxton, and C.D. Wright.
“I am so nervous,” says Jones. “I’m going to read from my novel in progress, Dear History. Reading new work always makes me feel vulnerable.”
Another new event on Sunday brings a hands-on printmaking workshop “Why Books?” at The Open Press, a letterpress, printmaking, and book arts cooperative at 1271-B Market Street. Rhett Reeves, program director of the Southern Lit Alliance, waxes philosophical about old practices in a new age. “Sometimes we forget in this digital era that the printing press was the Model-T of books, taking handwritten manuscripts and mass-producing them for public consumption,” Reeves says. “This workshop is going to spin the wheels back toward the manual, creative side” of print manufacture.
“We’ve selected four quotations by notable members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the folks at The Open Press have been working on some graphic designs. The end result will be one-of-a-kind letterpress posters for the participants to take home to frame.”
Reeves also touts the community-based aspect of the Celebration. Writers in Classrooms places 20 published authors into local classrooms at public and private high schools and colleges to interact with students and their teachers; Young Southern Student Writers competition engages the UTC English Department to sift nearly 4,000 submissions from K-12 students, honoring about 500 of the best in a ceremony at the Tivoli.
Though far from a new face at the CSL, poet Andrew Hudgins has “surprised myself by becoming a memoirist,” with publication of the aptly titled The Joker. While in town, Hudgins and his wife, noted novelist Erin McGraw, love to stay at the Read House, dine at St. John’s and TerraMae, and visit Yacoubian Tailors, drinking deep of Chattanooga’s personality. Both writers are faculty of Sewanee’s School of Letters graduate program in creative writing. In other University of the South news, Sewanee Review editor George Core receives the Cleanth Brooks Award for Lifetime Achievement on Thursday afternoon.
Hudgins will appear Saturday afternoon at a panel discussion, “Poems & Their Backstories,” along with R.H.W. Dillard, Maurice Manning, and former national poet laureate Rita Dove. Each poet will discuss the inspiration for a poem they’ve written. Hudgins wouldn’t tip his hand about his own poem, but digressed onto the backstory of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who buried his only manuscript in his beloved wife’s coffin and had to dig it up again after considerable delay as well as…um…decay, finding wormholes throughout the papers. “I’ve wondered if the ‘worm’ was a bookworm, or a larvae that eats paper, or if a maggot from the wife’s body was the culprit—or if it was a plain ol’ earthworm,” Hudgins says. (Do you understand his memoir’s title now?)
Another fresh voice in the CSL colloquy, Chattanooga’s Christian Collier brings his intensely personal spoken word poetry, along with something borrowed. “There’s a strong relationship between not just my performance style, but my writing style, and jazz music,” Collier says. In studying Beat generation writers, he discovered their affinity and his own for “the works of Miles Davis, who is still my favorite jazz musician, John Coltrane, and others. When I began writing poems that I’d be performing publicly, I crafted the lines and phrasings in the same way that a trumpet solo would sound. Jazz helped me to hear and showcase the music and tone of language.”
Collier performs Sunday afternoon at Bessie Smith Center, co-sponsored by Shane Morrow of Jazzanooga, with the Dexter Bell Trio for accompaniment. “I think spoken word fits in quite well with the traditions of the South,” Collier says. “Historically, Southerners have always had a strong legacy of stories, songs, poems, being passed down orally.” Although spoken word and other styles of poetry are less familiar locally, he says, “I have seen more opportunities come down the pipeline for spoken word artists, with more venues opening their doors, more publications doing stories, which help to let the general community know that we exist.”
Receiving a blue ribbon for best session title, and also borrowing from a recent movie title, comes a panel on “Women of the Southern Wild: Enduring Female Characters in Southern Literature & Drama.” Moderating that panel will be Jayne Anne Phillips, prolific short story writer and author of the National Book Award-finalist novel Lark and Termite. Other participants include Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Randal Kenan, and the new “Fellow” Tayari Jones, who says of Phillips, “I figure she came up with that title by looking in the mirror. She is the boldest Southern woman I know.”
Phillips sees the primacy of character, naturally: “Southern fiction is not only full of great writers who happen to be women, it’s full of great female characters created by male and female writers alike. Certain literary characters become part of our cultural and personal identities. They are ways in which we understand ourselves.”
Come for the moonshine, or for the moonlight and magnolias. Come for the wedding of our literary legacy and Southern identity.
Stay for the understanding.
More details on the Celebration of Southern Literature, and online ticket ordering: southernlitalliance.org/celebration-of-southern-literature