Each year in the South, a group of undergraduate English majors and their professors descends on one member institution for a weekend of readings, workshops, and fun. This year, the host school for the Southern Literary Festival was Ole Miss (University of Mississippi to the rest of the country), who did a fabulous job arranging panels and entertainment. It didn’t hurt that the festival ran concurrently with the Conference on the Book, an annual event hosted in Oxford, so there were quite a few other authors milling around and some of the events were combined. So, for instance, we all got to witness the live Thacker Mountain Radio program as it was recorded for public radio, there was a Blues performance, and of course there was a chance to wander around the Square and browse in Square Books. SLF panels included readings by Cheryl St. Germain, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Chiyuma Elliott and Dereck Harriell, Megan Abbott, and of course the student prize winners, whose work was published in the annual literary magazine of the festival. Students also had master classes in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and playwriting, and there was an open mic where anyone could read.
Started in 1937 at Blue Mountain College by a group of professors, which included Robert Penn Warren from LSU, the festival has a long and storied history. It has fostered many young writers, including the young Flannery O’Connor, and has featured many greats of Southern Literature. Each year is a little different, tailored to the strengths and talents of the host institution. Yet each year features the literary contest, readings, and workshop or master class experiences. It is a great asset for Southern schools, and membership is open. So if you are associated with a college or university in or near the South, contact me or the current host for more information.
The opportunity to hear good writing and have conversations about craft, and the chance to interact with students and teachers from schools around the region is an incredible experience. Though I know well how hard it can be to pry yourself loose from the demands of the current semester, those days spent in a festival like this can be incredibly invigorating and rewarding. If you don’t live in or near the South, search for opportunities like this in your area. Then make the time to attend. You won’t regret it.