It is hard to believe that two weeks ago today we at Mississippi University for Women were in the throes of another fabulous Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium. Hard to believe that two weeks have passed and hard to believe what a great weekend it was. Every year we say it was the best and couldn’t get better. Every year exceeds our expectations (or our memory), but this year truly was unique.
The Symposium began in earnest for me on Wednesday morning, Oct. 22, when I picked up the inimitable Carol Ruth Silver from GTR airport. A tour of the Tennessee Williams home and lunch on the Riverwalk. Conversations about San Francisco, Chinese dual-language education, recycling, and of course the Freedom Rides in Mississippi on a gorgeous fall day brought me out of the stress of planning the weekend and provided a bit of calm in the storm. In the evening, dinner with Tim Parrish at The Little Dooey followed by some conversation over beers at our house was another welcome island in the stream of tying up a few final details, putting out fires, and writing my introduction for the next night’s keynote session.
Thursday was busier than normal (so I’d been working ahead), since we have a grant to produce a half-hour video of interviews with four of the symposium authors. That meant getting pizza for lunch, meeting with the interviewees over lunch, and then taping interviews all afternoon. These went great, and actually provided an excellent kick-start to the symposium, since I got to know the authors and I felt the energy building as we talked. Tim and Carol Ruth were shuttled over to WCBI for interviews on the local station in the midst of all of this, and our other authors started to arrive, so things were really getting underway. I had brought my clothes for the evening down to campus and changed in my office, so I could pick everyone up in the university’s big van and bring them to dinner at 5:00, and then the real public part of the symposium began.
Tim Parrish’s reading at the keynote was inspired. He has been so gracious and enthusiastic throughout the symposium and the months leading up to it, that everything went off without a hitch. Maridith Geuder had suggested creating more of a set for the video production, so Tim read from a wing-back chair on stage. This arrangement made the readings much more casual and intimate. Tim dedicated his reading from Fear and What Follows to his dad who passed away this year, and he read passages that dealt with his father’s influence. He also read from his novel The Jumper — all I can say is get a copy of both of these books and read them. You won’t be disappointed! It was a fabulous reading with great Q&A after, and we hardly wanted to break for the book signing and reception (though the food was well worth it).
It’s hard to give highlights of Friday and Saturday, since everyone’s readings were great. I especially enjoyed Carol Ruth Silver’s reading and discussion of her time as one of the Freedom Riders in 1960s Mississippi and her days in Parchman prison as a result of that civil disobedience. The bravery of all the riders is almost impossible to fathom, especially when you hear of some of the prison episodes or think about the violence that they could have confronted with an angry mob.
I always love the poets, and John Bensko, Amy Fleury, Shayla Lawson, Derrick Harriell and Richard Boada were no exceptions. Each had their individual style and grabbed the audience in different way. This year was a nearly perfect mix of styles, yet each poet responded to the others and themes could be traced in all of their work, crossing over to the fiction as well. One of my favorite parts of the symposium was the Q&A, in part because the writers this year were so engaged with each other.
Friday afternoon featured our Common Reading Initiative author Deborah Johnson and the two judges of our inaugural high school writing contest, The Ephemera Prize. Derrick Harriell and Katy Simpson Smith gave great readings and then did double-duty introducing and commenting on the prize winners: 5 MSMS students. Three of the students were able to read their work in person; the other two who were on a music tour for their school, had recorded their reading, which we played for the audience. All five did a fantastic job and we were impressed with the quality of their work.
As usual, Friday evening we all were invited to the Welty Gala, and enjoyed the opportunity for a few more receptions, good food, and a fascinating speech by Robert Edsel on The Monuments Men and the work that is still ongoing to retrieve art and cultural artifacts stolen during World War II. And in the morning we met for four more readings.
Nearly everyone’s travel plans allowed them to stay for the full symposium this year, which was another great part of its success. Tim and Shayla originally had been scheduled to depart at noon and would have missed out on some of the morning session, but Delta kindly rescheduled their flights until 2:30 (I’m kidding, of course, though Delta did reschedule the noon flight for 2:30, we have no idea why, but we were glad!) After the last reading by David Armand, those of us who could stick around went out for lunch at Profitt’s Porch, a Welty tradition. Bright sun through the trees, good food, the view of Officer’s Lake, and even a bald eagle sighting made the perfect conclusion to the weekend. Steve Pieschel whisked our air travelers to GTR in time for their flight, and goodbyes were said to those driving home. Kim and I got back in time to catch Aidan’s soccer game that clinched their State rec-league championship, and then we all came home and collapsed.