Sharing a Love of Writing
Agnes Scott’s Writers’ Festival, a literary tradition
Robert Frost made his first visit to Agnes Scott College in 1935 to visit his friend and the college’s president at the time, Wallace Alston. Frost clearly enjoyed his visit, returning in 1940 and 1945, and then visiting every year on his way to a vacation in Miami until his death in 1963.
Unlike the stand alone lectures typical at many colleges even today, Frost’s visits lasted days and often included several opportunities for students and faculty to interact with the poet. His literary partnership with the college sparked an Agnes Scott tradition of not only appreciating literature but of also finding new ways to experience, discuss and create literature as well.
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The tradition Frost inspired years ago is alive and thriving through Agnes Scott’s annual Writers’ Festival, the oldest continuous literary event in Georgia. Each year a group of distinguished authors (novelists, playwrights, poets and creative non-fiction writers) give public readings, award prizes in the festival’s increasingly popular state-wide literary competition for Georgia college students and conduct workshops for finalists in the competition.
And in between the talks and workshops, Agnes Scott students also spend time casually interacting with the authors—not something as common in a more typical college scenario of an author on campus for a night to give a talk.
“We always look for good teachers, as well as good writers, to visit for the festival,” said Christine Cozzens, Charles A. Dana Professor of English and English chair at Agnes Scott and one of the organizers of the festival. “Four years ago we made the shift to attract wonderful writers who could spend extra time on campus with the students, teaching and spending time together. It’s fantastic for students to see how writers put it all together—their inspiration, their careers and really understand what goes into writing a book or their writing.”
The works of each year’s visiting authors are taught in many courses on campus so that students will be familiar with and understand the authors before they arrive, a practice that leads to more informed conversations, Cozzens added.
Acclaimed Native American-poet Joy Harjo, while on campus for two weeks in 2012, took a group of students to an Alabama reservation and introduced them to members of her tribe and shared their traditions and history.
“Joy Harjo was incredible and innovative in her teaching methods. She would integrate dance and music with her poetry, and we even ended up dancing around a circle in the classroom to channel our energies,” said Sanidia Oliver ’13. “Not only was Joy an incredible poet and teacher, but we individually were able to connect with her in our own way. She invited all of us to an Indian Reservation in Alabama where she was performing on behalf of her grandfather who had fought there so long ago. It was an amazing opportunity.”
Scott Russell Sanders, a novelist and a conservationist, was on campus for two weeks in 2010. In addition to a workshop he taught for the Writers’ Festival, Sanders also spoke on sustainability to a class of environmental and sustainability studies students.
Winners of the state-wide literary competition that accompanies the festival are able to spend time with the authors through workshops. Students get more in-depth advice from the authors on the process of writing and writing as a career.
“Benjamin Percy had a very deep voice and he read ‘There’s a Monster at the End of This Book,’ a Sesame Street children’s book, to us in his deep scary voice and it just made my week,” said Keely Lewis ’14, 2012 Writers’ Festival winner in creative non-fiction who participated in a workshop last year lead by Percy, a fiction and non-fiction author known, in part, for his horror writing. “He was teaching about suspense – getting to a place where the reader is continually unsatisfied, making them want more.”
Question and answer sessions with the authors are another highlight of the festival, with both students and authors asking thoughtful questions about literature, the writing process and how the authors got their starts.
This year’s festival visiting authors will be Gish Jen, award-winning novelist; Cristina Garcia, a Cuban-American novelist and poet and National Book Award finalist; and Agnes Scott alumna Anjail Ahmad, a poet, teacher and activist. Click here for the full Writers’ Festival schedule of events for this year.
The list of past visiting writers to Agnes Scott’s Writers’ Festival is impressive and includes Eudora Welty, Julia Alvarez, Anita Desai, Junot Diaz, Suzan-Lori Parks, Percival Everett, Paul Muldoon, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Wilbur, Michael S. Harper and Marsha Norman ’69x, H’05.
Bo Ball, a beloved English professor renowned for his lively Shakespeare and fiction writing courses who died in 2008, spearheaded the creation of the Writers’ Festival in 1972. While famous writers such as Frost had been regular visitors to campus for many years, it was Ball’s idea to add a state-wide writing contest for college students and formalize the author visits for maximum student interaction, said Steve Guthrie, professor of English at Agnes Scott.
“He was a brilliant writer and real character. He decided that it would be nice to have a literary contest and to expand it to the state of Georgia and no farther. At the time, there weren’t all that many creative writing programs in the state and I don’t believe there were any graduate-level writing programs,” said Guthrie. “That’s really been a strength of the festival. He really shifted the focus toward student writing and the opportunity for students from campuses all over Georgia to get together.”