From William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee, the South is known the world over for its great writers, but the monumental fame of the giants can easily overshadow the work of other, lesser-known writers from the region.
Bringing the work of forgotten Southern writers to light is the aim of a new Atlanta literary festival taking place on Georgia State University’s Dunwoody Campus from March 31 to April 1.
“I realized there’s this whole generation of Southern writers that just largely went unnoticed by a larger audience,” says Lost Southern Voices festival organizer Andy Rogers, a writer and professor at GSU’s Perimeter College campus in Dunwoody. “The deeper you dive into it, the more you see there’s this whole wealth of writers that were dismissed as ‘regionalists.’ But they weren’t. They were really, really good.”
As he worked to create the event, Rogers soon found that he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. He and fellow teacher Gregg Murray took the idea to GSU Professor of Southern Literature Pearl McHaney, who helped them contact and gain the support of a number of prominent contemporary writers: Former Poet Laureate and Emory professor Natasha Trethewey, renowned poet and NYU professor Yusef Komunyakaa, and best-selling novelists Terry Kay and Tony Earley and many more will all participate in the upcoming event.
The writers were so enthusiastic about the idea of sharing the work of underappreciated writers of the past that all of them chose to waive their usual speaking fees, allowing the festival to be free and open to the public. “What we realized very quickly is that a lot of very prominent writers are happy not to talk about themselves,” Rogers says. “When there’s an opportunity to use their celebrity to talk about writers who meant a lot to them, they’re very happy to do it.”
The festival takes place over two days with the contemporary writers speaking in 30-minute blocks to share the work of the writer they’ve selected and speaking about why they believe the “forgotten voice” should be remembered. Speakers are then grouped together into panels with a moderator to further elucidate the work.
Organizers said they sought to keep the festival engaging and fast-paced so that it would be an event that felt welcoming to the general public.
“We didn’t want it to become dry and academic,” says Murray, pointing out that organizers deliberately sought to avoid the scholarly deconstruction of works, dry talks, endless readings and self-serving questions that can too often be the hallmarks of some academic literary conferences. “It’s an event for the public. We decided what it needs to be is a celebration. We want it to be an event people enjoy coming to.”
The writers of the past who will be presented at the festival run the gamut of styles, time periods, genres and regions of the South. In some cases, the “lost” writer may have achieved recognition and even accolades, but the presenter still felt that the writer simply hasn’t gotten their due or is, in some way, in danger of being forgotten by the public. In some cases, the presenter even chose to read a lesser-known work by a well-known writer.
Earley will present the work of Horace Kephart, an American travel writer and librarian, the author of “Our Southern Highlands” and the outdoors guide “Camping and Woodcraft.” Kay will read from the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning Atlanta Constitution writer Ralph McGill and also from the work of American novelist and short story writer Erskine Caldwell.
Trethewey plans to read from the work of writers Claudia Emerson and Margaret Walker. Emerson was an American poet born in Chatham, Va., who published five poetry collections during her lifetime and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Walker was an American poet and writer, a colleague of Richard Wright and the first African-American woman to receive a national writing prize.
Komunyakaa will present the work of George Moses Horton, whose 1829 poetry collection “The Hope of Liberty” was the first book to be published by an African-American man in the South and one of the first works to publicly protest slavery in poetry. Writers Tony Grooms, Gray Stewart and Jesse Freeman will participate in a roundtable discussion of the work of Georgia author Raymond Andrews. The festival also includes a staged reading of the play “Florence” by Alice Childress, directed by Neeley Gossett.
The event also includes a book fair, organized by Murray, who is editor of the new Atlanta-based literary journal Muse A. The book fair will sell the work of presenters, but will also stock the lesser-known work of the presented writers. “It’s not as hard as it once was to find those things,” says Murray, who went through the process of getting copies of works by the “lost” writers being presented at the festival. This often involved writing to publishers to obtain out-of-print editions. He says the advent of the internet has made such things much easier. “You can find everything that’s out there. It’s just knowing what you’re looking for.”
The various readings and discussion events of the festival are all free to the public, but a Friday reception is $15 and a boxed lunch on Saturday is $10. Organizers say the authors’ waiving their fees and a generous grant from the Georgia Humanities Council helped keep the event and its activities free or low-cost.
Early response in advance of the first festival has been so enthusiastic that there are already hopes to turn Lost Southern Voices into an annual event. “There are so many writers we wanted to do that we just couldn’t get to,” Rogers says. “If people enjoy this, we’ll keep doing it.”
Revival: Lost Southern Voices
March 31-April 1. Readings and discussion events, free. Friday reception, $15; a boxed lunch on Saturday, $10. Georgia State University-Dunwoody, 2101 Womack Road, Atlanta. 404-413-2063, www.eventbrite.com/e/revival-lost-southern-voices-a-literary-festival-tickets-32015489190.