Too Much Loneliness?
Isolation is all well and good. But as questioned earlier, can a writer live alone? The answer is: most likely, but it is more fun to have a community. Michelle Buckalew agrees. We must remember that a lot of great things can come out of talking with authors and people who write, she says. There are wonderful relationships that can help our community. [Right now,] Its so fragmented.
A few years ago, Corey Mesler recalls, for National Poetry Month, which is in April, Otherlands coffee shop had [roughly] 20 poets read for 3-5 minutes each. It was an entire evening of poetry and the wildest spectrum of poets you could imagine. It was great. And nothing has been done since like that. I wish there more things like that.
This is a very feudal city and I dont just mean academically. Memphis operates in cells, says Randall Kenan. According to Buckalew, so does most of the writing community. A lot of writers arent aware of other writers. There is no network outside of particular institutions. There arent a lot of venues to meet, they dont foster relationships.
Shara McCallum, local poet, assistant professor in the creative writing program at the University of Memphis, and current head of the River City Writing Series has something of a different viewpoint. While she agrees that there can always be more options for those inclined toward word-smithing, she would like to see a larger audience in Memphis.
There are a number of writers in this town, McCallum says. So that if someone wished to look, theres something there to take advantage of. I think that writers find communities, find each other. Im interested in a readership of good literature by people who are not necessarily writers. I think that needs to come back to the U.S. There is a support of the visual artists [by patrons] who are not themselves visual artists. I think that writers are already so insular in terms of our community, in particular in academia and how much that has become a centralized place for writers to exist now. I feel what is important is for educated readers to read literary stuff. I think it [Memphis] is still lagging behind where I would love for it to be.
Mesler expresses some frustration along the same vein. Though Burkes Bookstore hosts multiple book-signing parties for local, nationally, and internationally known authors, sometimes the response from the citizenry is less than extraordinary. Im often disappointed in the turn-out, Mesler says. If I could figure it out, I would be smarter than I am. Ive been doing this for 26 years and I havent figured it out.
He doesnt think that lack of recognition stops with name writers. I think what you always miss -- and this is unfortunate -- is that there are writers who are working very seriously and with great commitment to their craft who havent had the success. I am sure there are poets and short-story writers who have placed things in magazines and they just havent had a breakthrough and they may never. Thats the sad state of publishing today.
Buckalew adds, I think it is so important for the writers to know that they are appreciated and to somehow salute them, acknowledge them in some way because this area is not known so much as other areas.
A Growing Community.
Admist all this negative talk of the lack of a writing community, there are pockets of Athenian cultures among the prevalent Visigoth society. For example, Royal Stewart, Marketing Manager of the Deliberate Literate sees a mentorship growing in the recesses of his coffee shop. Theres a gal named Melissa Crouch. he says. Shes kind of become a student of Craigs. Shes in the process of writing a movie and getting all kinds of help. Crouch, a poet, is now producing her first short films with Brewers advice.
These sorts of relationships were unheard of as recently as a decade ago, according to Mesler. I think the Memphis literary scene used to be non-existent, he says. It was a bunch of back-biting curs with egos who wouldnt talk to each other, wouldnt give anybody credit. If you were associated with Memphis State [now the University of Memphis], you wouldnt associate with the Rhodes writing group. That was about ten years ago. I think theres been a lot of positive change. Tina Barr coming to Rhodes, Shara McCallum coming to the University of Memphis. Those two women bring a lot of energy and a lot of creativity. They care.
Says McCallum, Ive seen some progress. I really have seen some good things happen. So I have hope. Im not at all seeing it as a dismal thing.
Kenan, however, is not so optimistic. I dont see Memphis becoming Santa Fe or Dallas anytime soon, he says, referring to those cities vibrant literary communities. The peoples priorities are not such to cause that to happen. Its [Memphis is] a blue-collar town. People dont have a lot of time for it. Which isnt to say that it dictates destiny because there are working classes very interested in the arts. But its not in a lot of peoples priorities.
All that said, there is a consensus that the writing community in Memphis could stand some improvement without exceeding the citys critical mass of interest. One such improvement can come from the media.
I think that -- as someone who is looking at the overall spectrum of arts -- if the media doesnt do something, were sunk in general. I think there will be a small [writing] community always, says McCallum. I dont think it will ever be huge. But I think that small community can be better reached and better served if the main sources of information -- which is what the media is supposed to be -- gets behind us.
Hancock shares McCallums frustration with the press. We deserve some sort of kudos, he says. We seem to get press from all sides except from Memphis. The media just ignores us. It pushes us to the side.
However, writers in Memphis are at least receiving more interest from the arts community at large. Mesler sees the inclusion of a poetry booth in this years Arts in the Park festival as a big sign that the literary arts are moving onto the main stage in Memphis arts scenes. I saw that as a really positive thing, he says. When you talk about arts in Memphis, you used to be talking about dance, painting, theater, and music. And nobody gave a thought about writers and the writers didnt feel a part of the arts.
In all the cases, there are small steps toward a more general recognition in the city. Such a distinction, according to Brewer is something the city deserves to give itself. I think Memphians are beginning to reward themselves more. I havent lived here my whole life [his family moved to California from Memphis and Brewer moved back ten years later], but I think its fair to for me to say that Memphians dog themselves and dog the location. According to Brewer, Memphis growing literary scene is an indication of its acceptance of itself as more than that city between St. Louis and New Orleans.
Theres more. Theres always more. There are writers not mentioned and writing programs not here in this article and ideas not shared. Still, it is a start. The literary word is not dead here in Memphis and is even growing a little day by day. The next time you find out about an author signing or a poetry reading, why not check it out? The wind blows and the rain rains and writers write. Now all that needs to happen is for writers -- and readers -- to talk about it.