WRITING IN MEMPHIS: PART 1 

WRITING IN MEMPHIS: PART 1

The wind blows, the rain rains, and writers write. It is hard to escape such simple truisms. But a more murky question is this: Where do writers write? Certainly not Memphis? The city known for the Blues and barbeque, independent theater and minor-league sports could not possibly have a writing scene. Right? Let’s see (in no particular order): Shelby Foote, Steve Stern, Arthur Flowers, Marilou Awiakta, Randall Kenan, Ralph Wiley, Tina Barr, Shara McCallum, Craig Brewer, Marshall Boswell, Margaret Skinner, John Fergus Ryan, Tom Graves, Joan Williams, Corey Mesler, Alan Lightman, Jim Gray, Charles Turner, Cary Holladay, John Bensko . . . okay, the list goes on and on. And these are just the Memphians who are established workers at their crafts, with publications and awards galore. This speaks nothing about the various poetry slams around the city coffee-houses, the occasional reading, and all the writers yet to be known for their work. Oh yeah, and there is John Grisham. There are also writing venues. Owner Sarah Hull of the The Deliberate Literate on Union hosts multiple series for area readers and writers to get together and convene with programs like poetry readings, the Yarn-Spinners club, a story-telling center, and the Word from the Basement series. There is the River City Writers Series at the University of Memphis as well as a similar writing series at Rhodes College, both featuring Pulitzer winning writers. The University of Memphis houses an MFA program, and Rhodes sponsors a well-known summer writer’s camp for high schoolers. Both programs publish literary journals, the University of Memphis on a national basis and the Rhodes on a smaller scale, but to much acclaim in academe. Memphis magazine offers a $1,000 prize each year to the winner of its annual fiction contest. According to Marilyn Sadler who oversees the contest, there are few contests that offers that much. The winning story is published in the magazine. On the air, Michelle Buckalew hosts The Book Gallery on AM 600 WREC’s station on Beale Street every week, interviewing writers from around the world. On the FM dial, 89.3, The Book Show broadcasts weekly with host Douglas Glover. On TV, the Library Channel (cable channel 18), supports three book shows: Talks with Authors, Library NewsLinc, with a library representative discussing new books available in the Memphis library system, and the “Channel 18 Spotlight,” a monthly interview with various area writers, as well as other artists. On the web at http://www.memphislibrary.lib.tn.us/, you can read book reviews for what is in the libraries or write your own. Memphis also has a surprising and growing live literary presence in the form of the Poetry Slam, an event likened to “the Olympics” by Slam-Master John Hancock who runs the Memphis chapter of the nation-wide group with co-Slam-Master Benjamin “IQ” Sander. Once a month, there is an “official” Poetry Slam (usually at the Map Room) where 10-13 readers have three minutes and ten seconds to read their work. The five judges then judge the performances (half on the poem and half on the performance). According to the Poetry Slam’s website at www.memphispoetry.com/slam, “Any audience member who isn't related or sleeping with a poet may judge.” Last year, the Memphis Poetry Slam team went to a National Poetry Slam competition in Providence Rhode Island, and also a regional Slam in Birmingham, Alabama, where they placed third. Hancock and Sanders are also creating a non-profit organization tentatively called Word Play Ink which will support the Poetry Slam group. They also hope to work toward bringing poetry to the community on a wider basis with such events as Youth Poetry Slams. Finally, there is the The Mid South Writers' Association, started by Paul Flowers, an author, journalist, and columnist for the defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar. The group has grown from meetings in Flowers’ home to bimonthly gatherings at St. John's Episcopal Church, located at Central and Greer. The group publishes Writers on the River, a bi-annual journal featuring the nonfiction, fiction, and poetry of Memphis writers. So there are Memphis writers and locales and discussions. Big deal. Every city has its own writers. Language, as ubiquitous as it is, extends its grippy fingers to every walk of life and few communes escape. However, to say that a city has writers is not the same as saying that there is a writing community. And while common-sense accepts that writers are by their very nature loners, history accepts the best work of writers coming in groups. Think of Modernist salons or surrealist get-togethers. For those esoteric, think about the Dadaists. But in the same way that literary writers and thinkers see the world as a big fragmented mess, Memphis writers do not get together too often for coffee. However, such a step would require a unique vibe running through the heart and work of the writers present. Do Memphis writers have a genre all their own? The Memphis Voice “When I read a Grisham,” says Rhodes writer-in-residence Marshall Boswell, “I look for landmarks. There’s a southern suburbia to Memphis; all those lawyers and judges. All those spots and landmarks like Silky O’Sullivans. It’s more about a region. It’s restaurants and barbeque. It’s Elvis.” Memphis writers also seem concerned with the city. Says U of M assistant professor, North Carolina native, and Rome de Prix winner Randall Kenan, “That’s a truism about Southern writers. We’re obsessed with place.” “I’d say that Memphis writers are very steeped in the history of the city,” says Corey Mesler, owner of 125-year-old Burkes Bookstore, who just signed a book deal on his first novel. “In a way, they [Memphis writers] are very pro-Memphis.” Going away from the printed page to the projected screen, Memphis screenwriter and filmmaker Craig Brewer says, “Storytelling is very important in the South in general. I think it was Peter Taylor who said, ÔWell, the South lost. That’s why there are good writers there.’” Brewer says other Southern influences are in the writing as well. “Family history is very important, at least it is to my family,” he says. “You can’t help but when you’re in this city and in this location to know that people have a need and are connected to a history.” But a sense of history and place does not add up to a sort of collective unconscious needed for unity. There has been no defining great Memphis novel. “I haven’t seen that captured,” says Boswell. “It’s under-appreciated and it’s not real flashy, so I think it’s going to take some carefully nuanced observation to get at it.” Says Buckalew, “I would say that most of the local writers are just looking. They’re looking, I think, for a voice.” “I don’t think that Memphis [writing] has a specific feel. I don’t think the Blues influences it or anything like that,” says Hancock. “What I do feel is that there are a lot of people in Memphis who think outside of the box more than people expect. They think a lot bigger than anyone else in the country would realize. All the artistic history that is here in the city breeds people to be artistic in one way or the other. A lot of that comes out in their writing.” That voice can lead to untapped reserves of writing potential in the area’s students. Says Kenan about his students, “They have a lot of material. I think the sad thing is that they don’t realize how good it is. I spend a lot of time trying to convince people that their mundane, unexamined circumstance is just their niche. I can’t believe more people haven’t written more.” “I think Memphis is fertile ground,” says Boswell, a native Memphian. “Tom Wolfe did his Atlanta book and figured the mainstream of the country is being generated from this part of the country. I think the South is the center of designing the culture right now.” Try preaching that to Hollywood, who is currently at odds with Brewer over the location of his next movie. “That’s kind of the deal breaker right now,” Brewer says. “I go to these meetings at New Line Cinema and Universal and they’re like, ÔDoes it have to take place in Memphis?’ Well, yeah. It’s such a unique place.” Brewer’s recent success seems to prove his point. “You know what’s funny about Poor &Hungry,” Brewer wonders aloud, “I was so expecting that once I got past the Mississippi [River], no one would be interested because it was regional. It was quite the reverse. I think the South is one of the last mythological places in America. Too much has fertilized this soil.” If the South is such “fertile” ground, not all writer’s feel enough people realize that. Says Hancock, on his experiences at national Poetry Slam tournaments, “On a National level, there’s a Northern stigma against the South in general. It’s difficult to convince people that we’re not just a bunch of illiterate hillbillies. So many people don’t appreciate their Southern literary heritage. They don’t realize how many great writers come from our area. It’s sad to see that when you go out and perform a piece that has nation-wide or world-wide appeal and it confounds an audience that doesn’t know what to expect from a city like Memphis.” A Writer’s City? Fine, so there are writers and at least some common vibes about which to write here in Memphis. But does that make Memphis a good city in which a writer can live? What makes it interesting for writers to work here? One major benefit is that Memphis is away from the center of the literary world such as the giant literary agencies and presses and even the smaller, independent scenes. It is that separation that can be good for a writer’s life. “I’ve lived in literary towns and non-literary towns and this is one of the least literary towns I have been in,” Kenan says. “Which, for a writer, is wonderful because you aren’t sub-conscious about it. People aren’t rhapsodizing about the place from a literary standpoint.” Barr thinks Memphis is a good place for her and her muse. “It’s been very good for my writing,” she says. “It’s allowed me to focus. It’s different if you are in New York and you are going to miss the Metropolitan Opera. It’s quiet [in Memphis], and that’s good for my work.” Says Hancock, “I think it’s [Memphis Writing] more ‘salt of the Earth.’ With a lot of the writers in the city, I don’t feel synthetic words from these poets.” Brewer says that the cacophony of peers can be deafening. “When I went out to L.A.,” he says, “I was there for a week. I realized on about Thursday of that week that my ideas began to get stupider. When you get so close to the industry, in my case the film industry, your thoughts begin to sound like everything else around you.” However, Brewer, who does a good amount of his writing at the Deliberate Literate, also finds inspiration in Memphis’ peculiarities. “I remember coming back home and it was Dead Elvis Week,” he recalls. “I was glad I was back and I was that I live here.” Part 2 of this article will appear in tomorrow’s On the Fly.

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