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Southern Writers Symposium History

The Southern Writers Symposium began when Sue Kimball, writing a review of a book of Maxwell Anderson's letters, discovered an unpublished, unproduced musical by Anderson and Kurt Weill based on Huckleberry Finn. She wrote to both widows and to the library of the University of Texas for permission to edit and produce the work. The result was the world premiere-at Methodist University (then Methodist College) in 1981-of the musical Raft on the River, directed by Jack Peyrouse, then chair of the Department of Theatre and Speech. While Anderson himself is not Southern, Raft on the River, based on the all-American novel Huckleberry Finn is, and it antedates the Broadway hit, Big River, by several years.

After that undertaking, we moved on Southerly with our first formal symposium (1982), celebrating the late James Agee of Tennessee. David Madden, Kenton Coe, and Ross Spears were guest speakers. The second annual Symposium (1983) featured Fred Chappell, James Dickey, William Price Fox, Heather Ross Miller, and Joe Ashby Miller.

"Southern Writing After the Dixie Limited," the third Southern Writers Symposium (1984), addressed the serious question that had been put to the late Flannery O'Connor of what it was like to be writing "Southern" in the wake of Faulkner. She replied, "When the Dixie Limited comes along, you get your mule and wagon off the track." Lucy Daniels Inman, Madison Jones, Sam Ragan, Shelby Stephenson, and Peter Taylor attempted to answer that awesome question.

In 1985, "Southern Women Writers" responded to a statement by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post that the best writers of this decade are women. We invited Betty Adcock, Daphne Athas, Sally Buckner, Candace Flynt, Jill McCorkle, Suzanne Newton, and Sylvia Wilkinson. Clyde Edgerton contributed by reading and singing songs from Raney.

In 1986, we returned to the idea of a single writer, Carson McCullers, who lived in Fayetteville when she wrote Reflections in a Golden Eye. McCuller's biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, was our principal speaker, and David Madden returned as a guest speaker.

Members of Paul Green's family came to Methodist University in 1987 for "Paul Green's Celebration of Man," to help us discuss his symphonic dramas, short stories, and novels, as well as his civil rights work and educational views. John Ehle and Rhoda Wynn offered their reminiscences and insights.

We honored Reynolds Price at the 1988 Symposium. Bill Price, Daphne Athas, and Wallace Kaufman spoke on Price and his works; Lee Yopp worked with him to stage Private Contentment. In 1989, Methodist University published Reynolds Price: From A Long and Happy Life to Good Hearts, with a Bibliography.

In 1989, Doris Betts joined us at the Symposium concerning her works. "Spies in the Herb House," one of the plays Lee Yopp adapted for production from a Betts short story, is included in the book that came out of the conference, The "Home Truths" of Doris Betts, with Bibliography. (Both the Price and the Betts essay collections are available for sale.)

John Ehle was the subject of the 1990 Southern Writers Symposium, which he attended along with his wife, actress Rosemary Harris. Entitled "John Ehle: Born to Be a Writer," it featured Julio Finn as the keynote speaker and a beautiful poster, designed by Methodist University art professor, Peggy Hinson, celebrating Ehle's book, A Trail of Tears.

The next Symposium, in 1991, was "Lee Smith, Storyteller." In addition to a play based on Smith's novel Family Linen, the Symposium featured addresses by Kathryn Stripling Byer, Dorothy Combs Hill, Jill McCorkle, and Linda Wagner-Martin.

In 1993 we entertained our first "Daughters of Mystery," both Edgar winners: Margaret Maron and Sharyn McCrumb. Journalist Pat Reese directed a local murder bus tour, narrated by Methodist University theatre professor Paul Wilson.

"Marsha Norman: Solitary Confinement" was 1996's Symposium title. Norman attended and oversaw the production of her play, Trudy Blue, at Cape Fear Regional Theatre. Keynote addresses by Norman scholar Linda Ginter-Brown and novelist Terry Kay enlivened the Symposium. The 1996 Southern Writers Symposium was the last one directed by Sue Kimball, who retired that summer from her position at Methodist.

The 1997 Symposium, "Fred Chappell: Places of Possibility," was the first directed by Mary Wheeling White, Assistant Professor of English at Methodist University. Past SWS Director Sue Kimball was a featured speaker and received recognition for her dedication to what is now a grand tradition at Methodist University. To our delight, just months after "Ole Fred's" appearance on our campus, our distinguished guest was appointed North Carolina's Poet Laureate.

In 1998, the Symposium addressed "The Idea of Home in Southern Literature." Scholars presented papers on topics as diverse as antebellum architecture and Walker Percy's use of language. Creative readings from a range of writers, including Shelby Stephenson and Tim McLaurin, delighted attendees.

To everyone's regret, the 1999 Symposium was canceled at the last minute due to Hurricane Floyd. In 2000, the Fifteenth Southern Writers Symposium examined "The Limits of Southern Literature." Scholars addressed questions having to do with the regional distinctiveness of southern literature while readings, musical presentations, and panel discussions were offered by a wide array of writers, including Florence Nash and Robert Morgan.

The 2001 Symposium's theme was "Southern Literature to 1900." Scholarly presentations addressed a range of topics, from Confederate society to Kate Chopin. Highlights of the weekend were Kathryn B. McKee's talk on "Southern Women Humorists After the Civil War" and an evening of music and literature with Bland Simpson.

The 2003 Symposium, on the theme of "Region," was the first one directed by Emily Wright, Associate Professor of English at Methodist University. Although the Symposium was once again threatened by a hurricane, Isabel cleared out just in time for an enjoyable weekend to be had by all who managed to arrive. In addition to talks by noted scholars Lucinda MacKethan, Jon Smith, and John Shelton Reed, the Symposium featured poetry readings, storytelling sessions, and screenings of Gary Hawkins's Rough South films.

The next Symposium took place in February 2005. Focusing on the theme of "History in/and/of Southern Literature," the event featured talks by noted scholars Louis D. Rubin, Trudier Harris, Leigh Ann Duck, and SallyAnn Ferguson. The weekend was enlivened by a series of panel discussions, storytelling sessions, musical performances, and readings by Awiakta, Sheila Kay Adams, Marshall Chapman, Virgil Suarez, and David Manning.

In 2007, the Symposium took as its focus "Neglected Southern Authors." Scholars from around the country presented papers on little-known southern writers and their contributions to the southern literary canon. A special focus of the 2007 Symposium was Georgia author Raymond Andrews. Special sessions, talks by Trudier Harris and Freda Beaty, and screenings of a film-in-progress by Jesse Freeman highlighted the important work of this little-known southern writer.

In 2009, the theme of the Symposium, "North Carolina Writers," proved a rich inspiration for our conference. Featuring Jill McCorkle reading from her soon-to-be published short story collection Going Away Shoes, the program of creative writers also included a panel moderated by Lucinda MacKethan with readings and discussion by Pamela Duncan, David Payne, and Brenda Jernigan. Poetry was also featured: Longleaf Press Chapbook Poets Amy Knox Brown and Steve Lautermilch gave a reading, and spoken word poet Dasan Ahanu performed. A new element of the 2009 program was a Friday morning student workshop led by Dasan Ahanu. Special speakers and noted scholars Lucinda MacKethan and Margaret Bauer highlighted past and present North Carolina writers. Scholars from around the country presented papers in sessions such as "Lee Smith's Appalachian South," "Chesnutt: Race, Class, and Genre," and "Gentlemen Journalists of North Carolina."

Michael Colonnese reads from his mystery novel Sex and Death, I Suppose at the 2011 Symposium

In 2011, the Southern Writers Symposium took a new direction. Under the leadership of its fourth director, Brenda Jernigan, the Symposium took the form of a one-day event largely geared toward aspiring creative writers. This year the Symposium held an emerging writers contest in the area of fiction, and the winners read from their works at the event. Mini-clinics were also held for writers who submitted their work ahead of time, a panel on getting published was held, and the day ended with an open mic session. Enlivening the event were readings by MU faculty, Cecilia Rodriguez Milanés, and Lorraine López.

The 2012 Symposium once again sponsored a day of readings and workshops in celebration of emerging writers. The event featured keynote readings by Darnell Arnoult and David Rigsbee, as well as a publishing panel and readings by the winners of the Longleaf Press Chapbook Contest, Nausheen Eusuf, and the Southern Writers Symposium Emerging Writers Contest. The respective winners of first, second, and third place in fiction included Claudette Cohen, Carolyn Cone Weaver, and Julie Davis, and in poetry, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Connie Jordan Green, and (again) Claudette Cohen. The event was topped off with an open mic emceed by Celeste Doaks.

 

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