'Uncertain Times': National poet laureate, Pulitzer winner to headline 32nd Welty Symposium

October 12, 2020 9:31:02 AM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


As it has with so many events of 2020, COVID-19 will affect the 32nd annual Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium hosted by Mississippi University for Women in Columbus. The global pandemic, however, will not cancel the banner celebration of Southern writers. The symposium has instead elected to go virtual.


U.S. and Mississippi poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey will be the keynote author for the Oct. 22-24 event accessible via Zoom and live-streamed on Facebook through the Welty Symposium group, where viewers may also post questions.


Symposium Director Kendall Dunkelberg of The W's Department of Languages, Literature and Philosophy expressed excitement at the prospects of a virtual presentation.



"Though we are sad not to gather together in the lovely Poindexter Auditorium this year," he said, "we know from live-streaming Master of Fine Arts readings this summer that this gives us the opportunity to expand our audience."


High school classes and readers from around the country will have access to the virtual panels, and most of the sessions will remain available after the fact. However, the keynote session with Trethewey will only be available Oct. 22 live at 6 p.m. and immediately after the reading.



Gripping memoir


The world-renowned poet comes to the symposium with her first memoir, "Memorial Drive," which recounts her early life with her mother and her abusive stepfather that would ultimately lead to her mother's murder. Kiese Laymon, writing for the New York Times, acknowledges that "the memoir is not the hardest book I have ever read," but it is "the hardest I could imagine writing." He argues that "'Memorial Drive' forces the reader to think about how the sublime Southern conjurers of words, spaces, sounds and patterns protect themselves from trauma when trauma may be, in part, what nudged them down the dusty road to poetic mastery."


As such, Trethewey's vivid memoir serves as a fitting launching point for this year's symposium theme, "'Walking Along in the Changing-Time -- Southern Writers in Uncertain Times," which is inspired by Welty's story "The Wide Net."



Many more authors


Other panels will be shorter than usual to accommodate online viewing, and will each feature three authors. Since there will be no live Welty Gala this year, the symposium schedule has also been adjusted to include an evening session on Oct. 23. Sessions that day will take place 10 a.m.-noon, 1:30-3:30 p.m., and 7-9 p.m. CT, as well as on Saturday, Oct. 24 at 10 a.m.-noon.


They begin Oct. 23 with "Blacktop Wasteland," a new novel by Southern noir writer S. A. Cosby that The New York Times has called "A Roaring, Full-Throttle Thriller, Crackling With Tension and Charm." Set in rural Appalachia, the novel follows drag racer "Bug" Montage as he must choose whether or not to follow his father's path of crime as a get-away driver, in order to save his small-town mechanic shop.


Randall Horton returns to the symposium with his second collection of poems "{#289-128}," titled with his prisoner number and dealing with his own incarceration for drug running in 1999. It is a meditation on the criminal justice system and on the ways poetry brought him out of it.


The W's own Michael Farris Smith returns with his Southern Gothic novel, "Blackwood," which Kirkus Reviews has praised as "A gleaming, dark masterpiece by one of Southern fiction's leading voices." Smith explores the fictional southwest Mississippi town of Red Bluff where strange and desperate acts could be buried in kudzu.



Young talent


The afternoon session will begin at 1:30 p.m. with readings by five Ephemera Prize winners, selected from among more than 60 entries from high school students in Mississippi and Alabama. These talented young writers wrote in response to the symposium theme and Eudora Welty's "The Wide Net."


This year's winners include Joshua Bates of Forest, Callie Matthews of Meridian, Skylar Nichols of Laurel, Lauren Stamps of Mount Olive, and Abilyn Strain of Columbus. Honorable mentions will be given to Luke Bowles of Buckatunna, Jaylin Jones of Clarksdale, Raeed Kabir of Biloxi, Amelia Pope of Aberdeen, and Stephanie Ressel of Van Cleave.


Student readings will be followed by the contest judges. Louisiana writer, Juyanne James will read from her memoir "Table Scraps and Other Essays," in which she tells of growing up in a poor, rural, Black community, and the journey of forgiveness she embarks on when she returns to care for her aging parents.


Georgia environmental poet Sandra Meek reads from her seventh book of poems, "Still," a collection of poems on art and natural artifacts that Library Journal has praised as "equal parts thought-provoking, language-drunk, and innately challenging."



Of reflection and revelation


The Oct. 23 evening panel begins at 7 p.m. with novelist M. O. Walsh, reading from his novel "The Big Door Prize." In the small town of Deerfield, Louisiana, a machine appears in the local grocery that uses DNA to reveal a person's true potential, altering the courses of many residents' lives.


Poet Catherine Pierce, who co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State, returns to the symposium with her brand-new collection, "Danger Days," which reflects on our current situation, including the COVID-19 pandemic.


Eudora Welty Prize winner Eden Wales Freedman's "Reading Testimony, Witnessing Trauma: Confronting Race, Gender, and Violence in American Literature" explores American literature, with a focus on African American women writers through the lens of race and trauma theory.



To conclude


On Saturday, Oct. 24 the symposium continues with a reading by Mississippi Delta artist and poet Claude Wilkinson from his latest collection "World Without End." Immersed in the natural world, these poems contemplate art, family and spirituality.


Jackson native, Katy Simpson Smith returns to the symposium with her third novel "The Everlasting," in which she weaves together four stories from four centuries, contemplating love, the body, and mortality, all connected by ancient Rome, a fish hook, a saint and commentary by the ultimate unreliable narrator, Satan.


To close the symposium, Beth Kander, a graduate of The W's MFA program in Creative Writing, will read from her sci-fi trilogy "Original Syn." In a not-too-distant future, humans have synthesized their bodies with technology, creating Syns, a race that is virtually immortal, while the Originals who spurned the singularity, struggle to survive outside modern society.


Go to muw.edu/welty for more details on each author and watch live-streamed events at facebook.com/groups/weltysymposium.


Donations to the scholarships funded by the Welty Gala can be made to the MUW Foundation at muw.edu/welty/gala.


Editor's note: The Dispatch thanks Kendall Dunkelburg for author information contained in this story.



Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium Schedule



Thursday, Oct. 22


6 p.m. - Keynote with Natasha Trethewey



Friday, Oct. 23


10 a.m. - S. A. Cosby


10:40 a.m. - Randall Horton


11:20 a.m. - Michael Farris Smith


1:30 p.m. - Ephemera Prize Announcement and Reading


2:10 p.m. - Juyanne James


2:50 p.m. - Sandra Meek


7 p.m. - M. O. Walsh


7:40 p.m. - Catherine Pierce


8:20 p.m. - Eden Wales Freedman,



Sat., Oct. 24


10 a.m. - Claude Wilkinson


10:40 a.m. - Katy Simpson Smith


11:30 a.m. - Beth Kander




Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.