English Department organizes annual Emerging Writers Festival

By Christa Rodriguez || Assistant Campus Life Editor

The F&M English department held its annual Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) this week, hosting events April 6th-8th at either the Green Room Theatre or the Alumni Writers House. The events ranged from formal readings to informal discussions and craft talks, all free and open to the public. Organized as a joint effort between students and faculty, this year featured five emerging writers whose careers are just taking off. Kerry Howley’s book-length essay, Thrown, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. Suzanne Scanlon has authored two novels, Promising Young Women and Her 37th Year, An Index. Phillip B. Williams wrote the poetry book Thief in the Interior and co-authored Prime, a book of poems and conversations. Robin Coste Lewis wrote Voyage of the Sable Venus, which was the 2015 National Book Award Winner for Poetry. Lastly, Julia Pierpont is the author of the novel Among the Ten Thousand Things.

Friday, April 8th, The Philadelphia Alumni Writers House hosted craft talks with Robin Coste Lewis, followed by another with Julia Pierpont. During Lewis’ talk, she shared her craft essay about the research process for writing Voyage of the Sable Venus, a book of poems based on art depicting black women. Lewis feels that craft essays “makes the conversation richer,” while “putting a mirror into your psyche.”

As part of her research, she spent years going to museums and looking at the art. In Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, Lewis noted that, even though none of the figures are of black people, “all the dark figures are in service of the white.” In contrast, she saw the subject of the painting The Voyage of the Sable Venus depicted as a strong black woman. Lewis expressed the power of exhanging the white Venus with the black by how she claimed to fall in love with the Sable Venus. She said, “The Voyage of the Sable Venus is an epic written in one line.” Through her research, Lewis also noticed that many works were titled “anonymous” or “untitled.” Commenting on this, she said silence may be “the greatest epic of all.”

At one point, Lewis said her project stopped being research became a journey. In her craft essay, she described the rest of her research like a sea voyage that the Sable Venus took her on. Lewis focused on the titles of art in the museums she went to, and wrote them all down, noting all the untitled works, which, according to Lewis, attributes to female namelessness of the past. She claims the Sable Venus turned her towards looking at Christianity. There were not many black figures in the art until she came across the black virgin, which is the “largest active goddess cult today.” She came across this figure in temples and churches, not in museums. She wrote of her research coming to an end, of having traveled all over time. She said, “history was a compass.”

Julia Pierpont started her craft talk by introducing what she called an “anti-craft talk,” that is thinking about the process before the craft itself is produced. She noted, “we don’t think about what stories we should tell or what compels us to write in the first place.” She confessed her fear when writing her book because she was afraid of committing to a topic she may not like in the end.

However, Pierpont said that triggering subjects will find the writer. She stressed that many writers use the same topics or themes, and writers should not resist their impulses. Pierpont said to imagine if your work could be anyone in the world’s favorite story, and if not, you are not aiming high enough.

The craft talk attendees wrote their own response to the prompt, “a spoiled girl marries and nearly ruins her husband by her attitude toward money.” This exercise, according to Pierpont, was to show how different writers interpret prompts such as this, and can come out with all unique versions. Starting her craft portion of the talk, she read an excerpt from The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. Following the reading, there was a discussion. Pierpont’s craft talk ended with another exercise where the author gives away the ending early on in the story. She said to “impose the future on the character,” like she does in her novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things. Pierpont commented that giving away endings does not have to make the story less interesting, and can actually be a useful tool when focusing on how the character achieved their fate rather than having the reader wonder what the ending will actually be.

These craft talks were followed by a panel discussion with all five emerging writers, which acted as the concluding event for this year’s Emerging Writer’s Festival.

First-year Christa Rodriguez is the Assistant Campus Life Editor. Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu.

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