The Center for Southern Literary Arts’ grand vision. by RICHARD ALLEY
Last December in this space, I wrote out my Christmas list with a one-item wish: that a single nonprofit would come to the forefront and champion the local literary community. In the same way that the visual arts, live music, indie films, and theater have their advocates, so should the writer and reader.
I recently found my stocking stuffed. It wasn't any jolly old elf slipping down the chimney, but a simple tweet: "Last Dec, @richardalley wrote in @MemphisFlyer wishing for 'a single organization to gather these folks up and give them a home.' So we did."
That message was tweeted out by Molly Rose Quinn, and the "we" she mentions includes writers Jamey Hatley and Zandria Robinson. The trio have established the Center for Southern Literary Arts (CSLA) and, while still in the planning stages, those plans are bold and visionary. The mission states the CSLA "aims to cultivate the rich and diverse stories of the Memphis region by encouraging innovation in the literary arts and their adjacent economies."
The CSLA seeks to draw writers out and into the community, bringing them together with readers to share their stories, regardless of publication credentials. "People tell stories in churches, in community organizations, at the gas station, and those stories are just as important," says Hatley, the 2016 Prose Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts and winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award that same year.
"It's our collective response as friends and writers to the peril that we think the literary community is in here," says Robinson, an urban sociologist and award-winning author. Rhodes College, where she's an assistant professor of Sociology, was recently awarded a grant through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a portion will be put toward the CSLA's startup.
The group was struck by the loss of the Booksellers at Laurelwood (that store will reopen soon as Novel) and with the changes at Literacy Mid-South, which, most notably, will see an indefinite hiatus of its three-year-old book festival. "At its core, it's about returning Memphis to the literary map, reclaiming Memphis as a literary space, and making Memphis a place where professional writers can be trained up and developed and retained and thrive," says Robinson.
The women are in the process of fund-raising with long-range goals of a permanent space for workshops, readings, and signings. Local programs — story booth and book festival, along with Christian Brothers University's Memphis Reads initiative — tended to work as lone wolves, sometimes pulling in bookstores and the University of Memphis' MFA writing program, but more often going it alone. The CSLA aims to stitch the community together.
"These programs that have run into obstacles or have folded, when they did exist, were so siloed, which is something we heard from so many people," says Quinn, a native Memphian who has been in New York City the past 10 years working as a community organizer and arts administrator leading programs with literary and cultural institutions.
Though there is no physical space for the Center at the moment, there will be programming beginning with the next academic year: dinner with the arts, a multidisciplinary event featuring a chef, visual artist, and writer who discuss issues of the South; partnering with writers to facilitate workshops within a local high school; and a truncated version of their own take on the Mid-South Book Festival.
If this reader/writer could be granted one more wish, it would be for the CSLA to find a home within Crosstown Arts, at least temporarily as an incubator, while working its way through its prologue. The nonprofit that has seen the revitalization of the old Sears building is sorely lacking in literary event programming, and a partnership would be a means to an end for both organizations.
"We are geographically and strategically positioned to be a regional leader in the area," Robinson says. "We're looking to serve as an umbrella, collaborator, clearing house, friend, partner, supporter of other organizations with similar missions."
Learn more about the Center for Southern Literary Arts at southernliteraryarts.org.