Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Writing the Millennium

Vanderbilt forges beyond the Fugitives

By Michael Sims

APRIL 10, 2000:  Seventy-eight years ago, in April of 1922, a group of poets at Vanderbilt University began publishing a small, low-budget literary magazine titled The Fugitive. It lasted only three-and-a-half years, but scholars credit it with beginning what they like to call the Southern Literary Renaissance. Later, a subset of the Fugitives also contributed to the Agrarian manifesto, I'll Take My Stand.

Soon prominent Fugitives Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren escaped for the greener cultural pastures of the Northeast, John Crowe Ransom moved to Kenyon College in Ohio, and Donald Davidson dug in his reactionary heels and became a mouthpiece for racism. At the time, Vanderbilt hardly even acknowledged the existence of the Fugitives, but for decades now the school has been bragging about its association with these big names.

In the years since, Vanderbilt has produced many distinguished writerly alums, including James Dickey, Caroline Gordon, Roy Blount Jr., and Randall Jarrell. However, since the last gasp of the Fugitive era--the Fugitive/Agrarian Reunion in 1956--the literature program at the university has produced no more manifestos and no literary conferences of great distinction.

Until now, that is. Students in Comp 101 could find no better topic on which to practice comparing and contrasting than the differences between the Fugitive era and an upcoming literary conference at Vanderbilt. On April 6-8, the university hosted "A Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South."

This conference is not a feeding frenzy of literary critics who live off their host subjects like parasites. No one will be holding forth on the number of adjectives in William Faulkner's letters or the use of rhyme and meter in Burma Shave signs.

This is a gathering of the people who actually write the work that other folks dissect--the authors of the poems, short stories, and novels that articulate our common experience as Southerners. A number of the writers present are essayists and authors of critical nonfiction, but their admission ticket here was their poetry and serious fiction. They are in Nashville to talk about the preoccupations of Southern writers--our racial, cultural, and environmental legacies.

Fans of literature may feel that not in a long time has Vandy spent money more wisely--perhaps not since Commodore Vanderbilt assuaged his guilt over ill-gotten gains by donating a million dollars to found a school named after himself.

There are several differences between the writing conferences of the Old South and the New South. However, the most obvious is that the former crowd of participants was distinctly pale and testosterone-drenched, whereas nowadays contributors come from across the spectrum. For example, the two keynote speakers at the Vanderbilt conference are a white woman and a black man--Lee Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa. Donald Davidson must be spinning in his grave.

Lee Smith, who delivered the keynote address on fiction, is both critically acclaimed and hugely popular, author of 11 works of fiction, including Family Linen and the famous Fair and Tender Ladies. Yusef Komunyakaa, who delivered the keynote address on poetry, has garnered many awards for his poetry, including the 1994 Pulitzer for Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems 1977-1989.

There are 46 writers participating in this conference. You'll find the trenchant and iconoclastic South Carolina novelist Padgett Powell. Long-established names such as Jill McCorkle, Lewis Nordan, Richard Bausch, and Jayne Anne Phillips will join relative newcomers such as William Gay. From poet Lisa Coffman to novelist Clyde Edgerton, from novelist Pam Durban to poet Gerald Barrax, the range is impressive. Well-known writers from our own region include poet and Vanderbilt professor Mark Jarman, novelist Madison Smartt Bell, poet and Sewanee professor Wyatt Prunty, fiction writer and Vanderbilt professor Tony Earley, and poet (and occasional Scene writer) Diann Blakely. (For more information, and for times and locations, check out the Millennial Gathering's Web site, listed above.)

Appropriately for a new era, the director of the Millennial Gathering is a woman, a poet with a Southern blue-collar background--Kate Daniels, assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt. Born and raised outside Richmond, Va., in a family and culture that did not revere art, Daniels speaks with firsthand knowledge of the deprivations (including spiritual ones) of poverty. She is the author of four books of poetry, including an upcoming volume to be entitled My Poverty. The topic of a recent poem of hers, "Saved By Books," sums up the unspoken assumption of all literary endeavors and gatherings: that art makes sense of life.

Daniels had no great urge to take on the thankless job of event coordinator. "I kept thinking," she remembers, "that surely someone somewhere--some organization, some institution--would sponsor a gathering at the millennium of Southern poets, because Southern poets have a particular fondness for congregating in large groups. But no one did." So, finally, she did it herself. "At Vanderbilt we have the resources to do that. There's a private endowment that is specifically for creative writing at Vanderbilt, called the Gertrude and Harold S. Vanderbilt Visiting Writers Program. There was a community that I thought might be interested and supportive, given Vanderbilt's literary history, and given Vanderbilt's historical importance in Southern literature. And that was true."

Rather than a bunch of simultaneous readings that overlap and cancel out each other's offerings--a problem every year with the Southern Festival of Books--Daniels arranged the Millennial Gathering as a series of roundtable discussions with prominent writers arguing various topics. Themes include gender, faith, race, place, and the contemporary Southern voice. These subjects are broad enough to permit a number of differing opinions on each panel, to make for a lively discussion. Interspersed between roundtables are sessions of "Readings by Emerging Writers."

Exhausted from her efforts, Daniels declares flatly that she will organize another literary conference only if she lives until the next millennium. However, despite the months of behind-the-scenes preparation, her enthusiasm for this shamelessly bookish assemblage is still passionate and infectious. And with good reason: "I think my personal goal for this was, in a certain way, to make myself feel more at home at Vanderbilt and in the community of Southern writers overall."

Thematic gatherings such as this beg a question: Why are Southerners so preoccupied with being Southerners? Isn't all serious literature regional by virtue of being true to its roots? Who could be more regional than Robert Frost? A writer at the Southern Festival of Books once drawled, "As a Southunuh, ah love the lay-und." Surely no one would suggest that Henry David Thoreau did not love the land. Who says that Flannery O'Connor's sense of iniquity and anguish was any stronger than Nathaniel Hawthorne's? Critics like to claim that Southerners write a lot because they come from a culture of talking, but so do Saul Bellow's Chicago Jews.

Kate Daniels considers these objections and replies thoughtfully, "I guess that's what the whole conference is doing, fooling with the notion of what is distinctively Southern. I called it 'A Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South' on purpose. My personal feeling is that the attachment to the land is not quite as specifically Southern in the year 2000 as it was previously. But I think that an attachment to the language--to the sound of one's own peculiar, native spoken language in your own ear--is something that remains really Southern. And I think it's implicated in a Southern identity in ways that it isn't in other regional identities."

Appropriately, this focused search for Southern identity is a perfect opportunity for teachers to remind their students that literature doesn't lie fossilized in a book, that it's a living, growing process. Writers write for the same reasons the rest of us tell our friends about childhood miseries and failed marriages: to shape experience and decode its significance. Our days are filled with fiction and poetry--soap operas, situation comedies, cop shows, popular songs, nursery rhymes, sermons, gossip. But reading is different. In reading, we are part of the performance. As Alan Cheuse once wrote, "The words, like musical notation, are mere potential art, waiting to be performed by the reader on the interior stage of imagination."

This is powerful magic. That's why books are dangerous. The first people Hitler and Pol Pot killed were the artists and intellectuals. Institutions are torn down by books. And sometimes ordinary people--people who otherwise might not find a voice for their yearnings--are, like Kate Daniels, saved by books.

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