Words Matter

From March 29 – April 1, students involved with the Clemson Literary Festival bustled around campus introducing authors, doing microphone checks and thriving off adrenaline and coffee. On the backs of their navy blue t-shirts, white type spelled out, “Words Matter.” And the festival shows that indeed, they do.

In 2008, professors Keith Morris and Wayne Chapman began the Clemson Literary Festival as a Creative Inquiry. Over the past decade, the festival has presented a noteworthy array of authors, including former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic.

As a Creative Inquiry, the Clemson Literary Festival is planned by students over the course of a full school year. While the larger, logistical tasks surface in the spring, the fall revolves around the core of the festival: the authors. During this initial semester, students and faculty members can offer authors for the screening and voting process. After weeks reading selections of dozens of contemporary writers, the students of the CI vote. Unlike the majority of other college-sponsored literary festival, the planning remains largely student-based.

“Some of our writers are teachers, some are lawyers, some are editors, some are stay-at-home parents, some have six-figure contracts with large publishing houses and movie options and some are still struggling to pay student loans, but all of them find value in the art of the written word,” said John Pursley, one of the CI professors. “I think it’s this congruence that really hits home with students hoping to work within the larger writing world.”

For the undergraduate organizers, the festival allows for hands-on, dynamic experience at the intersection of literature and event planning. Katy Koon, a graduating English major, said, “Lit Fest gave me the opportunity to plan, promote and execute events that connected my interest in literature with the Clemson community. I think it’s incredible that the collaborative efforts of a group of dedicated students made this whole thing possible.”

Collaboration serves as a key aspect within the process, as students choose certain areas and events to spearhead. Whether working with local media outlets, designing the brochure or developing a transportation schedule for authors, the directors of the festival stay busy while pursuing their personal interests.

One of the major events, the Young Writers Workshop, invites high school students from the area to share their work and learn from the festival authors. Casey Collins, a graduating English major who is headed toward a teaching career, said planning the event was her favorite part. “I gained some valuable event planning skills, but when I met the high schoolers and listened to them read their writing, I knew I had chosen the correct career path as a high school teacher,” she said. “It was so fulfilling getting to know them and hearing their voices in their work.”

Gabby Nugent, a graduate student in the English program, returned this year to help organize the festival. After graduating in 2014, Nugent pursued a career in publishing, landing jobs at The New Yorker and the Aragi Literary Agency. Even after her own personal successes, Nugent is still impressed by the Clemson Literary Festival. “Though the sheer volume of work that goes into planning a festival this size is dizzying,” she said, “this year’s group of undergraduate student directors was superb.”

2017 marked the 10th year for the Clemson Literary Festival, a milestone that celebrated and solidified the importance of the humanities on campus. And certainly, this year’s lineup reflected such an achievement with a wide selection of authors and the presence of Viet Thanh Nguyen as the headliner. Beyond his position as the chair of the English department at the University of Southern California, Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sympathizer.

During his reading, Nguyen shared selections from various works, while also providing personal anecdotes to the audience. In regards to his Pulitzer-winning work, Nguyen said, “Writing this book, writing The Sympathizer — I wrote it in 2011 to 2013 — at the time refugees, although they certainly existed, were not at the forefront of American consciousness, and now, of course, they are. And for me, it’s been really crucial to constantly assert wherever I go that I am not an immigrant. I am a refugee.”

After nearly a year of planning, the festival happens in four days: a whirlwind of readings, panels, venue set-ups and break-downs, airport trips and book signings. Hayes Owens, a graduating English major, admitted, “It’s definitely hard work and is very stressful at times.” Yet the overarching sentiment within the class was that of excitement and fulfillment. “Once the Festival comes around, all that stress and effort instantly pays off and somehow the busiest and most hectic week of your life is simultaneously the most fun week of your life as well,” said Owens.

The 11th annual Clemson Literary Festival will take place in the Spring of 2018 and will be sure to host another lineup of exceptional, diverse authors. For more information and updates, please visit the website at www.clemson.edu/litfest or the Facebook page.

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