Every fall, Columbia’s literary scene focuses its attention on the Hollings Special Collections Library. In a spacious conference room, aspiring writers gathered with published authors, established professors and other lovers of literature to hear some of the South’s most prestigious authors speak on the art of writing. All of these speaking events are part of the Fall Literary Festival, a month-long festival put on by the USC University Libraries and the Department of English, which brings these authors to speak on USC’s campus. Throughout the month members of the community are invited to hear their favorite authors read their works, ask these authors questions about their craft, and congregate with Columbia’s literary community, all free of charge.
The congregation of literary minds was gathered in the conference room on October 11 to watch award-winning poet Atsuro Riley read his works aloud. After an introduction by Dr. Ed Madden, Riley took to the stage, giving the audience insight into his creative inspiration.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘imaginative space,’” Riley said. “So, the imaginative space that comes from my poem ‘Flint-Chant,’ the imaginative space that we all have and that we all hope to access, with greater or lesser success. And also I can’t help but mention the imaginative space which is very much needed in our culture at the moment and very much needed in our town square.”
The concept of the “imaginative space” would be a central point in the evening’s discussion, with each poem showcasing the power and possibilities of harnessing this space through art. As poems, questions and advice were shared, the spacious conference room at the back of Special Collections became this town square for the “imaginative space.”
Still, according to Dean of Libraries David Banush, bringing the “imaginative space” to campus takes a lot of work.
“This process begins some months before the actual events and usually requires negotiations with agents, and/or the authors themselves," said Banush. "Not everyone is available for our time slots at this time of the year, and not everyone is necessarily affordable.”
In order to find available and affordable authors, Banush mentioned that a committee is established amongst the University Libraries and the Department of English to generate a list of potential speakers for the festival. From there, authors and agents are contacted to see if these authors are available, and, hopefully, to work out logistics for their visit to Columbia.
Accessibility is also a major concern behind the festival’s organization. Banush stated that the festival remained free to the public through sponsorships from the University Libraries, Department of English, School of Information Science, Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Center for Civil Rights History and Research. Additionally, the festival receives funding from an endowment made by Dorothy D. Smith, who was described by Banush as “a lifelong booklover who wanted to share her passion with others.”
In Banush’s eyes, accessibility remains one of the focal points of the festival.
“This is very much a public event, and we want to have as many members of the community join USC students and faculty in taking part in this festival,” he commented.
By joining these groups at these events, the Fall Literary Festival plays a part in creating the Columbia literary community. Writers, scholars and book-lovers have a place to convene, share ideas and further encourage the development of literature in Columbia and beyond.
“It's part of our mission to bring folks together. We in the libraries like to think of ourselves as connective tissue, so to speak, bringing disparate groups together,” Banush said. “You never know what spontaneous conversations might take place, what ideas might be sparked and what can happen next; it's all part of the serendipity and catalyzation of creativity.”
The Fall Literary Festival also aims to highlight writers from the Palmetto State to showcase their contribution to South Carolina literature and celebrate their artistic accomplishments. Riley, for example, grew up in South Carolina and did his undergraduate degree at USC.
“We definitely want to encourage the literary community here in the state, and this is one way of helping to promote many of our speakers and authors that do have ties to the university or the state or the city," Banush said. "It's a great way to bring in people with South Carolina ties who’ve made it in the larger world and share their experience back here with the community."
This notion of sharing is central to the Fall Literary Festival’s appeal. Through the festival’s events, authors are able to share their perspectives on writing, thus shaping the artistic outlooks of their audiences. Likewise, audience members can share ideas with authors through Q&A sessions, pre-reading workshop seminars, and chatter at the book signing booth. Such an emphasis on sharing builds upon the University Libraries’ purpose of being a place for cooperative learning.
“We really want to be able to not only share the materials that we have here but allow people to share experiences in common and hopefully spark new ideas and new forms of creativity,” said Banush.
All of this collaboration contributes to the festival’s status of being an “imaginative space,” a space where individuals gain inspiration through artistic experiences, such as the one shown in Riley’s poem “Flint-Chant,” which he read during his author talk.
“Flint-Chant” describes a boy climbing inside an abandoned drain pipe and becoming enchanted by the strange echoes he makes when inside. Riley read a passage where the boy is “hooked right quick on the well-bottomed peace of the pumicey/concrete and how sounds sounded in there, and re-sounded,” displaying the power of imaginative experience. Literature is meant to be read with imagination. One can imagine the subtextual tension of a couple from the full-stop pauses in their conversation or the repressed pain of an unorganized narrator through their narrative omissions or the fascination of exploring drain pipes from skipping-stone-esque alliteration and surprising, tempo-slowing comma breaks. The Fall Literary Festival provides a space for the literary imagination to be promoted, whether it be through the speakers’ discussions on the craft of writing or the exchange of ideas between all kinds of creatives. In this spacious conference room, literature sounds and resounds.
In his opening marks, Riley remarked that “we’ve got to do whatever we can” to preserve the “imaginative space.” Through events such as the Fall Literary Festival, this “imaginative space” finds a place to be preserved: Columbia’s literary scene.