A Novel Experience The Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Writers’ Festival celebrates the joys of the written word
ore than a decade ago, Jacksonville’s premiere performing arts school hosted a creative writing event meant to give students the opportunities afforded adults at traditional writers’ festivals. The workshops were held in classrooms at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts on the city’s Southside, and among the presenters were local writers like (ahem) Folio Weekly contributors and a then-unknown performance poet named Al Letson. Dozens of students attended. At the end of the day, students and presenters joined together to read their work in the school’s “black room,” a darkly painted mini-auditorium on the high school campus. Fast-forward to the future — and what a difference a few years can make. The 12th annual Douglas Anderson Writers’ Festival is a two-day event held March 2 and 3 on University of North Florida’s campus, and organizers expect hundreds of participants. Al Letson is still a presenter — but now he’s a nationally recognized playwright and performer, and the host of National Public Radio’s “State of the Re:Union” program. And the keynote speaker? Literary legend Margaret Atwood, whose novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been required reading for more than 20 years. Atwood has won dozens of awards for her work, including the esteemed Booker Prize, and she has penned more than 20 volumes of poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Other presenters include renowned memoirist Janisse Ray, songwriter and musician Stan Lynch, who was a founding member of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, and Peter Meinke, poet laureate of St. Petersburg. No longer is the forum limited to high school students; all writers are welcome, and everyone has the chance to leave every workshop with a piece of new writing. “That’s the intent,” says Jackie Jones, who has helped organize the festival since its inception. “They leave with a lot of material and ideally with more insight into their craft.” The only aspect of the festival more impressive than its lineup is the admission price: $35 for students and $60 for nonstudents. The Margaret Atwood reading? It’s free for students; $10 for everyone else. (By contrast, participation in this year’s UNF Writers Conference ranges from $149-$349.) Jones and her colleagues at Douglas Anderson first conceived of the project after taking a few students to the Suncoast Writers’ Festival at the University of South Florida. The students came home so excited, the idea to host their own event was born. At the time, Jones was an English teacher who taught a couple of creative writing courses. When she retired last year after 42 years of teaching, she was a full-time creative writing
Acclaimed author Margaret Atwood is featured at this year’s DASOTA Writer’s Festival.
instructor in a program that hosted three teachers and 160 students. Though retired, she continues to help organize the local festival. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “It’s a work in progress. We take our cues from the kids.” Every year, the event grew a little more and organizers were able to raise enough funds to draw bigger and bigger names to participate. Eventually, in 2008, the school was able to partner with the downtown Main library, and the keynote speaker was U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. “We kept thinking, ‘If you get him, they will come,’” Jones says. By that time, the festival had grown so large that organizers decided to hold it every two years, and in 2010 the keynote speaker was Joyce Carol Oates, who has been thricenominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition, the participating writers range from newly inspired rookies to published authors. “It’s an interesting and wonderful experience to put older and younger writers together,” Jones says. In 2010, one of the presenters was UNF professor Mark Ari, author of the critically acclaimed novel “The Shoemaker’s Tale.” Ari so enjoyed his experience that he approached UNF’s Student Affairs department about hosting the next festival. Soon his enthusiasm spread, and Student Affairs, Academic Affairs and the Honors Program all joined together. “UNF is in with both hands now,” Ari says. It’s a feather in the cap of UNF’s relatively new creative writing program, which only recently began offering a CW minor. But Ari throws most of the credit to the Douglas Anderson people. “When you work with people like that, it’s just inspiring,” he says. “They want to make this happen.” The DA students, in particular, have impressed him. The students, in fact, first proposed getting Margaret Atwood. Most had read and were fascinated by “The Handmaid’s Tale,” says DA senior Kelly Milliron, who is in charge of the festival’s social media publicity. “In all of her books, she addresses this different
societal perspective,” Milliron says. Milliron says she fully appreciates the caliber of the presenters attending this year. “It’s an opportunity for imagination and magic,” she says. “Everyone should go.” Tickets are $60; $35 for students; $10 for Atwood’s appearance only. For a full schedule of events, held at the DASOTA campus and University of North Florida, and to purchase tickets, visit douglasandersonwritersfest.com. 322-3811. Margaret Atwood’s novels are often described as dystopian and futuristic, but such labels can distract from Atwood’s unique ability to make us view the future in a whole new light. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” required reading in creative writing and literature programs around the world, women are kept as virtual babymaking slaves for elite, infertile couples. Most recently, her novel “The Year of the Flood” depicts the world after an environmental catastrophe destroys most human life. Novelist and UNF creative writing professor Mark Ari admires Atwood’s ability to depict “a future that’s so near we can feel its breath on the back of our necks.” “She extrapolates possibilities that are sobering, that take place at some point in the future but are not unknown to us,” he said. In Atwood’s world, for example, even the police and military are privatized. “That’s not so far off,” Ari said. Yet she manages to boil complicated, scientific scenarios down to great stories populated by moving, sympathetic characters. Douglas Anderson student Kelly Milliron believes Atwood’s name alone should encourage people to sign up for the writers’ festival. “In a funny sort of way, I would say, ‘This is Margaret Atwood.’ That’s enough to be said.” Tricia Booker firstname.lastname@example.org February 28-March 5, 2012 | folio weekly | 29