Members of the Alabama Writers' Cooperative pose for a photograph at the 2018 Magic City Poetry Festival in Birmingham (Courtesy, Alabama Writers' Cooperative)
By Shauna Stuart | AL.com
For part of 2020, staff members of the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative were cautiously optimistic. Like so much of the world, they were hoping the COVID-19 pandemic would be short-lived and they would still get to hold their annual conference, even if meant delaying the event for a few months.
“We were planning for everything to go back to normal and of course, it didn’t,” said Jessica Langston, the Vice President & Program Chair of the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative.
“So, we thought, ‘we just can’t keep pushing it back.’ We’re going to have to not do this for a little while and change formats, so we weren’t able to do anything in 2020,” said Langston.
Established in 1923, the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative is one of the longest-standing writers’ organizations in the country, with the mission to nurture a community of writers across the state and beyond. Since 1931, the AWC has also been the organization responsible for selecting Alabama’s poet laureate, the state’s highest ambassador for poetry.
In 2021, the AWC had a partial return to normalcy. The cooperative held a virtual conference on Zoom. They partnered with the O’Neal Public Library in Mountain Brook for in-person tours but held all of their workshops, seminars, and the conference’s keynote address online. That year, the conference was also free of charge. Langston says the goal in 2021 was to encourage and support writers during a tumultuous time, especially writers who hadn’t been able to touch their work or spend a significant amount of time honing their craft.
“Everybody was going through a tough time, and we wanted to offer it free and give these opportunities to people who had probably not gotten the opportunity to write in quite a while,” said Langston. “A lot of people lost their jobs, and everything changed in the entire world, and we just wanted to say ‘Hey! We’re back.’”
Now, the literary organization is ready to return for its first in-person conference since 2019. This year, the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative will host its conference on the final weekend of August at the O’Neal Library. Conference activities will begin on Friday, August 26, and end on Sunday, August 28. Most events will take place at the library. Registration, which ranges from $30 to $175, and the full conference schedule, are available on the AWC website.
This year’s conference keynote speaker is Alabama poet laureate Ashley M. Jones.
Jones was selected unanimously by the Alabama Writers’ Cooperative membership at last year’s virtual conference to serve as the state’s thirteenth poet laureate. The educator and writer made history last year as Alabama’s first Black and youngest poet laureate.
Jones, whose most recent collection of poetry is called “Reparations Now!” will present a talk entitled “Poetry as a Path to Reparations: The Role of Art in the Justice Struggle” on Saturday, August 27.
A press release from the cooperative says Jones’ hybrid lecture and poetry reading will examine the ways art is a necessity in any struggle for freedom, whether individual or societal.
“The ideas of ‘justice’ and ‘reparations’ are sometimes abstract and difficult to tangibly conceptualize,” Jones said in the release. “Through my life, however, art—poetry in particular—has opened a door to my own self-esteem, cultural pride, and passion for social justice.”
In the same release, Alabama Writers’ Cooperative president TJ Beitelman said the organization considers Jones’ address as a way to publicly celebrate her historic appointment.
“Ashley embodies everything that is good and hopeful about the literary arts in this state. We’re lucky to have her as an ambassador, and we’re very much looking forward to her keynote address.”
Winners of the AWC’s annual literary contest will be announced at the awards banquet following the keynote address.
Langston, who has spent the last six months planning the return of the conference— from contacting speakers to securing a location for the awards dinner— says Jones’ keynote is one of the most exciting parts of the upcoming conference.
“I think [Ashley] brings the most beautiful freshness,” Langston said gleefully.
Langston was also the chair of the poet laureate committee for the previous term—the panel that selected Jennifer Horn as the twelfth poet laureate. On Aug. 27, Horn will introduce Jones before her keynote, signifying the passage of the poet laureate pen.
“It’s sort of going to be passing the crown or passing the torch kind of moment. So that Jennifer can talk about all the wonderful things that she’s seen Ashley accomplish,” said Langston.
Another highlight of this year’s conference will be a panel discussion celebrating the life and work of renowned naturalist, author, and Alabama native E.O. Wilson, who passed away in 2021. Moderated by UAB researcher Maggie Amsler, panelists Dr. James McClintock, Dr. R. Scot Duncan, Alabama Poet Laureate emeritus Sue Brannan Walker, and Jimmy Stiles will discuss Wilson’s legacy as both a scientist and a writer.
More featured faculty in this year’s conference are former Alabama poet laureate Jennifer Horne; Don Noble, the host of Alabama Public Television’s “Bookmark,”; decorated poet and director of UAB’s Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop, Tina Mozelle Braziel; and recent NEA Fellowship-winner and director of the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, Charlotte Pence.
Panels and talks will cover topics including writing for television and film, writing about the natural world, and writing horror fiction. AWC members who register for the conference will also have the opportunity to pitch book concepts to literary agents and to submit samples of their original works in progress for free manuscript consultations with working writers and editors.
“There’s nothing like an in-person conference to just really light a fire under you as a writer. It is so inspiring to be in a room and feel the energy of all the writers around you and the presenter who is giving new ideas and giving so much of themselves and their experiences and their anecdotes and their energy to the entire room,” said Langston. “That’s something that I really, really miss that Covid took away from us. But thank God it’s coming back now because I can’t wait to feel the energy of all the writers in the room. And to just completely be inspired.”