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In search of the perfect word: Literary festival returns to WCU

art frA writer looking at a blank page is a like a painter staring at a fresh canvas, a sculptor facing a block of clay or a woodworker holding a chunk of wood. The desire to grab words from thin air and construct them into sentences, notions and ideas comes from an internal fire to describe human emotion and situation. It is a calling, one that picks its creators when the time and place is prime. Writers are messengers, connecting the unknown cosmos to an everyday modern reality.

Western Carolina University will be once again play host to an array of writers during the 13th annual Spring Literary Festival, which runs April 13-16. The event is a celebration of written word, where finely aged veterans intermingle with the young faces of future generations eager to find their voice. It is a bountiful cross-pollination, one crucial to the perpetuation of the craft.

The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with a couple of wordsmiths who will be presenting at the festival. They range from an Ivy League Pulitzer Prize-winning poet to a West Coast acclaimed fiction writer. Each is as unique as their genres, each as passionate about writing as they are about life itself.


Tracy K. Smith

• Genre — Poetry/Nonfiction 

• Notable works — Ordinary Light: A Memoir, Life On Mars (2012 Pulitzer Prize), Duende (James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets), The Body’s Question (Cave Canem Poetry Prize)

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• Professor of Creative Writing, Princeton University

Smoky Mountain News: How did you get into writing? How old and what sparked it?

Tracy K. Smith: I became serious about writing poetry while a sophomore at Harvard University. I fell under the spell of contemporary poetry, started attending poetry readings in Cambridge and Boston, and joined the Dark Room Collective, which hosted a reading series for established and emerging writers of color. I also started taking the poetry workshops offered at Harvard, and studied with Seamus Heaney, Lucie Brock-Broido and Henri Cole. Poetry became a valuable tool in my life, something that helped me to make sense of the world around — and within — me.

SMN: Was there a specific moment you realized a piece of writing could be anything you wanted it to be?

TKS: It wasn’t until grad school or soon after that I realized my poems could help me do more than just describe the world as I understood it to be — they could also help me to ask the questions that saddled me from moment to moment in my life, even the questions so big they had no discernable answer. It was a liberating discovery.

SMN: When you’re writing, where do you go in your head? What are you thinking?

TKS: I’m trying to create or re-create a world that feels real, something I can walk through and interact with, something that can reveal things to me that I didn’t know or suspect were there. Then I try to bring some of that palpable, visceral feeling into language.

SMN: Why is it important events like the WCU Literary Festival exist?

TKS: Literary festivals serve an important purpose in a world that, by and large, is driven by a glib use of language — words and phrases designed to sell us things, to convince us to look the other way while atrocity happens in our name, to lull us into a simplistic view of experience. Readers and writers hold language to a higher and more exacting standard, and that act also urges a deeper and more nuanced approach to experience. The world needs literature and the people who love it, now more than ever.


Carter Sickels

• Genre — Fiction/Nonfiction 

• Notable works — The Evening Hour

• Awards — Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Finalist for Oregon Book Award

• Professor of Fiction at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Eastern Oregon University

Smoky Mountain News: How did you get into writing? How old and what sparked it?

Carter Sickels: I always loved reading — my mother encouraged it early on. As a kid, my favorite place to go was to the library. I read constantly, and I started writing at a pretty young age too, maybe sixth grade. Mostly, at that age, I was just imitating what I read. The magic of words on a page and the power of a story, the way a book could bring you into an imaginary but very real world so you could live with these characters for a while, always fascinated me. 

SMN: For you, what’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?

CS: That it’s something that happens quickly. Years go into a novel. Hours upon hours of revising and editing. You throw things out, and start again. Patience, and faith in the work itself, will help.

SMN: What do you see as the current state of reading/writing in the 21st century?

CS: That’s a hard question. On some days, it’s discouraging — it seems like people read less literary fiction. People read articles, blogs, tweets. The barrage of information makes it more difficult for people to just to get lost in a novel or to read with depth and concentration. 

But, on other days, I feel encouraged — books are being published, people are reading them. Personally, I still like to read my books as books, something I can hold in my hands, with pages I can turn. But good writing will still prevail, no matter what the medium, and for many people, e-books seem to make sense.

Like many writers, I’m concerned about the domination of Amazon, and about the conglomeration of big presses. However, more and more independent presses are appearing and growing stronger. I also feel quite inspired by the variety of work that is available. Although too often these authors or books don’t always get the recognition they deserve, there is a rich diversity of contemporary authors — people of color, queer people, women and other marginalized authors. They are underrepresented, but they keep writing, and by doing so, are making literature more engaging and interesting and diverse. 

SMN: What advice would you give someone interested in starting to write?

CS: Read as much as possible. Go beyond your comfort zone — read work that challenges you. Read, and read more. And, write. Push yourself as a writer, don’t give up. So much of writing is about tenacity and dedication and perseverance. For any young writer, it’s important to keep writing, despite the outside voices that might be undermining or censoring or doubting your work.



Want to go?

Established and emerging authors of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction will discuss and read from their works at Western Carolina University during the 13th annual Spring Literary Festival April 13-16 in Cullowhee.

All events are free and open to the public and held in the theater of A.K. Hinds University Center unless otherwise noted.

Monday, April 13

• Noon — Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets Series featuring Brent Martin and student poets.

• 4 p.m. — Nonfiction writer Rebecca McClanahan

• 7:30 p.m. — Fiction writer Andre Dubus III

Tuesday, April 14

• Noon — Poets Shanan Ballam and Tim Peeler

• 4 p.m. — Poet Aaron Smith and songwriter Belinda Smith

• 7:30 p.m. — Fiction writer Carter Sickels

Wednesday, April 15

• 4 p.m. — Fiction writers Jeremy Jones and David Joy

• 7 p.m. — Fiction/nonfiction writer Tiya Miles

Thursday, April 16

• 4 p.m. — Nonfiction writer Georgann Eubanks 

• 7:30 p.m. — Poet Tracy K. Smith (Coulter Recital Hall) or

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