Take two days, three writers, three live readings, and one public discussion. Add a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, multiple New York Times bestselling books, one US Poet Laureate. Gently fold in a Harvard graduate who returned years later as a Professor of English and of African and African American Studies and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. This is the Festival of Writers, the feast of words and ideas coming to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts November 12th and 13th. Featuring former US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, award-winning poet Jericho Brown, and The Bad Feminist herself, Roxane Gay


Festival of Writers marks both the return to an in-person format and the end of The University of Illinois' Year of Creative Writers. It seems like ages ago that I attended the opening events of the YoCW featuring the force of nature that is Anna Deavere Smith. Her performance was magical, with Deavere Smith seamlessly embodying a wide array of characters. And a concluding conversation moderated by the inspired and inspiring Lisa Gaye Dixon filled my mind and my heart and continued to do so after live events were shut down due to COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, the YoCW smartly pivotted to virtual events which brought brilliant voices to our home computers. And for this lucky writer, it brought the voice of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess to my iPhone for an conversation about poetry, music, and history I am unlikely to forget. 

As we look forward to the return of in-person YoCW events, I reached out to Erin Ciciora, Senior Communications Manager at the Humanities Research Institute to find out more about how these events came to be and what we can look forward to this weekend. Here's what I learned.

Smile Politely: How did the Festival of Writers come to be? What inspired it? What is its mission?

Erin Ciciora: The Festival of Writers is the final part of a series called the Year of Creative Writers, which came into being through support from the Presidential Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities. The Initiative was designed to help the University of Illinois celebrate the humanities and the arts in impactful and public ways—and what better way than to bring top creative writers directly to classrooms and public spaces?

SP: What do you most hope people will take away from this weekend's events?

Ciciora: The Festival of Writers is a rare opportunity to see three world class writers who are truly masters of the craft— in one place over the course of two days, and for free! The written word—particularly through the immediacy and energy of a live performance—holds the power to move and unsettle, teach us and change us. We hope that people will come ready to celebrate creative writing in all of its forms and leave transformed.

SP: The Festival of Writers line-up is truly extraordinary. How and why did HRI decide on this particular combination?

Ciciora: As a series, the Year of Creative Writers was designed to feature writers at all career stages working in a range of genres. The  Festival is a signature culminating event that brings together both high-profile and emerging (though still very much accomplished) writers, all of whom are speaking to the current moment in unique and impactful ways. 

SP: Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know?

Ciciora: Although the Year of Creative Writers series is a coming to an end, there are more literary events to look forward to this spring. We’ll be hosting celebrated writer (and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign alum) Dave Eggers in March and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natalie Diaz in April.

To learn more about Tracy K Smith, the above mentioned Harvard grad and now professor who was also named the 2017 US Poet Laureate, enjoy this interview with the Harvard Gazette which describes her mission to "create a life-changing space for students." And be sure to learn more about Jericho Brown, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Tradition, a collection of poetry, which "questions why and how we’ve become accustomed to terror: in the bedroom, the classroom, the workplace, and the movie theater....Brown interrupts complacency by locating each emergency in the garden of the body, where living things grow and wither—or survive. And last, but certainly not least, check out Roxane Gay's recent TED talk for a taste of what you can expect from her upcoming reading.

 

The Festival of Writers is supported by the Presidential Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities.

Presented by the Humanities Research Institute (HRI) and the Creative Writing Program / Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Co-Sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities (UIC), UIC Program for Writers, UIS Creative Writing, the Champaign Public Library, the Urbana Free Library, Illinois Public Media, and The Illini Union Bookstore.


A Festival of Writers: Tracy K. Smith Poetry Reading and Q&A
Friday, November 12th, 4:30 pm
Foellinger Great Hall
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
Tickets are free. Get yours here.

A Festival of Writers: Jericho Brown Poetry Reading and Q&A
Saturday, November 13th, 2 p.m.
Foellinger Great Hall
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
Tickets are free. Get yours here.

A Festival of Writers: Roxane Gay and Jericho Brown in Conversation
Saturday, November 13th, 4 p.m.
Foellinger Great Hall
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
Tickets are free. Get yours here.

A Festival of Writers: Roxane Gay Reading and Q&A
Saturday, November 13th 7:30 pm
Foellinger Great Hall
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
Tickets are free. Get yours here.

Top image from the Humanities Research Institute website.