Jason McCall on Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Poet Jason McCall, author of Silver, I Can Explain, Dear Hero and most recently, Mother Less, shares his thoughts on all the goodness that’s nestled down in Tuscaloosa. Some folks might not know it, but there’s a lot of lit going on in Alabama.
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Outside of two years of graduate school in Miami, I’ve spent my adulthood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s been my adopted home for almost a decade. And, because it’s home, it’s easy to take parts of it for granted. It’s easy to forget that every other college town isn’t flooded with football fans on fall Saturdays. It’s easy to forget how many months of the year I get to leave my jacket in the closet. But for me, as a teacher and a writer, the biggest thing I take for granted is the literary arts community in Tuscaloosa.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, one of the popular shirts I would see around town claimed that Tuscaloosa was “A drinking town with a football problem.” There’s a great amount of truth to that statement, but Tuscaloosa could also be called “a drinking town with a reading series problem.”
Because of Southern clichés and Southern realities, one might not expect such a great support for the arts in a college town that seems to live and die by the record of the Crimson Tide football team and the sorority social calendar; however, the support is there, and the support comes from all corners of the community. On campus, the English Department’s Bankhead Visiting Writers Series and Creative Campus bring nationally recognized writers to Tuscaloosa every year. Over the years on campus, I’ve seen Bei Dao lecture on the need for suffering in poetry. I’ve seen Paul Guest bring a crowd to tears as he recalled the events that led to his quadriplegia. I’ve seen crowds laugh with Terrance Hayes. I’ve seen crowds squirm in their seats when Amiri Baraka asked “If Elvis is the king, what is James Brown? God?”
University groups connect with the community off-campus as well. The students of the University of Alabama’s celebrated creative writing program—along with producing Black Warrior Review—curate an MFA student reading series that allows students to share their work at various Tuscaloosa venues. These readings often serve as the unofficial beginning of the weekend for graduate students in the department. There’s also the Pure Products Reading Series, which features readers from university and abroad. Through the Pure Products Reading Series, I introduced Kelly Davio to Southern Barbeque before reading with her in 2013. In 2010, I had the chance to trade ideas with Zachary Schomburg about a manuscript I was developing, and I was lucky enough to have that manuscript published a couple of years later.
While these reading series are organized by faculty and graduate students in Tuscaloosa, undergraduate students are the driving force behind Slash Pine Press. Slash Pine Press conducts annual poetry and prose chapbook contests, and the winners are by chosen by undergraduate students in the Slash Pine program. The winners of these contests are invited to the annual writer’s festival hosted by Slash Pine Press in the spring. At this festival, the winners share their works alongside local and nationally recognized in a variety of locations in Tuscaloosa. It’s encouraging to see younger students engaged in the arts community, and it assures that Tuscaloosa’s literary community will be vibrant for years to come. Recent winners are JoAnna Novak‘s manuscript, Two Fats and a Virtue and Sarah McCartt-Jackson‘s, Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River.
I’m poet, and that obviously affects my view of the literary community in Tuscaloosa. However, fiction is well represented in the city as well. Tuscaloosa is home to the historic FC2 Press, a publisher of innovative fiction (celebrated their 40th year anniversary in October, 2014!). Also, the flash fiction journal NANO Fiction, founded by Kirby Johnson, has held a number of readings and events in the area.
These readings wouldn’t be possible without the support of local businesses and patrons, so I’d be irresponsible if I didn’t mention that many of these events are take place at locally owned venues such as Green Bar in downtown Tuscaloosa or Egan’s Bar, which sits on University Boulevard next to the University of Alabama campus.
In Tuscaloosa, a five-star recruit will always garner more buzz than a five-star review on Goodreads, but Tuscaloosa loves its artists. And I’m always a little bit prouder of my adopted home whenever I speak to a visiting writer after a reading and hear how much fun she had in Tuscaloosa or whenever I wear an Alabama shirt at AWP and receive a compliment for the good work that comes out of the city. Tuscaloosa is a part of me, so I have to love it. But writing is a part of me, too, and Tuscaloosa’s support for writers makes me love the city even more.
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