Back in the halcyon pre-pandemic days of February 2020 — only a year ago, but also a million years ago —Arapahoe Community College made the difficult decision to cancel its upcoming Writers Studio Literary Festival. Like most of the world, it pulled in the welcome mat, hunkered down, probably watched a lot of Netflix, learned how to order groceries, and finally tackled that stack of books it always meant to read. But in 2021, it's back, baby. Arguably better and more accessible than ever.
Since the early 2000s, the Writers Studio Literary Festival has been a single-day affair, hosting workshops and readings and all things good and bookish. In COVID times, the fest has not just gone online; it's also being stretched out over five days, March 9 to March 13, so that participants can effectively experience all the offerings available to them instead of having to choose one over the other.
We caught up with ACC professor Jamey Trotter, one of two organizers of the conference, to talk about the refreshed event, and how despite the changes, everything is nonetheless looking up.
Westword: ACC is putting on the Writers Studio Literary Festival this year via Zoom. What can participants expect to see offered this time around? Hit the highlights for us.
Jamey Trotter: Highlights include Colorado’s Queen of Flash and founder of the Fbomb reading series, Nancy Stohlman; Denver’s hottest emerging fantasy writer, David Slayton, whose first book, White Trash Warlock, which is set primarily in Denver, earned him a trilogy deal; Jose Hernandez Diaz, a prose poet from California with a new book out; and Denver literata Hillary Leftwich, who is holding a session on writing about trauma, which is arguably more relevant and on a greater scale now than ever before. Most of the writers presenting and reading at our festival have recently published books, or have books coming out soon, and, of course, they’re all published and working in the industry.
There are six instructional/workshop sessions and three readings. The readings are free and open to the public.
It's all on Zoom this year, like the rest of the world for now. Did last year's get canceled? How do you think the digital environment will change the event this time? Any upsides to it?
Indeed, last year’s was canceled before we even had a chance to get real serious about it. We usually hold it in April, and a few years ago, we had to cancel due to a late-season snowstorm. So we don’t have to worry about that.
In non-pandemic times, our festival is a one-day, all-day, on-campus affair, on a Saturday, with concurrent breakout sessions. Normally, participants would have to choose between two or three great sessions per time slot, which can be a painstaking decision, because we strive to bring in the best — participants will want to hit them all! This year, we’ve spread the six instructional/workshop sessions over five days, so for a flat rate of fifty bucks, everyone can attend every session.
That’s a pretty good upside.
There’s a lot of upside to the virtual festival, Zoom fatigue aside: Registrants no longer have to choose! Also, in normal times it’s on a Saturday, and it starts pretty early. It can be difficult to get up early on the weekend, but now folks don’t even have to get out of bed for an early Saturday morning session; they can simply let the dog out, make some coffee, and log in with video off. Four of the six sessions are at night; you can pour yourself a glass of wine and kick back and tell your spouse and your kids that you’re working.
Another significant upside, of course, is that we can feature writers from outside the Denver area in ways that we couldn’t in the past. For example, Jose Hernandez Diaz is joining us from California; Mary Blew, a popular Western writer, is joining us from Idaho for a reading from her new Western novel, Waltzing Montana. However, our roots are so firmly planted in Colorado, and the literary scene is so robust here, we couldn’t help but feature many writers from within our beloved community.
Another iconic annual event that was canceled last year was the release party of the 55th edition of Progenitor, ACC’s Art and Literary Journal. The students still put together a beautiful book, but we didn’t get to celebrate it, and I have boxes and boxes of books in my office. We will finally celebrate that work during the festival with a Friday happy-hour reading from writers published therein, and all registrants will be mailed a copy of the book.
There are a lot of literary festivals, even just in town. How do you think ACC's version sets itself apart?
Price, for one! Fifty dollars gets you a week of entertainment and instruction. On top of that, we have many discounts available: senior, student and even front-line worker. And bonus: Registration includes a copy of the 55th edition of Progenitor, mailed out to participants.
Every year, we work to include a diverse array of presenters and genres, and this year is no different. We have sessions on what I would call the hottest genres, those in short form, prose poetry and flash fiction, and fantasy. Ain’t no genre in America and maybe on Earth more popular than fantasy fiction right now; it’s what all the cool kids/students are reading. I wonder why that might be…
Where did WSLF get its start? Give me a little of the history of the event.
This was all Kathryn Winograd’s baby. She wanted to really nurture the creative-writing program at ACC, and she had all these connections to writers around the region, the state, and even throughout the U.S. that she could contact for the workshops and readings. Of course, the real focus was our creative-writing students, to give them an opportunity to participate in a literary festival that was affordable and in the community.
How does the WSLF fit into the mission statement of ACC's creative writing department as a whole?
We’ve always had a real focus on the community connection since it is such an important part of the mission of the community college. Affordability was always a focus, as it still is.
Our Creative Writing program, small but mighty, strives to do a lot for the community, obviously including our students. We know that writing programs across the state — from the excellent program at CU Denver, Metro, DU, Boulder, CSU and so on — assume students who transfer from our two-year program to theirs [have] a well-established foundation in the creative-writing craft, and we feel that the opportunities students have to interact with writers via Writers Studio is an important aspect of that.
Writers Studio usually has four literary events per semester, and we strive to bring in writers from all genres and walks of life. These events are always open to the public, so with Writers Studio and Progenitor, we see ourselves as a force in the Littleton and South Denver literary community. We have a lot of great relationships. If any readers would like to join our email distribution list, they can email us directly.
ACC has been a force in the Denver literary community for a while now; your Creative Writing department has a strong legacy of important voices, including both Kathryn Winograd and especially the late and much-missed poet Chris Ransick.
You’re so right. Chris Ransick retired from ACC, and a few years later, Kathryn Winograd retired as well, leaving some significant shoes to fill. I’m lucky to have a partner in running the show, professor Andrea Mason, who also runs our journalism program. She and I have done our best to maintain the quality of the program that people have come to love and expect.
Future plans for the Literary Festival? Where do you go from here?
Honestly, we’ve been so hyper-focused on the here and now — as a lot of educators are — we’ve not cast a glance too far into the future. We’re going to see how the virtual conference goes, and we may decide to keep some element of that next year, assuming we’ll be back to in-person in spring of 2022. Fingers crossed!
What we’ve seen so far generally speaking is an increase in our audience numbers to these virtual events because they’re so easy to join, but there’s a lot to be said for the energy and intimacy of in-person, on-campus events. On the other hand, your drink of choice and a comfy couch is a solid way to enjoy a reading and take in a workshop or three.
For more information on the 2021 Writers Studio Literary Festival, which runs March 9 to 13, or to register, see the ACC website.
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