Literary culture builds on history

There is an Athens literary culture — in fact, there are several of them.

Made up of a combination of  students, locals, relocated teachers and famous visitors, the scene is defined by its variety more than any sense of place or time.

The Classic City has produced a number of poets, novelists, screenwriters and journalists over the years.

“A.E. Stallings, who won the Genius Award, was a Georgia student. Natasha Trethewey, Georgia. Terry Kay is an Athenian. There are writers all over place,” said English professor Fran Teague, who sponsors the Bulldog Book Club. “They make it much more fun for people like me who are readers.”

But there is more to Athens’ literary culture than a heaving trophy case.

Andrew Zawacki, the director of the University’s creative writing program, said that the city has brought up writers with great variety and depth.

“Increasingly our students in the grad program are cross-generic,” Zawacki said. “More people don’t consider themselves strictly poets or fiction writers or nonfiction writers. They are all very well read, and see too many styles to want to stick to a single generic convention.”

Showyn Walton, a local poet and organizer, said he has seen the same trend among younger writers and poets that have, more than previous generations, become connected with the world.

“They have more freedom with the way information is offered via social media and the internet,”  Walton said. “They’re connected to what’s going on in the world instead of just their own little circle. They’re connected to everyone’s pain. It’s a more empathetic people coming up nowadays.”

Zawacki said most students are unaware of much of the work done in Athens and many are surprised to find a developed and thriving literary culture in a city its size.

“It’s not as big as New York City, so there are not as many literary institutions, like coffee shops and open mics and poetry societies or schools,” Zawacki said.

By contrast, the University is the only large institution, and is surrounded by a few venues.  But Athens still sees an influx of literary talent attracted by its local environment.

Teague said that the plethora of artists is, in no small part, due to the connection of the University and the city, which sets it apart from other towns around the nation.

“I do think Athens feels different. I think college towns do generally, whether it’s Chapel Hill or Athens or Sewanee, Tenn.,” Teague said. “There is an energy, for one thing. It’s a place where you’re allowed to think deep bizarre thoughts and talk about them out loud at four in the morning over feta fries.”

Beyond cheesy fried potato conversations, Athens is in the peculiar place of being a small town with big city conveniences.

“You can walk around Athens. I can walk into work, and if I want to come over here and watch a play and walk home at night I can,” Teague said. “You can’t do that in Atlanta or even other towns of this size like Macon. How are you going to get around Macon?”

Additionally, the cost of living in Athens is generally lower, and  artists can support themselves on smaller salaries from shops and restaurants, or when working fewer hours. Walton said it is one of the main reasons he has stayed.

“I can have fun with $20 in Athens,” he said. “You can park with $20 in Atlanta. Know what I mean?”

And with these cheaper comforts, Athens has avoided — for the most part — many big-city problems.

“There’s a lot less drama in Athens,” Walton said. “I mean [stuff] happens everywhere, but Athens has less shootings. You’re not asking yourself, ‘Am I gonna survive today?’”

Despite the easy-to-live-in conditions, Athens does not have the resources to support a literary career, let alone the careers of a town brimming with writers.

Walton said that many artists leave Athens for this reason, often alongside the cycle of the University.

For example, Walton has made community connections, like with Fabrice Julien who hosts a poetry show on WUOG, but because students leave so quickly it is hard to stay in touch.

“You’ve gotta understand, every four years nothing is the same on campus,” Walton said. “So, with all those connections that I made, they never were maintained.”

Losing connections with students is especially taxing because most of the work in Athens moves through the University.

A division between students and non-students is inherent to the University’s effect on Athens’ literature. Artists outside of the University may be looked down on because of differences in style or method or approach, but Zawacki said this is not the case.

While he did recognize there was a gap, Zawacki said it is unintentional.

“I think it’s more complicated than a town and gown thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to say that the poetry at the University is academic and outside is poppy. Students just have limited time and limited resources, and there’s just so much going on in Athens from week to week that it would be overkill.”

What they all have in common, though, is the city. It provides a geographic and mental place for writers.

Some writers, Teague said, bring that to bear in a more traditional context, through quintessentially Southern elements.

“I grew up in the South, I mean I grew up in Texas which thinks of itself as the South, which the rest of the South doesn’t, and sweet tea and kudzu, there are certain things that don’t make sense out of a Southern context,” she said. “I have no idea what they drink in Ohio but it ain’t sweet tea.”

This is changing, however, Zawacki said, and while the city and region are important influences, that may not be apparent in different authors’ writing.

“I think being in Athens with a grass roots feel is very influential, but you might read [students’] work and not understand that they have anything in common,” he said. “For instance, if you’re from here you might have an interest in geography that declares itself in a more obvious way, like through signs or the description of the color line. If you’re not from here the feeling might be one of alienation, or of ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Just having a number of writers live in the city does not necessarily translate to a specific style, or “Athens school,” Zawacki said.

“It’s not as distinct as what you might think of as the Athens music scene, where it makes sense of Montreal and that music works here in a way that, say, The Strokes from Brooklyn don’t,” Zawacki said. “There are just too many people coming from too many different places, and not just geographically.”

And again, as one group leaves, a newer group’s  new perspectives build on the left-behind foundations of thought or creativity.

The past devours the present — and the present, the past.

“You always are hearing stories about other peoples’ pasts, or you run into someone who is a longtime person, like me, and hear stories about what Athens was like in the ’70s,” Teague said. “Like the Iron Horse. Who doesn’t know about the Iron Horse? And while we may not riot over contemporary art today, we are aware of that horse.”

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