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Reviving the Lit Fest Where Ray Met Tess

Our friend Melissa Kirsch (author of The Girl’s Guide to Absolutely Everything) went to Dallas last week for the revival of the SMU Literary Festival, and was kind enough to send us a field report shortly after her return.

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“It’s what occupies the space of a literary life outside of New York,” wrote a wistful Richard Ford in the New Yorker in 1998, remembering neither Yaddo nor Shakespeare & Co., but the 1977 Southern Methodist University Literary Festival in Dallas. This was the glittering annual colloquium where Ford first met Raymond Carver—and where Carver first met his second wife, Tess Gallagher—where Cheever, Styron and Bellow headlined readings and their liquor-soaked afterparties. Alas, due to lack of funds and other bureaucratic hurdles, the Fest has lain dormant for over a decade.

Now, thanks to some enterprising students, the SMU LitFest is revived. Writers Michael Narducci, April Wilder,Tracy Winn, Scott Blackwood and (to my great honor) I descended on Dallas to participate in two days and nights of readings, panels, one-on-one student meetings and everything’s-bigger-in-Texas cocktails. Wilder wasn’t aware of the Fest’s storied past before she arrived, but was impressed from opening lunch to closing drinks: she described the students as “menacingly sophisticated, craft-wise”" and was charmed by literary enthusiasts who turned out in droves: “This was not your usual half-bored crowd—an eye on the clock, an eye on the door—slamming booze and stuffing egg rolls into their mouths to keep from talking. We gathered there to celebrate literature, to quietly announce that the written word matters, whether on a Kindle or a tattoo. We were there to give thanks.”

Such was not always the case back in the LitFest’s golden age, when, as novelist and SMU professor C.W. Smith recalls, a drunk James Dickey stood up at the podium to read and declared, “You’re all a bunch of assholes.” Smith remembered John Updike, on the other hand, as “a consummate gentleman, always willing to talk and meet with students. He was courtly, approachable, just super.” The Southwest Review editor-in-chief and professor Willard Spiegelman remembers bringing Elizabeth Bishop to campus: “She was everybody’s white-haired grandmother in a mink coat.”

(Before we get to the rest of Kirsch’s letter, we should mention that’s Prof. Smith in the photo above…)

A little part of me imagined I was receiving the literary torch from a previous generation of LitFest luminaries, but mostly I loved meeting with the students; discussing how to get started in journalism, choose an MFA program or finesse the envoi of a sestina. As Narducci, a writer for NBC’s Medium put it, “Writing is hard, but it’s also play. We writers all play in different sandboxes, and we were clear about those facts to the kids… I expect this trip will have a strong influence on my coming work.”

What does the future SMU LitFest’s hold? If Creative Writing Program Director David Haynes has his way, the Fest will continue its pioneering spirit: “My vision is that it be an opportunity for writers who are sometimes neglected by the marketing mechanisms of the publishing world to come and find an audience. This includes emerging artists, writers who publish through smaller presses, and even mid- and late-career writers whose work isn’t necessarily on the top of the best seller list.”

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