Swimming with the literary sharks
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
The Shark’s Parlor, an annual reading series sponsored by the University of South Carolina master of fine arts program in creative writing, takes its name from a poem by longtime University of South Carolina writer-in-residence James Dickey. However, there’s no blood in these waters, just camaraderie, conversation and good literary art.
The series, now in its third year and third venue, convenes at 5:30 p.m. on the first Friday of each month at Delaney’s pub in Five Points. Featuring public readings of new fiction and poetry by current MFA students, MFA alums and the occasional visiting writer, it is yet another example of how USC’s College of Arts and Sciences is reaching out into the greater Columbia community.
“Because we already have a number of excellent more formal readings at the university that the MFA program often participates in, including The Open Book and the Fall Literary Festival, we wanted our own reading series to be fun and informal,” says USC creative writing MFA director and series founder Elise Blackwell.
“Also, this is the first time many of these students have read in public, so the idea is for it to not be high-pressure. Everybody’s done with their week by 5:30 Friday and we’re almost always done by 7, so if people have other plans they haven’t committed their whole night to literature.”
Of course, Blackwell’s half-kidding about that whole commitment to literature thing. The USC graduate students who take the stage and gather to listen to their peers each week commit a lot more to their craft than just an hour and half once a month. While students are not required to participate, most do end up reading at least once during their time at USC, and they nearly always turn out to support their classmates.
“The response has been great,” says Blackwell, who participated in a similar series when she was pursuing her MFA at the University of California-Irvine. “It takes some effort to organize, so we always ask our students, ‘Do you like this? Do you want to keep doing this?’ And it’s always a resounding ‘yes.’ They also support it just by showing up. Almost all of the MFA students go most of the time.”
MFA faculty members also turn out each month, along with other professors from the English department and the occasional undergraduate interested in writing. And while the series is targeted at MFA students, Blackwell encourages the public to drop in as well.
“It’s mainly meant to be a forum put on by us and for us, but the public is always welcome,” she says. “We’ve had some people wander in from the bar and they really seemed to enjoy it. I think they don’t always realize what a high level our MFAs are writing at. In many cases, these are people who are writing as well as published writers or who are themselves publishing.”
Of course, while the series is meant primarily as a forum for students to gain experience reading in public, there’s also always a chance that MFA students will be sharing the stage with one or more of their writing professors or with a visiting writer.
“We don’t want to have a visiting writer every time, because we want to make sure our students have lots of slots, but this semester we happen to,” Blackwell explains. “One thing we’re trying to do is to bring in writers who might have a regional reputation, or might be emerging, but who have a slightly lower profile than the writers who are coming in for The Open Book.”
For example, University of Central Arkansas creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell gave a reading from his novel-in-stories “Stoning the Devil” at the Oct. 5 event, and visiting poets John Hoppenthaler and Daniel Nathan Terry will share the stage with students in November and December, respectively. USC Extended University assistant professor Julia Elliott, who recently won the prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, is scheduled read sometime next semester.
And after that? Time will tell.
“We’re right up against our venue size, and it may be that this is as large an audience as Shark’s Parlor is going to get,” says Blackwell. “If the audience continues to grow we may have to look at a larger venue in the future. Otherwise, we’re happy where we are because by design it’s supposed to be informal and fun.”
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