When poet Atsuro Riley arrived at USC University Libraries on October 11 for the 2023 Fall Literary Festival, it was his first time setting foot on campus since he graduated from the School of Journalism and Mass Communications 40 years ago.
It was, on both sides, a happy homecoming: while Riley enjoyed walking around campus to see his freshman dorm and other landmarks of his time as a Carolina student, an appreciative audience of USC students, faculty and staff as well as members of the local community spent 90 minutes listening to Riley read from and discuss his widely acclaimed poetry.
Riley is a self-taught poet and was 50 when he published his first book, Romey’s Order (University of Chicago Press, 2010), which won numerous accolades including the Whiting Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. His second collection, Heard-Hoard (University of Chicago press, 2021), was named a Best Book of the Year by both the Boston Globe and Bookworm and won the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America. He is also a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has held fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
That Riley has spent his adult life far from South Carolina, primarily in Chicago and San Francisco, might surprise fans of his poetry, which is steeped in both the culture and the cadence of his boyhood home in the Lowcountry. While his obsessive precision with language rivals that of the 19th-century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, his poetic voice is distinctively Southern. In part, he said to the Fall Festival audience, that’s because his most recent volume in particular draws on his own childhood to explore universal themes such as “the childhood imaginative space of stories, which equip us to have a self and a soul.”
After Riley read poems from both books, audience members had the opportunity to ask questions about his work and his experience as a writer. Before the reading, Riley also held a craft talk for creative writing students.
The Fall Literary Festival is a partnership between University Libraries and the Department of English, supported by the generous legacy of Libraries friend Dorothy D. Smith. Mrs. Smith was a lifelong book lover who wanted to share her passion with others. This year, the Dorothy D. Smith Charitable Foundation, the School of Information Science, Women's and Gender Studies, and the Center for Civil Rights History and Research have joined in supporting the festival.
This year’s Festival will feature naturalist and S.C. native Drew Lanham on October 25 and children’s author and journalist Amina Luqman-Dawson on November 1. All Fall Festival readings take place at 6 p.m. in the Hollings Library Program Room and are free and open to all.