Memphis' literati from publishing to poetry are working to connect the city's niches and foster a literary culture that is unique to Memphians.
It’s easy to label Memphis as a music town. With a little bit of intentional development, the city’s next chapter could lie in the literary scene.
Small literary communities can be found in the halls of Burke’s Bookstore in Cooper-Young or the MFA program at the University of Memphis. To be seen as a city of letters, Memphis needs to bridge the divide between these small arts communities and the wider Memphis area, according to a few Memphis writers.
“Seeing the literary community as somehow separate from the wider community is problematic,” says Ashley Roach, Memphis librarian and founder of arts and poetry series Impossible Language. “The product, whether it’s a novel, a book of poetry, a screenplay, or a reading, is meant to be consumed and appreciated by a wider public.”
A recent issue of "Fiyah" magazine which holds origins in Memphis.
Knox Shelton, executive director of Literacy Mid-South
, whose Mid-South Book Festival has grown exponentially since its beginning, has also expressed his concerns over the scattered communities.
“I think there’s a lot of people doing a lot of great things but everyone’s off in their own little island,” Shelton says. “You have all these great minds trying to do something and if we could just get everyone to the table and think how to practically approach cultivating a literary community here, I think it could really be done, but right now it’s a little too isolated.”
Literacy Mid-South’s Mid-South Book Festival has grown exponentially since it launched in 2015. Once a year, regional authors take over the Overton Square area. Year-long support for Memphis’ literary culture could be found in at Story Booth, a sliver-sized studio in Crosstown that brings Shelby County School students together with local authors.
“It’s a magical space full of creative energy and coziness,” Roach says. “If anything is at the center of of the community’s growth, it’s Story Booth.”
The emergence of such businesses is certainly a step in the right direction for Memphis’ literary scene. Unfortunately, Memphians remain unaware of these budding communities and events occurring all around the city.
“I go to poetry readings where there’s five people in the audience and it breaks my heart,” Shelton said.
In addition, literary journals fostered by city natives give writers a more public voice. Among these publications include poetry anthology Nightjar Review
, University of Memphis’ Pinch Journal
and online black speculative fiction magazine Fiyah
Troy Wiggins, executive editor of "Fiyah" literary magazine
Troy Wiggins, executive editor of Fiyah
, believes inclusivity is the key in order for these niche literary circles to grow.
“We don't have ‘a’ or ‘the’ literary community, we have several literary communities,” Wiggins said. “Memphians, literati and otherwise, have to be honest about whether they actually want to create an inclusive and diverse collective literary community.”
When independently-owned Booksellers at Laurelwood announced in January that it was closing due to dwindling sales, it shed an ominous light into the future of Memphis’ literary community. The bookstore partnered with organizations such as Literacy Mid-South and served as a community space for open readings.
Despite this loss, it’s clear that Memphis holds all the cards to be a bustling literary community. However, the future still remains unclear into how soon and able these communities will be able come together and whether Memphians will take notice.
“A few tentative steps have already been taken, but there is still so much work to be done,” Wiggins says. “I can’t say I’m optimistic, but I can say that I’m working. Here in Memphis, we tend to prefer writers of a certain type: white, southern, comfortable. It's beyond time for us to rid ourselves of that paradigm, as it erases so many writers who could contribute to a stable collective literary scene.”
Once inclusivity, awareness, and cohesion is reached, then there’s nothing stopping Memphis from turning the next page into what could be the next great literary hub.
“I regularly travel to Oxford, Nashville, and Knoxville for literary events,” Roach says. “I want Memphis to be a stop on the map in the same way.”