On March 5, the 14th annual Douglas Anderson Writers’ Festival comes back home. After having outgrown the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts campus, where the festival began in the late 1990s, the last several festivals have been hosted at the University of North Florida, but with the $13 million expansion of Douglas Anderson’s campus, completed this year, the festival’s organizers decided it was high time to bring the festival home.
In the 20 years since its founding, the event has brought scores of the highest caliber writers to Jacksonville, including Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood and Richard Ford.
This year’s headliner is Andre Dubus III, best known for his New York Times best-selling novel “House of Sand and Fog,” upon which the 2003 film featuring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley was based. Poets like Richard Blanco and William Trowbridge and fiction writers Tom Paine and Ron Carlson are offering Saturday workshops.
The 2016 festival, which features 17 writers, is the work of three D.A. creative writing teachers — Liz Flaisig, Tiffany Melanson, and Jennifer Bundy — and is funded largely by the school’s creative writing booster club.
Poet and creative writing teacher Melanson says that bringing the festival home allows the school to showcase its achievements to the community. In that way, it performs a role similar to D.A.’s Extravaganza, the annual showcase of music, writing, dance, cinematic arts, and visual arts that packs the house at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts each February.
Unlike Extravaganza, though, Melanson says the writers’ festival may have lost community understanding of its connection with the school when it was held at UNF.
Though the festival has featured some of the best-known American writers, it bills itself as “a student literary festival,” offering D.A. students a true immersion in literary arts.
Creative writing chairperson Flaisig says, “The literary value of the festival is important. We focus on more than just writing that sells.”
Flaisig derives great joy from watching students get to know the writing and then meet the writers.
“To reveal a writer’s work to students long before the festival,” Flaisig says, “seeing them get engaged in the writing, then watching students meet the writers and seeing their reactions — that’s what this event’s about.In 1996, Jackie Jones, an English teacher at
Douglas Anderson School, took a group of her students to Atlanta to meet novelist Toni Morrison, winner of both a Nobel Prize for Literature and a Pulitzer. It was the year Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics, but for Melanson, then one of Jones’ students, that fact paled in comparison to meeting Morrison, author of Beloved, arguably the greatest American novelist since William Faulkner, whose fiction influenced her own.
Someone told Morrison that the 17-year-old Melanson had written a poem about her. Though Mwelanson doubts the poem’s artistic merit, she remembers when Morrison asked to read it.
“She was very sweet, very gracious,” Melanson says. “It was a moment when I was given permission to think of myself as a serious writer to whom someone like Toni Morrison would give her time.”
That kind of validation and “permission” to imagine their own literary potential is exactly what festival organizers want their students to experience.
Two decades ago, Jackie Jones began taking students to the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, which has attracted as many as 17,000 attendees to hear some of the nation’s best-known poets.
Those trips north gave rise to the idea that Douglas Anderson might be able to achieve something similar for its students here in Jacksonville. Shortly after D.A. initiated its creative writing program, with Jones at the helm, it held its first writing festival.
One indication that Douglas Andersonis one of the city’s strong cultural generators is its student-produced literary journal Elan, now in its 30th year. It’s one more way D.A. creative writing students are offered full literary immersion.
As the festival returns from UNF, Flaisig acknowledges she’ll miss the partnership, calling it a “wonderful vibe.”
“It was great to have UNF students and our students coming together,” Flaisig says, “and of course all ages of writers. On the other hand, it’s an honor to bring the festival back and make our students feel like hosts at home.”
One way D.A. hopes to offset that loss is by celebrating Elan’s 30th birthday with a special alumni reading at 7 p.m., Thursday March 3, to herald the main event on Saturday.
Though the festival features fewer local writers than in previous years, the alumni reading will bring home poets Billy Merrell and Isabella DeSendi, as well as Melanson’s former classmate Heidi Marshall, an FSCJ English professor who holds a children’s literature workshop.
As Flaisig says, “All kinds and all ages of writers need the inspiration you get from someone living the writing life.”