Because of its understated prominence in our culture, poetry could be called “the other Southern literature.” When most people use the term Southern literature, they mean fiction – Faulkner or To Kill A Mockingbird or Flannery O’Connor’s short stories – or perhaps stories from real life like those told by Rick Bragg or Kathryn Tucker Windham, but the community of poets and poetry readers in the South hangs right in there, like a hair in a biscuit. In fact, within the position’s thirty-year history, four of our nation’s past Poets Laureate have been from the South: Natasha Trethewey from Mississippi, Charles Wright from Tennessee, James Dickey from Atlanta, and Robert Penn Warren from Kentucky. So it shouldn’t surprise any Southerner to find out that the stirrings and machinations of poets and their performances aren’t far off. We may not see ads for poetry books pop up during Duck Dynasty reruns, and there may not be a poetry section at Bass Pro, and the ballfield concession stand may not have poetry books on the counter next to the big jar of pickles, but it’s still there . . . for the folks who are willing to see it.
Dating back six years now, to January 2013, poet and teacher Ken Autrey’s Third Thursday Reading Series has brought poets from all over the nation into “the loveliest village on the Plains”: Auburn, Alabama. Autrey is an Auburn native, who got educated, lived and taught, wrote and published his poems, and came back home after retirement. According to the bio that was published when he won the Longleaf Press chapbook contest in 2013:
Previously, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, a middle school teacher in upstate New York, and a writing instructor at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. In 1996-97 he was a visiting professor at Hiroshima University in Japan. In 2012, he conducted summer writing workshops in Guangzhou, China.
The Third Thursday series originally began at the Gnu’s Room bookstore and was coordinated by owner Tina Tatum and her assistant Jason Crane. After the bookstore moved and later closed, Autrey and another poet Keetje Kuipers, who was then at Auburn — the two were also neighbors — decided to pick up the series and continue it, first for short stint at the Bell and Bragg Gallery, near the original location of the Gnu’s Room. By 2014, Autrey and Kuipers worked with Scott Bishop, the education director at the Jule Collins Smith Museum, to have a more permanent location. “It really has been a wonderful, cooperative endeavor,” Autrey told me.
With the museum as a partner, the series has also grown through funding assistance from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and Auburn University. Rose McLareny and Rajiv Mohabir have been among the university faculty who have been particularly supportive.
“We feel good about the way it’s going,” Autrey said, then added, “We certainly encourage students from Auburn to take advantage.”
To date, the Third Thursday series has held nearly sixty readings, some featuring groups of poets rather than individuals. About the readers, Autrey said, “We try to feature local poets, some poets from elsewhere, some fly in from around the country. It’s a balance between nationally known people and strong local poets.” Featured poets in recent years have included Barbara Wiedemann, Peter Huggins, Melissa Dickson Jackson, Madison Jones, Kyes Stevens, Frank X Walker, Tina Braziel, Lauren Slaughter, Natasha Trethewey, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jeanie Thompson, and Adam Vines, with workshops conducted by Jericho Brown, Garrett Hongo, and others.
The Third Thursday Reading Series restarts for 2019 with tomorrow’s event— Thursday, January 17. The readings start with an open mic, then shift to a featured poet. This month’s is Rebecca Gayle Howell, a Writer-in-Residence at the Hindman Settlement School who is also the 2018 Egerton Scholar and the poetry editor of the Oxford American. Copies of her book Render/An Apocalypse will be available for purchase.
Other featured readers through this winter and spring will be Landon Godfrey in February, Janine Joseph in March, Adam Vines in April, and Gregory Fraser in May. Last fall, the program had Justin Gardiner and Rajiv Mohabir, both from Auburn, in August, followed by Melissa Range, Camille Dungy, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Ann Fisher-Wirth.
To follow the series, you can check the Auburn University College of Liberal Arts calendar or Like the Facebook page.