Woodlawn Writer's Corps: Growing Literary Community
I got the chance to chat with Elizabeth (Liz) Hughey about an incredible fundraising Read-A-Thon later this month. I am deeply grateful to her for taking the time to answer these questions and share a few photos. Here's what I learned and why Alabama should get involved or share.
ALINA: I should begin by acknowledging that DISCO originally appeared on my radar while searching for Clem Snide shows in Birmingham. I was impressed to discover that they played a fundraising show for DISCO back in 2010. I keep hearing about this EPIC Read-A-Thon happening at the end of February. What is a Read-A-Thon and why should literature lovers, writers, poets, podiatrists, and sentient mammals care?
LIZ: A read-a-thon is pretty much like a walk-a-thon, except that instead of walking, you’ll be sitting in a comfy leather wingback reading stories. Most readers sign up to read for 10 to 20 minutes on the day (or night) of the event. That's much less time than it takes to walk a 5K. Participants ask their family and friends to sponsor their reading. DISCO supplies the reading material, which this year will be a mix of short stories and prose poems. We’ll have food trucks, prizes and activities for kids, too. All you have to do is show up and read or listen for a bit!
ALINA: Is there a specific occasion for the Epic Read-A-Thon?
LIZ: Our annual Epic Read-A-Thon helps fund the Woodlawn Writers Corps, which offers weekly creative writing workshops to nearly 700 students at Oliver Elementary, Avondale Elementary and Putnam Middle School. The Corps is based on the idea that language and storytelling empower students to embrace their imaginations, strengthen their vocabulary and writing skills, and practice creative problem-solving.
We also emphasize that writing is meant to be read, shared and celebrated. So, at the end of every school year, DISCO publishes a book of student poems. In 2016, the anthology was titled The Stars Are Lying. Every student receives a free copy of the anthology, and DISCO hosts a student reading at our space in Woodlawn. I think it makes a tremendous difference to see your work in print--and to understand that your voice is unique, important enough to share with others. Over the long term, these anthologies preserve a slice of local history, the story of the hearts and minds of students in a particular part of Birmingham, Alabama during a particular time period.
ALINA: I've been to several wonderful readings at DISCO, and its known among local poets as a hub for Nitty Gritty Magic City readings. What inspired the creation of DISCO and its programs?
LIZ: My husband, Chip Brantley, and I are both writers. We founded DISCO because we wanted to give kids in Birmingham more opportunities to write and be creative. We also wanted kids to meet and learn from the creative writers and thinkers in our city. As a model, we looked towards Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia in San Francisco and found a lot of resources at 826 National.
In the beginning, our guiding principle was: What do we wish we could have done when were kids? So, in addition to offering workshops for kids, DISCO hosts readings, writing groups and music and art shows. We also sponsor the Tattler, the student-run school newspaper at Woodlawn High School.
ALINA: . What has been the most surprising lesson about building literary community from the ground up?
LIZ: The literary community in Birmingham quickly adopted DISCO and made it their own! People often visit the space for an event and get inspired to bring their own creative project to DISCO, so our space in Woodlawn has evolved into a hub for creative community projects and events. We realized early on that we could not (and should not) completely control what DISCO is or will become. It really has been a community effort, and most of our programs are still fueled by incredible volunteers.
ALINA: This will be my first Read-A-Thon, and I can't wait to sample the readings. What authors should we expect to hear on the 23rd and 24th?
LIZ: The read-a-thon planning committee worked hard on curating the perfect reading list! There will be readings from many authors, including (but not limited to): Lydia Davis, W.S. Merwin, Jamaica Kincaid, George Saunders, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Claudia Rankine, Lucia Berlin, Leonard Cohen, Lorrie Moore, Amelia Martens (who read at DISCO a few years ago), Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Jung Yun, Anthony Doerr, Carmen Maria Machado, Tim O'Brien, Barry Lopez, ZZ Packer, I could go on and on....Or you can check out the schedule in its entirety here.
New to the schedule this year is a poetry reading given by some of DISCO’s star poets from Putnam Middle School at 11 a.m. on Saturday, February 24.
Also, we’ll celebrate the finale with Ugly Baby Improv Show at 7 p.m. on Saturday night. This is one of my favorite parts of the event. I always laugh until my cheeks hurt.
ALINA: The readings sound incredible! If I'm uncomfortable with reading in public, is there another way that I can volunteer to help at the Read-A-Thon?
LIZ: Absolutely! We need help running the event! Any shy volunteers can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ALINA: Thank you so much, Liz.