The national literary reading series, Why There Are Words, will add Asheville to its list of host cities on Thursday, Jan. 17. Six poets and prose writers — Christine Hale, Luke Hankins, Mackenzie Kozak, Thoreau Lovell, Mark MacNamara and former North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson — will kick off the first event of what will continue as a quarterly series.
Barbara Roether, a novelist, poet and recent transplant to the Asheville area, will serve as coordinator, host and curator for WTAW-Asheville. “The mission is to create writing community, to introduce writers to writers, communities to writers and writers to communities,” she says. “To bring writers and readers together.”
WTAW prides itself on mixing its lineup with different artists working in a variety of genres and at various points in their career, from the well-established prizewinners to students and up-and-comers. “Putting them together, with all writers getting the same amount of time, allows the audience to focus on the work,” says Roether.
Hankins, a local poet, Orison Books publisher and author of Weak Devotions, is among the inaugural presenters at the literary gathering, slated for Trade and Lore. “Most of the reading series in town are well-established and have been running for a long time — which is wonderful,” he says. “But it’s also nice to have new perspectives and approaches from time to time. One thing I like in particular is the multigenre mix of WTAW. It will be interesting to see which writers Barbara groups together as the series continues.”
The theme for January’s reading is Where the Music Is. Roether says WTAW readings often have motifs, though not always. When contemplating January’s topic, she settled on a common interest: “It’s such a music town,” she points out. But there was also the idea of a beginning and how language comes from some sense of listening. “What’s the music you’re hearing? What’s the music of this place?” Roether asks rhetorically. Readers are invited to comment, as part of the event, on how they connect to the theme.
Peg Alford Pursell launched WTAW nine years ago in Sausalito, Calif. She continues to run the flagship reading, now an award-winning series named Best Literary Event in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Pursell, who received her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College, became familiar with Asheville during her time studying in Western North Carolina.
Seven years after the creation of WTAW-Sausalito, the series spread to five more cities: New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. Roether says plans are in place for New Orleans; Asheville is the newest addition. Pursell hopes to expand the WTAW series to more cities, perhaps even to Europe. She also developed a nonprofit, independent literary imprint in 2016 called WTAW Press and has published six titles to date.
Roether met Pursell while living near Sausalito. When Roether’s novel, This Earth You Came Back To, came out in 2015, she was looking for a place to read her work and got involved with WTAW. “What I loved about the series was it wasn’t about one person or one group,” she says. “It was always a collection of writers with very different points of view.”
Prose writer Hale, another of the inaugural Asheville series readers, has experienced WTAW at its flagship location. “On book tour with my memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice, I read in the Sausalito WTAW series,” she recalls. “I had such fun, and I especially enjoyed the WTAW reading series format: brief readings by a group of three to eight writers. It’s a great way to directly experience diversity, whether as reader or audience member.”
On the topic of diversity, Roether says she hopes to involve LGBTQ writers as well as writers of color and is hopeful that she will connect to those artists to bring as much inclusion to the series as possible. “I also want to incorporate diversity of life experience, age and socio-economic backgrounds,” Roether adds.
Encouraging variety, WTAW welcomes the established and the nonestablished. “It’s not an open mic,” says Roether, “but anyone can submit their work for consideration. We’re not judging a particular kind of work, but we’re looking for work that’s developed to the degree that it’s ready to share. We’re looking for prepared readers.”
The submission process also helps Roether, who serves as the event’s curator, creatively piece together a lineup. “It’ll help in keeping the evening varied,” she says, “so we don’t have an entire evening of one type of thing.”
Asheville-area writers who are interested in participating in the series can contact Roether at firstname.lastname@example.org