Faculty Festival Experiences: Christine Cozzens

We hear again from Christine Cozzens, Professor of English at Agnes Scott, about her experiences with the Writers’ Festival!

When Professor Bo Ball started the Writers’ Festival in 1972, he created a college writing contest as the centerpiece of the event, and that contest—in an expanded form—is still the heart of the festival. Bo was a well-regarded fiction writer who had won several prestigious writing contests; in fact, after his retirement, we welcomed him back as a festival guest in 2004. In the early days of the festival, fiction and poetry were the two contest categories, and works chosen as finalists in the competition were published in the Aurora, then as now our student-run creative writing magazine.

From the beginning, the Writers’ Festival contest was open to students currently enrolled in any Georgia college or university. Our Office of Admission recently received an email from Philip Lee Williams, a writer and father whose daughter is coming to Agnes Scott next fall: as a senior at the University of Georgia, Williams was a finalist in the first Writers’ Festival in 1972. The visiting writers in that inaugural year were May Sarton, Michael Mott, and Marion Montgomery. As a finalist, Williams had his poems published in the Aurora; he then went on to write fifteen books. “I feel as if it all started at Agnes Scott,” he said in his email. This new Agnes Scott parent remembered his festival with great fondness and is especially excited that his daughter will be able to participate in the ongoing tradition

As the Writers’ Festival grew in reputation, a festival magazine was created to publish and celebrate the  chosen works, often including artwork by Agnes Scott students. In the 1990s, creative nonfiction (the personal essay) and dramatic writing (the one-act play) were added to the competition, a change that reflected growth in our own creative writing program.

In the contest, Agnes Scott undergraduates compete not only with other undergraduates but also with graduate students in creative writing programs across the state, many of them with a list of published works. Over the years we have been fortunate enough to have had a strong showing of Agnes Scott students as finalists. The finalists are chosen by writers and editors from off campus, so when some of the finalists turn out to be ASC students, the faculty can’t be blamed for favoritism. We are especially proud and excited to see our students’ work published in the festival magazine and to hear what the visiting writers have to say about it.

When I first started attending Writers’ Festivals, one of the public events was a panel critique of the finalists’ work followed by the announcement of the first prize in each category. Imagine writers as famous as Richard Wilbur, Gloria Naylor, or James Dickey—not one of them but all of them together—critiquing your creative writing before a large audience of friends, faculty, and others! These panels were fascinating to watch. The interaction among the writers often caused intellectual sparks to fly. As one of my English department colleagues put it, “It was like watching the bickering among the judges on American Idol.” Sometimes the student writers had a tough time enduring the public discussion of their works, though. Who wouldn’t? Eventually we decided to make the workshops private, open only to the finalists and to the students who participate in publicizing and running the festival. Recent visiting writers seem to have a better knack for giving constructive criticism, and they don’t seem to drink as much as some of their predecessors either! I miss those creative writing free-for-alls in some ways; they were exciting, and I learned a lot from what the visiting writers would say. But of course the private workshops are much better for the student writers.

In recent years we’ve added a new event to the contest—sponsored by the Center for Writing and Speaking and the Department of English—that celebrates our own student writers and their accomplishments. The first event of the festival week is a reading by Agnes Scott students whose work has been chosen for the magazine. This year, we are very proud to have seven Agnes Scott students as finalists: Rachel Burger, Joanna Carver, Kristen Fox, Michelle Haddad, Alfreda Henry, Kayla Miller, and Justine Schwartz. They will read from their creative works on Wednesday, March 24 at 10 a.m. in the Luchsinger Lounge, Alston Campus Center.

Thank you again, Dr. Cozzens, and can’t wait to hear from you again!

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