Literary 'Role Models' Inspire Students

March 26, 2003

Mary Ann Travis

Josh Russell knew about the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival a decade before he joined Tulane's faculty three years ago as assistant professor of English. Russell had heard about hobnobbing with famous authors, rubbing elbows with agents and editors, and getting advice on unpublished manuscripts. He understood the festival's importance to the city's literary culture, but he didn't attend.

"I didn't go because I was dirt poor and, you know, you had to pay to get in." Russell lived in New Orleans for a while after graduate school at Louisiana State University, where he earned his master of fine arts in creative writing in 1993. Then he moved away from the city to pursue an academic career that eventually led back to New Orleans and Tulane.

Dale Edmonds, on the other hand, has attended the festival every year since it began in 1987. Edmonds is associate professor of English and has been at Tulane for more than 30 years. This year, Edmonds is vice president for programming for the nonprofit, community festival, which will be on March 2630, and he is a festival board member. Edmonds is aware that the festival's admission fees often prevent young people, especially students, from participating.

And he says, "The festival wants to get more young people involved."

For the last 10 years, Edmonds has required some of his students to be festival interns and arranged for them to get free festival passes. He says the involvement of Tulane students in the festival is important because it gives them a chance to interact with writers who "can serve as role models." As the festival's chief literary programmer, Edmonds and his committee have been working since last summer lining up participants, including Tulane faculty members Berthe Amoss, Eugene Cizek, Peter Cooley, Aimee Michel, Bruce Raeburn, Josh Russel and Christina Vella.

In addition to the literary discussions, the festival includes a gamut of activities from a Stanley- Stella shouting contest to poetry readings and plays, all of which "contributes to the intellectual climate and raises the literary tone of the city," says Edmonds. Edmonds has written many of the class and panel descriptions, including one for "Fictions, Addictions and Convictions," which is the name of the panel that he will moderate about the entanglement of intense creative endeavors with pathological dimensions.

Cooley will lead a panel that promises to reveal the mysteries of writers' retreats. Cooley, who is identified in the program with the disclaimer "been there, done that," confesses that although he's been to many writers' retreats, he doesn't like them.

"Too much drinking and complaining," he says. Cooley prefers his own writer's retreat that he has established in his home in the pre-dawn hours. At his personal retreat, Cooley writes a poem every morning. Cooley's latest book of poetry is A Place Made of Starlight (2003). Cooley doesn't like cloistered, out-of-the-way retreats but he does like "sharing" his work with other writers. He appreciates the festival because it's "intellectually stimulating" to meet with other writers.

And it's good for Tulane students to go off campus to the festival in the French Quarter so they can get exposure to writers "out of the academic world," says Cooley. Russell, no longer relegated to walking French Quarter streets without money for the price of admission, will instead be on a literary panel about French Quarter fiction.

The French Quarter figures prominently in Russell's novel Yellow Jack (2000) and in a short story, "Two Photographs by Walker Evans," published in the anthology French Quarter Fiction (2003). During his previous life in Louisiana, Russell worked at A Gallery of Fine Photography in the French Quarter. Among his duties, Russell wrote descriptions of photos of French Quarter streets taken a half-century before he walked the same, little-changed streets during his lunch breaks.

Through these experiences, Russell says he began to see "how to imagine the past." He also began to authentically identify himself as a writer for the first time. A young writer may feel silly or pretentious telling people, "I am a writer," says Russell. But in the French Quarter, it is not simple or goofy to be a writer "because the Quarter is filled with artists."

Who knows? Maybe this month a Tulane student will find his or her muse in the French Quarter and bravely say, "I am a writer, too." For more information about the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, call 581-1144.

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

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