Arts Issue - Lost in the Letters fuels indie lit scene

Organization and corresponding fest take on publishing giants

The landscape of Atlanta's literary scene has changed quickly over the past few years. Notable literary reading series fell to the wayside or went on hiatus, including True Story!, Solar Anus, and What's New in Poetry, which hosted indie lit icons Eileen Myles, CA Conrad, Amber Sparks, Matthew Salesses, and Heather Christle. New forums have emerged in Lostintheletters, Lit Club, and Scene and Song Missing. Local publishers Coconut Poetry and Safety Third Enterprises folded, while Publishing Genius relocated to Atlanta, the 421 opened up shop, and Deer Bear Wolf started slinging chaps. From the ashes of HTMLGiant, an online resource and forum for all things indie lit helmed by Atlanta author Blake Butler, rose Real Pants, a site that trumpets small presses and an array of subject matter.

Navigating these quickly changing tides are Scott Daughtridge, Stephanie Dowda, and the dream team they've assembled to bring the city the Letters Festival, a celebration of independent literature, now in its third incarnation. In its short life, the Letters Festival has proven to be integral in bringing groundbreaking authors into the spotlight ahead of their general acclaim, having hosted authors such as Roxane Gay years before she took the stage at the herculean Decatur Book Festival. Lessons learned from those past events are what still drive Dowda, Daughtridge, and co. "As Roxane said in a panel this year, there should be more Roxane Gays not just one," Dowda says. "The more spaces and times we can be reflexive, which is something Roxane is brilliant at, the better."

The celebration of independent literature, taking place Nov. 12-14 at the Atlanta Contemporary, boasts 22 authors, including the longform poetics of Nick Sturm, the dark heartfelt words of indie-publisher Janaka Stucky (Black Ocean), Atlanta's own Nikki Igbo, and Brooklyn's Tanwi Nandini Islam.

The event's lineup is largely determined by the festival's rotating position of Author Curator, a title this year held by local writer and hip-hop performer Kory Oliver, with assistance from Dowda and Daughtridge. "We begin festival planning basically as soon as the festival is complete," Dowda says. "We try to balance a lot of things in the lineup, but it boils down to finding those writers who are riveting, no matter where they are in their career or in the country." Local writers and reading hosts Becky Weaver and Jamie Jones have also played a large role in the festival's organization, corralling local restaurants as participants and orchestrating the book market.

For those who think literary readings are all tweed blazers and elbow patches, the Letters Fest stands to challenge your perception. At this year's the Art of Live Reading workshop, Denver's prolific Khadijah Queen, who is known for her incendiary live performances, will have a chance to both read her own work and coach attendees on how to hone their live reading chops. This year's festival also will include a long-distance collaboration with Seattle's April Festival. The cross-continent live-streamed reading will host two readers in Seattle and Atlanta.

With each year of growth the goal is to continue providing a place for and fueling the energy behind Atlanta's independent literary community.

"The spirit that says, 'hell yeah;' that moves forward and writes tirelessly without permission from the publishing giants is a powerful thing to face," Dowda says. "It's inspiring, it's enriching, and it feels like the only way to live."

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