Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative Gathers on Campus

This past weekend, October 21-23, we were delighted to host the 48th annual fall gathering of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative (SAWC) on campus. 

The celebration is multi-faceted. 

This was our first time since the flood to host a group retreat. We held a rescheduled reading by writer Beth Macy (author of Dopesick) in early October which had been canceled on the day of the July 28 flood, and a community potluck dinner in honor of our Community Agriculture Support Coordinator Kelsey Cloonan’s last day at the Settlement School, but not a retreat where we housed folks. A few days before the SAWC writers arrived, the Great Hall was still strung with drying, muddy office documents and new carpet was being installed in Stucky where they would be staying. Everything got done just in time.

Many of the SAWC writers have a long-standing relationship with Hindman. In fact, several of the attendees at last weekend’s gathering were on campus during the flood, and some have come back to volunteer during clean up and recovery to work on campus or in community businesses and homes. In fact, a couple showed up for the SAWC gathering a day early to offer their labor, some donated books for our reading library, some left monetary donations, and all were gracious about our stacked-up corners of the Great Hall where we’re still temporarily storing archive and office materials, musical instruments, and community donations. 

The weekend included group readings and discussion of poems, stories, songs, and non-fiction pieces, also the wonderful tradition of the Delbert Awards, general merriment-making, lots of food, planning group events (such as at the Appalachian Studies Association conference in March and Seedtime on the Cumberland in Whitesburg, KY each June), and the business of running Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel (PMS&G), the literary journal that has been associated with SAWC since 1996. 

PMS&G comes out once a year and is a respected venue publish in. It is a celebration of modern Appalachian literature from the well-published to emerging writers. The journal issues are themed, and have recently included subtitles such as The Dead and Appalachia Under Thirty. The current issue, just released this month, is Appalachia (Un)Masked. This new issue features many new contributors as well as those PMS&G has published before, including OH Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour, and the late Ron Houchin who died earlier this year.

SAWC usually meets at the historic Highlander Center in New Market, TN but has held their fall gathering here at Hindman since the Highlander Center suffered a terrible arson fire in 2019 and then COVID shutdowns. The SAWC writers were missing their historic location for the gathering, but thanked the Settlement School for being a second home.

Every time the Appalachian writing community gathers, magic happens. Porches fill with songs, rooms fill with brave and vibrant writing, arms share hugs, hands share food, and people become friends, colleagues, co-artists, and family. As I’ve woven into the web of Appalachian writers, the magic seems strongly tied to place, whether the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival in Harrogate, the Mildred Haun Conference in Morristown, the James Agee Conference in Knoxville, readings at the Carnegie Center in Lexington or Read Spotted Newt bookstore in Hazard, here at the Settlement School, or in the last 2 years, the often-dreaded virtual space of Zoom boxes. But of course, it’s not about the space the writers, artists, musicians, and community builders gather in. It is the people, their words, their connections, and their gifts that are the magic. And they can build that anywhere. 

It was the Settlement School’s honor to be the halls, tables, and porches where they conjured that magic this past weekend. Having the writers be the first back post-flood, after being the ones who fled the waters, seems fitting.