On the first Sunday of the season, the Poetry Makerspace at the Hultquist Center hosted the inaugural “Poems on the Porch” of the summer, emceed by Director of Literary Arts Atom Atkinson and Wick Poetry fellow Sony Ton-Aime. Wielding a portable mic, the two literary arts staff members traded poems with the Chautauquans who convened on the porch that quiet afternoon, reading their own poetry and listening while others shared theirs.
That brief time leading the weekly event with Atkinson was a summer highlight for Ton-Aime. But it was what Atkinson did during the “Poems on the Porch” gatherings of the following weeks — when only Ton-Aime served as the official facilitator — that, for Ton-Aime, epitomizes them as a leader.
“We hosted that first reading together, but they came back every Sunday to write a poem, use the Emerge app and read a poem with everyone,” Ton-Aime said. “They didn’t need to be there. They had a lot of things to do. But they took the time to come and write a poem and share the poem with everyone else. Those moments were, for me, the best moments.”
Atkinson, who has served as director of literary arts at Chautauqua Institution since 2017, announced Wednesday they would be stepping down from that position. In two weeks, they will begin a new professional opportunity as director of writing programs for Catapult, a New York City-based literary arts organization that oversees an interwoven network of books, courses and a namesake literary magazine.
At Catapult, Atkinson found a community that is, like Chautauqua, committed to cultivating the literary arts inside a more everyday experience.
“I am not interested in work that doesn’t feel crucial, resonant and really ambitious for meeting the world in as many ways as possible,” they said. “That’s what drew me to Chautauqua, and that’s what’s drawing me to Catapult, too.”
Atkinson’s colleagues, like Ton-Aime and CLSC Octagon manager Stephine Hunt, commended their vision and energy — qualities that, according to Hunt, have become “entrenched” in the overall mission of the literary arts at Chautauqua.
“I think Atom has really taken the literary arts programming to a new level for Chautauqua,” Hunt said. “They’ve brought some really great faces, and sometimes challenging reads, to the community, and I think the (Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle) needed that. In the past couple of years, we have had a much more diverse group of CLSC authors — in race, age, gender and sexuality. It’s all work of outstanding literary merit that generates great conversation on the grounds here. I’m really appreciative of that.”
During Atkinson’s two-year tenure, the Institution has formed new partnerships with The Paris Review, Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center, The Academy of American Poets, Just Buffalo Literary Center and Catapult, among others. At the 16th annual Writers’ Festival this June, Atkinson “took risks” and saw, as a result, “more and more people connecting to what they experienced” inside the four days before Week One. By spearheading “rewarding” work with the literary arts interns and scholarship students, they ensured that an attention to diversity extended beyond faculty and guest authors, to workshop and book discussion participants. And, on Aug. 7, they graduated from the CLSC with their mom.
“I think that is really exemplary of Chautauqua’s egalitarian spirit,” Atkinson said. “Yes, I’m the director of literary arts, but that role is not designed to be about authority. Every role at Chautauqua is about the capacity for anyone to be a leader, a teacher, a student, a speaker, a listener, a host, a guest, a donor, a beneficiary — all of us can occupy these roles in one way or another. Even if we’re just donating cookies. That was something that I was really excited to take part in as a student, through reading with my mom.”
Atkinson, who leads the seasonal literary arts staff within the Department of Education, said that they “will miss working alongside the hardest-working team of colleagues (they’ve) ever, ever worked alongside.”
“We end up all being examples for each other in terms of work ethic and, very specifically, the drive to make this really impossibly utopian idea as close to a positive and generative an educational experience for people as it can be,” Atkinson said.
Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, described the experience of serving alongside Atkinson as “among the most impactful and satisfying work” in his time at Chautauqua.
“While we will miss them greatly as a member of the education team and as a member of this community, we’re also grateful for Atom’s contributions to the larger work of this Institution and for their leadership in positioning the literary arts for even greater impact,” Ewalt said.
For Atkinson, Chautauqua is a place where individuals “of all manner of pedigree” and those “who might otherwise feel intimidated” can convene in community to discuss contemporary challenges and good literature.
“If that doesn’t happen in a book discussion group or creative writing workshop, I don’t know where it happens,” they said. “I’m really proud of the fact that it’s so evident to so many people that, now as much as ever, the literary arts are a place where we can see that it’s really a false choice between choosing between Chautauqua’s traditions and Chautauqua’s potential.”