In 1st Lab, Kwame Alexander brings renewed energy, vision to literary arts

Michael I. Rudell Artistic Director of Literary Arts Kwame Alexander delivers the opening keynote of the Kwame Alexander Writers’ Lab & Conference Tuesday at the Smith Memorial Library. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Changes in Chautauqua Literary Arts have allowed space for growth and expansion of storytelling in the community. Since November 2023, when Chautauqua Institution announced that Kwame Alexander would be the new Michael I. Rudell Artistic Director of Literary Arts and Inaugural Writer-in-Residence, one of the oldest and most beloved programs at the Institution has gotten a renewed vision.

Any challenges along the way, said Stephine Hunt — who was named as manager of literary arts to work alongside Alexander — have been about how best to use their resources to achieve their goals of a program that’s broader, and a bit different, than it has been.

Kicking off the pair’s first season at the helm of Chautauqua Literary Arts, and in Alexander’s first public act in his new role, was the Kwame Alexander Writers’ Lab and Conference. The conference is a re-imagining of the longstanding pre-season Chautauqua Writers’ Festival, and opened with “An Evening in the Stacks with Kwame Alexander” Tuesday at the Smith Memorial Library, with Alexander keynoting the event on the eve of Juneteenth.

Cornelius Minor and Alana Harte converse over a glass of wine at the Lab’s opening keynote and reception Tuesday at the Smith Memorial Library. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

He talked about his first time at Chautauqua, when he gave a morning lecture last summer during a week dedicated to the theme of “A Life of Literature.” He told his Tuesday audience that, despite hearing rumors of the Institution not being a very inclusive place, he found himself feeling a sense of community that just “felt right.” Alexander then went on to speak about the first 20 years of Chautauqua’s history, and the African American students, educators and individuals of many different professions who came to Chautauqua to learn, work and live. Together, they all form a part of history that is often forgotten.

“They each came here with their stories. And they were welcomed. And, they were heard,” said the Newbery Medalist and author of more than 40 books. “Over the years, we’ve forgotten that part of the story. If you look at the walls in our buildings, you wouldn’t know that part of the story. Let’s change the walls, people. Add our stories. It is in that tradition that I welcome you, us.”

Alexander shared the inspiring letter of Isabella Macdonald Alden, or “Pansy” as her father used to call her, who was part of the late 19th century Chautauqua Movement, and said he has tried to “seek the memory of this place, to harness its identity, to create a space for you to nurture your voice.”

What followed Alexander’s keynote was three more days of the conference, with almost 20 faculty encompassing different genres including memoirs, poetry, and children’s literature, and speakers as lauded as Nikki Grimes, Will Schwalbe, Safiya Sinclair and Kate Bowler. It all wrapped on Friday with a “Pitchapalooza” then a book fair on Bestor Plaza. The goal, Alexander said, was for the conference to be much more vibrant and energetic, and with more writers, than in the past.

Kekla Magoon co-hosts a “Fiction for Children Lab” with Cynthia Leitich Thursday in the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall. EMILEE ARNOLD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“Stephine and I have been on the same page. We want to bring some new life into the literary arts at Chautauqua,” Alexander said as Tuesday’s event was winding down. “That requires us to come up with some engaging and interesting and inspiring programming.” 

Laura Jones attended the event and keynote Tuesday at the Smith. It was her first time at such an event, though she is a longtime Chautauquan.

“This is my first time doing something like this,” she said. “… Coming from the midwest and being old, I need my windows opened and I think many other people do, and I’ve really admired Chautauqua for doing that.”

From the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle to the Writers’ Center, the literary arts at Chautauqua has potential to bring people closer and create a tight-knit community of writers and readers of all levels.

“Storytelling is what binds us together, because (stories) are passed down from generation to generation,” Alexander said. “It’s how we stay connected and learn about each other, so the stories are what bring us together.”

Changes to the pre-season literary programming are just the beginning of a summer Alexander and Hunt have in store. At 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy, Ruth Forman and Charlotte Matthews open the Chautauqua Writers’ Center season with a public reading. Both will give workshops throughout the week through Special Studies. Both workshops aim to inspire creativity and personal awareness for storytelling through different practices. 

Forman will deliver her workshop “Discovery of Light: Movement and Writing,” covering the movements of qi gong and creative writing today. This workshop will allow participants to connect to their personal power through qi gong, followed by creative writing that they will share with other participants.

Forman is the author of multiple award-winning children’s books and poetry collections, and currently is working as a professor at the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English. 

“We haven’t had any martial arts writing classes ever, so we are very excited for this,” Hunt said.

Matthews, who is the author of five poetry collections, a novel and a memoir that was an Indie Awards finalist for Women’s Issues, will also deliver a workshop “Not so Fast,” focusing on the practice of slowing down and sharpening awareness and curiosity of the world today. Matthews said the purpose of her workshop is to invite people to notice all the wonders that surround them, especially here at Chautauqua.

“We’ve got the glory of people of all ages sitting on porches and discussing politics and food and so just to slow down and notice what’s around us… we are not human beings; we are human doings,” said Matthews.

Matthews is a veteran of the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and its programming — two writers per week, with a reading Sunday, workshops, and a lecture from each throughout the week. Removing the lunchtime lectures gives visiting writers more time to spend on their own work. She said it allows for more time to breathe and pay attention, and provides the program with a sense of spaciousness.

Alexander shakes Carrie Jacobus’ hand on the final day of the Writers’ Lab during the Chautauqua Book Fair Friday on Bestor Plaza. EMILEE ARNOLD/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Replacing the writers’ lectures are the new Writers’ Center Community Readings every Friday, in which a community poem generated in the Poetry Makerspace will be read and workshop attendees highlighted by workshop faculty will get a spotlight. There is also a revamped approach to the CLSC Young Readers program this summer, and so far, Hunt said feedback she’s received shows a buildup of excitement.

Hunt said she hopes to “expand the gates of Chautauqua” to a new, national audience, building a robust program that she wants to be “as renowned as Kwame.”

Alexander hopes that Chautauqua becomes a destination for literature, and a place that can change and transform lives. He said he wants readers to associate Chautauqua with the best in literature.

“I want writers to know that this is the place they can come to find their voices, tell their stories and create their masterpieces,” he said after his speech Tuesday. “I want them to feel that this serene, inspiring environment is the place for their muse.”

Chautauquans will have a chance to share their own feedback about the literary arts at Chautauqua when Alexander and Hunt hold a leadership meet-and-greet at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

Tags : Chautauqua Literary ArtsInaugural Writer-in-ResidenceKwame Alexanderliterary artsMichael I. Rudell Artistic Director of Literary Arts

The author Sabine Obermoller