Pure Products: A Reading Series for the Community

a large group of people sitting or standing in a courtyard
Pure Products audience at Monarch Espresso Bar in Tuscaloosa

Pure Products is a reading series that had been run by faculty member, Eric Parker, in 2017. Dr. Sara Hughes took over the project, in 2018 (see her update at the end of this article). In this interview, Dr. Shanti Weiland and Eric Parker discuss the origins of Pure Products and his plans for its future.

You have recently rebooted the Pure Products Reading Series. What was your vision?

When I paired with Andy Johnson to take over Pure Products in fall of 2015, the series was on life-support. The year before, the readings at Green Bar had had an audience of about ten people, including the readers. We tried to find a new home for the series, so we bounced around from Loosa Brews to Alcove Tavern to Tea Town Alabama, the latter of which became our permanent home for the year. When Andy left, Abraham Smith joined me. We wanted to rework the series to include a wider readership and audience, breaking down the stratification within the English department and creating a larger, more inclusive writing community here in Tuscaloosa. For each reading, we tried to have one undergraduate writer or community member, one MFA candidate, one instructor, and one tenure-track faculty member. Abraham also wanted to restart the open mic nights he used to run, which brought a new audience and new readers to our series. When Abraham left last summer, Dr. Ray Wachter and Dr. Sara Hughes joined me. Brian Oliu has been designing beautiful posters, and Sara has been relentless as the main PR person, making sure our events are on all the campus digital signs and event pages, and even getting us more coverage in the Crimson White. We moved our series to Monarch Espresso Bar and I think that’s helped quite a bit, since it’s a popular spot for coffee and drinks. Our readings are now drawing audiences of 80-100 people. It’s been great.

What was the inspiration for the title “Pure Products”?

Carl Peterson, who founded Pure Products, came up with the name from that William Carlos Williams’ poem, “To Elsie.”I think the opening lines are an apt description of our readings: “The pure products of America / go crazy–– . . .”

What effect does mixing creative writing with academic presentations have for your audiences?

Several years ago, Carl Peterson started bringing professors from across campus to give academic presentations with the readings. He had an astronomy professor give an entertaining talk about NASA’s crowdsourcing of their telescope images; assistant art professor Pete Schulte presented his work, and our own Dr. Nikhil Bilwakesh gave an entertaining talk on the homoeroticism in photography from the Cuban Revolution. They were great. We haven’t been doing those sorts of presentations anymore, though we did invite Nikhil back this year to read his piece “‘For You I Shall Be Wild’: Prince and the Transcendental Millennium,” which was also entertaining.

Why should someone from outside the English Department attend these readings?

I think our readings have attracted a wide array of people, especially undergraduate students, and it’s inspired many of them to share their work during our open mic readings. We’ve had several students––including a guy from the track team––come up after shows and say, “I like to write, but I’ve never shared my work; can I read next time?” Or they see these other students and faculty members who are great writers and readers, and they say they’d like to do that. It’s really cool.

What was the most memorable reading that you have attended?

Tough question. I’ve seen lots of great readings in my life. In the past year, though, the best readings I’ve seen are the two readings put on by The Conversation, which is an incredible, energetic series organized by Nabila Lovelace and Aziza Barnes. If you missed their Tuscaloosa reading last year and this year, don’t miss it next year. You’ve never seen a room filled with so much love, powerful writing, and camaraderie.

a woman reading into a microphone
Dr. Sara Hughes reads at Pure Products


This semester, Dr. Sara Hughes has taken over Pure Products and has shared her vision for the future of the series:

I have always believed that cultivating and maintaining a local creative writing community is important to writers in any city. Pure Products offers reading opportunities to anyone living and writing in Tuscaloosa at our Open Mic nights, and the Art Night readings bring together a range of writers at various stages in their writing careers (from undergraduate to full professor and everything in-between). My vision for the future of this series is to maintain that sense of community. Many people have approached me to ask how they can help. Graduate students and faculty alike have volunteered their time and creative energy to design posters, promote the events, set up sound equipment, and attend readings to support their fellow writers. I am excited about the enthusiasm Pure Products has generated this year, and I look forward to seeing it continue!