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Setting the Scene: Sara Pirkle and the University of Alabama Visiting Writers Series

Margaret Atwood. Neil Gaiman. Alice Walker. The University of Alabama Visiting Writers Series has brought notable voices to campus and fostered creative relationships with students and faculty alike since its inception in 1972. The immense task of scheduling and hosting visiting writers is where UA’s creative writing community and Assistant Director Sara Pirkle’s dedication shines.

Sara Pirkle began her administrative work with the creative writing program back in Spring 2018 and has been instrumental in organizing events. Pirkle reflects on filling the role of Assistant Director: “One thing I learned is that it takes more planning and organizing than I ever imagined. Agents, writers, publicists, contracts, UA’s legal team, reaching agreements, negotiation, just lots of details to align. It’s quite a huge undertaking. I wouldn’t be able to do this without Paul Albano and the rest of our team, especially our students. We help one another. It’s a lot of work.”

Students can also participate in the Visiting Writers Series by introducing writers at their readings, engaging in workshops and one-on-one meetings, attending dinners, and other events. Pirkle works to establish a connection between the authors and English students: “We want to make sure our students know how valuable these experiences can be, and giving our MFA students and undergraduates the opportunity to meet distinguished writers is important to me. I missed out on opportunities as an undergraduate and graduate student because I didn’t follow up on meetings I had with established writers.”

Pirkle also endeavors to keep events on campus. Accessibility matters, she says. “These readings and interactions are not just for faculty, but they’re also for our students. We have around 230 creative writing undergraduates, over 300 English majors, 50 MFA students, and graduate students in rhetoric studies and literature. It’s the responsibility of the series to be accessible. Having it on campus may not seem quite as ritzy as an art gallery downtown, but at the end of the day, it’s about convenience for our students.”

Covid-19 forced the series to shift online from Fall 2020 until Spring 2021. Pirkle mentioned, “It forced us to be creative in how we do things which is always good.” However, readings are now back in-person. When possible, there will still be Zoom options for those who may be at-risk or unable to physically attend.

The series was fortunate to host several writers this past year, including Joy Priest (winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry), Frank X Walker (founder of the Affrilachian Poets), and Kentucky Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson. Spring 2022 guests included humor writer Sarah Aswell, novelist Eric Sasson, 2017 National Book Award finalist and Bard fiction prize winner Carmen Maria Machado, and Hanif Abdurraqib, MacArthur Fellow, poet, and essayist.

“I want there to be a thriving, vibrant Visiting Writers Series,” Pirkle states. “I love organizing it, and I love the company of creative writers and members of our department. It’s fun. I feel very lucky that I am getting to make these connections along with the rest of our college.”

This semester, we are pleased to host Jesmyn Ward, who will be on campus October 10-11th. Also, be sure to check the schedule of events on the English Department website or follow UA’s Creative Writing Program on Instagram at @ua_creativewriting for updates. To help out or get involved, contact Sara Pirkle at sbpirkle@ua.edu.

 

–Travis Turner