By Journey McAndrews
For one weekend each September, downtown Lexington becomes a writing mecca for editors, authors, educators, agents and readers. Literary aficionados arrive from all over the world to attend the prestigious Kentucky Women Writers Conference, the longest-running event for women writers in America. The conference began at the University of Kentucky to showcase women writers on campus and within the community. The program’s current director, Julie Wrinn, says she continues to marvel at the multiplicity of growth that has taken place since she began working with the conference in 2007. “When a group of women at University of Kentucky organized the first Women Writers Conference in 1979, I’m not sure they thought of it as the launch of a great vessel of mentorship across the generations, but more than three decades later, that is what it has become,” Wrinn says.
Aside from its longtime cohorts UK and the Carnegie Center, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference has garnered support across the state and beyond from countless civic leaders, community supporters, educators, those within the publishing business, and philanthropists—such as Sallie Bingham, a well-known writer from Louisville, who in 1984 founded and endowed the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Bingham often has been a guest lecturer at the conference, as she was this year, and she continues to offer her financial and social support to the program.
This year’s keynote speaker for the 34th annual Kentucky Women Writers Conference was Ruth Reichl (Tender at the Bone), former editor of Gourmet magazine and food critic for The New York Times. Each year the conference strives to offer workshops and lectures that mix popular writing trends with more traditional craft-based discussions. While food may have been the highlight of this year’s conference, with Reichl and Kentucky’s own foodie Rona Roberts (Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky’s Golden Wonder) as feature lecturers, the literary lineup was as diverse as always. Famed poet Kim Addonizio (what is this thing called love, The Poet’s Companion) was also a big draw for those who attended the conference and wanted to learn more about the process of writing contemporary poetry.
In the three decades since its conception, the Kentucky Women Writers Conference has featured more than 290 distinguished local, national and international female writers, including Kentucky’s own Crystal Wilkinson, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Adrienne Rich, and many more iconic and mentoring writers within the industry. The conference is a local literary tradition that enjoys a national and international following and has helped promote the uncommon wealth of diversity in Kentucky’s literary landscape. Wrinn says, “Lexington [in particular] is becoming more aware of itself as great place for writers and artists to live and work,” and she adds that literary events such as the Kentucky Women Writers Conference are “deliberate and consistent in fostering diversity,” which was true even in the beginning with the first conference that “featured five writers, three of whom were women of color, including Alice Walker and Maya Angelou.” The tradition of author diversity within the conference is an even stronger force today. Wrinn notes that for the past several years, “well over one-third of the presenters have been women of color.” New York City filmmaker and writer dream hampton, who uses lower cases in her name in homage to “her early influence bell hooks,” is a Kentucky native who has released a new Kentucky-inspired collection of poems entitled Appalachian Elegy and is now based in Berea. Diversity permeates the fabric of the conference programming and prizes, with the wildly successful Gypsy Poetry Slam headed by Bianca Spriggs (Kaffir Lily), the 2011 launch of the biennial Prize for Women Playwrights, and the Betty Gabehart prizes in poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
While Wrinn is quick to acknowledge the list of prestigious authors who have presented over the years, including the current U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (speaker at the 2009 conference), the director believes the impact of the conference is evident in the large number of participants (thousands) over the years who have come to Lexington to learn the craft of writing, build lasting friendships, and become inspired by the process, atmosphere and energy of an intense writing weekend. She notes how even big-name writers become equally inspired. Nikky Finney, the 2011 National Book-Award winner for Head Off & Split, once told the story of “coming to Lexington for the first time in the late 1980s and not planning to remain here, but every time she attended a Women Writers Conference she felt reinvigorated by Lexington’s literary community and was persuaded to stay a little longer.”